A year after production ended, we go in search of the final 20 Defenders
ever produced... for now
I remember it like it was yesterday, except it was 365 days ago, to be exact. January 29, 2016 was the day Land Rover Defender production officially ceased. The day that the world just could not get enough of Defenders. When you turned on the radio or TV everyone seemed to be talking about the much-loved British and global icon. At exactly 9.22 am, the final Defender, a Grasmere Green soft-top 90, left the Solihull production line. It was number 2,016,933 to be produced. Incredibly number 2,000,000 had sold for £400,000, a month earlier. The Defender line workers and media cheered. I was lucky enough to be there, witnessing and celebrating the end of an important chapter in Land Rover’s remarkable history. On that final day of Defender production, they produced only 20 of them. We want to know the whereabouts of those final 20.
The final Defender wasn’t sold, and rightly remains the property of Land Rover Heritage. From time to time it does make an appearance at shows and it has been featured in a few media articles. Those of you who attended the 2016 Peterborough Land Rover Show would’ve seen it there. When not on show or on media duties, the final Defender can be found at the British Motor Museum, where Defender and Land Rover fans can enjoy it. See contact details at the end of this article. Fast forward exactly a year from that dramatic, final day and now I find myself back at Solihull, the historical home of Land Rover. It is still raining and cold. Some might call it perfect Land Rover weather. I’m with Kim Palmer, the Land Rover UK Public Relations Manager, who is also the owner of the fourth-to-last Defender to roll off the production line a year ago.
It’s a Heritage 90 station wagon, and the first new car Kim has owned. Kim’s official Land Rover duties began in October of 2012, when he started working for the company as maternity cover. He’d spent six years at Aston Martin and before that he was at Lotus: “I’ve always worked in the British automotive industry and have a love for British cars,” he says. “I witnessed the Evoque launch from afar and wanted to work for a company with larger remit, sales base and understand fleet media, so I moved to JLR.” His love for Land Rovers began as a young boy when his dad, who used to work in defence communications, would bring home military Land Rovers on test: “I remember sitting in the back of them, among all the radio equipment, then we would drive to gran’s for a visit.
As a family, we never owned one, but I was always excited by them.” Kim is obviously very proud of being an important part of Land Rover at a time of unprecedented growth and success. The first vehicle he launched was the Range Rover L405 in Morocco and from there things just went from strength to strength. “The PR team has grown and matured. I think we had 30,000 people working at JLR when I started; that figure now stands at 40,000 passionate employees who just love the product and what we do. We now produce nearly 600,000 Jaguars and Land Rovers a year.” Due to his unique position Kim would have known well in advance that Defender production was going to end. During the final year of production the PR team’s primary job was to ensure that it was a celebration of 67 years of Defender and Series Land Rover production. They kicked things off in spectacular style in January, 2015 with the huge Defender drawing in the sand at Red Wharf Bay, Anglesey.
This was also when they announced the launch of the three special, limited edition Defender models: the Heritage, Adventure and Autobiography. Kim remembers when he saw prototypes of these limited edition Defenders: “It was love at first sight when I saw the Heritage. It looked really special. I knew straight away that I wanted to purchase one. Thankfully it was not much more than a standard Defender.” The day after the official press releases went out for the special limited edition Defenders, Kim called Rik Spencer at Guy Salmon Land Rover in Coventry to place an order for a Heritage 90 station wagon. At the time he had no idea to the sequence of events that would lead to him owning this special vehicle. I had to ask Kim how he felt about the end of current Defender production: “Defender was a vehicle for its time. When you look at the volume of vehicle sales, the Defender was fairly small and it was time to move it on.
We have already confirmed that we will be building another Defender.” The UK allocation of Heritage Defenders were scheduled for production only at the end of the cycle. During that crazy last year of Defender production, Kim found himself renovating his house – not a cheap exercise. By the middle of the year he questioned his decision to purchase a £32,000 Defender, so he decided to call Rik and cancel the order. Rik offered him a two-week cooling off period to think about the decision. During this time, Kim chatted to a few people in the industry, who assured him that he wouldn’t lose any money on his purchase. He decided to go ahead and buy it. He will somehow find the money and make it work.
Probably one of the best decisions of his life According to the schedule, the build date for his Defender was December 12, 2015, this was around the same time that they began with internal communications for the final day celebrations of the current Defender production: “I’ve launched many vehicles in my years at Land Rover but this was going to be the first un-launch of a vehicle. We are always sensitive about the way we end the production of a vehicle. When we ended Freelander production we did a event with the employees. It would just not have been right to let the Defender go quietly. So we started to plan and talk about that final day. It had to be at the factory and we would invite media and friends of the brand.” With excitement building, a decision had to be taken on what was going to happen on that final day of production. One of the Global PR managers asked Kim if he had ordered a Heritage Defender. They also asked if he would mind if they delayed the production of his Defender as they wanted a Heritage on the line during the final day of production. Kim jumped at the opportunity, as this would give him more time to save, plus his Defender was going to be one of the last ones off the line.
So the body of his Defender went through paint shop on the twelfth as planned, but it was then put to one side. Two days before the final day of Defender production, Kim was sent a text with pictures of his Defender. “This was the first time that I saw it. The next morning I was up at 5.30 am and went to Solihull to see it for myself. At the time the line was being prepped for the final day celebrations. I just stood there taking pictures of it with my phone.” One of the line workers was giving him the beady eye until Kim told him that this was his Defender, so they struck up a conversation. “I could just see and hear that he had such a passion for Defenders. Because mine was the last Heritage ever to be built, I noticed that there was only one tan cubby box left on the rack.” It was 5.30 am when Kim arrived at Solihull on the final day of Defender production.
As part of the celebration, the outline of a Series I was projected onto Block One. I remember that the media had to be there at 7.30 am. As soon as they led us into the factory, the hundreds of journalists all scurried off into different directions, keen to get the best story or photos of this dramatic final day. There was a real buzz about the place. Each of the 20 final Defenders was cheered off the line. Kim remembers it all too well. “I was trying to do my job but the same time I had half an eye on my car coming down the line. Every spare second I had, I would run towards it on the line and take a quick snap or two before resuming duty. Then, when it got to the final five or six, I just stood there and filmed it coming down onto its wheels for the first time. Sadly I never got to speak to the guy who drove it off because there was just too much going on. Plus I had to concentrate on the final one and make sure that we got the right images and footage of it.”
Unlike Kim’s, the final Defender did not drive out of the Defender factory building. Instead it went to a holding area where we could all have a look at it. About two weeks later Rik messaged Kim to say that his Defender had arrived at the dealership. On March 12, 2016 Kim, his parents and dog Monty, went to take delivery. Rik very kindly framed the delivery sheets and some pictures of Kim’s Defender for him; a frame which proudly hangs in his house today. Rik, a Defender fanatic himself, was excited about having the fourth-to-last Defender in his dealership. Well, that was until Kim drove it away. Up until now Kim has mostly been using it in the dry though our photoshoot with him was done on a typical wet Midlands day. The reaction that it receives has surprised Kim. “I once parked it outside my local pub.
I’ve never seen a pub empty so quickly as everyone came out to have a look at it. What it universally does is make people smile. Kids come over to take pictures of it.” So far Kim has only done just under 1000 miles in it. He won’t be using it every day, but he is not the kind of guy who is going to let it sit in a garage. In fact, last year he went to the Peterborough Land Rover show in it where it met HUEY, the first-ever, pre-production Land Rover. Kim now knows he definitely made the right decision by purchasing a very special Heritage 90: “The science is pretty basic; you have this vehicle that has been universally adored for decades, so when you suddenly stop production, you just know that demand and value for them is just going to increase. That is not why I bought it though.”
Kim is rather philosophical in his views on owning the fourth-to-last Defender. “I want to look after it and see myself as a custodian of it for future generations. It’s a piece of history as are all the other Defenders produced on January 29, 2016. I just want to protect that.” Sadly I have so far failed to trace all of the final Defenders. I now know the whereabouts of five of them; three are mentioned in this article, while the other two wanted to remain anonymous. I know that they are not all in the UK and I am sure that many of them have just been parked up as investments. Who knows, maybe one day there will be a club for the last twenty Defenders produced? There might even be a reunion of sorts. What I do know is January 29, 2016, will be forever etched into the memory of Defender owners and admirers around the world. WANT TO SEE H166 HUE?
Want to see H166 HUE, the final current Defender to be produced? Then make your way to the British Motor Museum. For more details see britishmotormuseum.co.uk. Contact them beforehand to make sure that it is not out on official duty.
Do you own a Defender that was built on the last day? We would love to hear from you, email Patrick at email@example.com
Roger Crathorne, the man they call Mr Land Rover, tells us a little about his Defender, the eleventh last Defender to be produced on January 29, 2016. “During the planning of the 40th anniversary of Land Rover, I suggested that they produce 40 soft-top Ninetys. Remember that they had not sold soft-top Ninetys in the UK since 1984. They then built two pre-production 40th anniversary models but the then MD of Land Rover decided to scrap the idea. Since then I have always wanted to own a soft-top Defender. So when the end of Defender production date came closer, I went to my dealer and ordered a truck cab Defender 90. Then I drove to the factory and asked a colleague to change my order to a Cypriot spec and soft top. I also got them to load it with several extras. I then went to homologation and got them to give it a UK VIN number. I’m happy with mine as I wanted it to replicate what we built as the first pre-production Land Rovers and I got exactly that. I have already done 10,000 miles in mine as it is my everyday car. I used it to drive to a presentation in Germany. That added 1000 miles in only 72 hours. I use it like a normal Land Rover, even though it was one of the last off the line.”
Pictures: Alisdair Cusick