02 February 2016

The Last of the Defenders

My Defender on Race for Life duties

On 29 January 2016 the last Defender rolled off the Solihull production line in much the same way as the first of its Series forebears did in 1948 - indeed there are components in the last vehicles that were also in the earliest.

For 68 years it's been as much a part of British life as afternoon tea, Changing the Guard or Last Night of the Proms. It's served explorers, the armed forces, emergency services and farmers loyally in the toughest conditions and saved many a life, bringing comfort and reassurance to people in their darkest hours.

The appearance of the Series and Defender vehicles evolved slowly over the years, and since the Defender was introduced in 1983 (although it wasn't called that at the time) changes have been modest with just a few engine and interior changes along the way. That it has stayed in production this long when its competitors have evolved and modernised is quite remarkable, although it has always had its reputation as being formidably capable off road to carry it along.

But was it the off road ability that kept it going, or the sentimental affection reserved for selected inanimate objects like Concorde, VW Beetles and (original) Minis? Certainly other Land Rover products are just as capable, with a standard Freelander 2 being able to get everywhere a standard Defender 90 could, but in greater comfort and better fuel economy. Admitedly, a few dents in a Defender are considered added character, whereas a few dents in a Discovery 4 just ruins its value.

Reproduction S1 on the Defender Celebration Tour

For the enthusiasts, and I class myself amongst them, the Defender's appeal was that its abilities were relatively easy to improve, with modified wheels, suspension, raised air-intakes and the like allowing them to get far further than those fresh from the factory. Their mechanical simplicity making them easy to repair when they (inevitably) break; the Defender is based on the original Range Rover which first took to the road in the 1970s.

But even enthusiasts have to admit that they're heavy, slow, not particularly comfortable, thirsty for fuel, and the fit and finish is best described as agricultural. I drove a brand new one a few years ago and could see daylight around the (closed) driver's door. The bodywork comes ready-rippled, and whilst the live axles are robust for off road use, they don't do much for the on-road handling and ride. Compared to the current crop of four-wheel drive pickups from the likes of Mitsubishi, Volkswagen or Toyota, which are economical, comfortable and have a greater carrying capacity, the Defender was completely outclassed - except for its all-round coil-spring suspension: most other pickups still use leaf springs at the back.

Despite their shortcomings they still sold, and in good numbers; too many for them all to have been bought by sentimental enthusiasts. Indeed more Defenders were built and sold every year than Jaguar XJs, a car with a reputation for comfort and class.

A Defender 147 at the Solihull factory

With three lengths, 90, 110 and 130 inch wheelbases, and with more varieties than Heinz there was almost certainly a Defender to suit the task in hand - never mind there being a 'app' for that, there was probably a Defender for it. Even performance tuning houses got in on the act with high-power, 'hot' Defenders becoming more common than you might expect.

You need a cherry-picker to cross muddy fields? Defender. You need a road-rail maintenance vehicle? Defender. You need a 12-seat minibus to get a crew to the middle of nowhere? Defender. You need to get bales of hay and border collie up a Welsh mountainside? Defender. It really was the Swiss Army knife of vehicles with even Her Majesty the Queen driving one.

But what next? Land Rover have said that there will be a new Defender, albiet it's a few years off (why? They've had plenty of time to plan a replacement!), but will it be as versatile as the original? Will it come in multiple lengths and configurations? Will you be able to climb in soaking wet, covered in mud and not feel guilty? Time will tell.

The original Defender is going to be a hard act to follow, and there are some sections of the Land Rover community that just won't accept anything but the original as being a 'proper' Defender. But the reality is that road safety standards have moved on, and without a crumple-zone, airbags, side-impact protection and pedestrian-friendly bumpers the Defender just couldn't continue. The Defender dinosaur didn't evolve and has become extinct.

Watching the final example roll off the production line brought a tear to the eye: farewell Defender - for all your faults you will be greatly missed as a true British icon.


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