Land Rover recently revealed a coupe version of the Range Rover dubbed the Range Rover SV Coupe. Only 999 will be built — and when they go on sale, each will cost close to $300,000, and it should bring with it an unprecedented level of luxury to the already luxury-oriented Range Rover brand, propelling it to the upper-echelon of automotive prestige.
But the SV isn’t the first 2-door Range Rover. Way back when Range Rover came to market in 1970, it did so with the Series I — and until 1981, it was only available in a 2-door bodystyle.
Range Rover didn’t make it to the U.S. market until 1985 — and when it did, it arrived with only the 4-door body style. I recently got to spend some time with a 1979 2-door Series I Range Rover that was imported from Northern Italy by Modern Classics, a boutique classic car dealership in Boise, Idaho, that specializes in rare and unique imported European cars.
The original Range Rover was designed with the North American market in mind and was planned for a mid-1971 launch, but a number of factors got in the way, namely a lack of financials, lack of production capacity and changing federal regulations. Land Rover itself did have a small U.S. presence at the time, importing the Land Rover Series III model until 1974. Despite no Range Rover being officially offered here until 1987, a number of third-party companies imported the vehicle to the U.S. via the grey market, including a group of LA-based dealerships — and, starting in 1984, the North American Division of Aston Martin.
The unique thing about this particular Series I Range Rover is that it came with a gasoline-powered V8 engine — and, given its Italian roots, left-hand drive. Beyond that, it was mostly standard fare for an SUV from the early 1980s, but with a few surprising features.
To start, while the frame is steel, the body is all aluminum, which means less weight and no rust. Given that this one had also been repainted, the exterior was nearly immaculate. There’s also something interesting worth noting about the grille: While the original Range Rover came with this 16-slat vertical grille, the grille never made it to the U.S. market. When the Range Rover was first sold in the U.S., it arrived on our shores with a 5-slat horizontal grille. One more thing before we get to the features: The wheels on the Series I aren’t missing their center caps because they never came with them to begin with.
Another of my favorite features is the trick rear license plate mount. The Range Rover’s rear license plate is mounted on the tailgate — meaning that any time the tailgate is open, the plate faces the ground. This poses a problem anytime the driver might need to haul an item, like a sheet of plywood or a piece of furniture, with the rear tailgate down, as the license plate wouldn’t be visible when the vehicle is driving down the road. To remedy this problem, the Range Rover’s license plate mount is on a panel separate from the rest of the tailgate. Unclip a little plastic pin adhering it to the metal tailgate, and the entire plate can now pivot on a hinge, allowing it to swing down and face rearward anytime the tailgate is lowered — a really clever design element.
Each door panel also features two door handles. One is toward the front of the door, where you’d expect it to be, for use by front seat passengers — but there’s another handle at the back of the door panel for use by rear-seat passengers. British cars typically aren’t known for their ingenuity, but features like this really serve to challenge that notion.
In addition to containing the shifter for the 4-speed manual transmission, the center console also includes two other gear levers and a dial. The second gear lever operates the transfer case for the Range Rover’s 4-wheel drive system, shifting between 4WD high (the Range Rover’s standard drive mode thanks to its all-wheel drive system) and 4WD low, for low-speed off-road use. The third lever operates a mechanical overdrive system, the likes of which I’ve never seen in a vehicle before. Finally, the dial operates the locking center and rear differentials.
Beyond that, the Range Rover Series I posesses a number of other funky features like a fold-flat rear bench seat (no rear seatbelts though), sliding rear windows to provide ventilation for the rear passengers, removable snap-on cushions for the front headrests and some of the flimsiest, most 1970s plastic you’d ever find on a toy car from the era, let alone a real vehicle.
In conclusion, I love the original Range Rover because it’s decidedly both practical and impractical, giving it a vintage, utilitarian charm. Apparently Land Rover agrees with me, as you’ll be able to see a new Range Rover, inspired by this one, on the road soon. If you’re very, very lucky.
Chris O’Neill grew up in the Rust Belt and now lives in Salt Lake City, Utah. He worked in the auto industry for awhile, helping Germans design cars for Americans. Follow him on Instagram: @MountainWestCarSpotter.