By the mid-1990s, Land Rover had established a solid foothold in North America. The small dealer network established as Range Rover North America in 1987 had expanded nationwide, and with the new 1994 Discovery a smash hit with a new broader family-oriented market, it was time to make a step that Land Rover had not yet made: a dedicated, consistent dealership design. From this, the green-and-timber "Land Rover Centre" was born.
Before the Centres, most Land Rovers were sold in the showrooms of larger European import car dealers. After all, with sales of only a few thousand units a year, Range Rovers were still very much a niche vehicle, and selling them alongside other low-volume imports made sense for everyone. But with the Discovery, which moved 12,000 units in 1995 and 20,000 units a year by the end of the 1990s, there needed to be more sales space, more service space, and a dedicated corporate aesthetic throughout.
The result of this was the Land Rover Centre concept, and by 1996 they were popping up all over the country. The basic design was always the same, though the layout and details were adapted for the individual site and local building code. The front featured a tall, angled glass curtain wall, attached to a green pillar with the Land Rover logo affixed to the top, and the dealer's name below (almost all Land Rover dealers in the United States are called "Land Rover (City Name)," so usually the wording is the city's name.) The rest of the building was a low, straight building, usually painted a creamy tan/yellow color with metal roof accents. Natural stone was a major accent element, drawing you to the Land Rover's element of exploring nature. The ceiling was held up by exposed wooden trusses. The side usually involved some kind of awning or carport with an open latticework that mimicked the curtain wall.
Inside, the buildings featured a very strong "lodge aesthetic." The decor was sporty and slightly retro, with wooden snowshoes, skis and other ephemera all around the walls. There were vintage Land Rover photos, celebrating the Camel Trophy and other conquests. The "Adventure Centre" played videos on a loop in a corner, with a stack of tapes on hand from the "Land Rover Adventures" VHS series, as well as Camel Trophy and other expedition tapes. Another corner sold Land Rover Gear, the name for Land Rover's in-house branded merchandise until a few years ago. Accessories were called "Land Rover Kit" in the 1990s and 2000s, leaning heavily into the British lingo, and another area would show off the choices to "kit out" your new vehicle. The central point of every dealer was a giant compass rose in the middle of the floor, correctly aligned and often with the coordinates of the dealership around the edge. Whatever vehicle was being primarily featured would be parked on top of this compass. Other vehicles were parked at jaunty angles on rock sculptures outside of the dealership. Often dealers would showcase Series Land Rovers to connect the newer models to the familiar "I saw that on my trip to Africa once" older vehicles.
Dealerships also all featured a rock test track, custom designed to show off the off-road capability of all the vehicles Land Rover sold at the time. The tracks featured a hill climb, rock crawl, and side slope, and most test drives ended with a khaki-clad "Sales Guide" taking the prospective customer for a ride on the track to show them just what their new Range Rover could do, even if they'd never experience anything other than pavement ever again.
The Land Rover Centres thrived into the 2000s, with some minor tweaks. But in the late 2000s, with Land Rover and Jaguar sold off by Ford to Tata Motors and becoming a distinct and tied-together business unit, the needs of the market started to change. Jaguar had its own dealership structure and design and had built its own trajectory under Ford, but the two companies were becoming more and more linked to each other under the new JLR. Dealerships were strongly urged to carry both model lines, and though Land Rover could still pull off the lodge aesthetic even with the newer vehicles, Jaguar could not. There would also often be floor space issues fitting the Jaguar lineup alongside the Land Rover lineup.
There are some "hybrid dealerships" out there that combine half a Land Rover Centre design with half an older-style Jaguar dealership, but in the mid-2010s, JLR introduced the "Apex" dealership design, a black and glass cube design that is more brand-neutral and has a more adaptable floor plate, designed for modern-day car selling.
Most American Land Rover dealers are now Apex JLR dealers, though a few still use their classic Centre or a hybrid building. All marques eventually redesign their branding and dealership designs though, and the Land Rover Centre is rooted in a 1990s British-and-kitsch aesthetic that was key to Land Rover planting itself in the United States, and less related to the brand that the market forces shaped it to become here. Back then, the vehicle had to rely on the in-vogue safari lifestyle, a sort of J. Peterman and Banana Republic vibe. They also had to lean into the "God Save the Queen" British heritage more, as evidenced by naming their dealership design after one of the few appropriate words that have a different spelling in British English, as well as things like the "Land Rover Kit" branding. As the brand matured, and went from being a bit player in a niche European import dealership to a major defining force as a market-leading desirable 4x4, so did the needs of its dealers.
Today the remaining Land Rover Centres that aren't still in use have found a variety of new lives. The old Land Rover Flatirons in Colorado is now the community center for Superior, Colorado, with a cafe, community space, and a library branch; yoga classes are now held in the old service bays. Land Rover Alexandria in Virginia is slated to be torn down and replaced with affordable housing, with the new dealership located on a different lot nearby. The old Land Rover Marin in California was converted into a small strip mall, with a Starbucks that still features elements of the Land Rover architecture. Land Rover Princeton in New Jersey still uses its old building as the service department, as the lot available in highly-desirable Princeton for their Apex dealership wasn't big enough to host both sales and service. Many have been sold to become used car dealerships (everything is in place to sell cars, after all), and even under the rebranding, you can still tell they were once Land Rover Centres, with the distinctive curtain wall. Others owned by major multi-brand car dealer franchises are standing, but unbranded and used as storage; many of these will probably be torn down once another brand in the portfolio requires a new dealership design.
While time and Land Rover's marketing have moved on, for those of us that were around in those heady days of the 1990s and 2000s, the old Land Rover Centres will always be a fond memory, a moment where all of the elements of Land Rover's marketing came together in a brilliant push to establish a foothold in the rough and tumble American market -- and wildly succeeded at it.
Get the ROVERLOG Newsletter Delivered to your inbox
Sign up and receive once every 2 weeks