More than 67 years of continuous manufacture on the same site is very good going by any product’s standards, especially for a vehicle that’s had to try to keep pace with ever-changing legislation. Even the Series I’s creators hadn’t envisaged it lasting longer than about a decade. So, the Series and Defender line has well and truly matured (evolved is probably too strong a word) to reach an acceptable age for retirement.
When the Land Rover debuted in April 1948, man had only recently broken the sound barrier, and the Cold War had just begun. And when the Defender name came along in September 1990, we hadn’t yet been introduced to the life-changing power of the World Wide Web, which arrived in December that year. That the Defender has managed to retain such a huge chunk of its predecessors’ character in all that time is remarkable. No other vehicle has done similar.
But even though production will finish at Solihull tomorrow, the model’s story is far from over; the Defender will live on, that much Land Rover will tell us. It’s the Dual-Purpose ‘pillar’ in its three-range strategy (Range Rover is Luxury, Discovery is Leisure).
Why is production stopping?
Officially, the company cites factors such as EU emissions and safety legislation as reasons why the Defender can’t continue in its current form. They’re valid, to a point, although technically there’s no reason why a major update couldn’t address most of those points: fitting airbags, cleaner Ingenium engines, crumple zones…
But it’s still unlikely to be enough to enable sales in vital markets such as North America. And, if you’re going to all that effort on a vehicle that was effectively designed during a steel shortage almost 70 years ago, and would still be saddled by compromises, why not start from scratch?
What compromises? Of the 400,000 or so vehicles Land Rover builds every year, only 15,000-20,000 are Defenders. Time is money, and the current Defender simply doesn’t make enough money for the space it occupies or the time invested in it. Land Rover says the next Defender needs to be capable of 60,000-100,000 sales per year to ‘wash its face’.
Some would argue that Land Rover could have sold many more Defenders than it has done recently, if it weren’t seen as the poor relation to its slicker, more profitable siblings by some dealers who didn’t understand it or the needs of its buyers. We think they’re probably right.
Disparaging comments by Land Rover’s design chief Gerry McGovern haven’t helped JLR keep Defender enthusiasts on side, either, being quoted as saying (among other things): ‘The current Defender has never sold on its design and has changed very little over the years. What we are working on is something that will be more desirable to look at.’ And: ‘The traditionalists might not like it, but they’ll have to live with it. It will still be as capable as before and there will be references to the old model. It might even have a spare wheel on the back.’
The truth is, there is a lot of passion for the Defender at Land Rover. I’ve witnessed it first-hand, from workers on the production line to some of the company’s most senior management. But it almost doesn’t matter how good the Defender is off-road if its design and construction tolerances just don’t fit with the expectations of today’s buyers. Exposed door hinges and rivets just don’t cut it in a showroom full of polished wood, sophisticated electronics and neat panel gaps; let alone the culture-shock driving experience or the need to accept surface rust appearing, water leaks and so on. We suspect that has a lot to do with the decision to end production; the current Defender doesn’t live up to Land Rover’s ‘Above and Beyond’ motto in all areas any more. The new one has to.
At the beginning of 2015 Land Rover said it was looking into continuing current Defender production elsewhere, for sale in non-EU markets, but would the tooling that’s been churning out Series and Defenders at Solihull for 67 years would survive relocation? Insiders have suggested not, and that everything may just be scrapped. That would be a travesty.
So, the next Defender...
Land Rover won’t talk about it, but we hear the next Defender’s development is pretty advanced, with its shape signed-off and engineering prototypes out there somewhere. Company insiders who have seen it assure me: ‘It’s not like DC100.’ And: ‘Your readers will love it.’ But we’re not expecting it to be built in the UK because there simply isn’t space in Land Rover’s current factories here. Slovakia looks a strong possibility, although Coventry could be a wildcard.
One thing I am sure of, is that it’ll be a car with some commercial variants, not a small truck with car-like trim. If that proves to be the case, it will be a fundamental shift. It’s being styled, for heaven’s sake, not 100 per cent engineering-led, as the original Land Rover was.
As a result, expect it to share the construction techniques and mechanicals underpinning the aluminium unibody Range Rover, Range Rover Sport and the new full-size Discovery, as well as featuring independent suspension.
We’re told there will be a family of Defenders, but if the Discovery and Range Rover are anything to go by, that won’t be limited to short and long wheelbases, hard and soft tops, station wagons, pick-ups... Expect completely different vehicles, in a range of sizes – perhaps even one based on the Disco Sport/Evoque platform.
If the new model has any hope of continuing in the wide-ranging utility roles of the current Defender, it’ll still need some sort of chassis or strong sub-structure, which would allow chassis cab versions. Ford’s 2015 F-150 is built in a similar way, so it is possible. But if you think Land Rover is planning to go head-on with the likes of Toyota, Nissan and Ford in the battle of the best-selling pick-ups, forget it. Land Rover is a minnow in car manufacturer terms, and doesn’t have the capacity to chase super-high volumes.
We’re pretty confident that the next Defender will be introduced for the 2018 model year, meaning we should see a production version some time next year. The sentimentalist in me hopes Land Rover has picked that date to mark the firm’s 70th anniversary.
You’d think we might see a design concept before long, too, but let’s hope Land Rover’s LRO-reading designers and engineers can keep their premiumness-obsessed colleagues in check this time and banish memories of 2011’s DC100.
What we hope it will be
The task of replacing the Defender is a huge, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I’m pleased that JLR under Tata ownership has the balls to attempt it. As a design and engineering challenge, it has the potential to be a genuinely innovative and inspirational vehicle that’s just as capable at crossing deserts, scaling mountains and saving lives as it is supporting farmers, tradesmen and King’s Road shopaholics.
The Defender is the essence of Land Rover, so if the new one is just an upmarket Defender-skinned Range Rover, I’ll be bitterly disappointed.
As Roger Crathorne says in his foreword to this issue: ‘When the Land Rover was launched in the late 1940s, it was the right vehicle for the time. When we see the next Defender, it will be the right vehicle for these times.’
Will the right vehicle for JLR also be the right vehicle for LRO readers? I really hope so...
Land Rover Owner’s checklist for the next Defender:
- Best off-road articulation, approach, departure, ramp breakover angles and under-vehicle clearance of any new Land Rover (or Range Rover). Equal to (or better than) the outgoing Defender
- Range of body styles to suit all user requirements – including utility options
- As slim as the current model
- A range of torquey engine options, including 3.0 V6 diesel, mated to twin-speed transmission with automatic gearbox option
- 3.5-tonne towing capacity
- Best-in-class on-road performance and handling ability
- Ability to personalise like the current model – heavy-duty suspension, locking diffs, raised air intake, winch, etc
- Rakish looks leading to poor visibility, especially when driving off-road
- Easily dented body panels that don’t wear damage well. The same goes for the interior trim...
- Needless complexity that compromises reliability and durability in the field
- £25,000+VAT minimum price tag for a basic commercial variant (the Volkswagen Amarok starts at £20,925+VAT...)
DEFENDER IS DEAD. LONG LIVE DEFENDER