Brett Berk fell in love with a Range Rover Classic and lived to tell the tale.
Admit it, you’ve always wanted a classic first-generation Range Rover, ever since you saw your first one, maybe driven by your friend’s hot mom (or hot dad). The angular British sport-ute’s undeniable capability and blue-blood, fox-hunting elegance makes it exude a benign confidence—which is completely undeserved. A vintage Range Rover is complex, shoddily built, and crushingly unreliable. Still, you want one. I did. Which is why I bought one.
I’m the doting owner of a 1990 Range Rover County—Ardennes Green Metallic with a tan leather interior, gray tri-spoke wheels, and a barely-there lilac pinstripe. The truck has been in the shop five times since I bought it eighteen months ago, including an extended stay (brakes, steering, air conditioning) prior to its even being shipped to me in New York from the Bay Area, where it spent its first quarter-century. I’m not certain if I’m in love with this car or just addicted to it.
And mine is one of the good ones. It has the updated, upgraded, 178-horsepower 3.9-liter Rover V-8, along with the smoother-shifting ZF 4-speed automatic transmission and improved anti-lock brakes, new for 1990. And it does not have the failure-prone air-suspension, introduced two years later, which inevitably deflated. You’ve seen an afflicted specimen, no doubt: a vintage Rover sagging onto its wheels like it has a loaded diaper.
Mine also lacks the extended wheelbase option introduced in 1993, a stretch that I think spoils the truck’s proper upright proportions. The back seat is plenty roomy already.
What my Range Rover lacks, blessedly, is rust—a counterintuitive plague on a vehicle with rustproof aluminum body panels. But under the handsome skin is a structure made of steel. Vintage Rovers like to rust from the inside out wherever water seeps in—and it seeps in everywhere. The rear clamshell hatch is the most notorious area, but the tin worm will also accumulate beneath the front and rear fenders, under the cargo floor, in the footwells, inside the doorsills, in the bulkhead between the engine and passenger compartments, and around the windshield. There are no fixes, only rapidly mounting bills.
Which explains why the first rule of buying a classic Range Rover is to inspect it thoroughly. Then inspect it again. Then find a mechanic who can also inspect it. If you buy it, keep inspecting it, daily if possible. Rust waits for you when you’re not looking, literally.
As with any vintage vehicle, buy the best example you can afford. Fortunately, when it comes to pre-loved Range Rovers, there are lots of choices. Though the “Classic” was only officially available in the States from 1987-95, it was produced overseas starting in 1970, and some of those early vehicles have started to find their way here. Foreign-sold Classics were available with diesel or gas motors, standard or automatic transmissions, cloth or leather interiors, two or four doors, and manually- or power-operated windows, door locks, and seats. The U.S. got only the luxe models with all the goodies.
Expect to pay around $10,000-$12,000 for a clean example, and at least double that for a top-notch one. (The 1995 Classic with its bigger engine, upgraded interior, and “cyclone” wheels is particularly sought after.) Earlier this year, Land Rover Classic even offered ten, perfect, factory-restored 1970 models for $170,000 (!!!) each.
After you’ve handed over the check, you’ve got one more important job to do: find an excellent mechanic. No matter how much you baby your new baby, it will break. On mine, the floor has been removed once (fuel pump). The dashboard has been removed twice. The headliner did not have to come off to repair the sunroof, but that was only because my genius mechanic knew a workaround. You want a genius mechanic. (And probably a AAA membership)
The good news is, if you find a Classic Range Rover without rot and keep it clean, you’re likely to see an upside. Vintage trucks are one of the fastest growing segments in the collectible car market. Already buyers are being priced out of proto-luxury SUVs like the Jeep Grand Wagoneer and early Toyota Land Cruisers, and they’re seeking more affordable, but equally classy, options. The Range Rover fits the bill. It may have a bill to foot, but on the days your Rover works, it’s all worth it.
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