On Friday, Jan. 29, the final Land Rover Defender rolled off the assembly line in the Midlands town of Solihull, England. The demise of this legendary line of four-wheel- drive automotive workhorses marks a significant milestone in automotive history.
The world seems just a bit smaller and a lot softer for it.
Land Rover, now owned by the Indian car maker, Tata Motors, will continue to make its line of luxury SUVs—the Range Rover and the smaller, more affordable Discovery. But gone is the true utilitarian rig known the world over.
We all know these cars from newsreels of United Nations vehicles and the iconic images of African safari touring rigs. These are Land Rover Defenders, or their predecessors, the Land Rover Series vehicles. That old car on the cover of whatever outdoor gear and clothing catalog is lying around your coffee table? Almost always an old Land Rover.
Rovers, as they are almost universally known, are uncompromised vehicles of adventure and wild places. At one time in the 1970s, the company claimed—not unrealistically—that the first vehicle the majority of the world’s population laid eyes upon was a Land Rover. Land Rovers were early penetrators of the African, South American, Australian, and Central Asian interiors. For better or worse, wherever Brits were to be found—from the Caribbean to the Ganges, from Lahore to Nairobi—Land Rovers followed.
No other vehicle could be so realistically repaired in the field as a Land Rover. Backup hand-crank starting was standard into the early 1980s, just like the early Ford “Tin Lizzies.” Aluminum alloy body panels do not rust and are soft enough to pound out major dents with river rocks. Exposed rivets on the body panels—now a retro-chic feature on some American-made trucks—remained proudly over several decades. The electric windshield wiper motors could be overridden and operated by hand if necessary. How practical is that?
The most common engine was an underpowered gasoline four-cylinder, but the company was (and remains) respected for its diesel power plant engineering. The drive trains through the late-1960s had to be double-clutched in the low gears, just like the classic Italian sports cars. Early Land Rovers featured innovations such as on-the-fly engagement of four-wheel drive and later full-time all-wheel drive. Most importantly, though, these handmade Land Rovers were just plain fun to drive, blending British sports car moxie with get-you-there-and-back reliability.
Those early vehicles won international favor among scientists, explorers and engineers, but also among writers and artists. Ernest Hemingway, the young Steven King and Tom McGuane all drove Land Rovers. Bob Marley owned one. So did Robin Williams. And Steve McQueen. The qwarbling guitar hero John Mayer keeps one on his Montana spread. Edward Abbey wrote about them and marveled that a man with a couple hundred feet of rope and a Land Rover could “accomplish goddamned near anything.” A Land Rover starred in the classic 1980 indy movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”
Those Rovers trace lineage back to the diminutive American military Jeep, which was shipped, well, by the shipload into England during the build-up to D-Day. As the war wound down, the thieving Brits expressed interest in building a rugged four-wheel-drive vehicle of their own, primarily for the export market into the British Empire.
The prototype vehicle was famously mounted on an Army Jeep frame. Designed and built by Maurice Wilkes—who had worked for a couple years at General Motors—the Rover featured power take-offs front and rear, at least initially to operate farm machinery. Aluminum was selected for the body panels because in post-war England a lot of big military aircraft was being scrapped while steel remained scarce.
By the early 1950s, Land Rover had gained a reputation for rugged durability and—not unlike the Volkswagen Beetle—a distinctive appearance, availability and interchangeability of parts, and a worldwide support and distribution network.
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“Dad, there’s a guy on TV who drives a car just like yours.”
I was preparing dinner one evening in the mid-1980s for my 6-year-old daughter at a friend’s house, which featured satellite-dish television. Curious, I ducked into the den to watch my first episode of “In the Wild with Harry Butler,” a PBS staple of the era. Butler, a naturalist and field biologist, was known by my daughter as the “bugs and snakes guy,” and indeed, each episode featured Harry and his trusty Land Rover 109 exploring the flora and fauna of the remote Australian interior.
Since I was living in the hinterlands of southwest Montana at the time, I had sought out a vehicle that would get me back and forth to my day job in town, which seasonally required four-wheel-drive. Land Rover had recently abandoned the U.S. market in a kerfuffle over safety and environmental considerations, such as air bags, padded dashboards, and emission controls.
The original dealership decal read: Knievel Imports, Butte, Montana.
Looking back on it, that rig has carried me all over the West, outlasted two marriages and a covey of girlfriends. Over 30 years and roughly 200,000 miles, I have replaced or rebuilt four carburetors, three generators, two water pumps, one clutch, a front-end, all four leaf springs and shackles, and several oil seals and bearings.
Since day one, it has left tiny oil splotches wherever it has been parked for more than a few hours. It has stranded me exactly one time, on pavement, and inconsequential in that a friend accomplished a field repair the next day using a shard of aluminum beer can to bridge a burnt voltage regulator connection. That fix to get me through the day lasted about five years.
Not unlike the British Empire, Land Rovers are simply built to last, or perhaps more accurately, they’re both built to die very slowly. It’s been estimated (by the company, of course) that more than 75 percent of all Land Rovers ever made remain roadworthy.
When Land Rover introduced the Defender badge in 1990, many of the Luddite, old school Series owners were skeptical, myself included. The Defender featured a coil-spring suspension all around. Each unit had full-time all-wheel drive powered by either a V-8 petro, modified from a retired Buick tooling, or a long-stroke diesel. Some of these early power plants kicked out about 100 horses. (By comparison, a new Subaru can offer twice that power).
With big markets in desert climates of the Middle East and elsewhere, the Defender did not initially offer air conditioning or even a car radio, which according to legend was because Land Rover couldn’t figure out how to make either of them effectively leak oil.
The Defender proved over time to be as capable and popular as its predecessor Series Land Rovers. It became the international fleet-vehicle of choice for the U.N. and many law enforcement agencies, oil and gas exploration companies, scientists and geologists and utilities operating in remote places.
Unfortunately, imports into the U.S. market were extremely limited because of Land Rover’s refusal to install emission control devices, mileage improvement systems and safety features. (To be clear, owners of the early Series rigs routinely open beer bottles on the all-metal dashboards. Further, Land Rovers, like most fun cars, are not purchased on the basis of high mileage and low emissions.)
A portion of the U.S. market would be addressed by the Range Rover, and later the Discovery—nice cars in many regards, but not even close to the cachet and capability of the crew-cut, muscular Defender. Consequently, most Defenders in the U.S. today are “gray market,” which is to say imported from Canada, Central America or other Defender-rich markets.
Many served time in military or fleet-vehicle sectors abroad. Veterans of Desert Storm and the post-911 campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan know well these military Defenders used by the British and other allies. The Defender also figures prominently on the wide screen in movies such as the recent James Bond and “Fast and Furious” franchises.
A well-used Defender from the late 1980s or ’90s runs upward of $20,000 in the United States, if you can find one. In the face of such multi-decade successes and solid value, why would Land Rover discontinue the Defender?
I dunno. Go figure. As with all other makers of sport utility vehicles, Land Rover had long ago joined the race toward comfort, highway performance and upscale styling and luxury offerings. Some claim the company initiated that race and perhaps the finish line has been crossed.
In recent decades, the Defender had become something of a sideline. At any rate, the company is gambling all-in on its reputation for manufacturing high-end diesel engines and 2016 marks its first year of exclusive use of TDI engines (turbo diesel injected) in all vehicle models, including those sold into the U.S. market.
Perhaps one day some capable car company will once again offer a reliable four-wheel-drive vehicle with minimal electronics, hand-operated windows and open-air venting, big torque rather than raw horsepower and sheer exuberance in the driving experience.
In the meantime, Land Rover may be offering the next best thing. The company has just announced that a portion of the Solihull plant will be devoted to a “Heritage Restoration Programme.” Old Series Land Rovers and Defenders—all 2 million of them ever built—can be fully restored at the factory, in some instances by the same workers who assembled the originals, according to the company.
Until mine is ready for a makeover, I’ll just hang onto the 50-year-old dreadnaught. Occasionally, I park it in front of a local brewery or tavern where young men in particular seem to think it’s good luck to touch the grille emblem. On rare occasions I’ll light up a Camel straight and ask if any of them would care to try starting the Rover using the hand crank. That always raises a crowd and is good for a few rounds of beer. (“Hey! There’s an old guy who says he can start his truck with a stick!”)
There are other reasons to keep the old Rover on the road, I suppose. Truly, a stinking old truck reeking of 90-weight oil may be seen by some as nothing more than an environmental nightmare. But that call to adventure and wild places remains, and the proper vehicle to get one there and back seems a big part of the romance.
Paul J. Driscoll, a native of Butte, is a public information officer for the Department of Environmental Quality in Helena. He is also a writer, editor, essayist and former editorial cartoonist. He lives in Montana City.