The new Defender is coming! (However . . .)

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.

So not working, Land Rover

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.

The irrational Land Rover . . .

I knew a fellow, a lives-and-breathes-them Land Rover aficionado, who was on his way across Africa in a 109 Station Wagon when the rear differential blew. Someone on a forum, as I recall, referred to the event in terms of a “breakdown”—which elicited an aggrieved response from the owner. This was not a “breakdown,” he insisted. Why? Because differentials are “maintenance items.”

If you are a lives-and-breathes them Land Rover aficionado, or if you know one, you’ll recognize this syndrome. Over the years, and to a greater or lesser extent depending on the model, Land Rovers have become known for being, how shall I put this . . . co-dependent. Because of this, owners are constantly besieged with quips, snarky comments, and jokes. (“Eight out of ten Land Rovers ever made are still on the road. The other two made it home.” Etc.) These are especially likely to come from Toyota owners revelling in their own brand’s sterling reputation. Desperate-sounding ripostes about Toyotas being “appliances” only come off as desperate-sounding—the Toyota owner just smirks and leaves the Land Rover owner grinding his teeth. 

Perhaps it was the resulting Maginot mentality that led to the simple defense of not acknowledging breakdowns as breakdowns, and not calling repairs repairs. After decades of association with Land Rover owners, I’ve realized that the word ‘repair’ should not be applied to any procedure being performed on one of their vehicles unless they’ve rigged a steel beam on two A-frames extending side to side through both open doors, and are using three pulley blocks and a team of donkeys to remove something. And even then: A dear (nameless) friend whose Defender’s transmission failed on an epic trans-Africa trip actually excuses it with, “It wasn’t the vehicle’s fault. A part was installed incorrectly at the factory.” Um, okay, Graham. The reductio ad absurdum of this peculiar mental illness is reached when the poor owner begins typing spluttering forum posts such as, “They’re only unreliable if you don’t use them hard enough!”

I can write this without (much) fear of assassination because I have always felt a strong attraction to Land Rovers, and at the moment own two of them. At the same time I can keep one eyebrow raised ironically because I also own an FJ40 Land Cruiser that in 35 years has not once, one single time, left me stranded. In 1978, when I bought it, my choice was between the Toyota or a 1974 Series III 88, at that time a product of the troubled British Leyland group (‘troubled’ and ‘British Leyland’ being completely redundant phrasing). Everyone short of the State Department warned me off the Land Rover, and in retrospect buying the FJ40 was absolutely the right choice. Reliability aside, towing a 21-foot sailboat or a utility trailer loaded with eight sea kayaks would have been problematic with the 88’s 75 horsepower. And then there were those axles . . .

The logical choice . . .

The logical choice . . .

Where was I? Right: The big question, of course, asked by everyone who is not of the lives-and-breathes community, is why? Where does what seems like this blind devotion come from, when there are so many alternatives, however appliance-like they may be?

One simple answer on logical grounds would be that Land Rovers work so well when they work that owners are willing to put up with constant fettling. From the range-topping Range Rover, still unmatched in its combination of luxury and off-pavement prowess, to the Defender, still unmatched in its combination of pliant ride with outstanding cargo capacity, and fine turbodiesel power with excellent fuel economy, Land Rover has been ahead of other marques in numerous engineering details since the 1970s. 

But that’s the logical answer, and logical answers are vulnerable to logical ripostes regarding . . . reliability—surely, many would point out, the most critical characteristic of any expedition vehicle.

I think the real answer to the unswerving loyalty of Land Rover owners is the intangible, but undeniable, aura of history and romance that surrounds the Land Rover as it does no other expedition vehicle. Hook up electrodes to the brain of the most loyal Toyota/Nissan/Ford/Jeep owner, and ask him to, quickly, picture a vehicle on an African safari, and I guarantee the diagnostic screen is going to produce an image of a Land Rover, roof rack loaded with jerry cans, plowing through the bulldust of Tanzania.

The romantic choice . . .

The romantic choice . . .

Whatever the real reason is, I consider myself immune to such blind unreasoning justification.

Or, I did. Until this weekend.

I drove our recently acquired ex-MOD 110 Defender out to our desert property to do some work on the camping area. On the way out I’d noticed the shifting of the LT77 five-speed seemed to be more recalcitrant than usual (it’s due to be replaced with a later R380, along with a 300Tdi powerplant, soon). Just as I pulled up to park near the cottage, I was suddenly presented with, in the immortal words of the late James Hunt, a gearbox full of neutrals. Uh oh.

I had no factory manual, and no experience with the LT77, so I just got out the tools and began fettling. With the rubber shift boot pulled off, it became obvious the issue lay beneath a shift tower that supported two springs which helped locate the shift lever. With the springs popped off to the side, the lever came out (sending another spring-loaded plunger smartly across the cab, fortunately found). Four bolts undid the tower, and with it off the problem was immediately apparent: The metal and nylon socket into which the lever’s ball fits had come off the operating shaft, in turn because a set screw had come loose. Slide the socket assembly back on, tighten the set screw, tower bolted back in place, shift lever in and springs prized back on, and we’re finished. More or less precise shifting back in operation.

 And then it happened.

I was thinking that, if the problem occurred again, I could probably have it sorted in less than 10 minutes. And as I innocently, happily considered that, another thought flowed—smoothly, sinuously, completely unbidden—into my brain:


                                                                       It hardly even counts as a repair.


I’m doomed.


Or maybe I'm just not using it hard enough?