Watergate and the Range Rover

The Watergate leak from “Deep Throat” brought down US President Richard Nixon, but for sheer size it’s hard to go past the April 2016 “Panama Papers” leak to a German newspaper. That was over 2.5 trillion bytes (2.6TB) of data – the biggest ever breach.

The 11 million leaked files from the database of a Panama law firm included the details of a close relative of the previous owner of a 1996 P38A Range Rover, which I bought a few months after the Panama Papers appeared.

As the Guardian explains, being named in the papers doesn’t mean you’ve done anything illegal – just that you’ve used secretive offshore tax regimes. Even former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was listed, over a long-discarded tech company directorship. However, some people would have these arrangements for very “specific” reasons.


The former owner of my Range Rover certainly had some adventures in the finance world: he bought the luxury 4WD new (for $115,000) in London in 1996, then took it with him to South Africa for a while, before importing it into Australia himself in 2008, as a used vehicle. Then it seemed to spend much of its time, sitting in a Brisbane garage.


So when I bought it, the petrol V8 Rangie was 20 years old with just 73,000 kilometres on the clock, shiny green paint, and a good interior with almost perfect leather. At the time I owned another green Land Rover vehicle – exactly the same age but diesel-engined, riddled with rust and very used. The contrast was striking.

The Rangie had apparently made way for a new Porsche SUV for the Panama man, and gone to the nephew for a few months. However, the nephew said he didn’t want to worry about his young kids damaging the Connolly leather, so the family bought a Toyota Prado instead. I paid what his uncle had (apparently) charged him for the Rangie: $9,000. It was around $3,000 more than the used examples I’d been looking at, but fair enough considering the top condition and extremely low kilometres.


I’d done plenty of research on the P38A Range Rover: its vulnerable V8 engine, its unpredictable computer brain and its fussy air suspension. However, such a low-kilometre example would be safe from those problems, right?

Even during my test drive, the dash would flash up an occasional warning that an indicator bulb was blown – yet on inspection, it flashed fine.

A few months after driving the Rangie, one afternoon the left blinker turned on – and didn’t blink. The bulb simply stayed on, even with the key removed, and could only be stopped by taking out the bulb. A visit to the auto electrician revealed that the computer under the driver’s seat (the BECM) needed a new transistor that was such old technology, it would have to be ordered from overseas.

Then when I picked up the truck and paid the $1,000 bill, other faults occurred, which were blamed on cracks in the solder, disturbed by removing the computer board. Thankfully I was able to convince them to fix the board for no extra, seeing as the faults weren’t there before.


Other than that issue, other ownership costs were mostly maintenance, but expensive: the brake accumulator was replaced to stop a spongy pedal, the airbag suspension was renewed and the engine seals changed. Each visit to the workshop was at least $1,000 and sometimes close to $2,000.

I did pay for a new battery too, but only after the Rangie refused to electronically unlock at the airport one night and was then towed to the mechanic (I later figured out a simple jump start would have got me on my way). The Rangie is very particular about voltage!

The 4.6 litre V8 (in the HSE model) is based on a old Buick design, doesn’t go below 15l/100km fuel usage and can suffer from slipped cylinder liners if the engine gets too hot. It’s an eye-wateringly expensive repair for that. I always kept a close eye on coolant level, and the temperature gauge.


I took the Rangie off-road for some light work, and with its “viscous coupling” (a virtual diff lock, to stop wheels in the air spinning uselessly) it handled steep rocky tracks well. However I was always worried about the electronics or airbags giving up in a bad place, so as the Rangie neared 100,000 kms on the clock in early 2020, I put it up for sale for what it owed me, which was a lot more than I paid for it.

A local man rang me about it, then said he had to “check with the minister for finance”. I expected she’d veto him paying so much for an old 4WD, but a month or so later he made contact again. After inspecting it, he was sold and made a day to pay and pick it up.

That same week, a woman in a southern state rang me, desperate to own it. I told her it was set to sell to the man, and she hoped he wouldn’t go ahead with the purchase. She’d end up disappointed.

I was sad to see the Rangie leave with a new owner, but happy with the price. I used part of the proceeds to buy another example of British motoring: an MGF roadster. A convertible like that would fit right in, on the streets of Panama.



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