Farewell to a Great British Icon: The Land Rover

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Photo by Josephine Roberts
The Land Rover has provided a wealth of memories for many people. Off-road enthusiasts, farmers, soldiers and even the royal family have used these iconic vehicles. Series 1 Landies like this 1951 model are instantly recognisable by the centrally positioned headlights.

On Jan. 29, 2016, the final Land Rover Defender rolled off the production line in Land Rover’s factory in Solihul, England. It was a sad moment for everyone who loves these sturdy, no-nonsense vehicles. The Land Rover name will continue, of course, but fans lament the fact that this type of vehicle will never again be produced in Britain.

The Defender was practical, workmanlike and simple(ish) to work on. It was available in a multitude of styles: truck cab, crew cab, soft top, pick-up body, safari, long wheelbase and short wheelbase, to name a few, plus there were also specialist options available, such as cherry pickers and snow ploughs. It might have been a noisy, slow, dated old boneshaker of a thing, but so many of us loved the strength, the quirkiness and the durability of our old friend, the Defender.

Strengths couldn’t overcome challenges

The Land Rover Defender name was introduced in 1990, but the design evolved from the first Land Rover, which was built in 1947. Although there have been many significant changes since then, the Defender was still instantly recognisable as being from the same stable. Land Rovers are as British as can be. Winston Churchill drove a Land Rover, as has virtually every member of the British royal family. Old black-and-white photos of Her Royal Highness the Queen pottering around her estates in a Land Rover are commonplace. Our armed forces and all of our emergency services use Land Rovers, as of course do most of our farmers.

So what went wrong? Well, as is the case with most disasters, there wasn’t one simple cause. Since the 1990s, there have been an increasing number of comfortable, user-friendly and comparatively affordable 4-wheel drive Japanese vehicles on the market, and many people have turned to those. Land Rovers might be built to last, but they don’t come cheap, and their sturdiness has given them something of a tank-like quality, which is not what every driver wants. Some aspects of the Land Rover’s design are quite dated. They can be noisy, their seating position doesn’t suit every size driver, they have poor locks; their radios, heaters and wipers can be a tad pathetic. They are almost impossible to climb into whilst wearing a tight skirt, they can be damp and leaky, and they are known gas guzzlers.

I could go on and on. On the plus side, the Land Rover has two brilliant features that have always stood head and shoulders above the model’s Japanese rivals: pulling power and durability. These have huge appeal to farmers, and no one I have ever spoken to has found any similar-size vehicle to be as strong as a Landy when hauling a heavy trailer up a steep slope. For that job, the Land Rover is second only to a tractor, so it is easy to see why farmers who live and work in the mountains here in Wales have long been loyal to the Landy.

However, Land Rover as a firm knew full well that they couldn’t make a profit by selling vehicles to farmers alone. A huge proportion of people who own and drive 4-wheel drive, rough-terrain vehicles never go anywhere near fields and mountains. Most of them just want the reassurance of being behind the wheel of something that will go through a puddle unharmed, something that will come off well in a collision and something that is capable of mounting the occasional curb. This is where the money really lies.

Another reason for the Defender’s death is to do with regulations. The emissions given out by Defenders don’t comply with European Union regulations, and as part of Europe, we have to fit in with these rules, even though some might say that pollution is a global issue, and not something which small countries alone can take responsibility for. The other issue is one of safety. The design of the Defender’s bulkhead doesn’t allow for a “crumple zone.” All cars are beginning to look similar to one another, which is of course all to do with designers having to find a shape that is not only aerodynamic, but also as safe as can be in the event of a collision. Land Rover didn’t believe they could achieve these goals by keeping to the basic shape of the Defender.

Defender for a new generation?

Some fans of the Defenders, those who liked the simplicity and sturdiness of these British icons, feel decidedly cheated. Why, they ask, couldn’t Land Rover have seen these regulations coming years ago and adapted their design to allow for the changes required? It isn’t as if the original 1947 design has remained unchanged after all. It has been evolving right from the beginning, through the Series 2, 3 and 90 models, so surely a new version of the Defender could have been introduced to coincide with the end of the Defender as we know it. This could then have been a seamless follow-on, rather than the abrupt halt we saw in January. Land Rover is producing a new model for their range, but it will not be much like the Defender, and it is likely to be very expensive.

In the meantime Land Rover has hinted that production of the Defender may continue under license overseas, perhaps in India, but whether these vehicles will be assembled overseas using British kits, or whether they will be entirely made overseas, remains to be seen. There will, without doubt, be a decline in quality. Either way though, it might be possible to import one of these “Land Rovers that won’t really be a Land Rover” into the U.K. The irony being that it will still be possible to drive around in an unsafe, polluting vehicle, as long as it wasn’t actually manufactured in Britain! Is it just me or is this a crazy world?

Preserving The Which Remains

As soon as the rumour began to circulate that Land Rover was about to cease production of the Defender, Land Rover enthusiasts began to think that it might be wise to either preserve the Land Rovers that they already own, or if they don’t already own one, that maybe it would be a good time to go out and buy one.

Used Land Rovers were already increasing in value before the planned end of the Defender, but since that dreaded announcement, it is as if we have suddenly become even more sentimental about these old remnants of the original Landy line. Of course that is human nature. It’s the same with loyalty to one’s country. There is no one more proud and loyal to their nation than the Welshman who lives overseas; we appreciate things as soon as they’ve gone, that’s how we are.

Second wind for aging Defenders

But let’s not be too sad, the Land Rover name will continue. The company has promised a new Land Rover. One just hopes it won’t come too late for those who have already switched brands and moved over to the Japanese market. For those who can’t afford the latest design Land Rover has to offer, the alternative will be to keep their old Defenders going as long as possible. Given that Land Rovers are durable and easily adapted, this shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

There are huge numbers of vintage, classic and “nearly new” Land Rovers around, plenty to keep the enthusiasts happy for a good while yet, and these days there are numerous companies making replacement galvanized chassis, so with their long-lasting aluminum body panels, there’s no real reason why our old Land Rovers shouldn’t keep going indefinitely.

Fertile ground for the tinkerer

There’s never a dull moment when you own a Land Rover. There is always something to do, because although fans claim that Landies “last forever,” they really only last in decent condition if someone spends an awful lot of time maintaining them. But the great thing about the Defender and its older siblings (the Series Land Rovers, the 90 and the 110) is that they can easily be modified.

For instance, you can fit a Land Rover Discovery engine, coil springs, disc brakes and a higher ratio gearbox into your elderly Land Rover. This is like giving an 80-year-old man the heart, lungs and knee joints of a 20-year-old. It is like playing Frankenstein, and it is something that the younger fans love to do. I come from a family of Land Rover fanatics, and sometimes I see my nephews and their friends tinkering with their old Land Rovers, and I think that it is like going back to the days of their granddad, when people could tinker with cars, because simple designs allowed it. This kind of “messing about” with vehicles is what gives budding mechanics their skills, and it is all part of the fun. Long live the old Landy! – Josephine Roberts

Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. Email her atpheenie@talktalk.net.

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