Future Past and 20 Years of Range Rover

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Torino ’90, the 63 Salone Internazionale Della’Automobile, was dismissed even by the country’s national press as a pretty dull occasion. Yet there were some sparks of interest for those with the sporting strength to overcome the Fiat world press conference gathering. From Britain there was the Special Vehicle Engineering (SVE) development of the first production turbocharged Fiesta (RS in Britain, plain turbo in LHD Europe) and a potent display from Worthing-based IAD who generated much of the excitement that the Italian design houses notably lacked this season.

The turbocharged Fiesta is not simply the transplant of an Escort RS turbo CVH engine into smaller brother. Fundamental changes include the use of EEC IV electronic engine injection and ignition management with the later XR2i/XR3i cylinder head. Additionally a cramped engine bay and road response considerations prompted the use of a Garret T25 turbo in place of the larger Escort T03 unit. The result is a slightly more powerful 1.6 litres in bhp and lb ft terms: 133 horsepower at 5500 rpm and 134 lb ft of torque by 2400 rpm. In reality there is hardly any “peak” torque reading, the figure much the same at 2000 as it is at 5000 rpm, providing notably accessible performance.

Temporarily (until the autumn advent of a new Escort line and performance derivatives) the Fiesta RS turbo will be quicker than its bigger brother, taking just a claimed 7.7 seconds to reach 60 mph from standstill and having a maximum claimed speed of 130 mph.

In response to severe criticism in some areas of the specialist press of the XR2i (on which the turbocharged RS model is based), SVE have tackled some fundamental front end chassis engineering tasks. These include fitment of a slightly faster rack and pinion (3.8 turns lock to lock in place of 4.2) and replacement hardware to impose geometry and castor that allows considerably more feedback to the driver. This was achieved with replacement rack and front suspension ball joints, but the newcomer also features a rear anti-roll bar (20mm diameter) and rear springs uprated by 21% over a standard XR2i. Armstrong gas filled shock absorbers replace the XR2i units front and rear, that Yorkshire company now owned by Monroe in America.

Cosmetically the XR2i link has been denied by the adoption of three spoke 5.5 x 14 alloy wheels (carrying 185/55 VR 14 rubber developed by Uniroyal and others specifically for this model), bonnet vents and fashionably green inlays to replace the blue piping of an XR2i.

SVE had also developed an enlarged rear wing which helped stability considerably with little influence on the aerodynamic Cd value but this was deleted at such a late stage that it was featured on press handout pictures. Production vehicles will instead feature an XR2i rear spoiler, while those with sharp eyes will also detect another abandoned programme in the alloy wheel centres; modest dimples survive as testimony to the original intent of using wheels featuring fake cross-drilled discs.

More about this fast Fiesta when our road test people drive it, planned for late June when prices (circa £12,000) are announced.

International Automotive Design (IAD) is a fascinating British enterprise that now has 1300 employees straddling the obvious world automotive design conscious countries, plus those developing parts of the globe which are hungry for new ideas: China, Korea, India and Eastern Europe, including the USSR.

It is the creation of, amongst others, John Shute, a former Vauxhall employee and is now best known for its Volvo, Ford of America and Mazda consultative work.

IAD eye-catchers at Turin were of the concept vehicle kind: a two-seater Venus labelled supercar using some Lotus components and a sleek MPV (Multi Purpose Vehicle, the class originally defined by Renault Espace) which rested on American Ford Escort running gear.

My primary interest in IAD was fuelled by a visit to Worthing in 1989 and their role in the MX-5 from Mazda, in recognition of which the Turin stand bore a blue example of the two-seater. IAD had three separate consultancy roles in assisting the task of making the MX-5 a reality. In January 1985 Mazda commissioned them to design and build a concept sports car of character. By September of that year it had been assessed by Mazda’s North American Design Centre and largely approved with enthusiasm, so that IAD received an order to execute five complete running vehicles, plus nine body shells for further evaluation. Again the verdict was favourable, not surprising as IAD staff had put their heart into creating a plausible British character for the MX-5 by bringing in Elans and MGs from the Sixties.

Finally the Spring of 1987 saw IAD engineers off to Hiroshima to “assist the Mazda design team in putting the vehicle into production” in official IAD words. Whilst I applaud the recognition that IAD have achieved internationally — and envy John Shute his retention of private control over such a significant enterprise — I was sad that the customer for IAD expertise was Japanese rather than British.

The same remark applies to the MX-5. Is this not the affordable sports car that Great Britain Plc should be building to rectify our Imbalance of Payments? Is the MX-5 not the affordable sports car Lotus told us they were going to build, before May 1990-ordered Elans became 20,000 rarities for delivery in 1992? The Rover board are pondering a front-drive MG roadster even as I write, meanwhile Mazda receive the profitable rewards of having already sold “more than 40,000” MX-5s. Let us hope that any forthcoming MG will not be in the “too little, too late” mould.

In Turin the Italians showed they had no intention of abandoning their sports heritage with the revamped “Alfa-Spider” convertible available for journalists to drive. As WPK is to drive this intended limited edition import into the UK (still in LHD, but you can get RHD from Spider stalwarts Bell & Colvill), and the monstrous SZ, I will only say that the Spider looks a lot better in its old age than the MGB managed. There is also a 137 bhp/16v version of the boxer motor Alfa 33 saloon arriving shortly in Britain. To show that Italian design enterprise was not dead and that it could be channelled into extremely low drag coefficients for a popular road car, Pininfarina constructed the CNR E2. Utilising transverse Fiat 1372cc front-wheel drive running gear, the slippery four-door managed to slip beneath the target 0.20 Cd. More importantly it returned some astonishing performance capabilities for 1.4 litres developing just 78 bhp — a 127 mph maximum and a quoted 51.4 mpg at 75 mph. I did not like the bland appearance of the Pininfarina car, but I am convinced that the Earth is not manufacturing oil at a rate that assures the longer term future of anything but the most parsimonious petrol engines. Apparently, Fiat agree with me, because they are offering the Panda at enormous extra cost with electrical motivation; power that is still manacled by hefty batteries.

Brought up on electric vehicles during an earlier working life I am depressed at the apparent lack of progress in the past 20 years on that front, so I will acknowledge a 20 year success story: Range Rover. Introduced at £1998 in 1970 as a 2-door plus loading aperture machine of unparalleled comfort and cross country agility, the Range Rover’s 20th birthday sees it in fine commercial health. Now there are variants (some too long in arriving) that encompass the choice of 3.9 litre V8 or 2.5 litre VM Turbo Diesel (185 or 119 bhp), manual and notchy Rover 5-speed or ZF 4-speed automatic, a standard 4-doors and the option of electronic anti-lock braking that is suitable for offroad demands. The ABS system is by commercial vehicle specialists WABCO in Midland Britain and is standard on the £31,949 Vogue SE (optional elsewhere in the range); all Range Rovers now carry four wheel ventilated disc brakes. I drove one of the plush 5-speed manual models on a Sussex treasure hunt organised to celebrate the model’s two decades in production, an event further enlivened by some mild forest miles in dryly rutted conditions. There is still a unique character to the Range Rover that makes it a hit in such diverse markets as America and Italy (diesel only). I can only say that I can fully understand anyone falling for its charms, especially as a distinguished tow car that can double as a VIP lounge at windy race circuits.

JW

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