Off-Road Icons: Land Rover Defender

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Like the Wrangler, the Defender can trace its roots back to the original Willys.

Much like the Jeep Wrangler, the Land Rover Defender is an evolution of an off-road vehicle which began life decades ago. Though you might not be able to tell just from looking at it, this British off-roader can trace its lineage all the way back to the original Willys, although this is one of several offshoots of the original, rather than the direct descendant which the Wrangler is. Still, the Defender has become legendary in its own right. The first Land Rover was built by Rover in 1948.

In the wake of WWII, Rover was looking to build a vehicle which could serve both as transportation as well as taking on some of the functions of a tractor. Since agricultural equipment was in high demand at the time, this new vehicle would help Rover rebuild after the wartime bombing of their Coventry factory. Rover chief designer Maurice Wilks had used US military surplus Jeeps on his own farm, and the Willys vehicle served as not only the inspiration, but prototypes also used a Jeep chassis. A PTO (power take-off) was added, in order to allow the vehicle to drive farm machinery, and a good deal of the testing involved activities like plowing.

Before the vehicle reached production, Rover ended up scrapping most of the agricultural applications for the Land Rover, although the PTO was kept. They had ultimately decided that more money was to be made in building simple off-roaders for export. The first production model, the Series I, didn't end up using any Jeep components, and was slightly shorter than the American machine, but the inspiration is still evident. Even though both early Land Rovers as well as current Defender models were designed with civilian use in mind, the British military has been using them since their launch.

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In fact, the military had a similar project in development when the Series I debuted and the project was abandoned as soon as it was realized that Rover had built the superior machine. The Series I was followed by the Series II and Series III, before the vehicle we now know as the Defender was unveiled as the replacement in 1983. This new vehicle wasn't initially known as Defender, but when the name was applied, it wasn't the result of any changes to the vehicle. Three different configurations were offered, the Ninety, the One Ten and the 127 (the inconsistency in how the numbers are written comes from Land Rover, not me).

The numerical designations indicate the length of the wheelbase in inches, although they aren't exactly right. The Ninety has a 93-inch wheelbase, and though the 127 stated off having an accurate name, the model designation was later changed to "130" without any change to the 127-inch wheelbase. The name Defender came about in 1989, and it was applied simply to avoid any confusion with the newly-unveiled Discovery model. The numbers are kept, although models are now referred to as Defender 90, Defender 110 and Defender 130. The exception to this is Defenders sold in North America, which were all sold without any numerical designation.

This wouldn't prove to be too big an issue though, since the Defender was sold only from 1993 to 1997, when new safety regulations forced Land Rover to stop selling it. With the exception of one black Defender which was sold to Ralph Lauren, all North American Defenders were painted white. It's true that Land Rover didn't try very hard with the Defender in the US, but they probably just recognized that the Wrangler will always reign supreme in its home market. Australia got a somewhat better selection of Defenders, since the demand for the older Series Land Rovers had been so great that the factory couldn't build them fast enough.

This supply problem, combined with some quality issues, eventually caught up with Land Rover, and their dominance of the Australian 4X4 market was ended by newer Japanese vehicles. But the Defender is still popular in other markets, and this is because it is a highly capable vehicle. It is bigger than a Wrangler, especially if you opt for the 130, and this extra cargo capacity is important on longer trips off the beaten path. Land Rover did a good job with the Defender. It is an off-roader which offers up the same kind of abilities as the Wrangler, but while still being different enough that they aren't necessarily in direct competition.

This is all the more impressive when you consider that they were both derived from the same vehicle all those years ago. It doesn't offer the kind of on-road civility as a Wrangler, and certainly not as much as its stable-mate, the Discovery. But that doesn't mean there isn't a market for it, not by a long shot, and this iconic off-roader which made the Land Rover brand what it is today will forever be remembered as one of the greats.

Land Rover

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