On 7th and 8th December 2011, Land Rover celebrated fifty years of off-road testing at Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire. The relationship started back in 1961 when Land Rover chose Eastnor as an assessment venue to put its Series II models through its paces, and the partnership has continued to this day where the current Range Rover Evoque was also subjected to a rigorous test regime around the grounds of this famous estate.
Fast-forward to the 8thDecember 2011, and Land Rover had invited journalists from around the UK and Europe to sample the test and production vehicles used by Land Rover at Eastnor over the years. Assembled for the day’s testing were twenty-three vehicles ranging from the 1960 129” Land Rover through to the very latest Range Rover Evoque and Discovery models. The weather was perfect, damp, drizzly and cold – just what you need for a day of testing at Eastnor.
On hand to guide the journalists was a group of experienced Land Rover engineers and Experience instructors, and keeping an eye on proceedings was none other than legendary LR engineer, Roger Crathorne.
First out of the starting blocks was the brand spanking new Defender 110 Crew Cab Pick Up (VX61BUJ) and as we headed for the hills our instructor told us stories of the famous ‘Gearbox Hill’. The suitability of the Eastnor estate as a LR proving ground was beginning to ring true as our driver navigated along the track towards the ‘real’ testing grounds – even this stretch was enough to loosen your dentures – he then put the vehicle into low range as we approached the tricky, slippery stuff. Persistent, recent rains had turned the tracks to something closely resembling treacle, and this writer’s attempts to get some shots of the Defender as it climbed the steep slopes were challenging in the extreme. Needless to say the Defender handled everything we threw at it admirably, but then you would expect that, seeing as the model cut its teeth on this very terrain when in the late 1970s the Land Rover Ninety and One-Ten (words) was developed. These two models later evolved into what we know as the Defender 90 and 110 (numerals) today.
The name Gearbox Hill originated around the time of the Trans-American Expedition (1971-72) when a lot of transmission testing was done at Eastnor by LR. The Transmission Department at LR would call up Major Ben Hervey-Bathurst (owner of Eastnor) to request that they could send a team to the estate to test the gearboxes prior to the expedition on this one stretch of the hill course in particular. They called up so often requesting to use the same stretch of the course each time that the Major gave that hill the name ‘Gearbox Hill’. Unfortunately the writer was unable to exit the vehicle on Gearbox Hill to take any pictures for fear of sliding all the way down and landing in an unceremonious heap at the bottom. Eastnor’s Gearbox Hill is still used by Land Rover transmission engineers today.
Next up was a 2003 model Range Rover 4.5-litre V8 (VX03EKD), the second generation of what started out in the mid 1960s as a test vehicle combining the comfort of a Rover P6 and the off-road capability of a Land Rover. The result of extensive testing at Eastnor was the introduction of the Range Rover in 1970, a cross between a ‘country gent’ and a practical but sophisticated urban runabout. In order to get through several vehicles in the morning session, we limited our run in the Range Rover to a shorter, more ‘comfortable’ route around the estate. Although driving the Range Rover straight after the Defender clearly highlighted the different markets these two vehicles were aimed at, both proved competent in any terrain.
Begging for some action was the Series II 2002 model Discovery V8 (BP52GKK), one of the vehicles prepared for the G4 Challenge. Still decked out with its authentic competition gear, this 3.9-litre distinctive orange Disco G4 was one of the fleet prepared for the G4 Challenge (replacing the Camel Trophy) in New York, Australia and the West Coast of America. Seated in the Disco you could just imagine battling your way through the tropical jungles, fighting off torrential rains, mudslides and raging rivers – this was a real man’s car, sorry ladies! This no-nonsense and rugged Discovery was truly a test bed for LR’s capabilities and durability in the most challenging conditions.
Next on the menu was the current Range Rover Sport (OE11XHN), a very capable 3.0-litre diesel V6 Autobiography model. It’s unlikely that too many of these vehicles, which are favoured by the high-flying socialites of London, would have been put through the testing conditions that our press vehicle was subjected to. Sitting alongside this driver was the LR engineer, Jan Prins, who pioneered the innovative Terrain Response, a system that offers drivers optimal vehicle set-up (electronic and mechanical), and performance, under a variety of off-road conditions such as: mud, ruts, rocks, sand, grass, gravel or snow. Terrain Response will optimise ride height, engine torque response, Hill Decent Control, Electronic Traction Control and transmission settings, ensuring a safe and controlled passage across any terrain. Under Jan’s guidance, we gave the Range Rover a good dunking on the water course and it took Gearbox Hill with ease, and the whole time our intrepid engineer was giving a detailed technical explanation of this remarkable system on my digital recorder, unperturbed by this writer’s attempts to rip the suspension out from under the vehicle.
Not everyone wants to drive around the suburbs in a large Land Rover with the 4×4 capability to remove tree stumps, and so with market demand for lifestyle-orientated smaller leisure vehicles on the increase in the mid-1990s, a team of LR engineers set about testing a prototype with these characteristics. Led by Dick Elsy in 1994, a project team began a series of tests with a prototype codenamed CB40. This vehicle followed a completely new line of thinking as it was fitted with a transversely-mounted engine, independent suspension, and power-assisted rack and pinion steering.
Cunningly disguised under the body of an Austin Maestro van (G649FKD), the project team put the CB40 prototype through a rigorous set of trials, but in the view of Roger Crathorne, it lacked ‘off-road security’. LR engineer Jan Prins went to work on two new bits of innovative technology that have today become the standard across the Land Rover range. The first feature was Electronic Traction Control (ETC), which was originally developed for the rear axle on Range Rover, but its importance on both axles and indeed across the Land Rover range was soon proven. Because the CB40 prototype did not have a low range gearbox, another innovation was developed, Hill Descent Control (HDC), improving the vehicle’s ability in the descent of steep, slippery slopes. This feature has now also became a standard across Land Rover models as from the late 1990s, and HDC is now adopted by 4×4 manufacturers around the world. The CB40 prototype went on to become the ever-popular Freelander (R247CDU) that we see today.
So successful and beneficial was it for the LR engineers to be able to put the test vehicles through such varied and demanding conditions at Eastnor, that an agreement between Eastnor and the Land Rover Group Ltd was formalised in 1983 after more than two decades of close cooperation. From 1989 Land Rover’s customers could also join in the action as the LR Experience Centre was created on the estate for the purpose of offering training and action days for enthusiasts. This move brought a sense of formality to the activities that had been taking place at Eastnor since the 1960s as the Midlands region of the Land Rover Owners Club have also used this venue for meetings since then.
Both Eastnor and Land Rover can be proud of an association that runs this deep and the level of trust and cooperation is a rarity between a private estate and a large multi-national manufacturer. Our day at Eastnor was a real treat and to have a range of both modern and classic Land Rovers to play with, well it doesn’t get much better than that. Here’s to the next fifty years!!