Rule Britannia: The Evolution of the Land Rover Defender
A handful of car and truck models have survived through the decades: the Volkswagen Beetle, Ford F-150, and Chevrolet Corvette immediately come to mind. However, none of these legends hews as closely to its original form as the iconic Land Rover Defender. The Defender was developed by Rover executives Spencer and Maurice Wilkes. As the story is told today, Maurice sketched out the basic design concept and showed it to Spencer on a beach in Wales—a light utilitarian vehicle that would marry the Rover car engine of the time with the chassis of the surplus Willy’s Jeeps from the United States, which were already becoming popular in the post-War era.
After 68 years and over 2,000,000 vehicles produced, it’s an understatement to say the Wilkes brothers’ idea was a success. Yet, 2016 sees the end of the Defender. Sure, Land Rover has already announced its intentions to bring a new Defender to the market within the next few years, but this cessation of production truly signals the end of an era. With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the most important models and milestones from nearly seven decades of Land Rover Defenders.
Series I prototype “Center Steer”
Reflecting Maurice Wilkes’ intentions for the Series I Land Rover for utilitarian and agricultural use, the prototype known as “Center Steer” seats the driver in the middle of the cabin, similar to the seating position one would have in a tractor.
Series I Tickford
The immediate success of the Land-Rover Series I led to the creation of a “Station Wagon” body option in 1949. With a body from coachbuilder Tickford, about 650 ‘49 Station Wagon models were sold and mostly exported within Europe—some ended up in Argentina and Brazil as well.
Early Military Rovers
While the British Army wouldn’t officially press the Land Rover into service until the Series II models, it did purchase some Series I vehicles on a trial basis.
Friends in High Places
Winston Churchill counted among the Series I’s original fans, but arguably the Defender’s most famous fan could pull rank on him…
On Her Majesty’s Service
Queen Elizabeth II has shown an affinity for the Defender in all of its forms over the decades, making it her people-carrier of choice for royal visits the world over.
Fit for a Queen
These Series I and Series II Land-Rovers were built as Royal Review Vehicles for Queen Elizabeth II. That’s right: the Queen of England—OG custom SUV owner.
(Somewhat) More Power!
Early adjustments to the Series I included a change from 1.6-liter to 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder engines for the 1952 model year. The change boosted power moderately; from 50-55 horsepower to the 52-58 range.
1954 was a pivotal year for the Defender: an elongated standard wheelbase (86”, from the original 80” length) and a new 107-inch long wheelbase brought the Station Wagon and Pickup variants into the lineup full-time.
The Series II
1958 saw the first major overhaul for the Defender with the new Series II platform. Not only did both wheelbases grow two more inches (to 88” and 109”), but long wheelbase models gained a new 2.3-liter engine.
The Platform Diversifies
Something magical happened when the Series II was released: People started realizing how many different ways it could be modified. The Forest Rover pictured here sported tractor tires mounted to axles from a Studebaker.
Scottish firm Cuthbertson created tracked Land Rovers (including the Series II pictured here) for farm use over difficult terrain—specifically the uneven, soggy ground of Scotland. We’d be happy to take it anywhere.
Series II Ambulance
This Series II 109-inch ambulance conversion was just one of the ways Land Rovers were adapted as service vehicles.
Series IIA Forward Control models moved the cabin up front over the engine, leaving more bed space and creating even more opportunities for adaptation.
Series IIA Forward Control Fire Engine
This fire engine conversion was only one of the ways the Forward Control models were put to use. Also, it has to be on the short list of coolest fire trucks ever.
Series II Half Ton Lightweight
With a shortened width and easily removable pieces, the Half Ton Lightweight could fit on pallets or be carried by helicopter. It would go into production for the British Army from 1968 through the mid-1980s.
The Series III Land Rover debuted in 1971, and would become the most produced model of the Series line by the time its run ended in 1985.
The Series III continued the tradition of service for Land Rovers, including these sweet 88-inch Coastguard Hard Top models. We’d stare admiringly, too.
The Times, They are a Changin’
The County Station Wagon, available in the 88-inch or 109-inch wheelbase, showed the first signs of the Series III “softening” to attract upscale buyers. Added luxuries included cloth seats and soundproofing—the beginning of the end?
New Face, New Name.
The new Land Rover 90 and 110 were introduced in 1983. In 1990, the name was changed to Defender 90 and 110 with the addition of the Discovery in the Land Rover’s lineup.
Star Turn: Tomb Raider
This custom Defender 110 was featured in the 2001 movie “Tomb Raider.”
This Defender 110 Double Cab Pickup is fitted with monstrous 37-inch tires and is one of ten built for use in the 2015 James Bond film “Spectre.”
Treating ‘em Right
Rally Defender? Rally Defender. The Defender Challenge by Bowler is a one-make rally series meant to keep costs within the range of serious enthusiasts, and as a training ground before stepping into some of the world’s most difficult off-road endurance races.
Defender number 2,000,000 was built in 2015, with many key figures in the vehicle’s history taking part. Flourishes like the “No. 2,000,000” badging outside and a map of Red Wharf Bay—where the initial Series I design was sketched out on the sand—featured on its interior fit the significance of this Defender.
End of the Road
Designed to emulate the original Series I as much as possible, the final Land Rover Defender, number 2,016,933 rolled off the production line at Solihull on January 29th, 2016. It won’t go far though; the last Defender will live in the Land Rover Heritage Collection.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the Spring 2015 print issue of Tread Magazine.