Autumn is upon us, the time of year that gets poets waxing about mists and mellow fruitfulness - and more practical types considering the purchase of a solid 4x4 to see them through the winter. The harvest season also highlights the fine line that separates the ripe from the rotten, or - as here - the middle-aged banger from the aspirational near-classic. All themes that combine in this P38 Range Rover, our cheapest Pill yet.
We are crossing the streams with Shed of the Week here, Tony having featured a £1300 4.0 SE P38 of similar vintage as recently as May. Our Brave Pill is £1200 more expensive - up for £2490 before haggling - but it is much nicer-looking, in range-topping Vogue trim and with the brawnier 4.6-litre engine and the promise of a full history file.
While the P38 is unlikely to ever match the desirability of the Range Rover Classic, it is worth remembering how much the two cars have in common. Developed under British Aerospace's reluctant ownership of Rover Group, the P38 was created from what could be described as a frayed shoestring budget: around £200m, which even in early 'nineties money was nothing like enough for an all-new car. Which is why it wasn't. Like the Discovery the P38 was effectively a rehash of the first Range Rover with different bodywork; it sat on a barely altered ladder chassis with the same 108-inch wheelbase and was powered by a developed version of the venerable Rover pushrod V8. This had its capacity increased to either 4.0 or 4.6-litres, but even the most muscular version was only producing a horizontally relaxed 225hp.
The big change, beyond the smoothed-out new bodywork, was the arrival of air suspension. This had been trialled on the run-out LSE version of the Range Rover Classic, and - when working - it did a much better job at imposing discipline on the P38's considerable mass over bumps, while also allowing ground clearance to be increased or the car to be lowered for loading passengers. Of course, the system also quickly proved to be responsible for many of the P38's more infuriating and expensive breakdowns and did much to create the car's reputation for mechanical malady.
Launched in 1994, the P38 received a warm critical response that now seems at odds with its status as the pariah of the Range Rover clan. It was posher than any alternative at the time - this being an era when off-roaders were more for gamekeepers than country squires - and many of the early reviews were also surprisingly positive about the car's dynamics. At least one tester claimed the active suspension made for a car-like driving experience, although this was only true if the car being referred to had solid axles, a 1960s steering box and a centre of gravity about five feet in the air.
While handling finesse was pretty limited, the bigger shock was the disparity between performance and thirst. The V8 made some nice noises when pushed, but even the 4.6 could only produce a modest crop of longitudinal G-forces; a 9.5-second 0-60mph time wasn't much cop even back then. Fuel consumption bordered on the terrifying, even well-wedged owners struggled to get used to cruising economy in the mid-teens. I took one to Wales for a magazine story involving off-roading and averaged 11mpg over 600 miles; I even suffered the indignity of having my fuel card rejected after brimming the vast 100-litre tank for the third time and exceeding a daily limit I'd never previously encountered.
While not a sharp steer, the P38 was pretty damned good at the business of being a Range Rover. It cruised much better than the original did, devouring miles with minimal effort and offering a driving position that was more imperial than merely regal. It was good in town, too - the air suspension coping particularly well with speed bumps and traffic calming measures. The P38's cabin was far better designed than that of the Classic, albeit with a fair quantity of Rover 800 components. Plus which, of course, it was more than happy to go into the wilderness and - unlike most of its rivals - could get back out again, too. When the Mercedes ML and BMW X5 appeared both were much better manner on road, the X5 massively so; but neither could match the P38's sense of occasion or mud-plugging ability.
The X5 and Range Rover also shared the same parentage, although BMW management was always confused by the P38. Munich had bought Rover just before the Rangie was launched and immediately ordered work on a mid-life facelift that would have switched it to BMW V8 petrol power (the weedy BMW diesel engine came from a deal signed before the merger.) There was even consideration of building a V12 version, with a couple of prototypes constructed.
But BMW's senior management were horrified by the P38's build quality. Big boss Wolfgang Reitzle is reported to have almost pulled a car to pieces during a "touch test" at Gaydon, and before long the decision was taken to prioritize development of the all-new L322 Range Rover instead of updating this one. The result was that the P38 lived for only seven years and seems to have been pretty much written out of the corporate history; on a recent visit to Land Rover's swanky visitor's centre in Solihull I didn't find a single image of one.
But does the P38 really deserve the hate? While still in production it became infamous for expensive borkage, with a list of known failure points that was long even by Land Rover standards. These include, but aren't limited to: the air suspension, non air suspension, engine (with both slipping liners and head gaskets), transmission, electrics and heating system. But while people have been complaining and making jokes about the P38 for 25 years, a remarkable number still seem to be with us; something obviously keeps owners writing the cheques.
While many report multiple failures, others claim their P38's have been either entirely reliable, or not unreliable enough to put them off. Our Pill bears a patina that attests to its 127,000 miles with cracked leather trim and a heavily worn steering wheel. But the exterior is free of dents and obvious blemishes and still looks good in this understated grey, and the vendor promises a hefty history that includes a service as recently as May. Being a later car our Pill also has the more reliable 'Thor' engine management system, and being a Vogue it has loads of kit, the tally including a still-functional electric sunroof and even the factory sat nav system that was an expensive option on very late examples.
It also has an MOT history to defy the cynics. Having spent the time between 2011 and 2014 either off the road or at least out of VOSA's view it seems to have been in constant use since then, racking up a few thousand miles a year and having not picked up so much as an advisory since 2015. Like any P38, it will have the ability to throw up wince-inducing bills without warning, but it's fair to say that jeopardy has been factored into the car's value; a Toyota Land Cruiser of the same vintage in similar condition would probably be four times as expensive.
Like the rest of its unloved clan, our Pill is still well within "bin it if it breaks" territory, but this is one P38 you could legitimately choose for the long haul.