Driven! Our favourites from the Dunsfold Land Rover Collection

The V8 Land Rover test mule, a record-breaking Range Rover Classic, the first ever Range Rover CSK and the famous Maestro van Freelander mule – all in a day's work!

‘Shy bairns get nout’, is something my grandmother taught me. For those unfamiliar with Irish twang, basically you don’t get anything if you don’t ask. So, with those words in mind, I made a bee-line for a collection of Land Rovers proudly sat outside the hangars adjacent to the AutoClassics office.

Phillip Bashall of the Dunsfold Land Rover Collection was on site, loading up the exhibits from Land Rover Legends onto sporadically-timed transporters headed for home. Having shared the task of judging the winners from Bicester Heritage’s first Landy event, he shook my hand upon approach and agreed to let me drive the remaining specimens.

Yet there was a catch; it couldn’t be for long. If I took one of the selection, it would need to be returned immediately upon sight of the next transporter. Time was tight, with a stint allowing four vehicles to be enjoyed, armed only with the camera phone. And Meryl Streep’s character in Sophie’s Choice thought she had it tough…

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Land Rover Series IIA V8 88in Test Mule

When approaching any 1960s Series Land Rover, certain things are expected. A symbolic heater for starters, alongside the stopping power of a paper bag and acceleration of a glacier. What you don’t assume is that V8 power will be lurking under the bonnet. Especially not a factory fitted unit capable of 0-60mph in under 17 seconds. You may guffaw, but an old Landys’ speed sprint can usually be measured on a sun dial. My bog-standard Series III 88” breaches 60mph after an exhausting 35 seconds…

Yet, that’s exactly what this 1967 Series IIA has to offer. The burble omitted from the exhaust sounds like a hysterical Brian Blessed lapping down large pints of ale, with added loudspeaker attachments. Peering through the split windscreen and over the curved-off wings, there is temptation to try a standing start. But that would be silly, as this thing needs to be treated with kid gloves – it's a complete one-off.

Powered by a prototype V8 Buick engine fitted by Land Rover engineers, this was one of three test-beds constructed for mileage testing with Rover’s Buick-adopted V8 prior to fitment in a certain ‘Velar’ project vehicle. Unlike the privately modified examples out there, this Series still retains the original crash gearbox but uses high-ratio differentials. Brakes are larger all-round while radial tyres offer high-speed safety. As if that’s not enough, Dunsfold have sympathetically restored it from the ground up.

As Phillip watches the Land Rover disappear around the nearest building and onto Bicester Heritage’s long tarmac straight, my urge to plant the accelerator returns. So I do, Brian Blessed morphing into a an out-and-out enraged dinosaur. The rumble is intoxicating. The acceleration flows with a remarkably smooth and direct posture, as does the temperature gauge. This thing gets hot rather quickly.

Backing off and working down through the gearbox for a wide, sweeping corner demonstrates that the trademark gaudy yet vague handling is present and correct, but with one large difference; there’s enough muscle to get you back to speed again very quickly. That’s also enough to get you into serious trouble should you underestimate the terrain.

As the transporter arrives to take the first batch of Dunsfold vehicles back home, rather reluctantly I turn back, but not before one more blast down the straight. Even though the classic gearbox offers little in the way of ease for fast yet commanding changes, the sheer charisma of the Series IIA V8 leaves all the day’s cares behind.

As a tonic for modern dejection, nothing comes close. Calling it ‘special’ is a bit like deeming Jesus Christ a mere ‘celebrity’, although Mr Christ may be miffed upon discovering that the Series IIA has taken his place for bedside prayer.

Range Rover 'Beaver Bullet'

By this point in time, the industry of Great Britain was ruled by history. The engineers at Land Rover bucked the trend, forming a new vehicle out of philosophy, flying in the face of everything the brand had been so far. They didn’t let what had already been established challenge their beliefs and boundaries, rather what they could achieve. The result? A diesel-powered luxury car with the off-road prowess of a steroid-fed Mountain Goat.

Yet, it didn’t start off very well. Chris Goffey took the keys to his Top Gear test vehicle and promptly ripped the drivetrain to shreds. Instead of being put through a rigorous inspection before the motoring journalist whisked it away, it slipped through the net; the resulting rough and sloppy mechanicals prompted a savage televisual beating. The managing director of Land Rover was livid. Sales appeared doomed.

However, not to be defeated by such press, the engineers hatched a plan. Although management gave no budget and explained any time spent would have to be their own, a team of volunteers counteracted the diesel Rangey's negative publicity by breaking not just one world record, but rather 27 of them. Screaming around test tracks they successfully cracked 100mph for 24 hours straight. This was a first for any diesel.

The record was soon forgotten though, and it wasn’t until the Dunsfold Land Rover Collection purchased one of two VM-powered diesel examples employed for the venture that interest spiked. Naturally, given the keys at Bicester, I was a tad more sympathetic than dear old Chris Goffey.

As soon as it fires, the high idle speed raising that oh-so retro revcounter past 2000rpm, you can feel the powerplant's pulsing vibrations through the chunky controls. The cabin is still the plush job expected from such a vehicle, but the added internal roll bar and lack of rear seats point to a darker motive.

Blipping the throttle rocks the foundations, and dipping the clutch and engaging first gear almost feels wrong, shuddering your ankle with the refinement of a cement mixer. Something feels off. It doesn’t feel like a Range Rover Classic, at least not any of the previous diesels I’ve driven. But there is good reason for that.

The damn thing pulls like a train. First gear is spent, quickly followed by second and third on a crest of torque, the vast bulk shifting back with each burst of sway. The steering feels overly heavy, which must have assisted in keeping the Range Rover planted at high speed, whereas the brakes are more responsive than any previous example under my control.

The exhaust note may have sounded cantankerous on tick-over, yet under pressure the rear end churns out a holler destined to raise the hairs on your neck. Considering the brick-like aerodynamics, the sheer grunt on offer from such a rudimentary unit, in light of tighter engines on the contemporary market, could silence even the harshest of sceptics.

It’s not long before Bicester Heritage runs out of tarmac, but the straight line speed has promptly demonstrated itself. This thing would eat my Overfinch-tuned diesel P38 for breakfast. It takes some effort to manoeuvre the concrete steering at low speed, but after some snorting we head back for base camp. Catching sight of that livery slicing through the reflected glass-fronted shop windows honed just how exceptional this Range Rover remains.

However, another Rangey is vying for attention…

Range Rover CSK No.1

To celebrate the 20th year of Range Rover production, Land Rover decided to pay direct homage to the brains behind the revolutionary vehicle’s design; Charles Spencer-King. Limited to a production run of only 200 examples using the two-door body, the CSK lays claim as the first ‘sports’ Range Rover of sorts. Lined with luxury, including bespoke leather and walnut trim, finished in Beluga Black, the distinctive model also introduced the 3.9-litre incarnation of the Rover V8 to proceedings, available with manual or automatic transmission.

On paper, this may sound a tad clichéd, and I wouldn’t blame you for thinking so. In today’s automotive world the forecourts are awash with SUVs offering lush interiors and enough poke under the bonnet to see off most iconic classic sports cars, but they are soulless. You dispose of them as you would an old fridge. The Range Rover CSK is entirely different, there’s enough soul here to revive even the worst of commutes.

Perhaps spoiled by the preceding two powerhouses, the acceleration feels almost muted in comparison to the upsurges presented by the IIA V8 and Beaver Bullet. Instead, everything is more relaxed. The sophistication brings in a sense of occasion that slaps the largest of grins onto your face. Playing with the gearbox yields an impressive amount of return, yet grace and nobility is spared.

Every aspect of the styling is inch perfect, too. From the front-mounted spotlamps to the intricate badge detailing. Snooping around the cabin, it’s here that I clocked the small plaque mounted atop the transmission tunnel and find out how remarkable this particular CSK really is. It’s chassis no.1!

At that, the second transporter arrives, cutting my time with CSK no.1 drastically short. If it wasn’t for the next vehicle the melancholy would have been overbearing. Yet, Phillip has one last surprise in store.

Keep scrolling for one more rarity from the Dunsfold Land Rover Collection!

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Freelander Maestro Testbed

To most, this would appear to be a Maestro van. It would also appear to be raised and ever-so slightly lengthened, but there is reason for that. The same reason that dictated why this Maestro could only be driven at night and by a select few, at that.

Resting under that square bodywork is Freelander running gear. The diesel unit so familiar to first-generation Freelander owners stares back at me upon lifting the bonnet, and the noise upon start up is very much recognisable. It’s within the cabin that things take a turn for the utilitarian. Mainly because there is no interior.

As soon as the battered door opens, slices of very sharp metal resembling a sill try to slash your ankles. There are door trims and a Maestro dashboard, but in terms of creature comforts there’s less consolation here than a sex talk with your grandparents. Not that the rattles, knocking noises or echoes of murmured grinding diminish the test vehicle’s charm and heritage.

Due to the complex nature of the Maestro (a phrase never said before), Phillip remained at the controls, but the passenger experience was unlike any other. This was a vehicle seen on documentaries and in print, but here I was sitting in the well-known prototype hooning around the tree-lined avenues of Bicester Heritage. In what was largely akin to a garden-shed on wheels, the excitement was unrelenting.

Watching the test mule being loaded onto the final transporter of the day, the unscheduled yet unparalleled morning of excellence had come to a close. Now all I had to do was explain to the editor where I had been for the previous 90 minutes…

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