Stuffed to its roof racks with baggage, the Range Rover should have been an instant failure when its fat Michelin tires finally rolled onto U.S. soil in March 1987.
Instead, a brilliant launch strategy crafted mostly by former Volkswagen, Fiat and Chrysler executives that focused on image, capability and customer service got the Range Rover off to a strong start and made it into one of the industry's most improbable success stories.
The Range Rover, celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, has inspired a bumper crop of imitators as well as a growing number of legitimate competitors. In doing so, the Range Rover nearly singlehandedly created a segment — the luxury SUV — that has all but replaced the sedan as the preferred mode of transport for athletes, movie stars, government officials and executives.
But back in summer 1986, Charlie Hughes, the ex-Volkswagen marketing executive running Range Rover North America in Lanham, Md., was not thinking much about changing the nation's automotive landscape. He had more immediate and worrisome concerns.
In a matter of months, he would be selling a 17-year-old vehicle that had undergone few upgrades since its European launch in March 1970. For example, the 1987 Range Rover was still powered by a hand-me-down General Motors engine that first saw duty in 1961, in a compact Buick sedan.
On top of that, the British-built Range Rovers came from a country with a reputation for producing poor-quality automobiles. And it was manufactured by a company that would have been roadkill if not for several oversized tranches of aid from the British government.