With Land Rover’s announcement that its iconic Defender model will cease production at the end of the year, we look back at a few of the reasons why, in our eyes, it’s the greatest 4×4 ever.
In the 130-year history of the automobile, there is only one car that can be associated with both pig farmers and Queen Elizabeth. Forget Volkswagen, the Land Rover Defender is the true “people’s car.” With pragmatic sensibilities and no-nonsense styling that appeals to pretty much everyone, everywhere, the Defender can be found right the way from Sunset Strip to your local gravel pit.
If you want to buy one today, you can choose to pay almost $100,000 for the special “Autobiography” edition, or you can grab a secondhand one for as little as four or five thousand bucks. Really, this is a club that anyone can afford to join.
Yet, despite this, in December this year the Defender is due to retire after 67 years of continual service – that’s half the time the modern car has been in existence. So, as a fond farewell, here are eight reasons why the Land Rover Defender is the greatest 4×4 in history…
It’s going to be a future Bond mobile
From the archetypal Aston Martin DB5 of Goldfinger, to the sub-aquatic Lotus Esprit of The Spy Who Loved Me, James Bond rips through cars faster than he knocks back martinis. While everyone’s favourite gentleman thug ruined a Land Rover Defender 110 Double Cab Pickup during Skyfall, the hardy 4×4 is back in action in this autumn’s Spectre. This time, Land Rover Special Operations aren’t taking any chances, and the vehicles have been heavily beefed up for a better chance of survival. For a chase-scene in Austria, the Big Foot Defenders were fitted huge 37-inch diameter off-road tyres, as well as bespoke suspension and enhanced body protection.
Steve McQueen owned one
The King of the Cool was the ultimate petrolhead. Among his stable of cars, McQueen once owned a 1976 Porsche 930 Turbo with a switch on the dash to kill the rear lights, just to escape the paparazzi. But, while Ferraris, Porsches and Mustangs were the machinery he was most associated with, he also rocked a Land Rover Series IIa which he would drive around the Sierra Madre Mountains, California, in the early sixties. This Landie was even fitted with a GB sign on the back, for an added bit of Brit authenticity.
It gave us this bit of parking
While Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls was a mediocre film produced largely to appeal to stoned college students with names like Smiley Doobinator and Smokus Maximus, if anything saved it, it was the scene where Jim Carrey parks a safari spec Defender 90. With Fulton Greenwall (Ian McNeice) in the passenger seat, Ace gives the vehicle the ultimate jungle shakedown, ripping off panels as he goes before executing one sharp turn to barrel roll it into a parking spot between another Landie and a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud. Even in movieland, the Land Rover Defender is as tough as it gets.
It spawned the Range Rover
To look at the new $200,000 supercharged V8 Range Rover Autobiography, it’s hard to see much resemblance to that hardy Land Rover that has barely changed since WWII. But the lineage is there, with the original Range designed in an attempt to tame the Defender into something more civilised.
Rolls Royce coach-builder Tickford created almost 650 Station Wagons from the late 1940s, followed by the Road Rover concept in the mid-fifties, but both failed to catch on. This was a good thing, because in the ’60s, spurred by a need for new homes for the recently acquired 3.5-litre V8 from Buick, the Range Rover took shape. Rumour has it the iconic body style of the original Range was the result of a two hour design session to create a test mule – but it looked so good that it largely stayed intact for production, and even found a spot in the Louvre in Paris.
It was Winston’s Favourite
While the more common extras specified on a Defender may well be a safari snorkel or a winch, Sir Winston Churchill’s came with something more befitting someone of his gravity. The passenger seat of the Series 1 was extra wide so he could fit in it, accompanied by a fold-down arm rest and a leather-clad grab handle. It even had a special place for his trowel in the glove compartment, so Churchill could practice his hobby of bricklaying as he was driven around his country estate. Having originally been sold for £160 in 1973, UKE 80 — a present from Rover for Churchill’s 80th birthday in 1954 — eventually fetched £129,000 at auction in 2012.
You can dream about this one
Let’s face it, everyone’s got a G55 these days – better known as “$130,000 of winter throwaway money.” But if supercar-baiting performance in an antique utilitarian off-roader is your thing, then you need to be looking at something a lot more exclusive. That’s where the Kahn Land Rover Defender Huntsman 105 Long Nose comes in. The “105” denotes the wheelbase inches, up from 90 in the standard short Defender, and “Long Nose” explains where those extra dimensions can be found. In that extra room goes a GM crate engine, a 6.2-litre LS3 V8 with 430bhp, mated to a six-speed automatic gearbox. Built for this year’s Geneva auto show, it is still a one-off and currently on sale with 50 miles on the clock for £99,875.
It was the first ever monster truck
In the fifties, The Forestry Commission found that, good as the Land Rover was off-road, the standard model couldn’t deal so well with fallen trees. Bolting chunky axles from a Studebaker to a Series II, along with four tractor tyres, created the ultimate go-anywhere vehicle. Available as a petrol or diesel, it was said the “Forest Rover” would understeer at 15mph. “It was capable of 40mph on the road, if you could actually hold on to the steering wheel!” said one owner.
Paul McCartney wrote a song about one
Who would have thought the Land Rover would be part of the biggest breakup in Rock and Roll history? Following the split of the Beatles, McCartney would take Linda, his children and dog Martha to the Shetland Islands in his trusty Land Rover, to escape the pressure. McCartney was so fond of his Defender and the trips it allowed him to take, he wrote the song “Helen Wheels” after the nickname he had given the car: “hell-on-wheels.”
Words by Ollie Stallwood for Highsnobiety.com