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2 July 2012

 

“You might see some vehicles with some odd paintwork running about. We would ask you to please refrain from using your cameras whilst inside the gates…”

The request was patently English in its politeness, and yet absurdly trustful given the fact that it was being asked of a herd of motoring journalists inside the secure grounds of Land Rover’s development center at the headquarters in Gaydon. And those funny-looking mules? Only a fleet of next-generation Range Rovers going through their final paces in preparation for launch later this year.

And that’s pretty much how the day would go. We’d been invited behind a very private veil not to be teased about future product details – though there was plenty of that throughout our visit – but to get a better understanding of what goes into Land Rover vehicles to ensure they remain the pinnacle of all-conditions functionality, even if the market actually demands less in that department. In short, we were here for Show-and-Tell, and to be honest, we were as captivated as a room full of kindergarteners at a petting zoo.

First stop, the Virtual Reality Centre, where engineers gather to show off and explore development plans before committing them to physical models. Surprisingly small in its dimensions – perhaps the size of a decent home-basement media room – the studio operates with a bank of sixteen PCs running enterprise-level 3D computer-aided engineering software to project stereographic images on its three walls and ceiling before ever producing a single prototype part, let alone a full-scale model.Viewing the new Evoque in virtual reality offers a unique insight into the thought that goes into even the least off-roadsy Land Rover, because what appears before us is far more than a simple 3D rendering of its body, the likes of which we’ve all become accustomed to with race-sim video games. The VRC, as its known, is a full-on engineering lab, and with the wave of a magic hand-held controller, our host takes us through the car, component by component. We literally scope our way through mechanical systems to see the inner workings of the vehicle from a perspective not possible in real life. Have you ever sat in the oilpan and looked around? We did. Ever seen the interior from the speedometer’s point of view? We’re one ahead of you then.

While it all sounds wonderfully trippy, there’s real value in this kind of ability, as demonstrated with the Evoque’s fording-height simulation. They don’t put Land Rover badges on it if it won’t go through at least twenty inches of water, so the magic controller conjures up a horizontal slice of the car, giving us a view of every piece as if we’d opened it up with a saw. Picture a 3D medical scan, but with cross sections of glass and metal and plastic instead of flesh, bone and vital organs. By directing that horizontal slice down to the minimum fording depth, we see that the cabin floor is watertight and all the critical electronics are well above the line; elevating the slice, we see that the Evoque is probably just as safe at deeper plunges as well

Modeling in the VRC isn’t limited to just the vehicle’s physical attributes. Dynamic testing can be carried out here as well, putting all of the virtual parts in motion. Engineers can run a Land Rover prototype through its paces over a variety of surface conditions, such as asphalt under one tire and wet grass under the others, to determine changes in vehicle behavior under different loads.As the development of a new model progresses, engineers make trips to the VRC to see how their changes, small or otherwise, stack up in reality. Only when the design checks out here are full-scale 3D models, or bucks, created. Virtual reality has cut the need for development bucks by 50 percent. In the past, four to five interior bucks were required before the start of production; today, it takes just two.

Once the engineering designs are approved, they are translated into real parts in the rapid prototype center, our next stop. Essentially a lab filled with robotic booths that generate parts out of nothing more than liquid plastic and laser beams, this is where a lot of the things we see first on the auto show stand are created. Using a process known as stereolithography – SLA to the guys in the white coats and safety glasses – a pair of laser beams crosses each other in a special epoxy resin, leaving behind a spot of hardened plastic about a millimeter thick. This process continues in layers, slowly building a solid part out of the proverbial ooze until a completed prototype emerges, sometimes in just hours. A similar process turns plastic powder into solid parts where slightly different physical properties are required. Either way, these 3D-printed plastic pieces can then be sanded, painted, and assembled like a full-scale model car kit.

Making test parts like these in 3D sometimes reveals potential complications with assembly or future serviceability, well before production tooling is ordered. At the time of our visit, there was a V8 engine block built up with a whole host of mysterious new plumbing, all rendered in the distinct yellowish-clear resin, presumably for this sort of analysis. A lot of these SLA parts, such as the grilles we saw that looked suspiciously like they might (also) belong to the next-gen Range Rover, are finished for display as concept cars. All of the variations on the DC100/New Defender concept have largely been crafted in the rapid prototype lab.With initial engineering complete and preliminary issues addressed, fully functional pre-production “mules” are the next step, built specifically to undergo real-world endurance testing. On our visit to the proving grounds – the former air base RAF Gaydon – a whole squadron of new Range Rover mules, decked out in camera-confounding black and white digital camouflage, is roaming the facilities. These are what we’d been asked to politely forget we’d even seen. But really, how could we?

From the cabin of the former air traffic control tower – what is now the communications and command center – it’s easy to imagine fleets of bombers staged on the tarmac below; no doubt because we had just been shown pictures of the base, circa 1940s. Nevertheless, the location’s roots as a military base turned automotive development center (under British Leyland ownership in 1979) are evident in every direction. The long northeast-to-southwest main runway is capped at either end by return roads that connect to the former taxiway as well as various purpose-built testing maneuvers. There are no banked turns here, and as a result, true top-speed testing (the facility is also crawling with Jaguars and Aston Martins) must take place elsewhere. It also leaves one with a lingering suspicion that it could become an airbase again almost overnight.Off into the woods at the perimeter go dirt and gravel trails, but not the kind of rugged off-road terrain you’d expect to see on Land Rover’s grounds; that’s reserved for Eastnor Castle, an hour away. Still, there are plenty of improvised obstacles here that simulate life in the real world. Perhaps the most brutal is the High Input Structure Test that puts the body and chassis components through duty cycles designed to find their fatigue points. How tough is it? Imagine driving at highway speed over a football field littered with random 2x4s and iron beams. Part of this test cycle involves driving the mules through cooling pools to bring the fluid temperature of the shock absorbers down, if that’s any indication.

Other tests include the typical saltwater baths, rock-chip sprays, multiple-friction braking zones, skid pads and stints in the deep freezer. By the time a new Land Rover model reaches production, it has spent, collectively, hundreds of thousands of miles and countless years being punished at the hands of people whose job it is to work out all the kinks.Our final glimpse at Land Rover’s development process involves a run over to Eastnor Castle, the private estate of the Hervey-Bathurst family and the spiritual home of British off-roading since 1961. The Wilkes brothers, creators of the original Land Rover, forged a relationship with the Hervey-Bathurst family in order to assess their vehicles’ capabilities off-road in a natural but controlled environment. Below the 19th-century Norman Revival castle lies 5000 acres of woods and farmland, where every new Land Rover model for the last fifty years has earned its stripes and where groundbreaking off-road technologies like Hill Descent Control and Terrain Response were hatched.

Though the trails at Eastnor are well established and considered a protected natural conservation area, they are far from tame. The terrain changes constantly as a result of England’s notoriously damp climate. Hills, rocks, tree roots, standing water and grass are among the natural hazards that abound here. The ruts on the trails are deep, and our tour through the woods demands that we run the air-sprung vehicles – Discovery 4 (LR4), Range Rover and Range Rover Sport – at off-road height. The Evoques hammering about the trails sometimes require a different line or additional guidance, but they manage to hang with the rest of the group despite their fixed height, a testament to the thought that has been invested in them.The conditions and scenery are much like the eastern United States, and anyone who has driven the Land Rover Experience at either the Greenbriar Resort in West Virginia or the Biltmore Estate in North Carolina will feel right at home. Our visit has us arriving on the close of England’s wettest spring on record, and many local creeks and rivers are swollen past their banks. The ground at Eastnor is waterlogged as well, but all the Rovers plow through unfettered. It’s certainly routine business for our guides, not to mention a walk in the park for the equipment.It might be easy to dismiss Eastnor as the kind of window dressing needed to uphold the brand’s iconic rugged image, but the work done here is considered essential to creating true Land Rovers. Whether or not owners will ever use their vehicles to the full extent of their capabilities matters little to the guys on the development team. It only matters that they can, a sentiment that was echoed throughout the day.

Our time in the rough ends all too quickly; everyone’s left hoping for another round in the woods, or perhaps one last close-up look at those new Range Rover mules. Oh, the things we’ve seen… But you’ll see them too soon enough, and when you do you can rest assured that countless minds have already considered how they’ll be used and abused, and have done their best to knacker out the kinks. How politely English.


2 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes at Land Rover’s Development Center

  1. Nope. Between emissions and safety standards, the Tenacious D will never make it stateside again. It’s even becoming tough to meet requirements in a lot of smaller markets and will soon be phased out altogether. A new Defender is still a few years away and will no doubt be a completely modern vehicle, albeit quite a bit different in character.

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