When a Range Rover gave Top Gear the Bullet
Bicester Heritage, Oxfordshire - More than three decades ago, while Jeremy Clarkson was still paying his dues writing road tests of family cars for small newspapers in the north of England, Top Gear presenter Chris Goffey set a precedent for the future with his scathing review of the first turbodiesel-powered Range Rover.
The Range Rover, introduced in 1970, made its name, of course, on the performance and refinement of its Buick 3.5-litre petrol V8; in 1986, however, Land Rover introduced a companion model powered by an Italian-made VM 2.4-litre turbodiesel four.
Compared to the V8, it was a rough as a bear’s backside, but that wasn’t the big problem. The test car that was sent to Top Gear (one of the first off the line) showed signs of having been assembled in a hurry, and presented some mechanical issues about which Goffey was justifiably uncomplimentary.
But when the Range Rover got back to Solihull, it was discovered that this particular car had not been sent to the famous Land Rover press garage, where media test cars are primped and fettled to Rolls-Royce standards before British journos get their grubby paws on them. Worse still, it had never even been through a regular pre-delivery inspection!
Needless to say, the engineers responsible for the Range Rover VM project were very disappointed by the negative media coverage, and one of their managers who was also a motorsport enthusiast came up with the idea of attempting a string of endurance records for diesel-powered vehicles, to prove how tough and powerful the VM-powered Rangie really was.
So they built two very special Turbo D Range Rovers, each with a full roll cage, just one seat, full radio coms, quick-release bonnet catches and two racing-spec fuel fillers in the tailgate to make pit-stops quicker and safer.
In August 1986 the entirely amateur team of volunteers took them to the 4.53 kilometre banked oval of the Motor Industry Research Association at Nuneaton in Warwickshire, where they broke no less than 27 world sprint and endurance records, all in answer to Chris Goffey's comments on Top Gear - and not even Clarkson can boast that a major motor manufacturer has built a special model just to prove him wrong!
The four-cylinder Turbo D Range Rover was never a big seller in the UK - partly due to Goffey’s comments - but it went on to become a huge success in Europe, which was pro-diesel and where most countries imposed punitive taxes on cars with engines bigger than 2.5 litres, especially after the original 2.4 VM was replaced by a much improved 2.5 in 1989.
Surprisingly, one of them - B378 TAC, nicknamed the Beaver Bullet - still survives, exactly as it was at the end of the record marathon, and it will be reunited with some of the original team members at the Land Rover Legends show at the Bicester Heritage Centre in May, as a heartwarming reminder of the days when it was possible to build a special model just to one-up Top Gear!