Land Rover Defender – A farewell to arms
It began, as the best ideas tend to, with a personal need. Maurice Wilks, an engineer at Rover and brother of managing director Spencer Wilks, had spotted a gap in the market for a vehicle which could function as a lightduty tractor and a car. A durable, simple commercial vehicle for the farming community, based on his experience using a tired Willys Jeep on his own land.
From a sketch in the sand at Anglesey’s Red Wharf Bay, the idea progressed through prototypes and pre‐production cars during 1947, put through their paces on the Hebridean island of Islay. The car eventually known as the Series I made its public debut at the Amsterdam Motor Show the following year.
Priced at £450, it was almost unchanged from Wilks’s original idea, powered by a torquey 50bhp 1.6‐litre petrol engine with low‐ratio gearing for off‐road use and a Power Take‐Off which enabled it to run belt‐driven farming equipment. Its aluminium body panels, originally used due to steel shortages, were also lightweight and rust resistant and finished in shades of army‐surplus green.
Rover initially expected to sell only 50 a week.
The lack of a crystal ball may have been a blessing given Rover’s eventual fate, but it couldn’t have misjudged it more. Multiple wheelbases and the Power Take‐Off found favour with public and private sector customers, making it incredibly adaptable. The Land Rover quickly overtook Rover production volumes, eventually ousting the SD1 from Solihull in 1980.
It’s survived Rover, Leyland Group, British Leyland, British Aerospace, BMW, Ford and lived on into Tata Motors ownership, outlasting its parent company by more than a decade and selling over two million vehicles worldwide.
With 2015 marking the end of production, we found out what’s given the Defender such long‐lasting popularity, told by the people who build, sell and use it.
Building the Defender
Michael Bishop, senior instructor, Land Rover Experience Solihull
Rover had barely started production in Lode Lane, Solihull, when the Series I left the line in 1948.
With limited aspirations, it’s unlikely anyone would’ve foreseen that car’s mechanically and visually close descendent last a human lifespan at the same site.
“We have 15 base varieties of Defender and four chassis options and the Defender 110 can have a heavy duty chassis for pick up versions,” explains Land Rover historian Michael Bishop, also an off‐road instructor and tour guide at the factory. “We have, since 1948, produced a huge variety of different variations. Military and civilian have been available showing the adaptability of the original design, through to the latest three limited editions.”
Some 450 staff, including three generations of one family, built the Defender, tucked in alongside the automation of the other vehicles – now including Jaguars – also manufactured there. Bishop says the build process hasn’t changed significantly in that time.
“It has become a little quicker, as technology can be used for items like bleeding the brakes, which are done by a machine where they used to be done manually,” he says. “The vehicles go through a rolling road to test that they are fully operational. That used to be a test on an internal test track on the Solihull site.”
But some things haven't changed: “Its never‐ending appeal comes from three original key features, ease of four‐wheel drive functionality, being extremely adaptable and lastly how much fun it can be to use,” he says.
Selling the Defender
Jeremy Hicks, MD of Jaguar Land Rover
“We always describe Defender as the vehicle you can use and abuse,” says Jeremy Hicks. “It’s a really durable workhorse that can do anything, particularly in challenging environments. It fulfilled, right from the beginning, a really, really practical purpose. That’s why it continues to be really desirable amongst the business community.”
Serving everywhere farms to frontlines, Hicks says its simplicity and 3.5‐tonne towing ability has made it indespensible – 70% are repeat orders, and lifespans are often above average.
“It defies the logic of most fleet operating principles. Most look at ideal ownership spans ideally up to three years and 60,000 miles, and at that time maintenance costs start to ramp up. Defender customers are happy to keep them on and keep them going.
“Easy maintenance is a big thing. It’s a very simple vehicle. Farmers love it because after you finish using it you can get the hose pipe out and hose it down… inside… and they love that.”
So much so that, Hicks says, a chunk of the final months of production have been taken up with stockpiling. Some customers are keen to make sure they’ve got vehicles to last them when it’s no longer available.
Which must give its eventual replacement big shoes to fill? “When we launched this generation Range Rover, the feedback we got was – and this is a Land Rover truth – don’t change it, just make it better. Don’t change the recipe, just make it better in terms of what you provide. That’s what drives us,” says Hicks.
Using the Defender
Mike Street, chairman, SHB Hire Ltd
Even including the enthusiast community, few people outside Land Rover’s payroll know Defenders as well as Mike Street. Chairman of SHB Hire, he’s not only one of the longest‐standing business customers, but the 1,200 Defenders on his books is the largest fleet outside the British Army.
“They were well‐suited to cross‐country work, and there was a lot of it,” he explains. “They’re also good at towing, so even if you’re not using them off road they’re very good for moving heavy equipment.”
Starting out as a plant manager for the family building business, a role he continued after his father passed away, hiring Land Rovers was a natural progression. A life‐changer which began in 1968, with a friend’s frustration at not being able to get vehicles fast enough. Street managed to persuade his boss to let him hire Land Rovers through the business, if he owned the cars.
“I scrounged £150 and hired it out for £7.10 per week, I remember that clearly,” he says. “It broke down virtually every day!”
Helped by expansion of the UK’s oil and natural gas pipelines, seismic surveys and open‐cast coal mining, business boomed.
Customer demands were as diverse as war reporting, Hollywood film crews and constructing the motorway network ‐ ironically, Britain’s best‐known off‐roader was instrumental in laying the foundations of the UK’s busiest on‐road routes.
SHB now operates 14,000 vehicles, from buggies to artics, at 14 depots from Ayrshire to its Hampshire headquarters. But the Defender, particularly the 110, still has a large role, albeit mostly fulfilled by standard cars, getting only metallic paint and County packs for easy resale. SHB also has around 40 classic Land
Rovers, dating back to 1948, for specialist hire.
It’s a far cry from early demands on the fleet: “We used to run welding sets, generating sets, big powerful winches, we’d have workshop bodies, even on the hard tops we quite often used to have lift‐up sides,” says Street.
“The market has changed a hell of a lot. Nowadays contractors use Transit vans, either with under‐floor compressors or they tow one. They need bigger storage for carrying the kit, the Land Rover couldn’t carry a lot plus it’s an expensive vehicle.”
Often‐flaky Leyland‐era cars didn’t help: “Land Rover was redacted, it lost its way, lost the market, which is a terrible shame,” he says.
“When they brought out the Series III the reverse gear had a 12‐hour operating life. In the pipelines they used to drive along then reverse back out again. We were forever replacing gearboxes.
Someone like us offering to hire them including the maintenance they were well pleased with, because they were very heavy maintenance vehicles.
“We used to change gearboxes and clutches on site, and we’d buy Series IIs to take the gearboxes out for the Series IIIs, because they had a stronger reverse gear. They’re a lot more reliable now.”
It’s also not short of rivals: “Three years ago our Japanese 4×4 fleet became bigger than our Land Rover fleet. The double‐cab pickup is the most common vehicle now – the Land Rover version is very expensive and not that comfortable. We’re already having cherry pickers fitted to Hiluxes, and Isuzu D‐Max, so they’ve taken that market.”
But it’s still in demand, and SHB is stockpiling run‐out cars, with 630 on order and plans to make them last until a replacement is launched. Street has one key demand: “It would’ve been nice if it had been a separate chassis, so that you could modify them, but we hear that’s not likely to happen.”
Case Study – The Environment Agency
With heavy equipment and near‐inaccessible locations, the Environment Agency (and its predecessors) have a relationship with Land Rover which dates back to 1989. It’s an invaluable tool for the field teams, says Emily Buckley of the corporate assets team.
“It had a presence when attending incidents and could work in the varying situations in which we operate. One of their key benefits to us was their ability to tow 3,500kg, this was invaluable when required to tow pumps to site during flooding incidents,” she says.
The Agency runs 283 Defenders, mostly 110s but with a few 130s featuring full‐height workshops or Luton bodies, and a handful of 90s which are used to tow boats. Typically they’re deployed on sites which are only accessible via river banks, farm tracks and estuaries.
“Not only did it have a good ground clearance, but also the ability to get through deep water. This was especially beneficial when deploying pumps in times of an emergency.”
But, in the short term, production closure is forcing them to look elsewhere: “We have already put in a new order for Isuzus, as they are the nearest match with regard to capability, the means to adapt to our business needs and they have a towing capacity which will enable us to move equipment around between our sites,” says Buckley
Case Study – UK Power Networks
“Our current operational performance is industry‐leading and this year we are on course to record our best ever results for reducing the frequency and duration of power cuts. The Land Rover’s ability to get to some of the most inhospitable places is essential to us in order that we can transport engineers and materials to where they are most needed,” says transport fleet manager Ricki Sayer.
Despite multiple ownership changes at UK Power Networks, that ability has made Land Rovers a fleet staple for over 35 years. There are 110 Defenders on fleet, mostly 110s with heavy‐duty suspension and side rollers used for moving overhead and underground repair equipment but also accessing remote substations. Elsewhere its stock of 130s, equipped with Ariel platforms for working at height, have been a vital part of its strong safety record.
“It would be wrong to say it’s always been plain sailing, there have been some testing times along the way and in recent times the cab layout and ergonomics has become an increasing focus of attention. This could, we feel, have been remodelled to add improvements over the years.”
However, it’s proving a tough vehicle to replace: “The ability of this vehicle to be used off road has been outstanding.
Its chassis and drivetrain stand the test of time – reliable, strong and repairable too. It will be a hard act to follow.”
Case Study – British Red Cross
Land Rover donated its first vehicle to the British Red Cross in 1954, a long wheelbase Series I modified to work as a mobile clinic and dispensary. Travelling 17,000 cross‐desert miles, it treated more than 5,000 patients and kick‐started what remains a strong relationship – including short‐term vehicle loans during emergencies.
It’s put the Defender and its predecessors into a wide variety of roles around the world. That could be supporting the homeless residents of Rome, moving volunteers and staff for water and sanitation projects in Nigeria, or even working as an ambulance with the UK’s emergency services during severe weather, explains Catherine Mackenzie, the organisation’s senior corporate partnerships executive.
“Our humanitarian and disaster relief work means we frequently face challenging weather and difficult terrain, and we often need to reach remote areas where roads are impassable or non‐existent. It is therefore imperative that all the vehicles we use are up to the challenge of tackling demanding conditions. At times like these when our services are in demand from people in crisis situations, we need our fleet to be consistently reliable,” she says.
And there’s still a long‐running role for the car after production finishes.
“We will continue using our Defenders; our fleet already contains a variety of models from different manufacturers, which gives us the capability we need in challenging situations.”
Driving the Defender Defender 90 Heritage Edition
A modern classic with heritage links that go far beyond a retro paint job, says Alex Grant.
Retro culture may have spawned some occasionally dubious re‐imaginings, but the Defender Heritage Edition which marks the end of production couldn’t have closer ties to its inspiration. This isn’t just an homage, it’s modern technology under genuine 1940s engineering.
That’s a bloodline which makes all the more sense driven back‐to‐back with a Series I ‐ such as the oldest member of SHB’s 1,200‐strong Land Rover fleet. The Defender might feel like a throwback, but even its smattering of creature comforts – carpets, air conditioning, electric windows – are decades ahead of the bare metal, vinyl and solitary metal bar the Series 1 has for a dashboard.
However, nothing drives like a Defender, and that’s down to its lineage. The Series I’s three‐seat layout shows up in the oddly outboard controls 67 years later. There’s still no elbow room with the window closed – problematic with a truck‐sized steering wheel – the handbrake hasn’t moved from the footwell and extending the headroom has made the latest Defender almost a foot taller than a Range Rover, not to mention a stretch to climb into.
The cabin tells a tale of previous parent companies, with its spindly early‐1980s British Leyland steering column controls, Ford switches and vents and instruments from the Discovery. There are still indents for window winders and under‐windscreen air vents, redundant scars resulting from new technology.
Where the Series I was basically a van, the latest 90 has space for four – its rear seats folding up against the sliding rear windows. Passengers have to get in through the tailgate, another quirk, but there’s a respectable load area with lashing points in the back and, elbow space aside, the front seats are quite comfortable on long journeys.
Land Rover says 30% of Defenders regularly tow, and 80% go off road at least weekly. It’s worlds away from the Range Rover’s technology, but the 500mm maximum wading depth, 250mm ground clearance under the differentials and choice of high, low and diff‐locked modes selected by the second transmission lever can set it up for most terrain.
The trade‐off is agricultural on‐road manners. Its 120bhp 2.2‐litre diesel engine is lively at low speeds, features an anti‐stall mechanism for climbing hills, and the long sixth gear means it’s happy on the motorway. But it lets out a coarse snarl under load, with gearchanges akin to a signal box, vicious suspension rebound and slow steering.
Of course, the Heritage Edition’s sand‐coloured seating means it’s more of a road car. But the unique metallic paint, body‐coloured steel wheels and grille, silver bumpers and hinges pay such a stylish homage to the Series I that it’s a genuine head‐turner on‐road. It’s a detailed special edition, but that’s expected for Discovery Sport money.
But the Defender has long sold on familiarity, simplicity and nostalgia, and this is the spearhead of that. Modern rivals might do the rough stuff just as well, but with the world turning to autonomous cars, connectivity and soft‐touch plastics, the original Land Rover’s passing marks the end of a classic and characterful era.