When the Land Rover Defender finally reached the much-delayed end of its production run last January, after 68 unbroken years rolling off the assembly lines of Solihull, it seemed like not just the end of an iconic expedition vehicle, but of the very image of exploration that fueled the early dreams of so many of us. Those black-and-white photos of a 107 or 109 wagon, cruelly overloaded, canted sideways on a muddy track in the Congo or parked under a camelthorn tree in the Kalahari, stopped us in astonishment as we paged though books or National Geographic magazines.
That’s it. That’s what I want to do.
How many of those who in the last few decades have done the most vital research in wildlife conservation, archaeology, anthropology—even astronomy—felt their first pang of yearning for an adventurous future gazing at a picture of a Land Rover in a far away place? How many thousands more became advocates for conservation after accomplishing more modest explorations, inspired by those same images?
For its entire history, the Defender (as it came to be called only in the 1980s) stayed true to a formula nearly ideal for an expedition vehicle and a product designed to suit developing world conditions and markets. A boxed chassis provided necessary torsional rigidity, and separate aluminum body panels bolted on, easily replaceable. Entire vehicles could be shipped in pieces in crates to remote regions to be assembled on site, a program known as CKD, for Complete Knock Down.
The layout of the Defender—all angles and straight lines—meant the interior was ideal for storing cargo or modifying with interior cabinetry. Running gear stayed simple until the needs of the late 20th century mandated electronic controls for some engine functions. An increase in comfort and ability (with no loss of strength or dependability) came with the bold move to all-coil suspension, long before Japanese competitors copied the design.
Was it perfect? No. The factory’s stubborn six-decade-long refusal to galvanize the thin steel of the chassis severely compromised durability in damp environments (such as, er, England), and the equally stubborn refusal to offer cross-axle diff locks allowed competitors to exceed the Defender’s performance in severe conditions. Reliability as well lagged behind Japanese competition. But the Defender remained a viable choice for far-flung journeys right up until . . . it was gone.
Only the name remained. But what a name—swirling with all the potential for adventure we remember from the actual vehicles. So it was inevitable that it would sooner or later be attached to a new vehicle.
What would that vehicle be like? Speculation was rife. The faithful gathered on forums, lit candles in pentangles, and with false bravado claimed, “It’s Land Rover; it’s the Defender; they wouldn’t dare sully it.” Surely, they predicted/prayed, the new Defender would be much like the old—separate chassis, solid axles, simple, just modernized with whatever technology was needed to make it compatible with 21st century regulations. And bring it to the U.S.! With a diesel!
There was just one problem, the unmentioned elephant in the chat room: That simple old separate-chassis, solid-axle Defender wasn’t selling. Twenty thousand units a year is not sustainable for a modern manufacturer (by contrast, Toyota sells about 75,000 70-Series Land Cruisers annually). And it had been that way for some time. Even when U.S. Defender fans’ dreams came true and we were blessed with access to the federalized V8 Defender 90 for several years, sales peaked early, then sagged. Enthusiasm among a devoted fan base couldn’t compensate for the fact that the actual market for what most viewed as an expensive British Jeep Wrangler was miniscule. Elsewhere in the world, Land Rover steadily lost military and NGO contracts (not to mention sales to various insurgent groups) to Toyota and Mercedes Benz. There’s no reason to believe that even an extensive revision of the existing body-on-frame platform would have changed things. Thus, the vehicle itself had to change.
All the worst nightmares of fans regarding that change came true when Land Rover rolled out the DC100 concept vehicle in 2012, when the end of Defender production was prophesied but not yet calendared.
Even among impartial journalists the response was, at best, a sort of collective “Eew.” Among aficionados, the reaction was a bit more strident, as this photo taken outside LR headquarters in Whitley, Coventry, at the time, shows.
Land Rover reportedly hired magician David Copperfield, at huge expense, to make the DC 100 disappear, and it was never seen again.
The die, however, was cast. It was pretty clear that the new Defender was going to be a substantially different beast than its predecessor. Now that development mules for a 2018/2019 launch are circling secret Land Rover test facilities around the world, we’re getting what seems to be reliable information from such people as CEO Ralf Speth. No photos of the vehicles yet—Land Rover probably has SAS snipers with Barrett M107s deployed around each prototype—but we do know more about the construction.
Which will be . . . an aluminum-intensive unibody structure built on the same architecture as the current Range Rover and Discovery, with all-independent suspension. No more mechano construction, no more CKD vehicles in crates shipped to remote African outposts on bullock carts. (And no more changing out a rusted chassis in your back yard with hand tools, a few friends, and a come-along.) Furthermore, while the company promises that the new Defender will have four-wheel-drive capabilities beyond anything in the current lineup, those capabilities will be heavily based on sophisticated electronic traction-control systems and computer-controlled parameters for throttle response and shifting. You won’t be repairing your new Defender in Bamako with a multitool and a hammer.
This is not all bad news. First, despite myths to the contrary, unibody vehicles almost always display superior torsional rigidity to body-on-frame vehicles, even those with a substantial boxed chassis. In essence the entire unibody acts as a boxed chassis member. And independent suspension has certain advantages as well—especially, of course, in on-road comfort and handling. Land Rover's pioneering experience with electronic traction control systems will surely pay dividends.
It’s a good bet, in fact, that the new Defender will hugely surpass its progenitor in comfort, ergonomics, and efficiency—and in actual backcountry ability as well.
However, the Defender we knew, the one that inspired our dreams, is gone. The new one will be made for a different world.