Ah, the Range Rover P38, the car that never was what it should have been. And it should have been the most amazing, majestic, multi-talented 4WD luxury vehicle in the history of the world. It sort-of was, but Land Rover managed to spoil it all with countless niggly faults that took the sheen off what in many ways was an absolutely breathtaking car to drive. In Solihull, defeat was well and truly snatched from the jaws of victory!
To drive, it feels very much like a Range Rover Classic on steroids, with all the quirks ironed out. One example is the seam weld about the windscreen on the Classic, which doesn’t do much for its wind noise about 70MPH, or indeed its fuel economy which falls off a cliff (25MPG at a steady 70MPH, 15 at a steady 75)! The P38 loses this, and becomes a quieter and more refined, and indeed economical cruiser. Being based on the long wheelbase Classic chassis, it has loads more legroom and is ideal for five large people and their luggage; it’s a great pick-you-up-at-the-airport car.
The P38 has a lovely dashboard, breathtakingly comfortable seats (Rover Cars sticking two fingers up to Jaguar and Rolls Royce, methinks), and drives beautifully; the separate ladder chassis invests it with a solidity that I’ve never felt in any monocoque car; you don’t drive over potholes, you smash the hell of them and don’t notice while you’re doing it. For a massive, heavy car (despite the use of an aluminium body, it is still stupidly heavy), it’s surprisingly nimble and this is further aided by a magnificently commanding ‘Royal Box’ like driving position. In so many ways, the P38 is transplendent.
But, and there’s a big but, it hailed from the days when Land Rover was introducing serious networked electronics to its cars. And as any Land Rover owner knows, electrics aren’t their strong point, let alone electronics. For cars that spend so much time wading through deep water, they’re surprisingly susceptible to bad earths, dry solder joints and component failure; they’re also venerable to sunroof and door window leaks, but I digress! The point is, nineteen nineties P38 Range Rovers were full of glitches, mobile test beds for the brilliant L322 that followed, and sadly they will forever be viewed as such.
My P38 was taken off the road because the relay controlling the fuel filler cap release failed; the relay was cheap but getting it coded into the body control module wasn’t, and the thing couldn’t be filled up with petrol unless I used the manual emergency release, which wouldn’t close the filler cap. The result was having to gaffer-tape the flap closed, hardly befitting of a car of this price and status in life! This was just one small example; my P38 was a breeding ground of niggles which makes a Lotus look like a Toyota Corolla in the reliability stakes. So many came along, the worst being the dreaded air suspension…
This was great in theory, giving widely variable ride height; the car even dropped by 2cm at over 55MPH to give more secure handling at speed, while I drove up some crazily steep banks with just a press of a button, as the Range Rover raised itself up seemingly on stilts. Sadly though in practice it wasn’t so clever, as sometimes one corner of the car would droop and only pull itself up at the last minute. It also gave a poorer ride than on dampers and coil springs; so it wasn’t as perfect as the company had people believe.
I could write for hours on P38 woes; suffice to say it was a gorgeous car that simply wasn’t finished when it was launched. Land Rover left the customers to do the (un)reliability testing, and this wasn’t wise considering the Jaguar XJ6 price and market aspirations. A great p38 is a lovely thing to drive, but not easy to find or cheap to run. My manual 4.0 V8 (very rare in that spec) did between 12MPG and 22MPG, but the 4.6 V8 auto was sometimes half that, which is what I used to tell myself as I stood at the petrol pump for all those lonely hours! Off road it was amazing, and I loved the way you could fill it with incredibly heavy things (people and/or their things) and the car would barely notice it. I do miss this car, but I was probably right to sell it!