THE Land Rover Defender’s days are finally numbered, with production set to come to an end at the end of this year. It will be a bittersweet day for me and other fans around the world.
Bittersweet because, let’s face it, the Defender has no place in the current market obsessed with technology and safety. It still proudly uses components that modern car companies scorn.
Jaguar Land Rover has moved and is up there again with the best of them. It needs a new Defender and has been working on this for some years.
It is difficult to say why the Defender holds such a special place for me. I grew up in the UK, but I was not born on a farm and there was never one in the family. I came close to buying one nearly 20 years ago in SA, but my other half at the time made her views very clear. I bought a Discovery.
My best mate for many years was a farmer and his Defender was the vehicle of choice to get us through quiet country lanes and back from the pub on a Saturday night. Even when we went to a ball or other fancy social occasion, the Defender was always acceptable — it was in a class of its own.
After many years as the chief photographer for Rolls-Royce aero, my father started his own business and one of his clients was a Land Rover customiser. The range of custom versions grabbed my imagination. There seemed no end to what one could do with a Defender. Once, my father came home with a six-wheeled version.
I once went to the Land Rover factory and saw so many versions, from a fire department vehicle to a very smart camper van. There was even a luxury version, and I recall it was even more luxurious than a Range Rover.
Psychologists could have a field day with people who love the Defender. She might not appreciate me telling you this, but the former public relations officer of Land Rover SA is such a fan that when the company tried to take away her supplied Defender, she started crying. They gave it back.
The Defender has been loved by many in SA, so much so that people are willing to fork out more than R600,000 for the final Heritage Edition model, which looks much like the original. I saw one the other day. I want it.
The Defender was also built in SA. Rover SA started manufacturing Defender chassis and petrol tanks at its plant in Port Elizabeth in 1963 before production moved to the Leyland Motor Corporation plant in Cape Town.
Between 1974 and 2005, more than 1,000 of the vehicles were built every year at factories in Cape Town and at BMW’s plant in Rosslyn before South African production ended under the custodianship of Ford in Silverton.
They were also imported from the UK, and between 1964 and 1975, SA was the top export market in the world for the Defender, together with Australia.
Such was the success of the domestic operation that when the new R60m assembly plant was built at the BMW facility, Queen Elizabeth II came to SA to open it.
SA was also responsible for several unique models, including the Series 111S R6 for both the South African National Defence Force and private buyers.
The company’s special vehicle operations (SVO) division, which has just been resurrected, was started in SA. It provided factory accessories for the Defender and later for the Range Rover and Discovery.
It also produced several unique vehicles. The 147 Td5 station wagon had an extended wheelbase with three rows of doors and could carry 11 passengers. Unfortunately, only 10 were ever sold. More popular were the many ambulances, mobile workshops, fire tenders and long-distance vehicles produced by SVO.
It also manufactured several military vehicles, including armour-plated models and bombproof derivatives. According to former Land Rover chief engineer Brian Hogg, the company also produced a long wheelbase bomb disposal Defender that included a remote controlled robot.
South African Defender manufacturing ended in 2005 when the final vehicle rolled off the assembly line at the plant on the Ford Silverton site. A decade later, and the lifespan of the current Defender is set to end. But the company is adamant that it will live on and has been showing several concepts over the past few years.
The main one is the DC100, which has something of a Tonka toy look to it and which has been met with mixed reactions.
Concepts are often toned down for production, but Land Rover has yet to tell all of us dying to see the new Defender exactly what it will look like. This is not surprising — designing the new Defender is no easy task.
“Consider for a moment how successful other retro models have been for other brands and you would be forgiven for assuming it was an easy thing for Land Rover to create a new Defender,” says Jaguar Land Rover SA managing director Richard Gouverneur.
“Take a step back and appreciate that those retro models are based on cars that have been out of production for decades and the principle becomes far hazier.
“Defender has a very loyal and enthusiastic following, whose demands are very difficult to meet because they remain so fundamental. Defender is so familiar and relevant today that it is a different proposition to get the market to accept anything different.”
Gouverneur says the Defender has been the “backbone of consistency” throughout his career. “Every time I’ve worked for Land Rover, Defender has remained the solace of familiarity that has somehow rooted me. As such, it has a place very close to my heart.”
He is not alone. Ask anyone who has undertaken an epic journey in a Defender, or taken part in the legendary Camel Trophy. It is not perfect, and Defender has often been an appropriate name for those who have had to defend their love of it to Toyota Land Cruiser owners, but few vehicles deserve to be called a legend as much as the true Landy.
Long may it live on, whatever form it takes.