Rover or Land Rover? That is the question, says Sue Baker
Among the more intriguing vehicles lined up for us to sample at the Eastnor anniversary was a slightly battered-looking Austin Maestro van. Or at least, that was what it appeared to be. From behind the wheel, though, the driving dynamics felt oddly familiar and discernibly more modern, which indeed they are. For this was the mule vehicle that disguised the development of the Freelander, Land Rover’s best selling vehicle. Hidden under a Maestro van bodyshell, engineers could drive the embryonic Freelander unobtrusively around the Midlands and down to Eastnor with its true identity hidden from view.
The was project CB40 – so called after one of Land Rover’s factory units, Canley Building number 40.”
This was project CB40 – so called after one of Land Rover’s factory units, Canley Building number 40. Mike Gallery was the programme engineer back then, and he accompanied the car on its anniversary outing. It was intriguing to learn that the Freelander was originally mooted to be badged a Rover product. Guided by Mike, we drove the Maestro-Freelander to a steep grassy field not far from the castle – the same field where the car’s development trials were carried out 18 years ago.
“It was thanks to the innovation of electronic Hill Descent Control (HDC) that it became a Land Rover instead,” Mike recalled. “Roger Crathorne and I did a lot of work in this field, driving up and down the slopes. Roger decided that the CB40 had fantastic off-road ability, but it lacked off-road security, because the lack of low-range gearing made descending steep, slippery slopes problematic. He said that what it needed was some kind of hill retardation system.”
That decision led directly to the development of the HDC system, devised as a by-product of electronic anti-lock braking. They agreed that if the prototype thus equipped proved capable of tackling wet grass descents, it could be badged a Land Rover. If not, it couldn’t. It could, so it was.
So that was how project CB40 became the Freelander wearing Land Rover badges, and Hill Descent Control – conceived on grassy fields at Eastnor – became a standard feature across Land Rover models from the late 1990s onwards.