Dave Phillips takes a drive down Defender memory lane
Defender has come a long way in its 32-year lifetime – and so has the rest of the world. Back in 1983, Communism still ruled Eastern Europe with an iron fist, while iron lady Margaret Thatcher was the UK's Prime Minister. In the USA, former movie star Ronald Reagan was president. Then as now, the world was a mad place, but you could escape it all down the pub – where a £1 note would buy you a round of drinks. How times change! This special feature will show you just how much. Read on...
1983: March 1983 sees the Land Rover One Ten launched. It is a huge departure from the Series III, with coil springs replacing the leaf springs that had been the mainstay of Land Rovers since 1947. Although the new model isn't called the Defender at this stage, it is essentially the same basic vehicle as will follow in 1990. It’s a lonely launch, because the One Ten is all on its own. Canny Land Rover delays the launch of the shorter wheelbase Ninety because the Series III 88-inch is still selling like hot cakes. In fact, the Ninety won’t follow until a year later.
This year sees the introduction of the short wheelbase Ninety. At the same time, wind-up windows are fitted to the One Ten. Like their only stablemate, the Range Rover, the new utility models' long-travel coil suspension increases axle articulation and makes the new vehicles even more capable off-road than their leaf-sprung ancestors. The very earliest models come equipped with the same engines as the outgoing Series III – 2.25-litre petrol and naturally-aspirated diesel, plus the 3.5-litre V8 petrol found in the 1979 Stage I V8. They remain desperately underpowered until later this year, when the livelier 2.5-litre petrol and diesel engines are offered. This year also sees production of the last leaf-sprung Land Rover – the Series III – finally come to an end. The sluggish development of Land Rover models may sound quaint today, but the automotive world – in the UK at least – is a very different place in the early 1980s. Land Rover is part of the nationalised money-drain known as BL (British Leyland). It’s desperately difficult to get the cash needed for minor improvements, let alone new model launches.
1986: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s reforming Conservative government is eager as ever to get rid of BL, but their attempts to sell it off to American General Motors this year fail in the face of public and parliamentary outrage.
1988: BL – by now known as the Rover Group – is finally sold to British Aerospace. Land Rover looks as though it might eventually get the level of investment it deserves and even the Ninety and One Ten look as though they might get some cash. The Ninety and One Ten had been notorious for the lack of power from the naturally-aspirated 68 bhp 2.5 diesel engine and a turbocharged version of the same engine – named simply the Diesel Turbo – is added to the range this year, even though it is still somewhat lacklustre in the power department, at 85 bhp. In fact, the Turbo Diesel is very much a stopgap measure. It is essentially a turbo bolted on to the existing naturally-aspirated oil-burner – an arrangement that puts a lot of stress on the engine, which will eventually lead to reliability issues. But there's good news on the horizon. Secret development work is already being carried out at Land Rover’s Solihull factory. The company has spotted a gap between the basic Land Rover and the more luxurious Range Rover and is determined to fill plug that gap with a new vehicle. Work on Project Jay (code name for the model that will eventually become the first Discovery) include developing a modern and sophisticated new direct-injection diesel engine, which will also be installed in the utility models.
1989: Late this year the all-new Land Rover Discovery is launched. To avoid confusion, it is clear the Land Rover Ninety and One Ten will have to be renamed...
1990: Up until now there had been only two models – the Land Rover and the Range Rover. Now there is a third Land Rover on the scene. Hence the name Defender is coined and the former Land Rover Ninety and One Ten become known as Defender 90 and 110. But it is more than just a name change. The all-new turbodiesel engine developed for the Discovery – the 200Tdi – now goes in the 90 and 110. The 200Tdi is a revelation at 107 bhp (slightly detuned from the Disco’s 111 bhp). The 90 and the 110 are by far the most popular variants of the Defender, although a longer wheelbase is also available. In pre-Defender days it was known as the Land Rover 127 (with an extended cut-and-shut 110 chassis) but after 1990 it becomes the Defender 130, built on its own custom chassis. Later variants include a 110 twin cab in addition to hard top, station wagon and pick-up models.
1993: The North American market finally receives the Defender – the first time a utility Land Rover has been sold there for two decades. To suit the new market, the North American Specification (NAS) Defenders are fitted with 3.9-litre V8 petrol engines. They have full external roll-cages, larger side-indicator and tail-lights and air conditioning. The first batch – all but one painted white – comprised 525 Defender 110 County Station Wagons. The exception was one that was painted black, ordered by fashion guru Ralph Lauren. Later the V8 engine is increased to 4.0-litres and mated to an automatic transmission. No wonder the NAS-spec Defenders became arguably the most coveted production Land Rovers of all time.
1994: Since its launch in 1989, the Discovery has been the best-selling 4x4 in Europe. To maintain the momentum of its sales, Land Rover refreshes it this year with changes that include a more refined 300Tdi diesel engine. Just like the 200Tdi before it, it is also used in the Defender. This time it gets the same level of tune in both models, at 111 bhp. The same year sees the second-generation Range Rover, the P38, launched. Meanwhile, the 25-year-old first-generation Range Rover remains in production, re-badged as the Range Rover Classic.
1996: The Range Rover Classic finally ceases production.
1997: Strict new US regulations required the fitting of airbags for both front seat passengers in all vehicles, as well as side door impact improvements, which were due to be introduced in 1998. The Defender could not be modified to comply with these without major modifications, so the NAS models were withdrawn from North America at the end of 1997. Freelander launched as Land Rover’s answer to the growing compact SUV sector. It soon becomes Europe’s best-selling 4x4, just as Discovery had over a decade earlier.
Discovery 2 is launched with a sophisticated new five-cylinder Td5 engine. Land Rover bosses decide that just like the 200Tdi and 300Tdi before it, the new turbodiesel would soon afterwards appear in the Defender models.
1999: Td5 Defender appears. A few months earlier, in 1998, I’d been fortunate to be chosen as the first member of the motoring press to drive a Td5 Defender 90 prototype, on Land Rover’s testing ground in the grounds of Eastnor Castle, Herefordshire. The Td5-powered Defender was a revelation – quieter and more powerful (122 bhp) – and it was also the very last engine developed by Land Rover, who had already started work on it at the time BMW had bought the company, back in 1994. In truth, new owners BMW concentrated their attention and resources primarily on the luxury Range Rover, and to a lesser extent the Discovery and the Freelander – the latter launched in 1997. They do little to develop the Defender during their period of ownership, apart from spec upgrades to meet the demand from a new generation of leisure-orientated users. Although the Defender still had an important role to play in agriculture, industry and the armed forces (for which the Wolf XD model, among others, was produced), it was beginning to be seen as a fashionable lifestyle choice. The era of the Chelsea Tractor was upon us.
2000: Late this year, Ford buy Land Rover from BMW – and Defender finally gets some new technology. In 2001, the venerable model’s options include heated front seats, central locking and electric windows.
2002: The third-generation Range Rover (L322), developed by BMW, is launched by Ford.
2003: Defender is the mainstay of the first gruelling G4 Challenge, in which teams from around the world compete in a month-long contest across four continents. It includes off-road driving challenges, as well as cycling, kayaking and running. Seen as a replacement for the much-lamented Camel Trophy, it was hugely expensive to stage. The eventual winner, Belgian fighter pilot Rudi Thoelen, was entitled to a brand-new Range Rover as first prize, but declined – and asked for two Defenders instead!
2005: Range Rover Sport launched. It is built at Halewood.
2006: The second G4 Challenge is staged, with Defenders playing only a support role this time around, as Land Rover try to push its other models to the fore in what amounts to a very expensive PR exercise.
2007: The Td5 Defender was heading for a painful collision with new Euro emission rules. So Ford does the pragmatic thing and sticks its 2.4 Puma diesel under the bonnet. The engine, normally to be found in the Transit van, is taller than the Td5 and requires a redesigned bonnet with a distinctive 'power bulge'. But the Puma is slightly less powerful than the outgoing Td5, at 120 bhp. It is mated to a six-speed Ford gearbox, along with the LT230Q transfer box from the now obsolete Discovery 2. It also gets a redesigned dash and forward-facing rear seats.
2007: Freelander 2 is launched. It is the first Land Rover to be built at Ford’s Halewood factory, sharing production facilities with Jaguar cars.
2008: Tata Motors buy Land Rover (and Jaguar) from Ford. Soon afterwards they scrap the third G4 Challenge, scheduled for 2009.
2009: The UK Government announces a £27 million grant to Land Rover to produce an all-new model (the Range Rover Evoque), with the condition that it is built at Halewood, on Merseyside. No mention of investment for an eventual Defender replacement, though. 2010: Discovery 4 launched, looking very much like the Disco 3 from the outside, prompting the company to stress the many mechanical changes that have taken place.
2011: Land Rover unveils DC100 concept car at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Could this be a Defender replacement? It doesn’t win much public approval, with some pundits describing it as looking like a Skoda Yeti. So is it back to the drawing board for Land Rover? Range Rover Evoque takes a bow.
2012: With Land Rover now owned by Tata Motors, the Defender gets a makeover that includes a new, almost car-like interior and a more refined 2.2-litre version of the Puma engine under the bonnet, with better performance, economy and emissions. Although the current model looks very much like the 1983 original, mechanically it’s a very different workhorse indeed. This year also sees the launch of the fourth-generation Range Rover – even more luxurious and capable than its predecessor.
Defender production finally comes to an end at Land Rover’s Solihull factory. Defender has come a long way in 32 years. Launched in 1983 when it had only the thoroughbred Range Rover Classic as a stablemate, it has during its lifespan seen four generations of Range Rover, four of Discovery, two Freelanders, two Range Rover Sports, the Range Rover Evoque and the Discovery Sport. In the 1980s and 1990s the Defender was the vehicle chosen for the legendary Camel Trophy off-road events in the world’s most inhospitable places – underlining its reputation as the toughest go-anywhere vehicle on the planet. Defender’s role as the mainstay of gruelling off-road adventure was briefly reprised in 2003 with the Land Rover G4 Challenge. Another G4 followed in 2006 and a third was scheduled for 2009, but the hugely-expensive event was scrapped in 2008 by new owners Tata. Defender has served in wars, transported peacekeepers and aid convoys and, of course, carried on working tirelessly on the farm and in the forests. If there’s a job needed doing, the Defender has done it. Effortlessly, too.
For most LRM readers, however, Defender is the ultimate Land Rover. It is brilliant off-road and more comfortable than its leaf-sprung predecessors. It is a much-loved family workhorse, as well as – dare I say it – a fashion statement. Defender is fashionable because it is unfashionable; it is the statement of individuality for those who wish to rebel against the bland uniformity of today’s homogenised automobiles. Land Rover’s former design director, Geoff Upex, used to liken Defender to the Swiss Army Knife – perfect just as it is and not requiring changes.
Sadly, the modern world won’t allow that and Defender has changed a lot in recent years to satisfy new rules made by the world’s busybody bureaucrats. Land Rover has already showcased its DC100 Defender-replacement concepts, which went down like a lead balloon with Land Rover fans. I’m told, unofficially, by a Solihull insider that the eventual Defender replacement will be built on the Discovery platform, but I’ve also heard that it will be an all-new creation, with all-aluminium body panels on an aluminium chassis, to save weight and keep emissions down. As for what it looks like, we will just have to wait and see. It will certainly be a challenge for Land Rover’s current design guru, Gerry McGovern. After all, how do you replace a legend? Defender’s replacement is due in 2018. Will it be a reprise of the derided DC100 concept of 2011 or can we expect something more Defender-like... something befitting the green oval badge? Only time will tell.