As a native Brit, 2015 has been a year to remember. It marked the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, the German assault that drew the country into World War II. A debt of gratitude is owed to “the few,” those brave young men of the Royal Air Force who took to the air to defend our nation’s sovereignty.
This was also a significant year for another type of “Defender,” as it marks the end of the run for the last descendent of the original Land Rover. Born out of the ashes of that war and tracing its origins back to the original Series One from 1948, the final Defender is due to roll off the Solihull line in January. The two-millionth example, part of this final run, was just auctioned off for more than $600,000, an indicator of the icon that the Defender has become.
The original Land Rover was developed for life on the farm, an agricultural utility vehicle that very quickly evolved into the preferred vehicle for expedition and other demanding jobs the world over. In time it has evolved into countless workhorse variants, employed by everyone from mobile welders to telephone line repairmen, and is said to be the first vehicle seen by the vast majority of the world’s population. More recently it has become the darling of image-conscious poseurs and die-hard enthusiasts alike, who cherish it for its authenticity in a world filled with car-based SUVs.
That the Defender still exists is a tribute to two great British traditions: stubbornness and craftsmanship. Unlike the LR4/Discovery and myriad Range Rovers that move down the automated lines at Solihull, the Defender is still largely built by hand. Talented, stubborn hands. Flat aluminum sheets are still stamped, pressed and bent into the legendary brick shape. With the “bolt-together” assemblies, groups of workers gently guide and, if necessary, tap with a mallet to coax the parts together. This construction method, while unorthodox by modern standards, makes the Defender fully repairable with the most basic of hand tools in the field, where many will endure long lives of service.
Though I drive an older Defender 110 on daily basis here in the States, I felt compelled to spend one last drive behind the wheel of a brand new Defender before they are no more. With none to be had in America, I booked a trip to England where I’d get the chance to drive it once again in its native environment, and also take in a proper football match.
Waiting for me at London Heathrow was a fresh Defender 90 Station Wagon XS, outfitted with the last variant of the 2.2-liter diesel coupled to a six-speed manual transmission. Taking stock of this late-production model before hitting the motorway, the contrast of old and new bombarded my senses.
Everything looks and feels like the Defenders of old; even the driving position has remained unchanged, my right elbow resting against the driver’s door window. Missing are the dash vents below the windshield; indentations in the bulkhead show where they used to fit, but no more direct fresh air. A shame, though heated seats certainly add a welcome bit of “luxury.” So too the electric windows, which no longer require bending double in an attempt to reach the window hand crank.
The upgraded premium audio system looked a bit out of place, with more switches than a recording studio’s mixing board. Forward facing rear seats are a major plus, being easy to deploy and stow, and with the added benefit of full three-point seat belts. One niggle I notice that still plagues the Defender is the exposed lockable fuel cap that during the winter months tends to ice up, making removal extremely difficult and inconvenient.
Departing Heathrow and heading west on the M4, it’s immediately apparent that I’m in a Defender 90; it certainly doesn’t handle the bumps and undulations like a 110. In its defense, the 90 was never really designed for long motorway trips.
The diesel engine’s response is immediate, and gear selection easy and smooth. No need for an overdrive with the 6th gear. Cruising even at a sensible motorway speed soon begins to deplete fuel. Though rated at a reasonable fuel consumption of approximately 30 mpg, it is fitted with a fairly small 55-liter (14.5-gallon) fuel tank.
In all the Defender is exactly “what it says on the tin.” No fancy gadgets, just a straight-shooting, meat and potatoes multi-purpose vehicle, with the ability to be modified and upgraded with basic hand tools. This is, in part, the allure of what has become the legend of the Defender.
Handing the keys back was no easy task. Long may we have the pleasure of owning and driving these delightful millennium throwbacks.