The world cheers (and jeers) as production of Series Land Rovers and current Defenders ends at Solihull after 68 years
People always remember where they were and what they were doing when truly shocking events unfold. For some it will be when they first heard about President Kennedy's assassination; for others Princess Diana’s tragic death in Paris, or when two planes slammed into New York’s iconic Twin Towers. For weeks afterwards, these events dominated the headlines. Most people found it hard to believe what they were seeing or hearing. 09.30 am on January 29, 2016, was another of those where-were-you-when… moments. This is the exact time when the last of the current Defenders – a 90 Heritage soft top – tries to roll off the production floor of the Solihull factory. Only some 700 or so current and former employees are blocking its way. Maybe they don’t want it to end? They definitely are not alone. As luck would have it, Moses himself must be behind the wheel of this piece of Land Rover history; he puts on the hazards, honks the instantly-recognisable Defender horn and the crowd parts like the Red Sea.
Defender production is officially over for now. Cameras flash, people cheer and a tear starts to form in my eye as I think back to all the incredible moments I have had in a Defender. I take my phone and film this poignant moment in Land Rover history. I share it on social media and nearly 100,000 Land Rover fans around the world watch it. I turn around and look back down the Defender production line. This is the first time I have seen it without a Defender on and I have been coming here for about 15 years. As my two-year old Defender-loving son Isaac would say: “Dada, Defender gone.”
Today has easily been one of the most significant days of my Land Rover loving life. It began at 3.00 am with a drive to the Birmingham BBC studios for a 5.00 am Radio Five Live interview about the end of the Defender production. As I leave the studio I notice that they have Defenders and their owners on the BBC Breakfast TV show. Just for a day the world has gone Defender crazy. In fact, the hashtag Defender is now trending on Twitter. At 7.15 am I report for duty at the Solihull factory, along with hordes of other journalists and TV crew. All are here to witness the final 15 Defenders being built on the Solihull production line. I reckon this is the biggest Land Rover story ever. In the run-up to today – or D-Day as I have decided to call it – I’ve been monitoring social and other media platforms. Everyone is talking about the end of Defender production. As Solihull workers go through the motions for the last time, we are allowed to walk among the final few Defenders as they slowly roll along the production line. Just for one day, Health and Safety is not a priority.
The obvious big question is why end the production of something that is so loved and revered the world over? A question I was asked each time I did a radio or TV interview. I don’t want to get into a whole emotional debate but allow me to say this. Officially, safety standards and emissions are to blame, but I reckon you don’t have to be Adam Smith to figure out the real reasons. In 2014, Land Rover sold 125,364 Range Rover Evoques. At this rate they would sell almost nine million of them over the same period that it took them to sell two million Series Land Rovers and Defenders. Add into the mix some of the other Land Rover products such as Discoverys and the regular Range Rovers and it soon becomes pretty obvious as to why they have stopped production of the labour-intensive current Defender. Remember, they were only producing around 20,000 Defenders per year. Last year Land Rover sold over 400,000 vehicles; only one in every 20 of these was a Defender.
Money definitely talks and that's the real reason why the current Defender production ended on January 29, 2016. You just won’t hear anyone officially admit to it. That's my opinion, for what it's worth. In the days leading up to today there was much speculation as to what would happen to the very last current Defender to roll off the production line. I have decided to christen it Huey Junior due to its similarities to Huey, such as the same Grasmere Green paint colour, soft top and square shape. Some were saying that it was going to Roger Crathorne, also known as Mr Land Rover. Others were saying it was going to the British Motor Museum, formerly known as the Gaydon British Motor Heritage Centre. They were all wrong. A Land Rover spokesperson whispered in my ear that it would become part of the official Land Rover Heritage fleet. Definitely the correct decision as we all know the
story of how Land Rover once had to buy back Huey, the first pre-production Series I. The last day of Defender production was meant to be a celebration and not a jump off a cliff or slit your wrists day, especially for the 700 past and present Defender line employees as they had played such an important role in writing an iconic chapter in British motoring history. Remember we are witnessing the end of the longest running vehicle production line. Now they all come together for one last time, to commemorate and celebrate this momentous occasion. Their important role is acknowledged in a speech made by Nigel Blenkinspop, the current Director of Operations at Jaguar Land Rover, who says: “Tony Martin is one of three generations of the Martin family that have all worked on the Series Land Rovers and Defender production line, with almost 80 years of experience between them. Dave Smith and Dean Tovey have worked in this facility for over 37 years. Dean and 11 other of his colleagues, including Tony, will continue using the 172 years of knowledge that they have gained between themselves in Land Rover's Heritage Restoration programme which will be based on the site of the existing Solihull production line.” So, all is not lost then – the restoration of Series Land Rovers and Defenders will continue at Solihull. What will they sell them for to make it an economically viable venture? They expect the first of these vehicles to go on sale in July, so watch this space.
According to our sources, Land Rover have already began buying vehicles from around the world, in places with drier climates than the UK and salt-free roads. It is rather remarkable to think that Tony Martin will be restoring vehicles that his grandfather helped manufacture. As I walk around and chat to some of the other employees they too have remarkable tales to tell. Tim Bickerton is 55 years old; he has spent 40 of those years working for Land Rover. Tim started out here as a 15-year-old apprentice, following in the footsteps of his grandfather
Charlie and dad Peter; they clocked up 35 and 30 years, respectively, of working on the same line, with both eventually progressing to the position of foreman. It gets better. Tim’s 25-year-old daughter Jade used to work on Defender logistics and materials, before recently moving to another JLR department. Last year, Tim’s 23-year-old son Scott started work on the Defender production line. In doing so, he became the fifth member of the remarkable Bickerton family to work on this line. Today you would have struggled to find a man with a bigger smile than Tim in the Solihull factory. “I am hugely proud of our special family tradition of working on this remarkable vehicle. People like to refer to it as a workhorse, but to us it is a real thoroughbred,” he says.
Where to now for all the former Defender line staff that will not be working on the Land Rover's Heritage Restoration programme? Every one of them has been offered a role in another part of the Solihull operation. So, for them, Land Rover (or Jaguar) life continues. If you want to celebrate your past it is important to remember where you came from. In Land Rover's case it began in Red Wharf Bay, Anglesey, with that now-legendary drawing in the sand. During his speech, Dr Ralf Speth, CEO of Jaguar Land Rover, refers to this moment in Land Rover history: “Almost 70 years ago two brothers stood on a beach in Wales and drew with a stick the design of a car. We can truly say that never before has such sure and strong foundations been built on sand. What the Wilkes brothers did that day was not an idle drawing, it was a design of an icon that mobilised communities around the globe.” Dr Speth is right: everyone has a memorable Series Land Rover or Defender story to tell. Some of us can fill books with our tales. This classless symbol of all that is great about Britain has proven itself to be good enough for queens, kings, presidents, popes, farmers, peasants, soldiers, aid workers, conservationists and millions of others. They have used the most versatile vehicle in the execution of their duties or for purposes of pleasure and leisure. They have used the Defender to take them to places others can only dream of going, or merely dropping the kids off at school.
Others might be using it to watch the wildebeest migration cross the Serengeti’s Mara River. With the factory formalities, speeches and tributes out of the way, it is time for a celebratory drive. Land Rover has picked 25 unique vehicles to take part in the procession, including the final current Defender – and Huey, of course. Incredibly, they both have one part that is exactly the same: the hood cleat. It has been used on soft top Land Rovers since 1948! I am in a Defender 90 Limited Edition Autobiography for the drive. Current and formers employees are packed into each vehicle, and once the TV interviews are finally over, we are ready to roll. The network of roads within the Lode Lane factory complex are lined with workers knocking off or taking a break. The convoy slowly snakes its way around the hallowed grounds. Unlike me, none of the Land Rovers break down.
It's an emotional experience I will forever treasure. The drive ends at the Solihull Land Rover Experience, where we are given the chance to drive off-road in some of the Solihull-produced Series Land Rovers and Defenders. As I put an early Series I through its paces on the Jungle Track, I reflect on the massive impact of the Defender on my life. I’m still convinced that my Defender was the main reason my wife fell in love with me. It's a fitting way to end what has been a truly memorable, emotional day. In his speech earlier in the day, Dr Speth had been adamant that this was not the end of the much-loved British icon and he hinted at what the future holds for Defender: “This is not the last Defender, nor is it the last car to roll off the production lines of this great factory. “Now we will take the time to develop a new Defender for the 21st century. By the end of the decade we hope that it will make the kind of impact its predecessors made. “The story of the Defender does not end here. The Defender family will live on,” he added. I see his speech as a challenge to his Gerry McGovern-led design team.
If they are up to the task and do come up with something as iconic as the outgoing Defender, then I vow to run the length of Lode Lane naked. If they don’t, then maybe Gerry will oblige and do the same? While all the media hype around the end of current Defender production has helped to push up their prices, all is not lost for those that still have dream of owning a Series Land Rover or Defender. Remember: since 1948 Solihull produced 2,016,933 Series Land Rovers and Defenders. If it's true that over 70 per cent of them are still on the road, then there should still be over 1.5 million of them out there. What are you waiting for? Go out now and get yourself a piece of Land Rover history.