Freelander: the next big thing?
Now is the time to search out a really early Freelander – while they’re still out there to find and cheap to buy
Do you remember when three-door Range Rovers were cheap as chips? It wasn’t that long ago. They used to be plentiful; then they just seemed to vanish – and now everyone wants one. The very first Range Rovers now fetch big money; we’re starting to see interest pick up in early Discoverys, too, with the 1989 press launch “G-WACs” keenly sought after.
But, until the last year or so, early Freelanders have been completely ignored. And that means that, right now, you have the chance to get in on the beginning of The Next Big Thing. Yes, really. Freelanders are up and coming. But don’t just take my word for it.
Philip Bashall of the Dunsfold Collection is a big fan of the Freelander, and has snapped up a handful of early examples for the Collection in the last few months. “These vehicles are the collectables of the future and are worth squirreling away,” he wrote in the January issue of LRM.
He’s become such a fan that he’s now using an early five-door Freelander as his daily driver. “But it’s not a proper Land Rover!” the diehards will cry, as they have done ever since the Freelander was launched in 1997. Rubbish: it’s very much a Land Rover, just a different kind. It’s a Land Rover that you don’t have to be a masochist to own. It’s comfortable, reliable (well, mostly), and comparatively cheap to run.
And, yes, it is surprisingly capable off-road for anything less than full-on mud plugging. I speak from personal experience, having leased a 2-litre diesel Freelander for three years when they were new, as a replacement for the G-WAC Discovery that I was then running as my everyday vehicle.
The Freelander didn’t miss a beat in 70,000 miles, and I was hugely impressed by the effectiveness of the electronic traction control. ETC and the Freelander’s comparatively light weight actually made it better than the Discovery on snow and ice, despite it not being a “proper” Land Rover. It should also be remembered that the Freelander was an incredible success story. It pioneered the lifestyle SUV and it soon became the biggest seller of its type in Europe. There are still thousands and thousands of them on our roads. But for how much longer?
Just as with three-door Discoverys, the attrition rate for early Freelanders is frightening right now. They are at the very bottom of their depreciation curve, which means that when faults develop it’s usually not cost-effective for the average owner to mend them. The result is that a lot of savable vehicles are being sent to the scrapyard. A handful of enthusiasts are fighting back, however, and attempting to rescue the very earliest Freelanders.
Their unofficial leader is Julian Lamb, who founded the CVC Register for P38A Range Rovers back in autumn 2009 and is now attempting to rehabilitate the Freelander in much the same way. “I’m seeing exactly the same pattern now as I did with P38As a few years ago,” he says. “There’s a sudden flurry of activity with vehicles coming out of the woodwork, and then it settles down again. I think we may actually have discovered most of the R-BAC Freelanders that are left by now; there are probably fewer survivors than there are CVC Range Rovers.”
The term “R-BAC” refers to the batch of registrations that Land Rover allocated to a large number of pre-production Freelanders, including those used on the press launch in Spain. Land Rover also used some “R-BDU” and “R-CDU” registrations, but it was the R-BACs that most frequently turned up in the media when the Freelander was announced.
Several hundred pre-pros were built – the first official production vehicle, now in the Heritage Museum at Gaydon, is chassis 677 – but registration numbers don’t correspond neatly with chassis numbers. My own pre-pro Freelander, for example (recently gone to the Dunsfold Collection) was R617 BAC, chassis number 377, but R608 has chassis number 327.
In the last 12 months, internet sites such as eBay, Gumtree or Autotrader have proved a fruitful source of early Freelanders: most of the half-dozen vehicles pictured here were sourced this way and for ridiculously low prices. Because hardly anyone recognises their significance, values really are at rock-bottom – although that situation is about to change, reckons Julian.
“We saw the same thing happen with CVC Range Rovers, which have since shot up in price.” So if you fancy a Freelander, what do you look out for? There were two body styles – three-door and five-door – and two engine choices, 1.8-litre K-series petrol or 2-litre L-series diesel. You could perm any of those combinations, and they all have pros and cons. If you want a family vehicle, the five-door is far more practical.
Getting into the back seats of a three-door is not easy, and passengers sitting there don’t have such a good view out. One way to recognise a very early five-door is by the door tops, which were finished in black – until quality control problems caused them to revert to body colour. Black door tops don’t necessarily indicate a pre-production vehicle but they’re a dead giveaway that it’s from the first 1500 or so to have been built.
Most surviving early Freelanders seem to be five-doors, reflecting their general usability, but the three-door is rather more stylish. Although available as a soft-back with a transparent plastic rear window, nearly all were sold with the optional hardtops. These are, in theory, removable but they are heavy and it’s a two-person job – plus, of course, you need somewhere to store the hardtop once you’ve taken it off. If we have a good summer, however, it can be worth doing.
The targa-roof design gives you the feeling of being in a proper convertible yet the raked-back rear side window pillars keep the cabin free of any buffeting. The three-door also came with funkier trim options than the five-door, in line with its intended greater appeal as a “lifestyle” vehicle rather than a practical one.
The soft trim in most five-doors was grey cloth, but you could choose a rather garish green Jungle fabric in the three-door; when paired with the infamous turquoise (actually called Teal Blue) steering wheel and associated plastics, it created a vivid interior that’s very much of its time, and which therefore may have greater collector appeal in the future.
It’s worth looking out for an original radio-cassette, too. With its stone-coloured facia and chunky buttons, it was an integral part of the styling, and it looks so much better (and is so much easier to use) than the typical aftermarket unit that has pin-sized channel selectors and lairy graphic light-shows.
Petrol or turbodiesel? Both are good, but the diesel is better in terms of longevity as well as economy. It’s a proper Rover engine (the BMW-designed Td4 didn’t appear until 2001), first used in the 620 saloon and tweaked for its Freelander application. It has much more torque than the petrol engine (155lb-ft @ 2000rpm compared with 122lb-ft @ 2750rpm) and, well, it just seems more Land Rover-like in character.
James Taylor, in his book The Land Rover Freelander – Buying, Enjoying, Maintaining, Modifying, admits that when he first drove a Freelander on the 1997 press launch he was slightly disappointed by how car-like the vehicle seemed. If you feel that way, the turbodiesel is definitely the engine for you, and the extra torque makes it better suited to towing. Once up to speed, a lot of the diesel clatter is left behind, so the faster you go, the more refined the vehicle becomes.
The 1.8-litre K-series petrol engine is in a different league when it comes to sweetness, however. It was introduced in the MGF sports car (styled, like the Freelander, by Gerry McGovern) and it’s a free-revving little thing that punts the Land Rover product along very satisfactorily. But – and it’s a big but – the K-series has a well-recorded history of head gasket failure.
Land Rover introduced a modified multi-layer gasket soon after the Freelander was launched, but you’ll still see any number of ageing Freelanders for sale as breakers because the engine has been cooked. Petrol or diesel, they’re mated to a five-speed manual transmission.
Most Freelanders were fitted with the optional Electronic Traction Control and Hill Descent Control, which uses the ABS to prevent individual wheels spinning in the former case, and to gently pulse-brake the wheels and keep vehicle speed below 5.6mph in the latter. Both systems were game-changers in the 1990s and have been widely copied since. The Freelander does have one big Achilles heel.
The permanent four-wheel drive is biased towards front-wheel drive in order to promote a degree of understeer. To do this, the front wheels are geared slightly lower than the rears, using a form of transfer box known as an Intermediate Reduction Drive (IRD) bolted to the engine.
Short propshafts send drive back to the rear wheels, with a Viscous Control Unit (VCU) between them. The VCU allows a degree of wheel slip, but locks solid when the difference becomes too great for the viscous fluid to cope with – effectively becoming like a locked differential.
All very well when the vehicle is still young, but after as little as 70,000 miles the VCU can fail, putting strain on the rear diff and the front IRD. The first syptom of this is increased reluctance to negotiate tight corners; the second is clonks from the drivetrain; the third is a large bill for repair.
The phrase beloved of so many classified ads, “Rear propshaft removed for better economy”, invariably means, “Rear propshaft removed because the VCU has seized and I can’t be bothered or can’t afford to have it changed”. Buyer beware. So no, these vehicles aren’t perfect. Far from it. But if you want a piece of Land Rover history to use and enjoy on a daily basis, you can’t get better value than an early Freelander.
THANKS TO Julian Lamb and the CVC Register, www.cvcregister.co.uk; to the owners featured; to Lee Haines and Richard Hopkins for helping out with driving duties; and to the Fleur de Lys pub at Lowsonford, Warwickshire, for the photo location.
“I started with a 1962 Series II diesel, which was just awful – it burned as much oil as fuel!’ says Julian of his Land Rover obsession. ‘But then I bought a 1980 Range Rover, which was lovely, and it all developed from there. At one point I had a Velar, which I sold for £3000 back in the 1990s…
The CVC Register came about because I was looking for another project, and by the late 2000s Velars were prohibitively expensive, so I started wondering about press launch P38As. There was virtually no information out there so I set up the CVC Register and our members now have 30-40 press launch and pre-production P38As between them.” The CVC Register has since been expanded to cover all Land Rovers with a factory connection, including Freelanders, and Julian owns R202, R467 and R513 BAC.
“I’d always wanted a G-WAC Discovery, and I was reading up about them on the CVC Register website when I saw something about the R-BAC Freelanders, and how none of them had been saved,” explains Paul. “This was about 18 months ago. Straightaway I did a search on eBay – and R210 BAC popped up!
My grandfather and I went halves on it, but we didn’t have to spend much because we were the only bidders…” R210 appears in a late-90s Men And Motors TV sequence, comparing the drivetrains of the Freelander and P38A. It currently wears a hardtop but Paul has found a period photo of it showing that it originally had a soft-top, and he’d like to find one in time for the Freelander’s 20th anniversary next year. “The engine needs a bit of work but it drives fine and I’m using it everyday at the moment.”
The day of our photoshoot was also the day that Colin took delivery of R214 BAC, a petrol three-door, having bought it from fellow enthusiast Lee Haines a few weeks earlier. Like many R-BAC owners, he got into Freelander ownership through the CVC Register, and he has owned Range Rover M605 CVC for almost three years.
He also took his Freelander cue from Julian Lamb: “It was me who first spotted R202 BAC on eBay and alerted Julian to it,” says Colin. “Then, when I saw on Facebook that Lee had decided to sell R214, I bought it from him. It was featured in Autocar in January 1998 and Top Gear in February 1998. All I’ve done so far is install an original radio-cassette but I do need to change the front grille, which is from a later model; after that, I’ll keep it mainly for shows.”
“I bought R608 BAC in January,” says Graham, from Dundee. “It was thanks to Julian: he identified the CVC-registered P38As as future classics and I agreed with him and bought one, and the same has happened with the Freelander. R608 turned up through a Facebook group; Julian told me ‘It has to be saved, so if you don’t buy it, I will!’ It’s a five-door diesel and everything works; I’ve already taken it on a family holiday to Aviemore and it performed brilliantly in the snow.
At the moment I don’t know anything of its early history – the chap I bought it from wasn’t an enthusiast; he just happened to see the Facebook group.” Graham also owns a very significant pre-production P38A, which was originally registered LR1 and used for publicity work, including an appearance on Top Gear.