Land Rover Legend: Geof Miller

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Legend Geof Miller Range Rover launch engineer Geof put on a top display of driving at the 1970 Cornwall press launch : credit: © Geof Miller archive
In a career with JLR that spanned over 30 years, it is Geof Miller’s contribution to the launch and subsequent development of the Range Rover that makes him a Land Rover Legend

For the first time in over 60 years, there isn’t a Land Rover in the garage or on the driveway at Geof and Pat Miller’s home in Warwickshire. During Geof’s 31 years with the company there would have been dozens, probably hundreds, of Land Rovers of all types on that driveway. Geof joined the Rover Company in 1956 as a Technical Assistant, working for Tom Barton in Land Rover Engineering, and he would remain at Rover in its various corporate guises until he took early retirement in 1987.

Geof left school in 1948 at 16, and took a five-year student apprenticeship in general mechanical engineering at J Brockhouse & Co in West Bromwich, where he gained a HNC in Mechanical Engineering. Geof’s experience at Brockhouse has made him a lifelong enthusiast and supporter of the apprenticeship model and, as he points out, with today’s university students typically graduating with debts of £30,000 or more, the ability to get one’s professional training on the job while earning a salary should be an attractive alternative to a student loan. It is an interesting coincidence that today Jaguar Land Rover is one of the UK’s most committed providers of apprenticeship programmes, taking on many hundreds of young people every year.

In 1953 Geof was called up to do his National Service, and during the recruitment process was asked about his job in civvy street. Geof remembers: “I told the recruiting sergeant that I was a mechanical engineer, and logically enough I was assigned to the REME. What was perhaps not quite so logical was the posting to a job in radar. My suggestion that this might involve more electrical engineering than mechanical engineering fell on deaf ears, and it was to the mobile radar unit that I went. But National Service provided the spur to purchase my first car, a 1939 Morris 12, which I proudly drove back to West Bromwich upon completion of my stint as a mobile radar maintenance engineer.”

Returning to work at Brockhouse, Geof found himself assigned to the drawing office and it was here that he had his first brush with the world of Land Rovers, as Design Draughtsman on the  two-wheel trailer that was to become so closely associated with the Series I. “One of my jobs there involved designing a water tank carrier that was to be pulled by a camel,” Geof recalls. “But undoubtedly interesting though this was, I wanted a job that would involve rather more hands-on engineering and fewer camels, and ideally it had to be in the motor industry.”

Early Jenson influence

Geof’s father had worked at Jensen Motors all his life and prototype vehicles, testing and engineering development were things that Geof had grown up with and was fascinated by. A job in the motor industry was therefore highly appealing, and when the Rover Company advertised for engineers to work at Lode Lane, this seemed the obvious job to apply for. Geof got the job and, as he puts it, “was about to enter Aladdin’s Cave and see all those secret Rover cars and Land Rovers behind the big green roller doors just to the left of the main office block.”

The reality was initially rather more prosaic. Plenty of Rover P4s and 86in Series I Land Rovers about the place, but no exotic prototypes or specials, and what Geof had assumed would be a top secret centre for new developments was actually a short-cut between the office blocks and the production line that was used by everyone. “The big green roller doors were often left wide open and I found myself one of a team of 15 engineers housed in an office 15 feet square,” Geof recalls. It was not an inspiring introduction.

But more interesting things were to come, and Geof’s confidence that he had made the right move was swiftly restored. Early projects included the extension of the Land Rover wheelbase to 88 inches and Land Rover’s first diesel engine. Very soon Geof spotted something that was more akin to his initial expectations. What appeared to be a standard rag-top 86in was in fact fitted with independent front suspension, with laminated torsion bar and double wishbone suspension of the type that later appeared on P5 cars. Just over a year later Geof was able to buy 7763AC and became a Land Rover owner for the first time.

Other big projects were emerging as well, such as the Series II and the introduction of the 2.25 petrol engine. In 1959 Geof spent six months on a vehicle research training course at MIRA. “On my return I was appointed Assistant Project Engineer on Land Rover New Projects, focussing on the 129in and the 109in Forward Control.” By 1962 he was Project Engineer, Land Rover Basic Vehicles.

Dawn of the Range Rover

Geof driving NXC 235H at the Range Rover Press launch in 1970

But arguably it was in July 1966 that a chance event occurred and was to change the direction of Geof’s career, and arguably shape much of his later life. He was asked by Tom Barton to join the 100-inch Station Wagon programme, which in due course would evolve to become the original Range Rover. Geof recalls: “At the time I was not at all sure whether the move was going to be a good one, or whether I had got the proverbial short straw!”

In the early 1960s, Rover had noticed a decline in Land Rover sales, and it was thought by many that developing a new vehicle to address new markets would provide an answer. The company’s then Managing Director, William Martin-Hurst, had been looking for an additional Land Rover model for some time, and initially this had focussed on exploring whether a new, smaller vehicle could be developed. A Haflinger-style vehicle was considered, along with others such as an 80in Series II with the 2.25 engine or the 2.0 P6. The conclusion was that they would not be cheaper to sell than the current Land Rover, so the idea was dropped.

“In the United States, Land Rover sales were also struggling, primarily because the vehicle was considered to be underpowered by American standards,” Geof says. “In due course, Rover ended up securing the rights to the Buick 3.5 litre V8 and Rover North America quickly installed one in a Series II that became known as ‘Golden Rod’, although it was soon apparent that the standard transmission could not handle the significant increases in power and torque. The idea was explored further though, and three
V8-powered Series IIs were built at Solihull, but the transmission issues meant the vehicle did not go into production. The three UK vehicles were later used in the Range Rover development programme.”

From left: Geof with Spen King and Roger Crathorne in 2008

Rover’s New Vehicle Projects team (NVP), headed by Spen King, was also assessing the potential to develop the Land Rover, and Spen and his colleague Gordon Bashford had the idea of creating a more comfortable and driver-friendly Land Rover by using the long-travel coil suspension from the latest Rover 2000 saloon, and this had evolved into the 100-inch Station Wagon project. It is interesting to note that this was the first Land Rover to be designed from the outset on the drawing board, rather than mocked-up in the workshop.

What was interesting, of course, is that the project was being managed by the NVP team and not within Tom Barton’s Land Rover Engineering team. Over the years, many have speculated why this was, and Geof’s view is that Spen was given the job because he was relatively young and up-and-coming, and had demonstrated his ability to be creative and unconventional with the Gas Turbine project. It cannot have been a hindrance that he was also a member of the Wilks family that controlled Rover at that time, as well as a director of the company. Such was the importance of the project that the family wanted a senior person from within the inner circle to lead the initiative.

Others have speculated that Tom Barton was wedded to certain principles, such as leaf springs, and was not going to apply enough out-of-the-box thinking to the project. It is certain that Tom would have wanted to own the 100-inch Station Wagon project and understandable that he might have been unhappy to see it given to NVP. It is also true the Tom had been shunted sideways a few years earlier, when Jack Pogmore joined the company and was appointed above Tom. Either way, history seems to have decided that Barton was not a supporter of the 100-inch Station Wagon initiative, at least at the outset, and he did not really play a significant part in its success.

Nevertheless, when Spen requested an engineer from Land Rover to join the NVP team, and once Peter Wilks had endorsed this request, it was Tom Barton’s decision to assign Geof. Once on the NVP team, Geof quickly realised that the project was extremely interesting, although as he says, “I was less impressed when I was told that I would have two bosses, Spen and Tom Barton.” This potentially difficult reporting line was addressed, though, and Geof hence forward worked for King.

Search for an engine

Geof and his Velar

Geof had joined a small but very capable team, among whom were several men whose contributions to the genesis of the Range Rover are often ignored. Among these were chassis designer Phil Banks and body designer Phil Jackson. It was Phil Jackson who insisted that the team could design their own body for the very first 100-inch Station Wagon, chassis 100/1, thus averting the purchase of a Vauxhall Victor Estate body which had been seriously considered as a quick solution to the problem. One can only wonder what the final Range Rover might have looked at had the starting point been a Vauxhall! Interestingly, Geof believes that the earlier Road Rover project (often and incorrectly referred to as a forerunner of the Range Rover) had been cancelled when the Vauxhall Victor Estate was launched.

Engine choice for the new vehicle was also the subject of extensive discussion, with the 2.25-litre petrol engine being proposed by some, although luckily Spen was vehemently opposed to this and did, in fact, favour the Rover 3.0-litre engine. However, the final decision was made by William who cast his vote in favour of the 3.5 V8.

Rover’s board had ordered a review of worldwide markets in the mid-1960s, and this research had discovered an emerging market in the US for a leisure 4x4. The resulting report was submitted to William and his boardroom colleagues in 1966 and, as Geof reveals it was discovered that the 100-inch Station Wagon lined-up very nicely with the report’s recommendations.

Having got the project underway, and overseen the construction of the first of the Engineering Prototype vehicles, Spen went to head-up engineering at Triumph, to help resolve some pretty serious engine problems. His leadership role at NVP was taken on by Peter, who became Geof’s new boss, and it was Peter who oversaw the final development of the Range Rover and got the vehicle into production. Geof believes that Peter deserves much more credit for the creation of the Range Rover, and it is fair to say that his significant contribution is often overshadowed by that of Spen.

Range Rover testing at Eastnor

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Geof remained with the project until 1971, the year after the Range Rover was launched to the world. Geof had been heavily involved in addressing what were seen as quite serious issues with the new vehicle, including gearbox and axle problems, and priority was given to those that were likely to leave a prospective owner broken down.

A parallel list of what were considered to be irritating issues was maintained, but many of these were not addressed ahead of the launch, which had been brought forward by six months at the behest of Sir Donald Stokes, British Leyland’s Chairman, resulting in hurried final development work that did not allow all the problems to be adequately resolved. It was this that was instrumental in Geof moving to become Range Rover Forward Development Engineer in 1971, where he had responsibility for assessing significant potential developments to the model range, such as air conditioning, the four-door model, and so on, although the car was selling so well as it was that British Leyland did not have much appetite for investing in further development unless it was deemed to be absolutely necessary.

Testing times ahead

Geof had also participated in the North African vehicle durability trials in 1969, when the two Engineering Prototypes 100/5 and 100/6 completed a double crossing of the Sahara Desert, and of course he was present at the launch in Cornwall, where he was photographed for posterity kicking-up the dust in exuberant fashion in a Masai Red NXC Press Launch car.

Other Range Rover overseas testing expeditions that Geof led include ride and handling tests in France and Switzerland in 1970, which Geof rather handily managed to combine with a family holiday; hot climate testing in Morocco, Spain and France in summer 1970; the launch of the Range Rover in South Africa and further hot climate testing in early 1971; yet more hot climate testing in Spain in August 1971, and even more in France and Spain in August 1972.

Geof's Velar in classic pose at Eastnor Castle

It was while in the Forward Development Engineer role that Geof acquired the vehicle that he is probably best associated with, the Tuscan Blue Velar YVB 163H. Geof bought the car from his employer in January, 1972, with the proviso that he could never sell it other than back to the company, and he was only given unfettered ownership of the vehicle in 1980. As a general development vehicle on the Engineering fleet, 163 was involved in a range of projects including exhaust and brake shield development, cooling system upgrades, the assessment of new interior trim to replace the infamous self-destructing PVC, inertia reel seatbelts, further hot-climate testing work, and much more.

After Geof bought the car, it continued to be used for development work and was the first Range Rover to have its door pillars and rear quarter panels painted in a dark colour to create the floating roof look desired by the company’s stylists. Gas struts were also installed under the bonnet to assess their usefulness, and the car was a test bed for some of the features that were planned for a de luxe variant, which did not make it into production. Some of these luxury features are retained on the car to this day.

On the Darien Gap expedition with Geof in the dry

February 1972 brought challenges of a different sort. The British Trans-Americas Expedition was underway, and two Range Rovers were in the process of driving from Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego and attempting to cross the notorious Darien Gap in Panama. The Range Rovers were struggling as they carved their way through the trackless jungle and diff breakages were frequent. Geof flew down to Panama with spare parts and was airlifted in to join the team. He found that the combination of chronically-overloaded vehicles and huge swamp tyres were putting strain on the drivetrains. Changing the tyres and reducing the vehicle weights improved matters significantly, and the Range Rovers with their crews from the 17th/21st Lancers were able to complete the crossing and continue on to Tierra del Fuego.

Geof tried his hand at off-road rallying when he entered the third Hillrally in 1972 in YVB 163H, although as he says himself, “I didn’t impress anyone and was excluded at the end of the first day!” The vehicle was then used for caravanning and Land Rover club events until 1976 when it became a builder’s truck for the self-build house project that Geof and Pat undertook.

The same year, Geof was seconded to the Design Committee for the Leyland Cars Research and Development Centre, as the 4x4 representative, and the following year joined the Design Committee for the British Leyland Cars Proving Ground, for which the government had earmarked the old RAF station at Gaydon, in Warwickshire. Also in 1976, Geof led the cold climate test programme for the Rover SD1 in Canada, and in February 1978 led the hot climate tests for the 109 Stage I V8 in South Africa and Namibia. In March and April 1979 he led the cold climate brake tests in Sweden for a prototype 100-inch wheelbase Land Rover.

Later that year Geof was appointed head of Track Control and Technology at the Gaydon Proving Ground and then, following a major reorganisation of the Rover Group in 1987, he elected to take voluntary redundancy and early retirement.

Retirement projects

Geof's 88in project with Rover grille

With time on his hands now, Geof threw himself into a number of initiatives, not least of which was the chassis-up rebuild of his Velar, which took him some eight years and was finally completed in 1995. YVB 163H then returned to caravanning activities and club events with the Range Rover Register and the Midland Rover Owners’ Club, but this time in the classic vehicle and display arena rather than the off-roading course. The club scene has long held interest for Geof and Pat, and they have held committee roles and been marshals, competitors and event organisers for many years.

Geof also had an 88in project on the go for several years. He had owned the vehicle since the 1960s and rebuilt it with a 3.0-litre Rover engine and significantly modified front-end styling which incorporated a Rover car radiator grille, with Renault headlamps to echo the vaguely rectangular shape of the grille. As Geof says: “Once a development engineer, always a development engineer!” WKV 664 is now owned by Geof’s nephew, although the 3.0 V8 has long since been replaced with a 2.25 diesel and the front-end is back to standard.

Search for survivors

Geof was also one of the founder members of the Range Rover Register, which in its original guise was established to track down the surviving pre-production Velars with a view to saving them. Geof became the Velar Registrar and was very active himself in locating missing Velars, many of which were camouflaged behind cherished or age-related registration marks. By then these very early cars were nearly 20 years old, and many were in a very bad way. Geof was even known to buy a vehicle himself if it was at risk of being lost. He and Pat became leading lights in arranging many of the popular Velar Gatherings that began in 1990 and continue to this day, and Geof has also become a patient adviser and coach to those enthusiasts, myself included, who have sought authenticity in their own restorations of Velars and early production Range Rovers.

After his retirement, Geof and Pat collaborated on a series of extensive and highly-regarded features for various 4x4 publications, including Off-Road & 4 Wheel Drive, Land Rover Enthusiast, Land Rover Owner and, of course, LRM. Among his numerous retirement ambitions, he wanted to write a book on the development of the Range Rover and, in particular, the life stories of each of the pre-production Velars, and this finally came to pass in 2013 with the publication of Range Rover – The First Fifty.

Geof and Pat at home in Warwickshire in 1996 with YVB 163H and A16 YVB

As well as the YVB, Geof and Pat owned a four-door Classic for a number of years that carried the cherished plate A16 YVB, and this was replaced by a P38 which was, he says, a source of perpetual trouble with the fault that all P38 owners will recognise – the mysterious battery drain caused by the BECM being woken-up by spurious radio transmissions which, in Geof’s case, were finally tracked down to the remote meteorological station in his garden! Although it was, he says, a delight to drive, its time on the Miller driveway was no more than a year or so. It was replaced by a Freelander which, he says, was an excellent car.

After 45 years of ownership, YVB 163H was finally sold earlier this year to JLR and has joined their Legends fleet, and it is now based at the new Classic Works facility at Ryton, near Coventry. It has already been out and about, and formed part of a media convoy on a JLR press event to the Goodwood Festival of Speed. This is one very special Velar, though, and despite being far from standard in many details, it represents a fascinating insight into the company’s thinking in terms of developing the Range Rover during its early years. We can only hope that its new owners prove to be worthy custodians and recognise its uniqueness, and are not minded to over-restore it back to some mythical vanilla Velar standard that it hasn’t had since it was assembled in early 1970.

And since you ask, the car that sits on the Land Rover-less Miller driveway at the moment is a Skoda Yeti, although Geof is already thinking it might be time to buy another Land Rover. Pat favours a Discovery Sport, but for Geof it will have to be something with Range Rover on the bonnet.

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