The Land Rover Defender is dead. Long live the Land Rover Defender; as it should anyway, because it is not actually dead.
It is just that after 68 years of production, the vehicle model is receiving its first full bumper-to-bumper update.
The Indian-owned British manufacturer last week announced the production of the two-millionth Land Rover Defender as the end of the line for this vehicle, and the entire motoring industry was thrown into an uproar.
Are they serious right now? How does one kill an icon? It’s like the Coca-Cola Company announcing that Coke sodas are no more.
Land Rover built their entire existence around the utility that later came to be known as the Defender.
Is there even a point calling the company Land Rover anymore?
So, why did it have to die? Sixty eight years is a very long time, and a lot can happen in that time span.
A plethora of factors came into play as the harbingers of doom for this venerable vehicle, and this is how things panned out.
There was a population explosion — this can trace its origins back to the baby boom occasioned by the wayward tendencies of Generation X — which in turn necessitated an increase in levels of industrialisation.
That meant more people had to have more products, one of these products being the motor vehicle.
An upsurge in the number of cars brought about a huge drain in oil reserves, leading to a general panic and an oil crisis.
The crisis was dealt with, but then along came a man called Al Gore talking about a phenomenon called “global warming”. He took one look at the number of cars on the road and said:“There’s your culprit. All those exhaust pipes can’t be good for the atmosphere.”
Following several years of back and forth concerning the veracity of his claims, there were meetings in various parts of the world such as Kyoto and Copenhagen, and in the wake of each meeting came a new set of rules and regulations about what exactly is allowed to come out of the exhaust pipe of a motor vehicle.
These rules get increasingly stringent with each successive environmental pow-wow to the point where a sports car like the Porsche 911 Turbo has an engine so advanced that the air coming out of the tail-pipe is safer to breathe than the one going into the engine.
It did not end there. More people and more cars on the roads can only lead to one thing: more accidents.
In the US, “justice” is a seven-letter word, just like “lawsuit”.
Massive court-mandated settlements led to even more legislations targeting the motor car; mostly along the lines of how much hurt is allowed for participants of traffic accidents before the manufacturer is held culpable for building an unsafe motor vehicle.
Passenger safety, pedestrian safety, rollover resistance, crash-absorption… all these found their way into motor vehicle design, meaning that the cars of the Baby Boomer period and the cars of 2016 barely resemble each other.
Gone is the style, flamboyance, diversity and low weight of the heady rock-and-roll marijuana-smoking days of the ’60s, and now we have safe, heavy, boring, technology-laden briefcases in which to safely have accidents while maintaining the breathability of the air around the scenes of those accidents.
Of what import is this tale to the Defender? Throughout these changes to the tenets of motor vehicle manufacture, Solihull’s most famous and ubiquitous utility remained untainted by the brush of legislation.
The vehicle as is in 2016 is not very different from what it was when it first left the production line in 1948: a bare-knuckle, no-frills attack device for any kind of terrain at any given time.
The overall design changed very little (if at all) throughout its 68 years of existence: the only modifications it received mostly involved new engines; and in the last decade, introduction of HVAC and ABS.
And that is where the knell of doom was sounded for the Defender.
We industry pundits have seen this coming for the longest time. Now the inevitable has arrived. It has to go.
We all know what a Defender looks like.
Designed using the “ruler-and-compass-only” instruction manual that heralded our pre-KCPE primary school geometry classes, the overall silhouette is as boxy as can be, and while it makes for a handsome, brutish, rugged outline, it falls flat as far as the rapidly changing regulations go.
The design in inherently inefficient: the aerodynamic profile is very poor.
Even with a massive 3.9 litre V8 engine, the Defender struggles to go past 140km/h; such is the wind resistance created by that wall of a grille-and-windscreen combination.
This is also hurts the fuel economy of the car; which in turn causes the level of emissions to soar.
In the world of today, high-emissions vehicles face punitive measures in the form of heavy financial penalties for both owner and manufacturer.
The simplistic flat panels that constituted the body work were perfect for the Defender’s intended use: hardcore off-road applications in locales remote and distant.
They are cheap and easy to repair or replace, and they make for an externally compact vehicle (smaller than a Land Cruiser) with massive interior space (can accommodate up to 15 people).
On the open highway, these panels are also the bane of drivers once cross-winds make themselves felt.
Strong breezes could easily cause the vehicle to stray from its lane, which is undesirable if not intended by the driver.
The box design also created hard edges that proved lethal to pedestrians unfortunate enough to get run over by a Defender.
These factors made the Defender a) environmentally unfriendly b) inefficient and c) unsafe; in other words, it fails where it matters. Production stoically soldiered on, nonetheless.
It couldn’t go on forever. As stated earlier, harsh rules and regulations played against this type of vehicle to the point it has become senseless to keep making it. The company has to let go. The Mini evolved, the Volkswagen Beetle evolved and now one of the last bastions of the classic era is finally taking a bow (tick-tock, Mercedes-Benz G Class).
It too is moving on, and its replacement is… in a word, likely to divide views. Once I drive it we will bounce opinions off of each other, but until then, let’s keep talking about the outgoing vehicle.
So why is it such big news that the Defender is bowing out when other cars have come and gone without much ado? The Defender over its history built quite a reputation over the years.
Land Rover’s slogan — The Best 4X4XFar — is not an overstatement; there is very little that can match a Defender’s abilities, and none that can beat it with the right driver at the wheel.
It will go anywhere, and it will do anything. It will be a family car, a pickup, an ambulance, a fire truck or an anti-aircraft missile carrier (among thousands of other applications).
As such, it has been the favourite of many owners: be it private, corporate, military or civilian.
The car is steeped in history: the Royal Families of various kingdoms have fleets of them, they have been used to save lives and have been part of expeditions that changed the world in one way or the other.
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Locally, they are best known for two things: they serve as breakdown vehicles and in the disciplined forces.
The Land Rover Defender became synonymous with police presence to the point where spotting a white, unmodified Land Rover Defender station wagon or pickup is enough to send a pack of unruly youths running for safety irrespective of who is in the vehicle.
Majority of the world’s militaries will swear by them, as they have served faithfully in almost every single war since 1950.
The Defender is so good, in fact, that the military versions are usually obsolete out-of-production models no longer available to civilians, such is the ruggedness built into them.
The off-roading community may poke fun at the Defender’s reliability (which is not as bad as they make it sound) but they will admit: nothing, but nothing, beats a Defender when it is working properly.
But is the Defender really dead? No, and for two reasons, the first being there is an official replacement on the way.
It looks nothing like the vehicle it is superseding and it is built with current emissions and safety regulations in mind, so in the eyes of many, it will not be a true Defender. That remains to be seen.
The second reason is: legislation may have hurt the Defender’s raison-d’etre , but these legislations are in effect only in distant lands. Some parts of the world have no problem at all with the Defender’s aerodynamically-defiant shape, its cross-wind-prone flat sides, its skull-cracking bonnet leading edge, its blatant disregard of c-of-g and rollover safety, its lack of creature comforts, or its thirst.
That means production may officially be over, but not actually over.
We have seen this happen before with the Volkswagen Type 1 (Beetle), the Volkswagen Type 2 (Kombi), the Mitsubishi Pajero V46, the Peugeot 504, the Peugeot 405, the Fiat 124 and the Hummer, among others.
When the parent company ceases production, another company or even a foreign government obtains the rights to keep producing the vehicle under license.
Given the iconic status of the Defender, I strongly suspect this may be the case here: the two-millionth vehicle assembled last week may be the last Defender out of Solihull, but I don’t think it’s the last old-school Defender ever.
Expect to see a Chinese version any time before Easter.