Range Rover Factory Tour
Land Rovers are considered by many as the ultimate off road vehicles. As a relatively small manufacturer the company has carved out a niche in the market with its line of off-road biased SUVs. The manufacturer has long prided itself on building vehicles with the ability to tackle the most challenging terrain.
On a recent trip to the Great Britain, we spent a couple of days visiting Land Rover’s facilities in Solihull and Gaydon with Land Rover media man Roger Crathorne at our side. You couldn’t ask for a better person to tell the Land Rover story, as Crathorne has worked for Land Rover for 45 years and is considered by many as "Mr Land Rover." In short, what Crathorne doesn’t know about Land Rover probably isn’t worth knowing.
Maurice Wilks, the technical director of Rover cars, conceived the first Land Rover in 1947. Wilks had purchased an army surplus Willys Jeep and was using it for recreation and light utility. At that time the Jeep was really the only vehicle of its kind, and Wilks thought a similar Rover-built vehicle aimed at the civilian market would be the solution to kickstart Rover’s postwar sales. A priority of Wilks was for the Land Rover to meet the British governments exports goals, because at this time steel was still in short supply and rationed so for Rover to get steel rations for Land Rover they had to export a number of the vehicles. The first Land Rover prototypes were essentially Jeeps using Rover engines and transmissions.
The first production Land Rover rolled off the production line in February of 1948. Its license plate HUE 166 led to its nickname, "Huey."
Fast forward 60 years and Land Rover has come along way from the Rover-powered Jeep it debuted in 1948. While Land Rover's line of Defenders are much more advanced than old Huey, the concept of utilitarian off-road vehicles is similar. Land Rover's modern lineup includes everything from the Spartan, work-based Defender all the way up to the luxurious Range Rover, encompassing off-road work, off-road luxury and every step in between. Land Rover has undergone many changes in ownership through its 60 year history, but many things about the company have remained constant; Land Rovers are still built in the same factory in Solihull as they were from the beginning.
On our first day with Land Rover, I traveled up from London to the outskirts of Birmingham to Land Rover's Solihull plant. Although the British traffic was a little manic, I was fortunate to be behind the wheel of a beautiful Range Rover press vehicle. Arriving at Solihull, I met up with Crathorne and our day started in the Land Rover Experience center where we watched a short movie documenting the history of Land Rover. Then we headed into the vast labyrinth of buildings where Land Rovers are manufactured.
The five station, 8,300-tonne crossbar Müller Weingarten transfer press produces the majority of Land Rover panels.
Our first stop was the press shop where raw sheet steel is transformed into contoured panels through an enormous Müller Weingarten multi-step press. The multi stage press uses up to six different dies, with each one performing a different function. The process is highly automated, with robots moving the panels from one die to the next until the panels are lifted off at the end and placed onto a conveyor belt. The steel press shop builds different panels for much of the Land Rover range and some panels for sister company Jaguar. Panels are built in batches as each set of dies are completely different.
Range Rover Sport and LR3 chassis are assembled on the same line in the body in white shop.
From there the newly pressed steel panels are transported to the “body in white” assembly building. This highly automated assembly line uses robots to weld the individual chassis members together to form the body. Then other panels like doors, bumpers, and hood are bolted onto the body. When the vehicle leaves the “body in white” building the majority of the exterior body is assembled and ready for paint.
Completed chassis are checked for accuracy on this measuring machine.
The paint shop was one of the only buildings we were unable to tour because of the nature of work performed inside. From the outside this multi level building was enormous and it is our understanding that the vehicles go through an automated cleaning and painting line that snakes through the building from top to bottom.
Sub-components of the vehicle are assembled in the Land Rover factory like the engine and transmission package. Here a Ford built diesel V8 is assembled to a ZF transmission prior to being bolted into the chassis. Some sub assemblies like the dash-board are actually manufactured by vendors on the Land Rover site at Solihull.
In the last building more components are bolted onto the vehicle. In this building the chassis is mated to the powertrain and the interior, wheels, bumpers etc are bolted in place. When the vehicles leave this building they are complete and ready to be driven.
A random sampling of completed vehicles are pulled off the production line by the independently ran emission testing facility. The emission test procedure is very complex and involved but necessary to ensure that the vehicles being produced meet the stringent emissions regulations around the world. Here a US specification Range Rover is being tested on a rolling dyno using a EPA administered test procedure.
The Land Rover Experience off-road track is located on the Solihull facility. Here the Range Rover ascends a steep grade with the factory buildings in the background.
Once completing our tour of Land Rovers production facility it was time to experience the off road capabilities of a Range Rover on the on site test track at the Land Rover Experience center. During our afternoon of off-road driving we took the Range Rover up and down incredibly steep hills, through deep water crossings and over other challenging obstacles. We were able to navigate and cross each obstacle with ease thanks to the Terrain Response system, that allows you to select one of five terrain settings via a rotary control on the center console. The Terrain Response then implements the most appropriate settings for the vehicles many advanced electronic controls and traction aids, including ride height, engine torque response, Hill Descent Control, electronic traction control and transmission settings. This system took much of the guess-work out of changing the vehicle setting and made the vehicle relatively easy to drive off road.
The author (left) with Land Rover’s Roger Crathorne (aka Mr Land Rover) on the Land Rover Experience track at Solihull.
It was a pleasure to see the inner workings of Land Rover and learn about how these incredible vehicles are built. The Land Rover Experience was also great fun and demonstrated the capabilities of the vehicles in a safe, controlled enviroment. The Land Rover Experience is great for those of us that don’t have an income that can support a Range Rover but still would like the experience of driving one. There are several centers in the United Kingdom and a few in the United States where anyone can visit and get behind the wheel of a Land Rover for the day with an experience coach/guide in the passenger seat.