The Defender is more than an icon, it’s fit for the Queen… in fact the Land Rover marque in general is popular with celebs the world over as Louise Woodhams discovers
In a society where everything defines us – our accents, where we live, how we dress, what we do – a Defender is classless and I like that. People can’t look at you and say ‘ooo get you with your Land Rover’ – it’s not like a Bentley or a BMW.” Wise words indeed… It was something that Ben Fogle said to me when we photographed his Icon 90 soft top back in February for the April issue, and the classless observation is no doubt one you’ve heard before, whether it’s from a motoring journalist or a Defender owner. And that’s because it is a vehicle that has a certain ambiguity to it – a Defender can look at home whether it’s in Chelsea, the middle of a war zone, on safari or in a farmer’s field, and the versatility of the model makes it popular with a range of people.
It can be anything, and it can do anything – more importantly it states both everything and nothing about the person driving it. The Defender will not do anything to reveal your exact identity, which is probably why it is a favourite among celebrities. For those that don’t mind the fact it’s underpowered, heavy, softly sprung and lacking in creature comforts it’s the perfect statement of understated cool. And for those that do, well, they probably also have a Porsche sitting in the garage. The most notable association with the Defender is probably Queen Elizabeth, and dates back to 1951 when as a princess she stood in an open top Series I to present the King’s colour to the Royal Air Force at a parade in Hyde Park. Nowadays, the Queen’s more known for her Bronze Green 110 Defender that she uses around her estate in Sandringham, west Norfolk.
The earliest record of Royalty and Land Rover goes a little further back when chassis number 861010 (a prototype) was delivered to Buckingham Palace in the autumn of 1948. It was shipped to Balmoral, where the late King George V1 used it in place of his horse. In 1950, it was replaced by a production model. Between 1949 and 1950, a further three were delivered. Since then the various royal estates and members of the royal family (from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to Princess Anne and Prince Philip) have had a number of Defenders, in addition to various Range Rovers and Discoverys. More recently JLR’s Special Vehicle Operations has specially built an open-topped Range Rover for the Queen, which she recently used to tour the streets of Windsor for her 90th birthday celebrations.
Completed last year, the fourth State Review vehicle is based on a long wheelbase Range Rover, and features a diesel hybrid engine, which enables it to run at times purely on electric power. It has also got steps that fold down to allow easy access on board and special hand rails so Her Majesty can stand up while it is being driven.
As you may or may not know the Series I was first intended as a farmer’s utility vehicle and cost just £450, but as soon as the Queen was pictured in one the whole world wanted it. Other famous fans of the Series I for example, include Winston Churchill, who took delivery of one for his 80th birthday in 1954, Sylvester Stallone and Jim Carrey.
British actor Tom Conti also had a white 88in which, in 2002, he was reported as having owned for 50 years and at that point sat derelict in the front garden of his home in Hampsted. It was converted as a camper van of sorts with a cooker and a bed, and he and his wife used to regularly travel in it. John Rhys Davies, the Welsh actor best known for his portrayal of Gimli in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Arab excavator Sallah in the Indiana Jones films, is also a fan of the older Land Rovers. He says he “couldn't be bothered with the new Discos or Range Rovers as they're devoid of panache". A man after our own heart. His fleet includes a Series IIA 109 with a roof-tent, ex-RAF 1988 Defender 110, Series III 109 Luton-body workshop vehicle with a Lincoln arc welder soon to be a 130, and a rusty-framed Series IIA 109, which is very much a project car.
Fidel Castro, a revolutionary leader of the Cuban Revolution who has survived more than 600 CIA assassination plots to become the longest serving non-royal leader of the 20th Century is also a devotee of Solihull’s finest. The most famous of his collection is on display at the Museum of the Revolution in Havanas. It is a long wheelbase, roofless Series I and wears a badge that reads Four Wheel Drive Station Wagon. It was used by Castro as his personal command vehicle during the revolution, in the late 1950s. Painted Battleship Grey with writing in red paint on the front passenger door that confirms it was his vehicle, it also bears a number of bullet holes. Bob Marley also drove an equally iconic vehicle, a blue 1976 Series III, which after his death in May 1981 stood for years neglected in the car park at 56 Hope Road – his uptown Kingston home that is now a museum dedicated to his life and music. To celebrate what would have been Marley’s 70th birthday last February, Sandals International Resorts, a sister company to ATL Automotive which operated Jamaica’s Land Rover dealership at the time, worked with the Marley family to restore the classic Land Rover. Rather than a large five figure nut-and-bolt rebuild, it was a sympathetic restoration, so it still bears the patina of age on some of the stainless steel trim pieces. With the vehicle in complete disrepair however, it still took two years to strip it and rebuild it from the chassis up. There was no engine, so a like-for-like 2.25 diesel was sourced from a supplier in the US called Rovers North, although it was originally registered in Ethiopia, Africa, with which Rastafarian Marley had strong ties.
Around 80 per cent of the vehicle’s parts were sourced from the same specialist, while the rest were handcrafted. Marley's eldest daughter, Cedella, an internationally-acclaimed fashion designer created and upholstered the interior. Of course, we can’t go without mentioning the Range Rover and its association with celebs – a quick search on the internet reveals that seemingly almost every famous actor, singer, sports person and politician owns one or has owned one – a list that we won’t bore you with. And we’re not just talking in Britain, either. Celebritycarsblog.com has reported that over 100 were spotted in Hollywood alone, making it the number one celebrity car not just in the SUV category, but overall. Unlike the Defender, a lot of Range Rovers have been subjected to bespoke modifications that often prove money doesn’t buy taste. One of the most recognised Range Rovers in the UK has to probably be former model Katie Price’s bright Barbie pink monstrosity. She supposedly had the vehicle customised with matching quilted seats, diamond-encrusted clock worth £25,000 and black-painted alloys. She put it up for sale for £70,000 two years ago.
It seems rather apt that the two millionth Land Rover Defender was built by celebrities. Bear Grylls (who has a fleet of Defenders for his academy), Virginia McKenna and Theo Paphitis were among the all-star cast of 33 special guests who contributed by fitting parts to the vehicle at the factory. The bespoke vehicle later sold for a jaw-dropping £400,000 at an exclusive charity auction at Bonhams. For 69 years, the Series Land Rover and Defender has been the transport of choice for explorers, charity organisations and farmers as well as royalty and celebrities. What started life as an agricultural workhorse has become a design icon; it set Land Rover on the map and as a result its siblings have appealed to the rich and famous in almost equal measure. While the Range Rover will continue to be the vehicle of choice for the stars, it will be interesting to see who buys the new Defender.CELEBS AND THEIR LAND ROVERS
Other famous Land Rover Series I, II, III and Defender owners
Oprah Winfrey (American talk show host)
1993 NAS Defender 110 (1 of Only 534 ever built for North America)
Richard Hammond (British presenter)
1987 Land Rover Defender 110 (modified with a 230 bhp 4.5-litre V8, chassis-mounted roll cage, Bigfoot-esque wheels and tyres, and quilted oxblood leather upholstery from a Range Rover Autobiography)
Robin Williams (the late American actor)
Red 90 Defender (bought from a San Francisco dealer), which replaced a 110 Defender
Sean Connery (retired Scottish actor/producer)
Defender 90, kept at his estate in Costa Brava, Spain
Paul McCartney (British singer/songwriter)
Series Land Rover, he was so fond of it in the years following the Beatles’ breakup he wrote the song “Helen Wheels”
Ralph Lauren (American designer)
1950 Series I and a couple of Defender 110s that he had painted black
Bill Murray (American actor)
Black Series Land Rover, apparently attends the yearly Ground Hog Day celebration in Punzatawney, PA, in it
Bryan Adams (Canadian singer songwriter)
100" hybrid (110 shortened to fit a Range Rover chassis) specially made for him by an independent specialist
Jane Fonda and husband Ted Turner (American Actress)
A pair of 110s, kept at their western ranch in Montana (also owns a Range Rover)