The Land Rover Defender

If you want to snap up a brand-new, old-school Land Rover Defender, you’ll have to move fast as production stops in December. Simon de Burton mourns a national treasure

A Land Rover Defender off-road
A Land Rover Defender off-road | Image: Alamy

Call your local Land Rover dealer today and you can probably book a test drive in the latest machine to take the SUV world by storm – the new Discovery Sport. Its body and underpinnings were created using the last word in CAD-CAM technology, and you’ll find its interior luxurious, with comfortable accommodation for five and a couple of extra seats in the very back for two more.

With a 2.2 diesel engine and a nine-speed automatic gearbox, you’ll be able to cruise the motorway in refined style while using fuel at the frugal rate of a gallon every 50 miles, and with enough power in reserve to exceed the UK speed limit by more than 50 per cent. Your passengers, meanwhile, can make the most of the multimedia entertainment system and computerised climate controls. And, at journey’s end, the clever new Disco’ will even park itself.

It’s undeniably impressive. But will we still be talking about it in the year 2082? Somehow I doubt it, yet I don’t suppose Maurice Wilks and his brother Spencer were looking more than six decades into the future during the summer of 1947 when, part-way through a stroll along Anglesey’s Red Wharf Bay, one of them picked up a stick and sketched in the sand their vision for an agricultural vehicle designed to take Rover in a new direction after the war.

Maurice was Rover’s technical chief and Spencer its MD. They owned a farm on Anglesey, around which they used to drive an ex-Army Jeep. Competent though this was, it inspired them to try to make something better that would be both worthy of the Rover name and capable of traversing all types of terrain – hence Land Rover.

After tinkering about with a Rover-powered Jeep and experimenting with the short-lived idea of a centrally positioned steering wheel, the brothers eventually settled on a vehicle with an 80in wheelbase, a 1600cc petrol engine producing 55hp, a four-speed gearbox and permanent four-wheel-drive. A lack of steel led to a decision to use plentiful aluminium for most of the body panels and, in June 1948, the first production Land Rovers began to roll off the line at Rover’s Solihull plant.

A Land Rover Defender special-edition Autobiography
A Land Rover Defender special-edition Autobiography

Priced at £450, the car was intended as a stop-gap vehicle to bring the company some much-needed cash from overseas – but it proved unexpectedly popular and the initial production run of 100 per week was quickly ramped up to 500. And yes, you’re right. Land Rovers that look like Land Rovers are still leaving Solihull today and production figures have long since broken through the 5m mark.

There has clearly been a gradual evolution – the original “80in” wheelbase grew to 86in and then 88in; longer (107in and 109in) versions were introduced; the Series 1 became the Series II in 1958 and prevailed in modified “IIA” and “III” form for 30 years, before the cart spring suspension was replaced with coil springs on the “90” and “110” models of the early 1980s. And it is these that, in 1991, became what most people now know as Land Rover Defenders.

Even those who care not a jot about cars know a Defender when they see one, whether it’s clawing its way up a muddy hill with a couple of sheepdogs lolling from the tailgate or, just as likely these days, transporting a designer-clad fashionista between luxury retailers in any of the world’s hippest cities.

Maurice Wilks died in 1963, his brother Spencer eight years later. But if they were still around, they would probably be as baffled as the rest of us by the remarkable longevity of the car that grew from a drawing in the sand, and they would undoubtedly be incredulous that Land Rovers are now perceived as being cool.

“There is absolutely no doubt that part of the reason for the Defender inspiring such affection is that it has been around for so long and hasn’t really changed,” says Land Rover’s design chief Gerry McGovern, whose 21st-century replacement for the model will soon be revealed following years of development.

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“From a design perspective, I think the Defender’s honesty and simplicity are what lend it such appeal – it wasn’t, in fact, ‘designed’ as such but evolved in accordance with what was available, in terms of engineering techniques and materials, in an era when things were more simple and less hectic. I think the fact that people often relate to simpler times probably accounts a great deal for why the Defender has been turned into an icon.

“Our challenge has been to create something that is as relevant today as the original Land Rover was in 1948,” adds McGovern. “It’s about capturing the essence of what the first one was about, its charm and its fun aspects in a way that conforms to the complex legislation of today’s world.”

But if you, too, are nostalgic for simpler times and want to snap up a brand-new, old- school Defender, you’ll need to move fast because its demise, originally announced at the end of 2013, is now looming large and production is set to cease at Solihull in December – just 10 months away.

From annual peak sales of 56,663 in 1970, numbers dropped to 17,146 in 2013 –  not because people don’t want Defenders, but because they are, quite simply, too old-fashioned to pass muster in an era when vehicle manufacturers must consider the safety of their products above and beyond any other aspect of their design.

And Defenders, with their sharp corners, flimsy aluminium bodywork and sparsely trimmed interiors that are decidedly unforgiving in the event of a collision, simply don’t make the grade any more. Airbags? Forget it. Crumple zones? Defenders can certainly crumple. Seat belt alarms? Blissfully absent. No wonder America stopped letting new ones in more than 15 years ago.

The Wilks brothers, Maurice (right) and Spencer
The Wilks brothers, Maurice (right) and Spencer | Image: British Motor Industry Heritage Trust

Yet just this morning Mrs de Burton drove past my office window in our school-run special only to return to base two minutes later. A healthy blanket of Dartmoor fog and a slick coating of frost on the nearest hill meant today was a day to forget the Peugeot hatchback’s frugal fuel consumption in favour of the comforting embrace of our indomitable Defender, which, despite being officially “unsafe”, is the car we choose over any other when the going gets tough. Or even just a little bit slippy.

The way the ridiculously inadequate steering lock converts three-point turns into eight-point ones can be a little irritating, and the ride (even with that state-of-the-art coil-spring suspension from 1981) means that anyone attempting to use the rudimentary cup-holders between the front seats is guaranteed a soaking.

It’s a great vehicle for preserving one’s driving licence, though, as attempting to exceed the speed limit is a task few have time to undertake – and you won’t fall asleep at the wheel because only a committed masochist could bear the discomfort for more than a couple of hours at a stretch.

Yet despite such foibles, the price tag (£23,100 once you’ve added a few luxuries, such as rear seats), a propensity for the parts that are made from steel to rust alarmingly, the complete absence of aerodynamics and a sometimes suspect reliability record, the Defender remains a British national treasure for which some people are already in mourning – and for which many are now clamouring to get on the waiting list before the chance to buy a new one disappears altogether.

“When I started working here two-and-a-half years ago we sold virtually no Defenders at all,” says Guy Bowen, the business manager of Lookers Land Rover in Battersea, southwest London. “Our demographic just didn’t seem to fit with what is essentially an agricultural vehicle, but that has completely changed now that the Defender is regarded as being a cool mode of transport and, on average, we receive at least one enquiry per day from couples who are thinking of buying one.

A Twisted T80 Defender. A Series I pre-production vehicle No 1
A Twisted T80 Defender. A Series I pre-production vehicle No 1 | Image: Twisted Automotive Limited

“Many people are surprised to hear that production is coming to an end, and it seems inevitable that the closer we get to that, and the more people become aware of it, the more we are going to be taking orders for the run-out models. We are expecting particular demand for the special editions that will be produced towards the end,” adds Bowen.

One customer who has already got her Santorini Black, long wheelbase, end-of-an-era Defender safely tucked up in the garage is Amandine Rohmer, a chic Parisian mother of two who runs the UK arm of luxury watch brand Panerai.

“I have always been in love with the Defender, but the fact that this is the last year of production focused my mind, and made me realise that it was now or never for a new one.

“I’ll drive it to the country at the weekends, I’ll drive it to the Alps for skiing and I’ll drive it to Italy for summer holidays. It suits my character, it carries my kids and my dog and, although it doesn’t have airbags or any of the latest gadgets, I feel confident and safe in it. And it will be the car that my sons learn to drive in. Yes, it was relatively expensive – but the decision to buy it was entirely mine, and I regard it as a car for life.”

The realisation that the longest-running British vehicle in continuous production, save for the Morgan sports car, is soon to be no more is also having a knock-on effect for the many firms whose modified Defenders hold particular appeal for city‑dwelling trendies.

A Twisted Retro 90 Defender soft-top
A Twisted Retro 90 Defender soft-top | Image: Twisted Automotive Limited

Probably the most successful of these is North Yorkshire-based Twisted, which creates up to 100 tailored Defenders per year based on brand new vehicles or customers’ existing cars. The addition of performance-enhancing mechanical upgrades, custom-designed interiors, special wheels and unusual paint finishes can push the price of a Twisted Defender to £150,000 or beyond – and, according to founder Charles Fawcett, the orders are ramping-up as the end of Defender production draws nearer.

“We have seen a huge increase in enquiries in the past 12 months,” says Fawcett. “There’s a real buzz around the Defender at the moment, especially for the sort of modified versions that we specialise in.

“When we started out in 2001, I think the car was regarded as a working vehicle and not much else. By developing and modifying it, both in terms of the way it drives and handles and the way it looks, we helped to take the Defender across the lifestyle boundary. Suddenly, it became a car with luxury appeal that fitted in quite naturally next to an owner’s Bentley or Mercedes.”

Twisted’s main business involves buying new Defenders and modifying them to individual customers specifications – something that Fawcett anticipates being able to do, alongside restoration, for some time after the official end of production, assuming he can accumulate a sufficient number of vehicles.

“If anything, I think the cessation of Defender production will help businesses like ours, because it will focus attention on the cars and perhaps encourage people who already own them to take advantage of our drive-in, drive-out service through which we modify customers’ existing vehicles. Part of what we do involves not only making Defenders drive better, but also last longer; we seal the chassis to prevent rusting, for example, and address problems such as leaking doors and poor‑quality trim.”

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There are those of us, however, who think such character traits are what gives a Defender its charm –  even if those damp footwells do sometimes play havoc with the wife’s Jimmy Choos.

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