Buying Guide: P38 Range Rover

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Range_Rover_P38_buying_guide The second-generation Range Rover : credit: © JLR
The second-generation Range Rover was an ambitious step towards sophisticated technology and ultimate luxury. The most misunderstood Land Rover is still around – and it’s a bargain

AT A GLANCE...
Versatility:  4 out of 5
Economy: 3 out of 5
Depreciation: 5 out of 5  
On-road: 
5 out of 5
Off-road: 4 out of 5
Towing:  5 out of 5
Ease of servicing: 3 out of 5

Not only misunderstood, but currently vastly underrated. P38 was launched in September 1994 with a tall order: to replace Range Rover Classic, the world’s best combined road and off-road vehicle, and to improve every aspect of it while taking the brand further upmarket to compete with the world’s top-end luxury cars. It totally succeeded. Its classless styling looked aesthetically perfect on wild moorland or the boulevards of Monaco, and its mechanical integrity took mountain tracks and autobahns in its stride.

Not everyone liked it though. Land Rover’s then owners, BMW, expressed concerns over quality of build and materials, an opinion that would lead to the car’s relatively short production run and replacement by the heavily BMW-influenced L322 Range Rover. There was trouble at home, too, where some critics sulked over the conservative styling that lacked the visual flair of its predecessor. But they were up the wrong track, as evidenced by real buyers who clamoured to purchase the latest and best versions of P38. Bespoke specifications, Autobiography models and limited production Vogues sold almost as works of art.

Style and substance

Land Rover takes credit for that styling. Five prospective designs were created, involving well-known styling houses such as Pininfarina, Bertone and the British design team Heffernan-Greenly. Land Rover’s own take on the theme and Bertone’s design were put to prospective buyers in customer clinics with the result that Land Rover’s own design went ahead as the most representative development of the original Range Rover theme: prestigiously modern, yet demonstrating the robustness of a Land Rover product. The design continued the iconic castellated clamshell bonnet, floating roofline and low waistline which helped make it immediately identifiable as a Range Rover. It was a handsome vehicle, if not visually exciting.

Under the skin, the car was mechanically similar to the Classic, though with an 18 per cent stiffer chassis giving improvements in handling and crash impact resistance together with side impact bars in the door shells. The body shell sat on improved mountings aimed at reducing noise, vibration and harshness (NVH), which it did admirably. Problems with panel fit on the earlier model were eliminated by using a stiffer monocoque steel body structure carrying unstressed aluminium front wings, door skins and lower tailgate.

Luxurious and capable

Traditional beam axles and suspension were cleverly redesigned to impart ride and handling characteristics far ahead of the old Classic, allowing P38 to maximise the performance of new petrol engines: the 4.0-litre Rover V8 (a development of the earlier 3.9) and a 4.6-litre (longer stroke) Rover V8. Diesel power came from BMW whose 2.5-litre straight six turbo mill (electronically tweaked by Land Rover to provide a flat torque curve) provided six-cylinder smoothness for long-haul travel.

Transmission options included the existing R380 five-speed manual and a four-speed ZF auto box, both driving through a Borg Warner chain driven transfer box with electric ratio change and a viscous coupling providing centre diff lock effect.

Quaint CARiN sat nav nestling in the woodwork is a nice period touch, though well outdated now of course. Optional from 1977

The most significant technical change was the introduction of a Body electrical (also known as electronic) Control Module (BeCM) which interfaced with multiple electronic and electrical systems throughout the vehicle and facilitated communication between them. Advanced and pioneering, the BeCM system would become responsible for much of P38’s reputation for unreliability and expensive repairs, mainly because garages outside of the Land Rover dealerships didn’t fully understand the implications of the diagnostic techniques, and the fact that a fault on one system could affect an apparently unrelated system elsewhere in the vehicle. But the system itself wasn’t without its inherent problems. For instance, the BeCM consumed so much power that it was designed to go into sleep mode when the car was switched off, yet it could be awoken unintentionally by rogue radio interference from a range of external sources, causing flattened batteries and owners not being able to unlock their cars. Nowadays, the electronic systems are fully understood by independent specialists and most smaller garages know how far they can go with P38. BeCMs can be tested, fixed or rebuilt and, of course, other original build and quality issues are long since eliminated.

P38 was continually upgraded during its production run, mainly aimed at taking the car further upmarket by introducing special editions and bespoke options by way of cosmetics and interior accessories. The V8's original Lucas GEMS engine management was later replaced by the Bosch Motronic system (Thor engines), while improved engine mountings and a structural sump further reduced vibration and noise for the occupants.

DID YOU KNOW? Range Rover’s hallmark castellated bonnet corners are not just for appearance. They originally functioned as a level area where wing mirrors could be mounted.

P38 today is undoubtedly a classic. Prices are nudging up from the bottom, still unnecessarily weighted down by past reputation for unreliability and expense. But disregarding those ironed-out problems, this is an expensive vehicle that is relatively costly to run – of course it is, it was the world’s top-end luxury cruiser and off-roader, family vehicle, tow truck, load lugger. And it achieved all that with competence and sophistication. A well-kept or restored example does all of this for a tiny fraction of the cost of buying and running a modern equivalent.

P38 is historic as the vehicle that propelled Land Rover to its reputation for building prestigious and competent vehicles, and for being Land Rover’s first brave foray into the now established era of multiple electronic vehicle control.

Today, too many P38s are too cheap because they’ve been neglected, and these cars tarnish the image. To look into the sales brochures from the final years of production shows the superb machine that P38 was in its day, and still can be.

 

What to look for...

A well maintained P38 is a sound machine that, despite its unwarranted reputation, isn’t going to give you a wallet-crunching nightmare of failures. Buying a bad one that’s been abused, run on a budget and poorly serviced is likely to cost big money to bring up to reliable standards. P38 was never designed to be a cheap runabout, so a good service history is to be expected, especially given that routine servicing is not expensive and, ideally, that service history should be with a main dealer and/or a good independent specialist. If buying from a dealer, a good warranty gives peace of mind, but many warranties are not worth the paper they’re written on, so scrutinise it before agreeing a deal.

• All engines are reliable if driven and serviced correctly. But avoid any V8 that has signs of coolant loss and be wary of exhaust smoke from diesels.

• Chassis and body panels last well, but watch for lacquer peeling from the paintwork, and always be vigilant for rust, though it’s not normally an issue.

• The manual gearbox should change smoothly, noting that it stays in gear during engine overrun. Test the autoboxes in Sport and Manual modes – they should change up and down fairly seamlessly, and up changes need to be quick without over revving.

• Bearing in mind that existing or badly-repaired electrical faults could prove expensive to diagnose and repair in the future, it’s important to check that every electrical item works as it should, and this includes the air suspension and the auto gearbox and transfer box controls. The Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning (HeVAC) needs to be working correctly because some repairs can involve expensive removal of the facia.

V8s up to 1999 model year had Sagem-Lucas GEMS engine management, identifiable by rectangular plenum chamber (top centre).

Perfectly designed and blended facia and centre console was one of Land Rover’s most aesthetic and ergonomic – a class act

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Interior load space was increased by 50 per cent over the Range Rover Classic, making P38 a voluminous family car

Owning and Driving

This luxury express drives with all the characteristic hallmarks of a Land Rover product. I guess it was the combination of beam axles, the high seating position, the low glass line, and a stability that gave the car a confident stance whether fast cruising, negotiating town centres or clambering overland. It’s an easy truck to drive in any situation and the expanse of glass gives superb all-round visibility – no need for reversing cameras here. It’s a great tow car, load lugger and can be a practical workhorse.

The improved air suspension enhances comfort, depletes road noise, ensures correct stance accounting for passengers and load, and is only troublesome if neglected or incorrectly maintained.

Air suspension combined with improved axle articulation and four-wheel electronic traction control means P38 is potentially more competent off road than any other contemporary Land Rover, though extended front and rear end bodywork inevitably compromise approach and departure angles. All models have a recommended wading depth of 500 mm.

V8s like a drink: be prepared for between 12 mpg urban and 25 mpg extra-urban from the 4.0, with the 4.6 being only around 1 mpg thirstier. Diesels can manage up to 32 mpg on a good run (2 mpg less for autos), but they’re notably unhurried, taking around 17 seconds to reach 60 mph, as opposed to the later 4.6’s 10 seconds.

DID YOU KNOW? P38’s use of the BMW diesel engine was not influenced by BMW’s ownership of Land Rover. The six-cylinder oil burner was planned to go in well before the German takeover.

Buying and values

P38s are not expensive to buy, though prices are creeping up for exceptional examples. It’s wise to buy the best you can afford (though best is not necessarily the most expensive). There is cash to be saved by buying at the cheap end of the market with the intention of restoring and fixing, but it’s necessary to research the potential costs of doing this before buying.

Asking prices are currently around a maximum of £10,000 (including Japanese imports) for a well-preserved and maintained example which should be a beautiful vehicle. But expect to pay up to 50 per cent more for exceptional specials including Westminster and Autobiography versions, limited edition Vogues, 50th Anniversary models, rare Holland and Holland versions and specials from Overfinch who, incidentally, produced a seven-seat conversion.

Little beats the P38 on current value

At the opposite end of the market, values fall to around a minimum of £2000 for a running vehicle that can be put into order, with plenty of realistic buys between those extremes.

After spending years in the doldrums, P38 prices for good examples are now slowly rising, while the bad motors are being broken for spares. It has to be remembered that P38s reach a new retail price of almost £60,000, plus optional kit, so this machine cannot be expected to be cheap to run or restore. But, for the money, there’s currently little on the market to beat it on value.

DID YOU KNOW? Two prototype 5.4-litre V12-engined P38s were built, intended to be launched as a £100,000 production version in 1999. The idea came from Land Rover’s owners, BMW, and the engine would have been a derivative of that used in the BMW 7 Series flagship. Some front-end re-styling was needed which would have set the monster visually apart from the V8 versions. Although the project was axed, it illustrates the aspirations for P38’s place in the supercar bracket.

 

Servicing and modifications

Basic servicing is a DIY proposition, though major service work is best entrusted to a specialist, but costs are not excessive given the type of car. For the V8 engines, a 6000 mile oil and filter change is necessary to ensure a long life and efficient running. Camshaft timing on both petrol and diesel engines is chain driven, so there are no cam belt concerns. Parts are easily available including for all engine options. In general, service parts and routine consumable items are surprisingly inexpensive from aftermarket supplies, and that helps to make an already good example affordable to maintain.

There’s a good range of accessories available, too, including underbody protection, roof racks, winches and winch bumpers, raised air intakes, sill protectors and tuning mods such as remapping and the ACR 4.8-litre conversions. Coil spring conversion kits were a common way of eliminating air suspension gremlins, though originality is gaining importance and a well-maintained air system should be reliable.

For rebuilds and restoration, rear chassis sections, headlining repairs, new interior woodwork and leather repairs are available, as are specialist repairers for complex items such as the BeCM. In short, the P38 is as serviceable and almost as modifiable as any other beam-axled Land Rover.

 

Security

P38 has a sophisticated security system and, while it was at one time plagued with faults relating to the BeCM plus outside radio wave interference, these issues have now been rectified, or at least the independent expertise exists to identify and eliminate them.

In recent years the model hasn’t been a target for thieves, mainly due to the rock-bottom values. Even if prices appreciate, mint examples and special editions are not likely to be stolen for their parts and, as classic status develops, those cars will become more known on the enthusiast circuit, making them harder to dispose of. Nevertheless, you can’t have too many thief deterrents, and security accessories and improved systems are readily available.

 

STATISTICS
• Length: 4713 mm
• Width: 2228 mm
• Height: 1817 mm
• Weight: 2220 kg
• Loadspace: 1640 litres
• Wheelbase: 2745 mm

TOWING
• Max gross vehicle weight: 2780 kg 
• Max trailer towing weight on road: 750 kg (unbraked); 3500 kg (over-run brakes)

ENGINES
• 4.0-litre petrol V8 (GEMS Lucas):power 190 bhp; torque 236 lb-ft
• 4.6-litre petrol V8 (GEMS Lucas):power 225 bhp; torque 280 lb-ft
• 4.0-litre petrol V8 (Bosch Motronic): power 188 bhp; torque 250 lb-ft
• 4.6-litre petrol V8 (Bosch Motronic): power 215 bhp; torque 295 lb-ft
• 2.5-litre diesel in-line six BMW M51: power 136 bhp; torque 199 lb-ft

 

See more of our great Land Rover Buying Guides here.