The CarAdvice team reveals what's hidden away in their sheds and backyards awaiting some TLC.
Arguably the dumbest family car you could possibly buy on almost any criteria, this 2003 Range Rover Vogue (L322) has been serving as the Purcell family bus for the last four years or so. Most daily driven family cars aren’t seen to be a project vehicle, but this is one's a different kettle of fish.
And aside from the gearbox dying, parking sensors not working, coolant overflow bottle leaking (twice), immobiliser not working, eating batteries, GPS disappearing, remote locking not working, flogged suspension bushings, the inability to keep engine oil in and rainwater out, it’s been a flawless experience.
A quick refresher on the corporate ownership of Land Rover at the time this Rangey was produced, which sounds like an episode of Days of our Lives: BMW buys the Rover Group from British Aerospace in 1994, for the princely sum of $1.3 billion.
Wolfgang Reitzel, a man regarded with prodigious engineering talent and knowledge, is BMW’s head of product development at this time, and number two man for the Bavarian brand. He embarks on a $1.4-billion dollar journey to develop a new Range Rover capable of taking on anything, both on- and off-road.
Making an all-new big luxury 4X4 best-in-class in terms of comfort, technology, refinement and off-road ability was a major undertaking. And the program left no stone unturned. From the previous P38a generation, nothing was carried over.
The new Range Rover proved a successful model, garnering plenty of positive reviews around the world. It used BMW petrol (4.4-litre ‘M62TUB44’ V8) and diesel (3.0-litre M57D30 inline six) engines, running through a ZF five-speed automatic transmission. These engines offered more power and refinement over previous V8 powerplants, and the introduction of all-round independent suspension on a hybrid monocoque chassis added to the on- and off-road performance.
Reitzel had a reputation for developing highly refined vehicles on big budgets and with no corners cut (like the BMW 8 Series, for example). This supposedly rankled with executives when Land Rover was split away from Rover and sold to Ford, and led to him moving away from BMW under Ford’s new direction. Inevitably, Reitzel moved on from the automotive industry altogether.
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One gearbox, three coolant overflows, one steering column, three batteries, one thermostat, water in a few computers. Plus a few little niggles. But when it's working, it's a special car. Now it has some decent tyres and new suspension bushes, it's even better. #RangeRover #OneLifeLeakIt
I haven’t painted a great picture so far. On the plus side, Range Rovers of this vintage are quite cheap to buy, good to look at (I reckon) and still quite nice to drive by modern standards. There’s enough room inside for the mountains of paraphernalia that comes with parenting two ratbags, with huge amounts of space across two rows and the boot. The 4.4-litre V8 has a pleasant rumble, yielding fuel consumption that varies from barely acceptable to egregious around town. It’s good off-road, will tow 3.5 tonnes happily, And the fuel is enjoyable to burn. I shouldn’t, but I love this car dearly.
Another highlight for me is the very good 12-speaker sound system, a good excuse for building a collection of CDs and tapes. The heated leather seats are wonderfully comfortable and infinitely adjustable, yielding a driving position to enjoy that soft, wafting ride.
The V8 engine, similar to what you’ll find in old BMW X5, 5-Series and 7-Series cars, makes a decent 210kW at 5400rpm and 440Nm at 3600rpm. When new, the asking price was $155,900 before on-road costs. We paid less than 10 per cent of that.
I bought the car with cheap Winrun tyres on it, and with the original Goodyear Eagle still serving as a decrepit spare. Things were much improved by adding some good rubber: Continental CrossContact tyres weren’t cheap, but rubber ain't something you should scrimp on. Especially when your car weighs 2450kg (kerb).
This car rates as a project, because it requires constant work to keep it on the road and out of the wrecking yard. Aside from the gearbox (and the coolant reservoir, come to think of it, oh, and the steering column), the car has been mostly reliable. It’s been mostly small fixes on things like electrics, trim and failing gaskets.
Most recent work involved replacing two VANOS (BMW speak for variable valve timing) solenoid gaskets on the front of the engine. One came out with only a little bit of fiddling, but the other needed the top radiator hose removed to gain access.
Because I had already hoarded up coolant like it was coronavirus toilet paper on special, topping it back up wasn't an issue.
But as I watched the green coolant trickle out over components and into a container, spilling mostly on the driveway, it got me thinking: If this was a "car’s got a leak darling, drop it at the dealership" type operation, you could only imagine the number of commas and zeroes that would have been on the bill.
Think about it. A workshop would need to quote big hours for diagnosing an oil leak, especially when the thermo fans had coated the front block evenly in a sticky black film. Throw in some extra hours labour for cleaning, disassembling and reassembling, and don’t forget the few litres of coolant needing to be replaced.
It took me around three hours with basic tools in the driveway to do the job, not including an hour or so of research (reading forums, shout-out to RangeRovers.net) and diagnosis. Total cost was $30 for the seals (shout out to KarCraft in Silverwater, Sydney, for stocking the parts), as well as the aforementioned coolant from the garage larder.
That’s why you wouldn’t wish a bad Range Rover on your worst enemy. Or a good one, really. For most people who could think of a thousand better ways to spend their time and money, this car is a dumb idea. It's old, at the end of the day. Complex systems start failing, and well-heeled owners have since moved onto something newer and less problematic. They have lost their value, and have a solid reputation for unreliability.
These days, this one-time darling of country clubs and polo fields has fallen on hard times, and found itself in the hands of a different kind of buyer. Someone willing to take a smaller but more reckless financial risk on a car. Someone who, because of the nature of the vehicle, is forced, by the prospect of absolute financial ruin, to roll up their sleeves and have a crack at repairs and maintenance themselves. Someone like, well, me.
And I can say with some degree of authority now that it's not actually as bad as you imagine, as long as you're able to source decent parts, spend a fair chunk of time trawling forums, reading workshop manuals and fettling about. It's not set and forget motoring. Buy a Prado, or a Camry wagon, if that's your thing.
There is nothing wrong with such vehicles, don't get me wrong. They are well engineered, reliable and practical. They make mountains of sense. My mate had an old Toyota Avalon that had plenty of character and comfort. But it was also painfully reliable.
An old Range Rover is risky. But with risk, comes a greater reward. Adventure without risk is Disneyland, as the saying goes. And this delightful old shitbox has taught me plenty about cars, patience, shrewdness and me along the way. And it’s been mostly happy motoring. Until something else stops working. Or starts leaking. Or both.
Imagine my overwhelming sense of pride when a dead immobiliser, which bricked my entire steering column (costing up to $7000 to replace), was fixed with a few hours on the tools, and a magnet the size of my pinkie nail. Total cost? A meagre 30 cents.