The original idea was to create a more car-like replacement for the long-running Defender but, perhaps revealing an early grasp of environmental challenges, a lightweight and more C02-efficient vehicle was chosen instead. The clever part was making sure that it retained all the attributes (especially off-road ability) of a traditional Land Rover, yet at a price that would capture a whole new audience.
And while the market had yet to catch on to the compact sport-utility vehicle (SUV), there were already rumblings from Japan about a new model from Toyota called the RAV4 that fulfilled a similar role.
To meet the basics of the brief, Elsy and his team had to ditch some long-held Land Rover staples. Out went the old-fashioned separate ladder chassis, replaced by a car-like monocoque body. The car’s suspension was all-independent, meaning a reduction in extreme articulation if you were off-roading in the Andes, but more suitable as a compromise for owners who would rarely venture off the Tarmac. And lastly, a more space-efficient transverse engine installation, to keep overall dimensions compact.
When the first prototype was built (known as Cyclone, “…because it went down a storm with management”, quips Elsy), British Aerospace, then owner of the Rover Group, which included Land Rover, gave its full support to the project. However, it baulked at its £450 million budget, and in 1993 tasked Elsy with finding a partner to share costs.
Honda was approached, as were Magna Steyr and Karmann, before the contract went to Finnish company Valmet, which was to produce all three-door cars. But the deal was rapidly ditched when, in February 1994, BMW bought the Rover Group. “BMW was so impressed and declared the project a ‘no-brainer’,” says Elsy. “They also saw it as a great way to show its rapid influence on Land Rover. So, far from being a brutal takeover, the buy-out was a dream ticket, with BMW driving a better design, as well as superior levels of fit, finish and refinement.”
It wasn’t until later in 1994 that BMW took on full responsibility for the programme and development intensified. To test the car’s new all-wheel-drive system, 22 prototype “mules” were built in 1995-96, clothed with Austin Maestro van bodies. Dubbed the “Mad Max” series, due to their implausible turn of speed, not only did they prove various systems’ durability, but also shattered any misconceptions among Land Rover’s old guard that the new car packed anything less than a punch when it came to strenuous off-road use.
And the key to the exceptional off-road ability of the prototypes (and later production Freelanders) was a clever adaptation of its existing four-wheel anti-lock braking system (ABS), which reached production as Hill Descent Control. The electronic traction control applied a braking force to any wheel losing traction, while diverting torque to the opposite side. Combined with a torque transfer system that worked side-to-side and front-to-rear, it allowed the Freelander to lead its rivals off-road. “And the high jinks that we were getting up to proved its off-road capability way beyond what a typical customer would put it through,” says Elsy.
In September 1997, the Freelander was finally unveiled to the public. Designed by a team led by Gerry McGovern (a company stalwart, who is now Jaguar Land Rover’s chief creative officer), the Freelander immediately took aim at the Toyota RAV4 and Honda CR-V market, while trading heavily on its Land Rover roots. Compact, but space-efficient (it was almost as roomy as the original Range Rover) with an airy, modern and practical interior, it ticked all the right lifestyle boxes – without compromising its four-wheel drive capability and heritage.
Two body styles were available from launch, both based on the same basic platform. The entry-level model had two doors and a tailgate, with the choice of either a softback rear (essentially a canvas tilt) or a hardback, estate car-like fitting. The five-door Station Wagon completed the range, which, with the Freelander’s engine choices (a 1.8-litre petrol with 118bhp and a 2.0-litre direct-injection diesel producing 96bhp), provided 12 derivatives in all.