From farmers to soldiers to weekend off-roaders, the Defender has served them all.
The story of the Land Rover Defender starts with the British automotive manufacturer, Rover. After the Second World War, Europe didn't have the economic boom the United States experienced. The war had ravaged Europe, and the German Luftwaffe had hammered the UK by air for years. Before the war, Rover had become an upmarket company, but luxury cars did not have a market in the post-war landscape.
Rover's chief designer was a man named Maurice Wilks, and his brother, Spencer, was the managing director of the company. While Spencer was visiting Maurice at his farm, they figured that what the country needed was a light utility vehicle. They looked to the Willys Jeep as inspiration, but Maurice came up with his design with agricultural use in mind. Maurice had an army-surplus Jeep on his farm for reference, so the prototype was built upon a Jeep chassis but used the engine and transmission from a Rover P3 sedan. Steel was heavily rationed in the UK, so he used an aluminum and magnesium alloy for the bodywork. The vehicle turned out to be sturdy and adept, so after a proper development period, it went into production in 1948.
When the first Land Rover debuted, it was built on a box frame chassis with aluminum bodywork. It had a 1.6-liter four-cylinder engine mated to the Rover P3's four-speed transmission. However, it also had a two-speed transfer box fitted and a permanent four-wheel-drive system. Through the Series I life span, it gained a 2.0-liter engine and its standard wheelbase grew from 80 inches to 86. A 107-inch pick-up truck version became available a little while later. Then, in 1955, a station wagon version with five doors came onto the market and could seat ten people. Later on in the generation, the wheelbases extended to 88 inches and 109 inches, respectively.
The Land Rover also gained a reputation for being incredibly strong and durable, as well as being able to navigate slippery or harsh terrain with relative ease. The British military adopted the Land Rover in 1949 and it became the corps' standard light military vehicle. That wasn't why the standard color for the Land Rover was green, though. That was because there was a leftover of green paint from the Air Force following the war.
The second generation came in the same 88- and 109-inch wheelbases but now had Rover's styling department to work on the body. It came with a choice of gas or diesel engines and introduced a 2.25-liter engine that would become the standard lump until the mid-1980s. For the 109 model, Land Rover kept the 10-seat arrangement but made a 12 seat version available as well, a model that was technically classed as a bus in the UK.
The Series IIA is often considered a separate model after its release in 1961, but was very hard to distinguish aesthetically from the Series II. It was considered the most robust model, something this author can attest to having owned and abused one for years. The Land Rover started to become an icon through its appearances in TV shows and movies worldwide. It also started to dominate the world's biggest 4x4 markets, including Australia, the Middle East, and Africa.
For the Series III generation, Land Rover continued to use the IIA chassis but made it easier to distinguish by the headlights now being on the front of the fenders. That change was made to meet worldwide lighting regulations, including those required to enter the US. It also gained synchromesh on all four gears, finally making the necessity of double-declutching a thing of the past, and it gained the luxury of a molded plastic dashboard rather than sharp metal everywhere. The drivetrain was improved, too, the changes made to prevent rear axle half-shafts being broken under extended heavy strain.
For export and to counter competing vehicles from Toyota and Nissan, a V8 model was produced in 1979 on the 109 chassis, a 3.5-liter V8 developing a measly 95 horsepower.
In 1983, the Land Rover evolved again, but with a few minor, aesthetic differences. They were named after the wheelbase measurements, despite the conventional models having a 92.9-inch measurement, while the larger derivatives had a 110-inch span between the axles. Underneath, though, gone was the leaf-spring suspension to be replaced with a coil-sprung system. It was the biggest change in the basic Land Rover models since the Series I and improved ride quality on the road and the amount of axle articulation available.
The 110 arrived in 1983 and the 90 in 1984, the latter bringing with it wind-up windows. The 3.5-liter V8 engine from the Range Rover became an option, and the Land Rover went from being a purely utilitarian and started to reach the recreational vehicle market. As a result, trim levels began to appear, and things like comfortable seats and a range of colors became available.
Land Rover didn't forget the utility market, though, and introduced a 127-inch wheelbase model. It was aimed at utility companies and the military and was built on its own production line. It could be optioned as a 15 seater or ordered bare and ready to be converted for specialized uses. When you see a Land Rover fire engine, ambulance, or mobile workshop, chances are it's on the 127-inch wheelbase chassis.
In 1989, Land Rover introduced the Discovery. That meant that the Land Rover (as the 90, 110, and 127 were officially named) finally needed a real name to avoid confusion. It also gained a new engine, the 200TDi (200 Turbo Diesel Injection), that cured the age-old problem of deciding between performance or fuel economy. Now, Land Rover owners could have both, and a cool name for their 4x4. The Rover V8 engine was still available, but the turbo diesel units made up the bulk of Land Rover's sales worldwide. In 1998, the TD5 2.5-liter, inline five-cylinder turbodiesel engine became available but was replaced by the Ford's DuraTorq to meet emissions and safety legislation in 2007.
The Defender also got a better dashboard, even if it was made up using a combined Land Rover and Ford parts bins, and legislation ruled out inward-facing seats. That meant the 90 could only seat four people now, and the Defender 110 could only seat seven.
In 2012, the beginning of the end started for the Defender as a utilitarian vehicle. Meeting pedestrian collision standards was going to be an expensive enough proposition, but redesigning for airbags killed any business case for the Defender carrying on. It was laid to rest in 2016, but in 2018 a limited run of the Defender Works V8 70th Anniversary Edition started. They weren't production vehicles, but restomods on selected chassis and built by the Land Rover Classic division. Only 150 were produced using the Jaguar's 400 hp naturally aspirated 5.0-liter engine matched to an eight-speed ZF 8HP automatic transmission.
The Land Rover Series and Defender models have a long and storied military career. The Series IIa and Series III had a version built for military use, and specifically, so they could be carried by helicopters. The width was reduced so the Lightweight could fit on a standard transportation pallet, and the body panels were easy to remove to make lighter. On occasion, they would be secured to a pallet with a parachute attached and dropped out the back of airplanes for special forces to use in enemy territory, most famously in the first Gulf War.
The most famous military Land Rovers are the "Pink Panthers" that the SAS (Special Air Service) used in Oman during the Dhofar War. The legend goes that an airplane had been painted pink to stand out in the desert, but when it crashed, nobody could find it. It turned out that pink was an excellent color for camouflage in the desert, particularly at dawn and dusk. The 20 or so that survive are the most valuable and sought after Land Rovers.
The Land Rover Wolf is another military only model, but this is the one based on the Defender-named model. It came to prominence in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was heavily upgraded for strength and reliability, but not heavily armored as it was used either for liaison duty or patrol with the "hearts and minds" campaign in Iraq following the main part of the second Gulf War.
The chassis was a different design, and the Wolf used the 300TDi engine rather than the TD5 as the electrical system was less complex. It also had a 24-volt electrical system, a rear body roll cage. The Royal Marines adapted them as amphibious assault vehicles, and with waterproofing techniques and a 'periscope' snorkel, the engine was able to continue running while the vehicle was completely underwater.
With a long history behind it, the new Defender has some big boots to fill. It's a clean-sheet design, and the Defender 90 and 110 names are not relative to the wheelbase anymore. The 90 has a wheelbase of 101.9 inches, while the 110 measures 118.9 inches. Those worried it won't match its predecessor in off-road prowess can rest easy, however, as it has comparable or better approach and departure angles and axle articulation. It can wade into deeper water and comes standard with adaptive dynamic air suspension, a two-speed transfer case, and the Land Rover's excellent Terrain Response system. For power, the base engine is a 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine producing 296 hp and 295 lb-ft of torque. As far as we remember, that's more power than the V8 Defender models ever had, barring the 70th Anniversary Edition.
It was inevitable that the new Defender would be balanced more to the adventure market than the utility market, at least to start with. Inside, it's a lot more comfortable than the last model, but that doesn't mean it's not the glossy leather-coated cabin of a Range Rover. The materials are as sturdy, and the design as ergonomically simple as you should expect from a dedicated off-roader. You can option Windsor leather and a sliding panoramic sunroof, but, in reality, the kind of people to option those will likely leave the dealership in a Discovery or a Range Rover. Inside, you can even option a front jump seat like earlier Defender's or have a walk-through cabin. The 110 model can seat seven people while the 90 can seat five or six.
Land Rover is so confident in its ability, ruggedness, and dependability that it sent its press fleet vehicles out to the Red Cross and other emergency services around the world to be used to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. For commercial use, the Defender Hard Top is due to launch in the UK first later in year. In case anyone is worried Land Rover has forgotten its roots, the Hard Top name harks back to demountable Hard Tops that were available for early Series Land Rovers, and you can see in the press photos below that the decals reference the Wilks Brothers.