Parris N. Glendening freed his firm grip on the steering wheel, rested his arm on the window opening of the $30,000-plus, silver Land Rover, flashed a broad grin and said: "What a thrill. This was the most fun I've had as governor."
The governor had just completed his second lap around a third-of-a-mile, off-pavement demonstration course Land Rover has constructed in the East Point Metro Business Center in Prince George's County. The course familiarizes dealer prospects, potential financial partners, suppliers and customers with the ruggedness of the luxury sport utility vehicle the automaker imports and distributes throughout the country.
Glendening powered the Land Rover up and down rail-tie stairs, over a slide tilt hill where his vehicle leaned 35 degrees to the left, and through a nearly 2-foot-deep pond and over piles of fieldstone the size of coffee tables.
"I don't want to sound like a walking advertisement for Land Rover and I'm not a car expert, but this thing is terrific," Glendening said yesterday. "I was really surprised by its capabilities and its smoothness. I have a lower back problem and with this vehicle, it was so smooth it didn't bother it."
The course is the first phase of a $10 million expansion program by the importer that will eventually include a 60,000-square-foot, two-story corporate headquarters in Lanham, a "Land Rover University" to train dealership employees, and an even larger and more rugged demonstration course where drivers will need to use the winch to free the vehicle from waist-deep mud.
Construction of the headquarters is well under way. The steel framing is in place and bulldozers were busy yesterday leveling the ground surrounding the construction on a 32-acre site between U.S. 50 and Martin Luther King Jr. Highway near Lanham.
The headquarters is expected to be completed by the end of the year. At that time the company is expected to add 20 to 40 jobs to its present work force of 150 people.
Land Rover North America has done well in recent years. Vehicle sales have quadrupled in two years. The company sold 20,026 vehicles in the United States last year and so far this year sales are up slightly more than 20 percent, according to Jenifer O'Brien, a spokeswoman for the importer of vehicles manufactured by Land Rover in Solihull, England.
Land Rovers are not inexpensive, with some models costing $50,000 or more. Price has always been an issue -- even at the beginning, said Charles R. Hughes, president of the company.
Hughes said that in 1986 when Land Rover North America was founded, the Range Rover (as the vehicles were then called) had a suggested retail price of $30,850.
"At that time it took our breath away," said Hughes, who added some in the industry predicted a short life for the new company.
But Land Rover hung on. The company delivered 2,586 vehicles to dealers in 1987 and annual sales were still slightly less than 5,000 in 1993. But things changed in the spring of 1994 when the company introduced the less expensive Discovery model, the one driven by Glendening yesterday.
Vehicle sales jumped to 12,045 in 1994 when the United States became Land Rover's biggest export market.
"When we launched, about 800,000 sport utility vehicles were being sold in this market," Hughes said. "Last year, that number swelled to 1.7 million, and it looks as if there is more growth to come, though admittedly at a bit slower pace."
The number of dealers in this country has grown more slowly. Land Rover has 97 dealers across the country, said company JTC spokesman Bill Baker.
Baker said 34 of them are exclusive Land Rover Centre stores, hunting lodge-like outlets where four-wheel-drive enthusiasts can buy luggage, camping gear and a wardrobe to go with the vehicles or just shoot the breeze with others about their off-the-road experiences or pick up tips on new trails to explore.
The company hopes to convert 60 outlets to Centre stores by the end of the year, including one in the Baltimore area.
Robert Frankel, president of Frankel Cadillac Land Rover in Pikesville, said he would like to convert his Land Rover operation into a Centre store within the next 12 months. A site has not been selected, but he said it would be in the Baltimore area.
At this time there are only three Land Rover dealers in the state. There is an outlet in Laurel and a Centre store in Rockville.
Pub Date: 7/10/96