In the 1980s, the BBC’s Top Gear programme was presented by Chris Geoffrey, a very influential motoring journalist much listened-to within the British automotive sector.
In 1986 he was among the first to drive the recently launched diesel-powered Range Rover. It didn't go well. Geoffey made it very clear that he was unconvinced by the 2.4 litre VM diesel powered Range Rover.
As Land Rover would not sell more than 300 Turbo D versions in the UK that year, Chris Goffey's test drive was not as disastrous as it might have been.
The story goes that the Range Rover tested by Top Gear had been borrowed from an Italian dealer. It had not undergone the usual pre-delivery inspection (PDI). Moreover, for some unknown reason, the car had by-passed the rigorous preparation normally required by Land Rover’s press service.
At the time, many Land Rover employees were driving the new diesel Range Rover, and the team involved in its creation were understandably very disappointed by the negative media feedback.
A Land Rover manager, who also practiced motorsport, had the idea of attempting a series of acceleration and endurance records with a Range Rover powered by the new diesel engine.
What made the team's success really remarkable was that all members were volunteers, working unpaid and at their own pace, with the passion to rehabilitate the diesel engined Range Rover.
But let’s return to the objective of the “Bullet” project. This was to prepare two Turbo D models with which to attack the international record for Class D vehicles, i.e., vehicles powered by an engine of between two and three litres.
VM, the Italian manufacturer of the Range Rover diesel engine, immediately saw the publicity potential of the record attempts. It proved an indefatigable supporter of the project from the start and even prepared engines specifically for the project.
The planning and preparation for the double attempt was carried out almost clandestinely. Only a handful of people in Solihull were in on the project, probably so that Land Rover would not have to officially recognise it in the event that it was unsuccessful.
The situation changed somewhat in August with Peugeot’s announcement of plans to attempt several records in the same diesel category using its 505 SRD Turbo saloon. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any trace of this attempt. The objective for Land Rover was no longer to beat the existing records, set in 1978, but to get the most out of the Range Rover diesel and smash the records set by Peugeot.
The newly-formed “Bullet” team needed two vehicles to tackle two types of records. The first for acceleration records and short sprints, the second for duration and distance records at high speeds. The venue was the UK’s renowned MIRA test circuit.
This meant preparing two Range each with their own specific requirements. For the sprint and acceleration records the chosen solution was to use a white, ex-Paris-Dakar Range Rover that John Faulkner managed to borrow from Halt’Up! It’s V8 engine was replaced in Solihull by a VM diesel and reequipped to resemble a production Range Rover. Although it was far from being a standard car, with special bodywork that reduced the weight considerably, the car was accepted by the RAC officials. Even so, no official publicity photos have ever been published. The shot we present here is the only one that exists, and this was taken from a distance.
After the successful attempt, the original motor was refitted and the car returned to France and participated in several future Paris-Dakar rallies.
The first stage of the Bullet project involved a series of development tests in Bari, Italy. During these tests the car covered nearly 18,000 miles, the outcome being that achieving an average speed of 90-95mph over a long distance was considered plausible.
Back in England, the team held several practice sessions at MIRA in the weeks prior to the actual attempt. There were, for example, a number of night-time trials: “I’ld leave the factory in whatever vehicle I was mileage-testing at the time, divert to MIRA, put in a few hours of testing on the endurance vehicle, and then head off to complete my 400-mile test drive”, recalls Colin Parkes.
It was an opportunity for him and the Bullet to go head-to-head with, for example, Rover SD1s that were being tested at the same time on the circuit.
The initial plan was to settle on the MIRA circuit for a weekend and go to tickle the 108mph (180kph) average speed per lap.
At the beginning of August all that remained to be done was to finish preparing the vehicle and to complete the mountain of paperwork required by the RAC to validate the record attempts.
Six lucky people were chosen to drive the Range Rovers during the attempts. There was no real formal selection process, not even motorsport experience was required. Being a member of the Bullet Project was enough.
A number of other modifications were made to meet the safety demands and the need for rapid stops in the pits. Two fuel tanks were fitted with racing filler caps in the rear bodywork. Inside, the modifications included the installation of a complete roll cage and also the removal of the front and rear passenger seats to reduce excess weight. As the record targeted 24-hour performance, an intercom was fitted to ensure uninterrupted communication between the driver and the pits.
There remained one factor essential to the success of the record attempt: pit organisation. In particular, the factory workshops made a gantry mounted with four high-powered lamps powered by a 50Kw generator.
At every level, all had to be done with a minimum of cost — including the unpaid time of the team members. In addition to MIRA’s ambulance crew and doctor, it was a small army of 70 people (including two Italian engineers from VM who were assigned to the Solihull factory at the time) that assembled at the track to chase the records.
All these fine people had to be accommodated, fed and generally “pampered”. There was a van (today we would say a food truck) on site throughout the weekend, offering burgers, soft drinks and chocolate bars to sustain team morale.
On the first day of the attempts, a record of 106mph (170k/h) averaged over 200 miles (320 km) was validated. The first pit-stop is achieved in under 33 seconds: not long to refuel, clean the windscreen and refill the washer bottle, check the tyres and change drivers. In fact, this first day produced the best time of the weekend, 108.13mph, set by Mike “Speedy” Smith.
However, at the fourth pit stop, a check under the bonnet revealed that two studs holding the turbocompressor to the manifold were missing. Back on the track the boost pressure began to drop and lap times deteriorated. On returning to the pits, the remaining studs gave way when the mechanics tried to adjust them. The original production studs were not suitable for the record attempt as the engine ran at higher temperatures than normal. After some discussion with the official RAC timekeepers, it was decided to rebuild the engine using parts from the test engine.
The two VM engineers and Chris Jackson immediately begin work to rectify the engine, while Dewson was sent back to the factory to fetch a manifold, studs and cylinder head.
During the repair, the drivers wait huddled in bed in a caravan borrowed for the weekend. The work is completed at midnight, allowing the attempt to be relaunched.
On Saturday 30th August, the Beaver Bullet had broken no less than 25 records. The next day it set two new distance records covering 1,220 miles ( 1,952 kilometres) in 12 hours at an average speed of 101.68 mph ( 164 km/h) and 2,444 miles (3,910 km) in 24 hours at an average speed of 101.84 mph ( 166 km/h), smashing the previous record by 1,000 miles.
The VM-powered Range Rover went on to achieve huge sales success in the diesel-friendly countries of continental Europe. In 1989, 75% of all Range Rovers sold were fitted with diesel powertrains.
And why Beaver Bullet? Well, I had to look into English slang. A Beaver Bullet is … a sanitary towel. Something to staunch the painful press feedback on the VM 2.4 perhaps?
To end on a small personal message to the holders of these records: do please contact me. I would be very happy to offer you this book, especially to Mike Smith, John Faulkner, Colin Parkes, Jon Ward, John Woodward, Pip Archer or their familie.