Death of the Defender


I’ve learned a new word. I wanted to describe what happens when winter visits these far flung parts and all the Land Rover Defenders that have spent their summer months slumbering in darkened sheds all come out to play. The opposite of hibernation in fact. They have, in fact, been in aestivation. So there you have it.

Round here Defenders have become seasonal fashion accessories, along with waxed jackets, green wellies and flat caps. They emerge in autumn and roar around usually fairly ineffectually, their keepers scouring the forecasts for signs of worsening weather. There is no phrase more likely to bring joy to the heart of a Defender owner than ‘blizzard conditions’. I know, because I’m one of them.

The Frankel Defender

Actually I’m not, but I won’t let the fact that the short wheelbase Series III in which I passed my test over 30 years ago predates the Defender by several years. The rather more focussing fact is that as of this summer, this design will be made no more.

I have often wondered what kept the car now called the Defender in continual production since 1948 and have concluded that for all its talent in managing changing conditions on and off road, its real secret has been its ability to manage a changing market.

In the beginning the humble Land Rover was a straightforward beast of burden, designed as an unbustable work horse largely for farming communities. Its body was aluminium, not because it was light and rot-resistant, but because as the forces scrapped their equipment after the war, it was the cheapest and most plentiful of all relevant and available materials. And it was built with perpendicular bodywork, not primarily to reduce approach and departure angles, but to minimise tooling costs: the car was seen entirely as a stop gap, a quick fix reply to the storming success of the Willys Jeep while its designers came up with a more permanent solution. Which never materialised.

The original centre-steer prototype

But the simplicity and pragmatism behind its design was the same reason that over time it developed a following far beyond its original design remit. Predictably enough the military showed an interest but so too would the fire services, police forces and ambulance crews, not just here, but right around the world. It became the world’s most versatile vehicle, made popular because it could turn from a closed car to a pick up truck for the turn of a few bolts. But it became loved because it was so utterly dependable.

Mine is now 33 years old and – despite any number of running repairs en route – to this day has not yet failed to complete a journey. And while that’s a source of considerable pride to me, to people living in the Australian outback, or sub-Saharan Africa, it was more a matter of life or death. The Land Rover was so simple that even if it did fail to proceed, so long as you could coax or tow it to the next village, it could almost invariably be persuaded to continue its journey by even the least accomplished mechanic with the most minimal tools.

Of course the Japanese eventually called time on that particular game with their far more sophisticated yet still more durable offerings, to the point that today you might feel lucky to see one Defender for every hundred Toyotas or Nissans you find in the world’s more inhospitable climes, but did that spell the end for Land Rover’s most loyal servant? It did not. Instead it just appealed to others instead.

When my Land Rover came into our family it was simply and exclusively because my father wanted his three idiot sons to learn to drive in the slowest, strongest car on sale. That it was also rather difficult to drive and therefore made anything else we might chance across seem something of a doddle by comparison was an unexpected bonus. The idea of such a car actually seeming cool was utterly laughable.

Except cool it became. I have a friend who lives in the middle of London, has no interest in cars and puts up with a noisy, rattly, uncomfortable Defender as his daily driver because there is literally no other car in which he’d rather be seen. Back in the days when the environmentalists were leaving abusive messages for owners of so-called ‘Chelsea tractors’, Defenders were always left untouched.

The reason why is the same reason it has been in production these past 67 years and the reason why Land Rover messes with the formula at its very considerable peril. With the possible exception of the Ariel Atom, the Defender is the most honest car on sale, more honest than a Fiat Panda or a Ferrari F12. It has no pretence, it is form following function at such a distance you’d need the Hubble space telescope to see one from the other. The only reason it is not utterly authentic is that you cannot qualify the word ‘authentic’.

One more thing. If you talk to Land Rover’s off-roading experts today and ask them which car they’d take when the going got really rough, I believe every one of them would name the Defender and so would I. I can recall being out in snow so deep that the only reason I knew which way the road went was because that was the only part of the landscape that didn’t have trees sticking out of it.

So rest in peace Land Rover Defender, for you have earned your retirement many times over. As for its replacement, there is clearly a massive opportunity and an equally vast risk. I just pray that Land Rover makes no attempt to appeal to current fashionable thinking, because the only way to get a car to stay on sale for as much time as the Defender and its forebears, is to make it timeless.

And what a statement for Land Rover that would make: it could make its Range Rovers and Discoverys ever more posh, chintzy and expensive because people would understand the company had not lost touch with its roots, and still knew how to build the kind of car upon which its reputation was originally built. That is precisely why Porsche still builds cars like the 911 GT3 RS – ultimately they help sell Cayennes and that is why the new Defender must be very simple, very strong and more fit for purpose than any all new car launched by Land Rover since, well, 1948.


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