"If there’s no oil under the Land Rover Defender, there’s no oil in it.”
“70% of all Defenders are still on the road today... the other 30% made it home.”
“Why do the latest Defenders have rear window demisters? To keep your hands warm when pushing.”
Those are some of the better-known Land Rover Defender jibes, often related by owners themselves. But the same people who self-deprecatingly tell such jokes are the Defender owners who get very, ahem, defensive when any genuine insult is aimed at their beloved vehicle.
You can deride it all you like, but the fact is the original Land Rover — in its Series I, II, III, and Defender guises — is one of the world’s most enduring motoring success stories, selling in excess of two-million units.
From a simple sketch in the sand by Maurice Wilks, the man who conceptualised the original Land Rover off-road utility vehicle in 1947, the boxy icon has been used by everyone from the military to farmers, and has spawned some weird and wonderful versions in its 68 years — including expedition Defenders fitted with tank-like tracks instead of tyres, and even an amphibious derivative.
It’s a vehicle that oozes history and pedigree. It evolved from very rough-and-ready origins and has been modernised with better engines and more comfortable cabins along the way, but always retained its rugged and agricultural vibe and impressive all-terrain ability.
The shape has much to do with its success. There’s something about boxy vehicle styling that gives an aura of toughness; a visual heft and substance that’s absent from modern, streamlined shapes. Look to the enduring popularity of the Jeep Wrangler and Mercedes-Benz Gelandewagen as further evidence of that, and so too the retro-styled new Jimny, which Suzuki can’t build fast enough to satisfy demand.
It’s part of why people kept buying the Defender even when Land Rover started offering more refined models like the Discovery and Range Rover.
Jakob Jordaan, chairman of the Southern Africa Land Rover Owners Club, says the original Defender’s enduring popularity was more about emotion than reason.
“People got bitten by the Defender’s heritage. There’s no logic to it. It has an amazing aura to it, and was seen as the original Land Rover,” he says.
“The Defender’s not a comfortable vehicle, and I feel sorry for the passengers sitting in the back,” says Jordaan, who has owned two Defenders along with several other vehicles from the stable, including the Discovery and Range Rover.
“The Discovery is all round a more comfortable and more offroad-capable vehicle, but people continued to buy Defenders because it was a cult thing. It was the same reason people bought Alfa Romeos in the 1970s and 1980s.”
After a continuous run of nearly seven decades, production finally ended in January 2016 when the last Defender rolled off the production line. Though it was still a popular seller it was discontinued because it no longer met modern crash-safety regulations.
It wasn’t gone for long. In September 2019 its successor was unveiled, albeit to questions about just how much of a “Defender” it really is. Its boxy shape admittedly still recalls the fold-along-the-dotted-lines styling of the original, and it’s still sold in 90 and 110 derivatives — denoting, in time-honoured tradition, their respective lengths in inches (and not their top speeds, as some suggested tongue-in-cheek).
But underneath, it’s a modern SUV that embraces the digital age with its touchscreen infotainment and ability to receive over-the-air updates. This, naturally, has purists complaining that it’s just not cricket, by Jove.
These are the dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts who want to wrestle levers to select low range instead of touching a screen.
They are the traditionalists who can rattle off Landy lore. Like the fact that the first Series I Land Rover was nicknamed “Huey” because its registration plate was “HUE 166”.
They are the inveterate old-schoolers who want to be able to repair their Landy with bloudraad and duct tape under a tree in the middle of the Kalahari.
And they are the people who sing campfire songs about them. I once attended a Landy gathering where the guitarist changed the lyrics of the “Wild Rover” pub song to “No nay, never no more, will I sell my Land Rover.”
I don’t know whether he ever did sell his Landy, or whether he’d consider trading it in for the hi-tech new one, which resembles a spaceship inside with its touchscreen-infused cabin.
Very un-Defender-like indeed, but Land Rover argues that, while it recognises the vehicle’s unique heritage, it has to move into the 21st century. “It’s about capturing the essence of the original but not being held captive by it,” says Land Rover’s chief design officer Gerry McGovern.
The old-schoolers might bemoan the new version, which adopts a monocoque design instead of the original’s rugged body-on-frame architecture, and that those time-honoured solid axles have made way for independent suspension.
WAIT AND SEE
But the main hook of the Landy has always been its offroad ability, and here the new one doesn’t stray from the recipe. Its numbers will soothe even the strongest antediluvians. There’s a towering 291mm ground clearance, 500mm of wheel articulation and 900mm wading depth.
The 38-degree approach angle and 40-degree departure angle are also the stuff of offroading dreams, and one could use the Defender for a cross-Africa expedition. The question is: would you really want to?
The battle-hardened original Defender looks like something you can drive the crap out of, mistreating it by sloshing through muddy trails and clambering up rocky dongas. It’s the automotive equivalent of a square-jawed adventurer clad in a khaki suit and hiking boots, wielding a panga.
The new one, as relatively square-jawed as it might be, looks like it’s wearing a tuxedo en route to the opera, too effete to have its shiny metallic paintwork scratched in a forest.
It’s why British company Ineos has spotted the market gap and will be building a vehicle called the Grenadier, a back-to-basics workhorse 4x4, moulded on the original Defender.
So who’s actually going to buy the 2020 Defender? Land Rover reckons the vehicle will attract a handful of hardcore adventurers, but admits that the majority will be “lifestyle” buyers who won’t be using most of its offroad ability.
As for what existing Defender owners think of the new version: “It’s a totally different vehicle,” says Jordaan.
“Yes, it lives up to the original in style and image, but mechanically there’s nothing carried over from the old. It’s sophisticated and full of electronics. It’s more of a lifestyle vehicle, even though it’s immensely capable offroad.
“I’m not sure old Defender owners will buy the new one. There’s a tendency to feel negatively about the new one, based on my discussions among fellow members of the club. The general perception is that the Defender’s gone soft. Would I buy one? I’ll wait to make my final decision until I’ve had a chance to drive it.”
The new Defender may well chase away some of the old-schoolers, but Land Rover is betting on its attracting more buyers by being a retro-styled vehicle with modern mechanicals, where people don’t make jokes about oil leaks anymore. Perhaps the new Defender will have the last laugh after all.
• The new Defender will be launched in South Africa later this year.
• From the March issue of Wanted 2020.