The original VW Golf Gti. The Audi RS2. The BMW Z3 M Coupe. And, now, this magnificent Range Rover known as the Range Racer. All these were created after hours, behind closed doors, by Engineers who knew better than their bosses. These skunkworks projects are all classics now, when tiny groups of frustrated car company employees once took humdrum machines and made magic happen. These secret projects were so good that they all eventually made it to production. This is something that Alfons Löwenberg could never have predicted when, in the early ‘70s, in his Bungalow with his Hausfrau moaning about his incessant spannering when the dog needed walking, he came up with the original Golf Gti. Eventually his boss found out, and bought in. VW’s sales forecast was smashed; they expected to sell 1000 of these yet they shifted half a million. The creator of this Range Racer might blush to see their name published alongside such a cult hero as Löwenberg but this praise is totally deserved. The Range Racer is a car I’ve wanted to write about for quite some time and, although it’s still work in progress, is such a significant development that I think (and I hope) it will eventually translate into lighter, lither and, frankly, more appealing production cars from the guys and girls at Gaydon. And, who knows, a production item in it’s own right in some form. As the creator is an existing employee of JLR (who are oblivious to the chicanery going on here) we’re going to give them the nom-de-guerre of Cory Lee Flash. He, and his co-skunkworkers, look a bit like this;

Flash’s day job is to help Range Rovers perform better. I’d better not go much further for fear of blowing their cover. Flash, and a small group of like-minded Engineers (hello S and hello R, if you’re reading) were playing Gran Turismo and wondered how much better a Range Rover would go if it were pared down and pepped up to levels their employer would never consider, levels a regular Range Rover customer would not accept. A trip to the auction with £3630 bought a 2005 Range Rover Vogue, type L322, one with 170k on the clock. Under the bonnet is a supercharged 4.2 litre V8. Amazingly, everything still worked. Flash is candid about Range Rovers quality, particularly electrical reliability, and insider knowledge as to factory-standard problems mean that the Range Racer can be developed with a minimum of head scratching. First off, Flash says, the charge cooler pump is often wired in the wrong way round. And so it proved on a benchmark trackday at Bedford where it overheated pretty quickly. A simple cock-up made during the assembly of the car, a common fault, and quickly rectified before they were unceremoniously black-flagged for being 50mm too tall. An obscure rule that the pedants running Bedford enforced when faced with 2.5 tons of smoking luxury SUV messing with the motoring minnows on track. Dodgy plumbing aside this test revealed a massive list of things to work on.

Unless you’re into Sumo then you can’t be fat and sporty. These things don’t go. And a visit to the weighbridge (did I mention JLR has excellent engineering facilities when the lights are off and everyone has gone home?) revealed that the standard weight of the Range Racer was precisely 2605.850Kg. That’s fat. Out went the TVs, out went all the trim, the interior panels, the headlining, the side steps, the towbar and the electric motors. The sunroof went, with it’s associated gubbins, and was replaced by a Perspex side window taken from an old Transit Van held in place with Sikaflex. Skunkworks Engineers are creative, particularly when they’re on a budget. The exhaust muffler went, the noise-deadening foam went and the steering wheel with a million buttons was replaced by a simple, suede covered racing wheel. The seats went and, incurring the biggest cost so far, a single lightweight seat was installed. Future plans include removing the transfer box and modifying the front axle to lose another c.100Kg. This would also permit the option of permanent rear-wheel-drive. For now, though, a return to fat class showed a loss of 606Kg. For reference, a Caterham with Billy Bunter at the wheel weighs less than that. The HVAC remains because a track car (for that is the aim) is horrible when it’s full of damp, although junking it saves another 10-35Kg depending on how far you might go. Perspex instead of glass is also on the cards. Thoughts of a return to the track meant that there was more than just weight loss needed.

The now sub-two ton Range Racer needed work on it elsewhere. Firstly, it understeered terribly. Alleviating this meant looking into the roll stiffness. Roll stiffness is influenced mostly by the ARBs, the springs and all the bushes in the axle. The Range Racer is on air suspension, which is managed by annoying electronics which know what height you’re at and behave as per the factory intended. The measurement parts of this were fooled by fitting shorter sensors (and not reprogramming the electronics) to lower the car by 75mm. Then Flash rigged a switch between ‘road’ mode, which is still much lower than standard but driveable, and then ‘track’ mode which drops it close to the air suspension limits. Great for the track. The suspension actually comprises of two spring elements; the air ‘spring’ and a physical spring to aid when the air system reaches it’s limit. Which never normally happens, but slinging this round a track isn’t normal. As amateur racers know, creating a softer front suspension and firmer rear often aids turn in, so the Range Racer was lowered by means of fooling the air suspension settings, but lowered slightly more at the back than the front to help combat understeer – the rear air suspension, being lower than the front, hits the stiffer, physical spring sooner than the front. Follow?  I have seen some interesting test data on this but me, and Flash, would have JLRs lawyers gunning for us if we published all the workings out.

Next, the wheels went. There’s a quandary when picking wheels for performance purposes. On the Range Racer that quandary looks like this; Small wheels and large tyres are good for weight, good for top speed, bad for acceleration and bad for roll. Plus there are few sports tyres in the needed size. Then you have the option of small wheels and small tyres which is great for weight but bad for top speed, good for acceleration and good for roll but might give clearance issues with the brakes here. Finally, the option Flash chose; large wheels and medium OD tyres – this is bad for weight but good for top speed, good for acceleration, good for roll, good for tyre choice and there are no brake clearance issues. Plus, they look good. BMW’s ownership of Range Rover, once upon a time, means that 20” BMW X5 wheels work here. 315/30 20” rubber from Toyo meant that a 7% gearing reduction was possible. These are the sort of things amateurs might guess at, but skunkworks engineers like Flash and Co. have not only the qualifications to help work this out, but the systems at the office to help make these quick calculations turn into results. Albeit results the boss is still blissfully unaware of. Having the Range Racer dynamically show up a (factory built) Range Rover would undoubtedly cause trouble. I can’t wait for the moment the cat is out of the bag.

And to the transmission; We’d all bloody love this to be manual, wouldn’t we? The challenge there isn’t technical but financial. There was never a manual Range Rover with this engine, nor was there a manual Jaguar XK which shares the same bits, but the Aston Martin V8 Vantage did come with a manual gearbox that should fit. Finding a broken Aston isn’t usually difficult, finding one being broken for spares, and at a sensible price, is tough. Flash has found one but it’s expensive, and it will have to wait for installation at the same time as the conversion to RWD happens and when funds allow. Lack of money is the rain that pisses on every mad build like this, isn’t it? For now, a conversion to paddle shift has been a fun challenge. Nicking paddles from an XK seemed easy enough, but challenges with sliprings and wiring were a bother and the end result meant a phone cord dangling from the paddles to the electronics. But it works. Brakes went from standard to 6 pots from a later 5 litre model, suspension was polybushed and the brake fluid was changed. The alloys were rattle-canned and it was time for a shakedown on track. Gaydon has every possible circuit configuration to test everything from a diesel Defender wallowing in the muck to a cooking Jaguar flat out, but access was officially (and unofficially) impossible and even if Flash and Co. had made it there the now striking looking Range Racer would have been instantly spotted and reported and God-only-knows what. So, off to Curborough with its silly-short length, ultra-tight corners and general lack of space meaning that the Range Racer’s agility, or lack thereof, would be exposed very quickly. A good place to hone things.

Here the guys found that the car was simply destroying its tyres. They’d lock up too easily under braking, and chew up under cornering. And pulling the ABS plug in an attempt to disable traction control meant the car jammed itself in third gear and attempted to limp you to the nearest dealer for a wallet raping. Someone suggested disconnecting the wheel speed sensors which resulted in a dashboard disco lightshow but ABS, DSC and TC were happily all permanently disabled! A more elegant solution will be found so this can be armed/disarmed via a switch in future but for now enjoy some pics of the Range Racer performing like no other ‘best 4X4XFar’ ever could. But there is still work to be done. It still feels nose heavy and a weighbridge check-in revealed it is c.100Kg heavier at the front. The air intake is a convoluted route via the front wing and over the engine top (heat!) and moving the battery to the boot would address the weight distribution and allow a short, cooler, air intake under the bonnet. Cosmetically it’s still a bit subtle for Flash [nearly typed his real name, then, oops!] and a daft wing will be added soon. The seats are too high, and too wobbly, but thanks to that BMW dalliance years back runners from an E46 M3 align nicely and will help drop the driving position and further improve the C of G.

Modern Range Rovers offer a plethora of technology to mask their inherent bulk on the road. It’s the opposite to Chapmans ‘simplicate and add lightness’ mantra. ‘Complicate and shiteness’ you might say. I am not a fan. RR drivers will proudly talk in clichés about “it corners on rails” without understanding that there’s a heap of tech keeping them on the bypass and it will still fall over it’s own, fat feet at the first sign of a proper corner. Such mass can be masked, but not totally hidden. What Flash has done is remove all the bling and the bulk and understand the physics that prevent a Range Rover from being a decent thing to throw about. And then they’ve applied a mix of insider know-how and engineering resources to take this thing to the limit. And I truly hope he gets busted. I hope he gets rumbled and called before JLRs high and mighty to explain what he (and R and S) have done, because I am quite convinced that the finished thing is worthy of mass production when everyone actually sees it in action. But not yet. Next I want to see more power, that daft wing, and the look on other people’s faces as it outbrakes them at Redgate, or powers by them at Eau Rouge, or goes round the outside at the Karussell. I think the Range Racer has the potential for all this. And it, and it’s creators, surely deserves the eventual place amongst the skunkworks greats.

If you enjoyed this, you’ll find similar stories in PPC Magazine, online here, if you fancy hearing the Range Racer in action you can see it shrieking around Curborough on YouTube here. Thanks for reading.

Pic credits – mdbimages for the Range Racer’s owner (used with permission here).

About The Author

Rich Duisberg

Rich's drivel regularly appears in Practical Performance Car and GT Porsche magazines. He has also written for Classic & Sportscar, MogMag, Classic Performance and Retro, Banzai, Evo, and Modern Mini. He also did a book no-one bought. His hungover fizzog also often appears on CBS’s Carfection channel enthusing about historic motoring. Le Mans winner Derek Bell once refused to get in Rich's Morgan Three Wheeler with him at the wheel. Currently amongst the detritus in his garage is a Porsche 968 Sport, MK1 MX-5, Sinclair C5 and a vintage Royal Enfield pushbike which he loves.

2 Responses

  1. Sim LB

    Thanks for the feature, hopefully when this is all over we can take you out in it for a spin to experience the silliness for yourself!
    Follow @rangeracer on instagram and facebook to keep up to date with the progress 😉

    Reply
  2. Mark M

    These the guys from Scumball with the hearse?

    No Sir! These are other loonies.

    Reply

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