Dubbed the Mad Max series, 22 prototypes clothed in Austin Maestro van bodies were built in 1995 and 1996 to prove the transmission’s durability. They also put paid to any resistance from company old-stagers about a perceived lack of off-road ability.
Elsy says: “I remember Roger Crathorne [Land Rover’s off-road guru] driving a Maestro prototype at Eastnor and saying: ‘Bloody hell, that works really well.’”
The key to the ability was a clever adaptation of existing ABS, which became Hill Descent Control for production. The Electronic Traction Control applied a braking force to any wheel losing traction and fed torque to the other side. Along with a torque transfer system working side to side and front to rear, it let the Freelander lead its rivals off road.
“And the high jinks we were getting up to at Eastnor proved its capability way beyond what a typical customer would put it through,” says Elsy.
How it won over the critics
Former Rover Group PR chief Denis Chick recalls the unique approach he took to introducing media to the Freelander in July 1997.
He says: “It occurred to me when I was interviewing engineers about their part in the car’s development how much passion there was for the project and how young the team was. So before the press actually drove the car, we invited them to Gaydon to meet these engineers.
“It was done in a speed-dating format, where each function brought components and presentations to tell the development story in three dimensions.
“Then, two months later, we held a larger global media drive event at the Las Dunas Hotel near Marbella in Spain. We were out there for five weeks, and each group drove their Freelanders straight out of the hotel and onto a beach, and then onto a dry riverbed, giving them the chance to use the car’s Hill Descent Control and new four-wheel drive system.
Roger Crathorne designed the off-road course, which was cleverly created to appear far trickier than it really was. The journos also got to drive around 130 miles on lovely Spanish roads.”