Mr Land Rover

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By Gary Pusey

04 December 2018

Roger Crathorne : credit: © Roger Crathorne and Gary Pusey collection

Engineer, off-road driving guru, inveterate traveller and passionate enthusiast, Roger Crathorne has spent a lifetime with Land Rovers. This is his story...

There cannot be a Land Rover fan anywhere on the planet who hasn’t heard of Roger Crathorne. And yet by his own admission, in a career with Land Rover spanning over 55 years and counting, Roger never achieved a senior management position or chief engineer on any Land Rover vehicle. Which begs the question, just how did a young man who originally had no particular ambition to pursue a career in the motor industry become universally known as Mr Land Rover and achieve such a high profile? Roger takes up the story.

“My father worked at Rover in the purchasing department and at that time it was fairly easy to get a job with the company if you had family or friends already there who could make a personal recommendation. But aircraft were my first love and I really wanted to be a flight engineer. In those days most airliners had one of these flight engineers on board alongside the pilot and co-pilot, and the flight engineer’s job was to manage the engines and other systems in-flight. I loved the idea of flying and combining this with my interest in engineering.

“Being a flight engineer also meant that I’d get to travel a lot, a passion I’d developed as a teenager. I’d been in the Cubs from the age of eight and progressed through to become a Rover Scout. But I think it really began when I joined the school youth club and we decided it would be good to go on a summer holiday. We acquired a couple of 1930s Midland Red buses that we took down to France, Germany, Austria and Spain. We did three long continental journeys over the years, and my job was to look after the mechanical side of things, including on one occasion an axle swap. As a result of these early experiences, I discovered that I loved being in the great outdoors and the fascination with travel, camping and adventure has never left me.

“I’d worked part-time as an aircraft handler at Elmdon Airport while still at school and I hoped to get a job with Derby Airways, but that didn’t happen. By the time I left school at 16 I had three offers of apprenticeships to choose from: one with Rover, one with a gear grinding company and one with British European Airways in London. I was keen on the BEA job but there was a four or five-month delay before I could start, and my dad suggested I take the job at Rover to fill the time. I did, and that’s how I ended up spending the rest of my career with Land Rover!

“I ended up turning down the BEA apprenticeship and started at Rover’s Tyseley works on September 9, 1963, which was actually the day after Maurice Wilks, the originator of the Land Rover, had died. I turned up at the factory reception and announced to the gateman that I was starting work that day, and he thumbed his way through the paperwork on his clipboard before announcing that my name wasn’t on his list. I was a bit flustered and asked him to look again, but he said there was definitely no record of anyone called Crathorne starting that day. And then he looked me in the eye and asked me exactly where I thought I was starting work. When I said Rover he smiled indulgently and told me he knew why I wasn’t on his list. ‘This is Girlings,’ he said. ‘Rover is next door’ It was a bit of an inauspicious start!”

Roger was to spend seven or eight months at the Tyseley engine plant, working on the manufacture of  rockers and rocker shafts and machining cylinder blocks for the 2.25 engine. At the end of his stint there he moved to Solihull to join the company’s Service Department, working on customers’ Rover cars and Land Rovers. “I reckon I could still change a Rover 2000 gearbox blindfolded!” Roger chuckles. “But it was an excellent grounding and so much of what I learned back then remains with me to this day, such as how to clean and polish a vehicle correctly, and other little things like always repainting the brake drums after a brake service!”

At the end of his time in the Service Department, Roger’s boss asked him what he’d really like to do and Roger already had the answer – he wanted to get into development engineering. And that’s how he found himself given the job title that I have yet to hear any Rover apprentice have a kind word for – Technical Assistant – and working for Alan Jackson-Mee who was head of the Series II Forward Control development team.

“I very soon felt part of the Land Rover engineering family,” says Roger. “It was a great place to work but if you couldn’t stand having your leg pulled you’d struggle! And as an apprentice I was, of course, on the receiving end of a few of the usual jolly japes! One chap, Cyril was his name, had wired a magneto to the vice on his workbench, which was handily located in precisely the place where you’d rest you hand or your elbow when talking to him. Cyril would then give the magneto a quick spin and you’d get the full electric shock!

“You’d also get home at the end of the day to find the heels of your shoes had been painted yellow by the chap working under a vehicle while you were standing next to it. Someone once discovered they’d been walking around the factory all day with a pair of brightly-painted spurs attached to their shoes!“

At that time Tom Barton was the head of Land Rover engineering and he eventually became like a second father to me. And, of course, he was known then as Mr Land Rover although I think the first person to be given this unofficial title was Alec Joyce, who was in charge of the first off-road demonstration circuit to be built at the Solihull factory site. It survives to this day and is known as the ‘Jungle’ but in Alec’s day it was known as ‘Joyce’s Jungle’. Tom was a lovely man but he was rather set in his ways and did not put enough time and energy into the development of the Land Rover. He was initially very opposed to coil suspension and at first I don’t think he thought the new Range Rover would be a success.

“That’s really why the development of the new vehicle was given to New Vehicle Projects under Spen King,  although Spen soon realised that he needed a four-wheel drive expert on his team, and Geof Miller was asked to do the job by Tom. Until then, Geof had been in charge of the Series II. Whether Tom thought he’d gain more control of the Range Rover project by having Geof seconded to it I don’t know, but Geof was his own man and embraced the new project wholeheartedly.

“Geof was soon made Project Engineer on Range Rover and had to build his team. Alan Wood joined as his Assistant Engineer and I was recommended to Geof as the junior engineer. That was in 1967 and I’d just completed my indentures, so really the Range Rover was the first project I worked on as a fully-qualified engineer. There was an opportunity to build on that by going to university but, to be honest, graduates were rather frowned upon in those days. Thankfully it’s a very different world now! By then Spen had moved on to other things within the wider Leyland empire, and it was really just the three of us – Geof, Alan and me – who got the Range Rover through to the end of the pre-production phase, and of course it was Peter Wilks who actually got it into production.”

Students of the development of the early Range Rover will be aware of three major expeditions that were extraordinarily important in both the testing and development of the new vehicle, and in putting it on the map as an accomplished ‘car for all reasons’. Roger was heavily involved with all of them.

“The first was in late 1969 and is referred to now as the Sahara Trials,” says Roger. “It was actually the company’s first-ever in-house expedition. Prior to that, vehicles had been loaned to private individuals or organisations for expeditions and such-like, and they might get some advice or technical support, but the Sahara Trials were really the company’s first official expedition. I was responsible for preparing two Engineering Prototypes which were to carry out a double crossing of the Sahara and Ténéré deserts in North Africa, led by experienced desert expedition leader Mike Foster of Minitrek. Obviously we needed to have a team from Land Rover on the trip, including various specialists who would assess the vehicles under different climate and terrain conditions. I remember that Geof and I were hugely excited about it but for some of the others from the company it was a whole new experience and they viewed it all with a degree of nervousness. In the event, of course, it was a great success and the whole team performed brilliantly.

“And then in early 1971 the company arranged what I think was actually its first-ever cold climate testing programme when two of the press launch Range Rovers were driven to Finland for extensive winter trials around Rovaniemi. I remember that we took along a prototype of the new ABS plastic grille intended for the Series III, to see if it would survive very cold temperatures. We fixed it to the front of NXC 236H and it passed with flying colours!

“The third expedition was the famous 1972 British Trans-Americas one from Anchorage to Tierra del Fuego, via the Darién Gap in Panama. The two Range Rovers were suffering from continual diff breakages in the arduous conditions in the Darién, and Geof and I both flew down to try to sort out the problems, which turned out to be largely caused by gross overloading and the strains imposed on the drivetrains by the huge swamp tyres. Once these issues had been addressed the expedition was able to complete the crossing and continue down to the tip of South America. It was my first trip to Latin America, but as things turned out it would not be my last.”

By the early 1970s Land Rover management had recognised the need for a new type of customer-facing person. This new team would work closely with distributors and customers around the world, making sure that the company’s products were meeting the customers’ needs and also listening to their experiences and concerns, and making sure these were reported back up the line for consideration in the development plans for the vehicles. The intention was that the new Sales Development team would be staffed by qualified Land Rover engineers: the only problem was that very few engineers were interested in the role.

“I was single at the time so I decided to try for it and went down to BL International in London for an interview,” recalls Roger. “I got the job and my salary doubled overnight! I used to commute by train every day from Solihull and BL gave me a first-class season ticket, so although it meant early starts and getting home late it wasn’t much of a hardship! Pretty quickly I was spending a lot of my time abroad, mainly in Central and South America, and I was heavily involved in the launches of the Range Rover and the Series III in various countries. I must admit I thoroughly enjoyed it and had a wonderful time. One of the interesting and recurring themes I heard everywhere was the demand for a powerful diesel engine for both the Land Rover and the Range Rover. Despite my regular reports to that effect it would be many years before the company finally had an engine to meet this need. I also began to see the very serious threat from the Japanese manufacturers with the likes of the Toyota FJ Land Cruisers already beginning to undermine Land Rover sales in Central America.”

All this came to an end in 1974, though, following a close call involving a heavily-overloaded DC-4 airliner that barely cleared the trees at the end of the runway at Quito in Ecuador. “When we took off we actually had passengers without seats and the captain told them to sit on the floor, and during the take-off run I really felt that we weren’t going to get off the ground,” remembers Roger. “Quito airport is on the edge of a mountain and the aircraft really just went off the edge and into a controlled dive down to Guayaquil, on the coast. When we got there we had to make several low passes so the ground staff could check the undercarriage for damage from the trees at Quito. I’d always loved flying but after this experience I did all I could to avoid it. I still had to fly for my job, but I made my very last flight in 1983 and I haven’t been on a plane since then.”

Safely returned to the UK, Roger bumped into Mike Broadhead, Tom Barton’s deputy, and asked him if there might be any opportunities back in engineering. There were, and Roger accepted the inevitable pay cut and was soon working on the first of the 101-inch Forward Controls before moving on to the Stage 1 V8. He also spent his lunch hours developing the necessary adaptors to fit a 2.25 diesel into his own Range Rover.

“As engineers we were always encouraged to tinker with things, not that many of us needed to be encouraged,” says Roger. “I think as an engineer you are always trying to improve things, and the company was very happy for us to do this. Another little lunchtime project I had was to make up some drawings to fit a shortened long-wheelbase Land Rover body onto a Range Rover chassis – the first coil-sprung Land Rover – although in this instance when Tom Barton found the drawings he was not impressed and gave me a sound dressing-down!

Aboard the Range Rover Classic drivable chassis

“But even Tom had begun to see the writing on the wall for the leaf-sprung Land Rover as sales declined in our key markets in Africa and South America, and I was eventually asked to build four hybrids with coil suspension. Four Range Rover rolling chassis were delivered a few days after I had asked our production director, Maurice Hanson, for them, and then the fitters and I got stuck-in, cutting, shutting and welding, and in no time we’d turned two of the chassis into a 90 and a 110. We left the other two as standard 100-inch. Four sets of Land Rover body panels arrived shortly after and were doctored to fit, and the coil-sprung Land Rover was born!”

Land Rover had been using the Eastnor Castle estate for off-road testing and development since 1961, and this was to be the location for a comparison between leaf- and coil-sprung Land Rovers. “Major Hervey-Bathurst got out his Massey-Ferguson digger and we dug out a course that would demonstrate axle articulation and provide an impressive comparison between leaf and coil,” remembers Roger. “The vehicles were demonstrated to the board and the development was signed-off almost immediately.”

Trialling at Eastnor in the late 1960s

In July 1978 Land Rover’s owner, British Leyland, underwent another of its re-organisations and Land Rover Ltd was created as an autonomous company within the BL empire. Roger found himself seconded back into engineering and was soon involved in a week-long series of vehicle demonstrations at Eastnor Castle which were intended to provide the company’s engineers with hands-on experience of both Land Rover vehicles and their competitors.

Marketing boss John Anderson was at the demonstrations and he was obviously impressed by Roger’s mastery of the vehicles off-road, because he asked Roger if he would like to run the Land Rover demonstration team. It was yet another of those unplanned events that were to figure so prominently in Roger’s career, and he accepted the offer. Roger’s time at Land Rover had given him what was perhaps a unique combination of skills: he was an engineer but had also spent time in a customer-facing role in sales development, and had a great deal of experience in off-road driving, both for the company and in his spare time as a keen trialler. 

Early days of the LR demonstration team, Roger front right

At that time the team of seven was managed by Don Green, and Don and Roger soon became firm friends. “When I took over the team we had six Land Rovers and the focus was very much on events such as agricultural shows,” says Roger. “It was clear to me that we also needed to focus on the potential customers for the Range Rover, and I quickly introduced a new look for the team and expanded the range of vehicles we had at our disposal. When I left the team 25 years later, we had over 100 on the fleet, with examples of every vehicle across the expanded product range. We also transformed the way the vehicles were shown, creating a number of very high-impact vehicle exhibition and demonstration rigs. The demonstration team was undoubtedly the best in the country in terms of how we could display our vehicles’ capabilities in confined spaces.”

Roger’s team also began to play a leading role in new vehicle launches, which up until then had tended to be centred on an off-road display circuit. Roger changed this, perhaps influenced by his love of travel. “For me, vehicle launches always involved a journey with a story,” he says, and to a degree this remains true today. 

Demonstration team in action at Val D’Isere, 1987

The team was involved in every vehicle launch after Roger took over, but it was the launch of the new Discovery in 1989 that really put the demonstration team on the map and also led to a very important development in the company’s thinking.

“Discovery was aimed at a completely new market,” says Roger. “Customers for the new vehicle were family, leisure and lifestyle-oriented, and didn’t necessarily have much experience of driving off-road vehicles. I felt very strongly that we had a responsibility to provide driver training to teach customers how to drive safely off-road, how to get the best from their vehicle and how to respect the environment. It was also obvious that better training would have a positive impact on warranty claims.

Discovery launch 1989, Dart Valley Railway

“I wrote a paper setting-out the arguments for what I called a ‘Land Rover Driving Academy’, and this was eventually launched as the Land Rover Experience. We created a Level One training course based at Solihull, a Level Two course at Eastnor, and an Instructor Course to train fleet users such as the utilities and the police. LRE proved to be hugely popular and coincided with the massive leap in interest in off-road driving and the huge increase in 4x4 sales, and it was my idea to create a franchise scheme to develop LRE centres throughout the UK.”

But in 2005 Roger found himself with a new boss who, perhaps inevitably, saw things differently and disagreed with many of Roger’s views on the future of the Land Rover Experience operation, and planned to relocate its headquarters from Solihull to Eastnor. Roger decided it was time to hang up his spurs. He applied for voluntary redundancy and had a plan to move to Spain, already his holiday destination of choice, and set-up a 4x4 hire business there.

But one side effect of Roger’s time running the demonstration team is that he had established an impressive public profile as a passionate and knowledgeable champion of all things Land Rover, and he had taught any number of VIPs how to drive, including royalty, explorers, members of Land Rover’s senior management team, senior military people, agents, dealers, journalists and customers. And who can forget the film of Roger standing on a French mountain beside a Range Rover, drinking a cup of tea while wearing a dinner suit and trainers? Or driving the Discovery I fitted with railway wheels that pulled a train of coaches that proved rather entertaining to stop? Or him piloting the amphibious Defender and Discovery in the Solent during Cowes Week, or driving the Hannibal Trail through the Alps?

Cowes Week, amphib Disco

“I had already made the decision to retire,” Roger recalls, “but Land Rover’s then head of PR, Stuart Dyble, approached me and asked me to stay on for a year or so as the technical person on his team. This ended up being 12 years which were in many ways the most interesting time of my career with the company. One of the things we did was build the ‘Home of the Legend’ at Solihull which offered factory tours and an excellent on-site facility for media and enthusiast events, and ensured the continuation of the factory off-road demonstration course that had originally been ‘Joyce’s Jungle’ in the early 1950s.”

Although Roger formally retired in 2014, such is the depth of his knowledge and his invaluable contribution that he was immediately retained by JLR as a consultant, assisting with media events and still performing in front of the world’s TV cameras. A company man through-and-through, highly professional and very discreet, he remains in great demand.

Reunited with 166 after its renovation at the Dunsfold Collection Show, 2015

And today he continues his long personal history of Land Rover ownership, his garage playing host to a beautifully-original 1951 Series I 80-inch that was at one time owned by the Wilks family, and a Defender 90 that was the eleventh-to-last to roll off the line on the last day of Defender production, and was built to his personal specification with a canvas tilt that harks back to the very earliest Land Rovers.

Like many Rover employees, Roger was a keen trialler with the Midland Rover Owners’ Club and his Series I, KAC 87, was a regular fixture at events in the 1960s. In 1971 he won the first Hill Rally driving pre-production Range Rover YVB 166H, which he was subsequently able to buy from the company and used for many years as his preferred holiday vehicle, regularly hauling a caravan down to sunny southern Europe. 

First Hill Rally, May 1971

And his favourite Land Rover? I suspect it’s the early Series I and the first-generation Range Rover but, ever the diplomat, Roger won’t be drawn. I can’t help wondering whether JLR will ever have another Mr Land Rover worthy of the name, to follow in his footsteps.