Marvels of the Middle East

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Desert dual: Range Rover Classic remains popular in the UAE : credit: © Nick Dimbleby
Half a century after the first Range Rovers were imported to the Middle East, the original classic Range Rover is as popular as ever. Nick Dimbleby visits One Stop Workshop in the United Arab Emirates – home to a thriving Range Rover restoration and conversion business – to find out why

Looking back at the 52-year history of the Range Rover, there is one global market that has stood out from all the others. Its customers are discerning individuals who like to be different. They know what they like and many of them have the means to purchase it. Wealth and luxury are things to be proud of, and back in the 1970s, when the region had very few paved roads, Range Rover customers were quick to see the benefits of a vehicle that was as capable as a Land Rover, but faster and more comfortable. With all that in mind, you might say that the original Range Rover was a vehicle tailor-made for the Middle East.

Fast forward half a century and the latest Range Rover is still very much a vehicle for today’s Middle East. Times have changed, of course, and so has the Range Rover: today’s version is undoubtedly more luxurious, comfortable and capable than the original, but it’s still a Range Rover. As a result, sales of the new vehicle are off the charts, but even so, there’s still a strong passion for the original vehicle that started it all.

“Many of our customers are the sons or grandsons of the founders of the United Arab Emirates,” says Nasser Saeed Lootah, founder of the One Stop Workshop – a division of the SS Lootah construction, banking and real estate dynasty. “Many of them grew up driving or riding in early Range Rovers, so it is only natural that they should want to own their own now that they have made their own way in life. The original Range Rover is part of our history. It has unmatched prestige, with many royal connections both at home and abroad.

Nasser Saeed Lootah is the director behind One Stop Workshop. The white soft-dash Range Rover is the workshop’s test and development vehicle

“My late father was a pearl trader when he was young, but after this practice started to decline in the mid-1930s, in 1956 he founded a construction business,” Mr Nasser continues. “At the time, oil was being discovered and the whole area was expanding rapidly. The main vehicles being used in the desert were Land Rover Series Is and Dodge Power wagons, and both have a place in our national psyche.”

The Lootah family became well-known for their entrepreneurial spirit and also for their innovation. “We were the first company to put a crane boom on our caterpillar wheel loader back in the ’70s, and we quickly expanded to set up workshops that could look after all our equipment. We have repair and manufacturing workshops for marine, construction and heavy industry, and we are always looking for new opportunities. My late father always said that ‘if you don’t innovate, you don’t grow’. Because of this we do not copy anyone.”

New door trim is fabricated in Ghaf wood, along with in-house manufactured aluminium door handles

The vehicle modification and restoration workshop started almost organically, when some of the skilled metalworkers and engineers were asked to work on vehicles that belonged to family and friends. The workshop’s reputation spread, demand grew from other customers and nowadays One Stop Workshop makes up a small part of the Lootah construction business, sharing space with the company’s wood and metalwork division: a department more used to fashioning metalwork and wood for use in the company’s building projects rather than vehicle rebuilds. However, having such talent on the doorstep is a useful bonus for the thriving business.

“Our family business has always been about that: families. We want to find talent and encourage them to stay with us for a lifetime. At our peak, SS Lootah companies supported over 9000 families, and we’re all about having long-standing employees.” The head of the maintenance department, Mustafa Yahya Shafiq, is one such example. Mustafa joined Lootah Construction in 2007 after a long career as an aircraft engineer in the Iraqi Air Force, but after being asked to work on some of the Lootah family’s vehicle projects, he suggested setting up a specialist division to build and restore Range Rovers and other classic vehicles. The One Stop Workshop was born, and Mustafa has a job that will last him a lifetime.

Mustafa is a Land Rover enthusiast through and through, and thanks to his previous career in aeronautical engineering, he combines a deep knowledge of how things work with an attention to detail that is second to none. He is fastidious about the small details and getting things right: “In aeronautics there is no room for mistakes. We bring that precision to the automotive sector,” he explains proudly.

Mustafa Yahya Shafiq, the workshop manager at One Stop Workshop, behind the wheel of his desert-prepared Discovery 1

​​​​​​His own Land Rover Discovery is a case in point. It’s a 1999 soft-dash model that he purchased from a British diplomat who had served in the UAE and was heading back to the UK. Mustafa has modified it to create a reliable and strong long-range desert vehicle, with new suspension, engine, snorkel, winch and roof rack. It’s a tidy vehicle, where everything has been carefully considered – a reflection of the owner himself.

Together with Nasser Saeed Lootah, Mustafa leads the large team of technicians and engineers that work on myriad vehicles. Classic Range Rovers make up the majority of their work, but during my visit I saw a number of modified Defenders, various classic American cars, a Mercedes 600 Pullman, a 1980s Lotus Esprit and a couple of Unimogs being made into desert campers.

The work that the team puts into the Range Rovers is quite extraordinary, from full rebuilds to restorations and modifications. To illustrate what I mean, take a look at these two vehicles that Mustafa and the team have built for NS Lootah and his brother.

Mr Nasser owns no fewer than seven Range Rover Classics, from the green two-door you see below to a white 1995 soft dash (above) that is One Stop Workshop’s trials and test vehicle. The team at One Stop Workshop take the basic Range Rover Classic and modify it to meet the unique conditions found in the Middle East market. They look at improving the original Range Rover as though Land Rover had continued to develop it using modern technology.

The vivid green of this mild restomod was a standard colour in the early 1980s. The engine is a 3.9-litre V8

In the case of the green Range Rover, the external appearance of the vehicle is pure 1970s, whereas key features have been updated to make it the best they can be, whilst still retaining the original Range Rover’s charm. First to go is the asthmatic low-compression carburetted 3.5-litre V8, replaced with a fully rebuilt serpentine 3.9 EFi with ported heads and a completely reworked mass-flow sensor. “The original mass flow sensor is a disaster,” chuckles Mustafa. “So we remove the original ECU and throw it away, replacing it with our own in-house ECU.”

This bespoke unit is programmed by the company’s own computer wizards, with new air temperature, crank, idle and exhaust sensors to monitor the CO2 emissions and provide engine management. “Our new unit has a faster processor than the original 1990s one, it’s more reliable and offers more power. We’re using 21st century technology to power a 20th century engine. We have better fuel economy, too.”

Because this vehicle has been specifically created for the Middle East market, the team at One Stop Workshop have also removed the heater – after all, what’s the point of having hot air blowing at you when the lowest temperature you’re likely to experience is more than 15°C? More important is a reliable and effective air conditioning system, and to this end a larger radiator and air conditioning compressor have been fitted. The heater controls have been replaced by a speaker, which is coupled to a high-end hi-fi system that has been subtly integrated into the original dashboard.

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If you look carefully you’ll notice that the dashboard and steering wheel have been covered in grey leather, although the seats have been trimmed in cloth that’s a close match to the original 1970s version. Carpets are similarly simple – this is a vehicle that has been designed to be a reliable and effective Middle East version of the original classic two-door Range Rover of the 1970s. In effect, it’s a mild restomod, keeping the best bits of the original with the practicality of a modern powertrain and air conditioning system specifically designed for the demands of the region.

The silver restomod features oversize mud tyres and lowered suspension for a more dynamic look

​​​​​​More intriguing is the silver two-door that looks like a standard early-1970s Range Rover from the outside but on further inspection is anything but. Once you open the bonnet and look a little deeper, you’ll find a few modifications that bring the long history of converted Range Rovers into the 21st Century.

The first change is the replacement of the 3.5-litre Rover V8 with an impressive-looking Chevrolet LT 5.3-litre V8 coupled to a six-speed automatic transmission. The gearbox comes with a high/low transfer ’box, although the different format of the transmission means that a new transmission tunnel has been constructed. This has been finished off with veneer from the Ghaf tree, a native wood that is one of the few able to survive in the desert. This bespoke woodwork extends to the doors and was fabricated by the company’s own wood shop. It has been finished off with a hand-drawn bird motif.

Front fascia is familiar but different  –  central touchscreen operates the high-end hi-fi system

One Stop Shop’s trim shop produced the full leather trim in khaki green, which makes use of the original seats and their ‘kit kat’ shaping that is pure early Range Rover. The dashboard and steering wheel have also been trimmed in leather, while some modern twists were added to the interior: a central touchscreen to control the hi-fi system, USB and HDMI ports, a bespoke rev counter and a speedometer that operates using GPS.

One Stop Workshop manufactured this chrome sill finisher fitted to the silver car, that’s a clever nod to those found on the P38a

Rear tailgate has fold-away seats fitted along with a sliding table made from Ghaf wood

A couple of other nods to modernity, taking inspiration from later generation Range Rovers, is the fitment of chrome ‘Range Rover’ sill covers (thank you, P38A) and fold-up rear seats and wooden table on the lower tailgate – a nod to the latest ‘tailgate suite’ available as an optional extra on the current Range Rover.

An example of One Stop Shop’s attention to detail is the decluttered engine compartment that is undoubtedly a feature of the vehicle. Everything has been deseamed and smoothed off, while modern bonnet catches from Mercedes-Benz have been fitted either side of the bonnet to fix it solidly, and it raises and lowers using hydraulic dampers. Modern engineering solutions for a design from the 1970s.

Chevrolet LT 5.3-litre V8 powers the silver Range Rover. Note also the hydraulic lifters and Mercedes bonnet catches

Underneath the vehicle, the original rust-free chassis has been stripped and painted, while major components like the axles and suspension turrets were stripped back to bare metal and powder-coated. Heat ingress is a big issue with classic cars in the Middle East, so the Range Rover’s body frame has been fully sealed with sealant and fitted with heat reflective material. Handily, this also acts as effective soundproofing.

Like the green Range Rover, a high-grade air conditioning unit has been fitted in place of a heater. This is controlled using bespoke billet aluminium controls, while the cool air is delivered by solid aluminium vents. Other bespoke aluminium components are the front and rear bumpers that are subtle reworks of the originals. It takes a second look to see that they’re different.

Finally, the exterior is a perfect version of the 1970s Suffix Range Rover, painted in Porsche silver. You’ll also note that the vehicle has been lowered to give it a more purposeful stance, enhanced further by the oversize 235/85 R16 BF Goodrich Mud Terrains.

When I first saw this vehicle it reminded me of some of the first standard wheelbase Wood & Pickett Sheer Rovers that were made for the Middle East market in the mid-1970s. These vehicles had new paint jobs and different wheels, but for the main, the majority of the conversion work was carried out on the interior. Leather interiors, high-end hi-fi systems and new seats were standard fare for those Range Rover conversions of the Seventies, filling a gap in the market where the original Range Rover wasn’t luxurious enough for wealthy customers who demanded the best.

In a sense, we’ve now gone full circle. The latest Range Rover is the most luxurious Range Rover ever – it wants for nothing in terms of interior comforts and the latest tech. Even so, there’s still a demand for its great great grandfather, subtly modified to make it more comfortable and useable in the heat of the Middle East and its busy modern-day traffic. It just goes to show that true icons never go out of fashion.

 

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