The Spotlight Series – The Land Rover Freelander

At the end of the 1980’s, the idea was introduced to produce a lifestyle vehicle, and nearly a decade after that, Japan had set the challenge.

Freelander helped change the course of history for Land Rover, but its concept and design had a of help from Rover cars. Had it not been for the Rover engineers, designers and stylists at Canley and Gaydon, the Freelander would never have happened.

From Oden to Pathfinder, CB40 was the eventual code name for this project – the name coming from the building where the concept was developed, the Canley Building 40. In the true Land Rover style of recycling, the bins were raided and using existing parts and components, Gerry McGovern set to designing a Freelander.

The engine choice had become a no-brainer by 1994: the ideal unit was the light and torque K-Series, which had been developed into a 1.8-litre version for the upcoming MGF and HH-R models. The diesel engine that was decided upon was the newly developed L-Series unit, which had only seen service in the Rover 620 at this time. The units were mounted transversely in the aid of packaging and centre of gravity, and were mated to the ubiquitous PG1 gearbox.

In 1994, BMW bought the Rover company, and the Freelander was launched at the Frankfurt Motor Show in 1997. The Freelander quickly became the leader in the compact premium 4×4 class and was the bestselling 4WD for five consecutive years.

However, The Freelander’s body and suspension do depart from the standard Land Rover practice. Rather than the ladder chassis design that has been used ever since Land Rover’s first model (Series One), the Freelander is designed with a monocoque body construction like that on modern cars. The body does however have a substantial sub-frame, including welded box-section rails, which gives the body a high structural rigidity, keeping the body in a square shape, and adding strength to survive repeated snatch recoveries.

The initial body styles varied from a 5-door Station Wagon to a 3-door with soft-black or hard-black rear roofs. You could also choose between a petrol and diesel engine. The introduction of the Hill Descent Control means that the Freelander did lack a low range gearbox and differential lock. The Hill Descent Control kicks in at the press of the button. Pulsing the brakes to maintain a target speed of 5mph. This makes the Freelander perfect for off-roading and makes it much easier to descend steep hills. Due to its success, the HDC has been introduced onto other Land Rover models, and even been imitated by competing SUVs.

A Vicious Coupling Unit was also fitted to give the Freelander its 4-wheel drive ability. Rather than the on/off functionality of a traditional differential lock, the VCU works progressively. If a front wheel begins to spin, torque is sent to the rear wheels where it is useful (and vice versa).

Other changes included the beam suspension being replaced by independent suspension, resulting in a reduction in ground clearance when off-road, but also a much smoother ride. As with the rest of the Land Rover coupe, vulnerable components are lifted high out of harm’s way. Skid plates also protect the fuel tank, engine and transmission.

The Freelander quickly became a big success in Europe. Sales had grown from 47,000 in its first full year (1998) to 70,000 in 1999.


Freelander in action

The Freelander were the vehicles used in 1998 Chile to Argentina Trophy, and were nicely equipped and well-suited to the easy terrain.  The vehicles had only minor modifications and the interior was left almost standard, except for waterproof seat covers.

In 1998, three cars drive the ‘Fifty 50 Challenge’, an attempt to visit 50 countries in 50 days to raise money for charity, as well as commemorating the 50th anniversary of Land Rover. The event also helped promote the launch of the new Freelander. The vehicles were crewed by Land Rover employees and covered just under 20,000 miles. A massive total of £130,000 was raised for UNICEF.

The vehicles were generally to production standard, with the addition of roof boxes, driving lamps, and of course, the rather special paint job! The vehicles were given radio call signs ‘Mummy Bear’ and ‘Baby Bear’ and the support vehicle, a Defender Wolf painted gold, was known as ‘Goldilocks.’



In the 2001 Rally World Championship, Collin McRae and Carlos Sainz used the Freelander as reconnaissance vehicle.

2001 also saw two larger engines being fitted into the Freelander – V6 petrol and TD4 diesel – as well as a 5 speed automatic gearbox was available.

2006 was the last year for the Freelander as Land Rover launched the Freelander 2, known as LR2 in America.



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