Back around the late 1960s the economy was shot and everyone started driving around in smaller, more fuel-efficient cars because the price of oil was all crazy. It was nothing like today, it’s hard to relate to.
One thing that was completely different was that there were no SUVs on the road – they simply hadn’t been invented yet. It was an innocent paradise, where children could play in the streets after school, probably without shoes.
British Leyland was a car industry powerhouse, pumping vehicles out by the boatload. Because it didn’t keep its engineers busy enough they would spend time inventing things, and some chaps in Solihull decided to come up with something that blended the comfort and ease of use of a Jaguar S-type with the go-anywhere off-road prowess of a Land Rover Defender.
The prototype was nicknamed Velar by one of the engineers – from the Spanish word that means ‘to keep a secret’. It didn’t stay secret for long – the Range Rover that resulted from this offbeat project would change the face of the car market, blurring the lines between segment types that until now had been very clear cut.
The first-generation of the 4x4 would enjoy an unprecedented 25-year production run, benefiting from steady development and constant improvement. It’s fair to say, though, that its success was unexpected – where Land Rover expected the Range Rover might see limited success among farmers and landowners, the well-off in towns and cities saw the high driving position and imposing size of the car as a real bonus.
Aside from the Velar badge on the front of the car, the Velar prototype is entirely recognisable as an early Range Rover, with its familiar square shape, round headlights and three-door layout. This car is one of eight engineering prototypes that were built in 1969 to test the mechanical gubbins of the new car, crossing the Sahara desert in north Africa twice. It hasn’t just seen better days, it’s craving a few quiet ones.
How does it drive?
Thank goodness cars are much better to drive these days – it’s rare now that you find a genuinely terrible one, such is the competition between manufacturers. Yet it’s not until you have the sorbet course of a classic car that your driving palate can really be cleansed.
The Range Rover wasn’t a bad car when it came out, the relentless rolling of the suspension, heavy steering and terrifying controls are merely products of 50 years ago. Sampling other generations of Range Rover, you’re made keenly aware of the progress that was made over time – certainly the current model has had some kind of magic performed over it, such is the directness of the steering and the suppleness of the ride.
As you fire up the Velar prototype you feel a little cocky, but trying to find first gear is an immediately humbling experience. You’ll eventually discover it hiding somewhere a foot off to your left, second immediately below it and then third gear back under your chin. The clutch enjoys a little game of hide and seek as you try to set off, concentrating with all you’ve got.
The steering wheel is startlingly thin, with little to grip on to. You’ll need a good grip, because going round corners is heavy work. As a modern driver you’re not used to being exposed to the genuine heft of a vehicle, insulated as it is by the electronic trickery.
It’s a stressful, intense car to drive, especially from the point of view of a pampered modern pansy, but that’s not to say it isn’t fun. You feel closer to the outside world than you would in another car, and that sense you’re going to fall out of the window as you wobble round a corner – you just don’t get that anywhere else.
Should I buy one?
This model is a priceless family heirloom, and we wouldn’t suggest splashing out on a classic unless you’re really ready to take the plunge into a world of high maintenance fun.
The Velar prototype is considerably smaller than the current Range Rover, but the new Velar – that goes on sale in August 2017 – promises to encapsulate all the strengths of the Range Rover package within a smaller footprint. It’ll be priced from £44,830 and we’ll have the first drive on Motor1 UK at the end of July.
Curious as to how we got from the Velar prototype of 1969 to the smooth-as-silk SUV of 2017? Watch our video below on the history of the car.