Defender who? Why Original Land Rovers are the most iconic vehicles out there
Updated: May 18
And why driving one might change how you think about cars forever!
When talking about original Land Rovers and Defenders, one thing needs to be said upfront:
If you own a Land Rover Defender, you already know about this all-embracing feeling that takes possession of your body when you climb into your Landy, turn the keys and hear the comforting sound of the engine clattering away. If you have ever wondered whether it is normal to love your car more than your cat, you are invited keep reading. You are not alone!
If you are not a regular Defender driver, but you had the pleasure to go out for a spin in a specimen on your neighbour’s cousin’s uncle’s farm and just can’t describe the overwhelming pleasure it gave you: you should keep reading! There is a perfectly fine explanation for what you experienced.
If you have never been close to a Defender, and frankly, don’t care much about cars: you must keep reading. Because a) a Defender is not just your average car anyway and b) by the time you have finished this article you will find yourself asking whether a Defender is the only thing truly missing in your life.
So, let’s start with the obvious! Many books have been written about the original Land Rover and I am not breaking new ground by saying: It is the most timeless, iconic and beloved British vehicle ever made.
The Original Land Rover: A timeless vehicle as British as a cup of tea
To find out why, we have to look at the beginnings: Its first model, the Land Rover Series I, rolled off the production line at the famous Solihull Land Rover factory in 1948. It was the aftermath of WWII and the country needed a farmer-friendly, all purpose vehicle that could help restore order and plough through muddy fields.
It was the Wilks brothers, Technical and Managing Directors of the Rover Company, who had gotten tired of not being able to get spare parts for their war-surplus American Willys Jeep they used on their farm. Thus, they came up with the idea of building their own version: a vehicle looking like, well, a pick-up crossed with a tractor that could haul hay bales and was easy to maintain. Legend has it, that the brother’s first concept sketch was drawn into the sand of Anglesey during a walk along the Welsh beach.
Most of the Land Rover’s early design, including the chassis and axles, was ‘borrowed’ from, surprise, the Willys Jeep. In parts, the Land Rover was a result of circumstances more than of genius: Since steel was rationed the vehicle had to be made from aluminium and the choice of colour was dictated by military surplus supplies of aircraft cockpit paint – in case you have ever wondered why all the early Landies came in various shades of pastel green and thus so nicely colour coordinate to the British countryside! The initial 80-inch wheelbase was as spartan as you would expect from, let’s say, a combine-harvester: no heater, no passenger seat, not even a roof.
To summarise: we are looking at the debut model of a vehicle that looked like a child’s drawing of a car and was so basic, even the doors would cost extra. And yet, the whole British nation and hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts worldwide would become SO passionate about this vehicle within years, it would basically become the world’s favourite car. So what happened?
The simple answer is: its capabilities exceeded any expectations. It was an engineering masterpiece, yet easy to maintain and repair.
It was an engineering masterpiece, capable of any job.
The Series I was pulling and towing and ploughing and descending and free-wheeling and unpretentiously working away in rain, floods, snow and heat; if you ran a shaft from the gearbox you could even power a circular saw!
Furthermore, Land Rover’s timing was right and they had developed a vehicle everyone needed. Instead of only supplying local rural communities, the orders torrented and came in from everywhere: the police forces, electricity boards, armed forces, forest rangers, fire services, building contractors, Royal Palaces and, simply, adventurers.
The Land Rover Defender: A story of success
In the coming years, Land Rover plodded on, improved the stability of its powerful permanent four-wheel drive and soon extended the wheelbase slightly to accommodate the bigger engines and released an even more utilitarian long-wheelbase pick-up version. Due to the eyewatering post-war purchase taxes on ‘luxury goods’, the company had to abandon earlier attempts of a Station Wagon. However, 1954 finally saw the release of the first passenger carrying Series I, when the short-wheel base left the factory as a three-door estate with seven seats and even ten seats found, rather cramped, space in the longer 107-inch version.
With its reputation already firmly cemented, the Land Rover was no longer only seen on farms and barley fields, but made its way onto the roads as a reliable and highly popular estate but off-road-able vehicle for the solo traveller, the adventure-hungry explorer and the whole family on a weekend trip. Being the brilliantly practical travel companion that could take you anywhere, these days were the dawn of the off-road and overland lifestyle, that has not stopped fascinating people until today.
The Series evolved during the years, its versatility enhanced and mechanics were refined. With the vehicles being easily customised without forfeiting any of their resilience and ruggedness, Land Rovers were found all around the globe and in every corner of the colonial empire within years: discovering new regions, waging wars and saving lives. Whole infrastructures of developing countries were built from their backs, the UN cleared minefields und upheld peacekeeping duties with their help, and they took NGO’s and journalists into the most remote corners of all our continents.
The choice of modern day explorers.
The Land Rover was the choice of modern-day explorers to accompany them around the world, crossing impenetrable jungles, traversing virgin deserts, and wading through rivers. The have a stoic quality to them—if you’re driving somewhere remote, where you really, really don’t want to be stranded, you want to be in a Defender. The Australian adventuress Barbara Toy first drove her Land Rover Pollyanna from Gibraltar to Baghdad in 1951, only to fully circumnavigate the world in Pollyanna in 1956. Five years after Toy’s first solo expedition, the celebrated Far East expedition undertaken by students of Oxford and Cambridge Universities succeeded an overland journey across Europa and Africa from London to Singapore that had never been attempted before. There was no place, the vehicle didn’t go: it was taken the Falklands and the Amazon, it crossed the Gobi and the Darien Gap. It went to such remote places, it is said that for more than half the world’s population – the first car they ever saw was a Land Rover.
The original Land Rover has been a trail blazer for every SUV that has come along for decades. The Series I was followed by Series II and III until 1985. The model evolved into the Land Rover Ninety and One Ten and was eventually renamed Defender in 1990, to avoid confusion with the other models released by the Land Rover company in the years before: the more family friendly and upmarket Range Rover, followed by the Discovery in ’89. The original Land Rover itself survived the mainstream developments within the automotive industry for decades without major changes and is still instantly recognisable.
At the same time, and that is the truly remarkable thing about the Land Rover, it evolved to be a subtle, classless car. Hand-built until the end, it has been adored by everyone from farmers and explorers to soldiers, celebrities, and royalty. Special editions of the rugged vehicle were driven on cinema screens by James Bond and Lara Croft, as a Defender will crawl over just about anything and look incredible doing it.
As Ben Fogle, himself an outspoken Land Rover lover states: ‘We are reassured by its understated presence. Everyone from Fidel Castro to the Queen drives a Land Rover Defender. It is the car in which you can arrive at Buckingham Palace, a rural farm or an inner-city estate.’
The Land Rover Defender: The most iconic car out there
Why am I telling you all this? Well, I promised after reading this article, you would long for a spin in a Defender. So, why did we need a history lesson to understand what it feels like to drive a Defender?
A car that stops time.
It’s easy: When climbing into a Landy (and yes climb – as they are so much higher than they look), this archaic vehicle that withstood most rapid developments within the automotive industry for decades, it feels like the world around you starts spinning a bit slower. And while the engine noise (admittedly, you could as well be driving a tractor) slowly seduces you into a world of possibilities and adventures, you are already on the road before you even realise that the borders of your comfort zone have just started rearranging themselves. No other vehicle transmits a thirst for adventure and the outdoors like a Defender and whether you want it or not: it’s contagious.
That said, the Landies in our drive have never been exploring the Kalahari Desert, were never armor-plated for civilian transports in armed crises, they didn’t even drag a plough through a field! They just tell their own humble story of travelling English country lanes, taking dogs to the farm on a Sunday afternoon and going camping in the Dales. But they also collectively radiate the adventurous stories and memories of any Land Rover that has ever been out to roam around, discover the world or do a job.
Sounds like a lot of pressure to live up to these expectations? Don’t worry! The Land Rover is a humble companion. Instead of making you feel like you have missed out on all those adventures, it rather acts like a supportive pat on the back by a friend: reassuring you that they have been there and done that. And that it was great, but that they don’t have to go big all the time. They are happy to just get out, look for a weekend adventure around the next corner or down the road. A Defender is never denying its achievements and capabilities, but it will always be happy to go and get some air with YOU. It will always make sure that you will be just fine on your trip, whenever you think you might have lost your way, have taken too many risks or were not courageous enough: it will be there and turn every trip ahead into the adventure you longed for.
Joining the Land Rover Club
Driving a Land Rover comes with even more support: it means unpretentiously joining a club of those ‘who know’ and share your feeling. And there are some charming traditions amongst those who admire the vehicle, that you will soon happily acknowledge. One is the ‘Land Rover wave’– the rolling connection of the Land Rover community whenever they pass each other on the road. It might be a subtle lift of the index finger off the steering wheel, a right-handed wave out of the window on warmer days, or a quick left-handed ‘I’ve just changed gear’-wave paired with the nod of the head.
Land Rover drivers respect each other and their shared passion for maintaining these vehicles without any envy. In our own cockpit smiles and waves are usually always accompanied by mumbling ‘Oh, that’s a nice one!’ whenever we are out and about – no matter how rusty or dented or tuned or pimped out the passer-by has been.
But be aware, once you have gotten into this comforting habit, you will find yourself unconsciously waving wildly at passing Defenders whenever you are in another marque or even when you are just out walking to pop into your local supermarket. It will make you look like a creep – but also bring back all the memories of your last Landy adventure.
The Land Rover Defender: Holding on to its legacy
But isn’t there always two sides of the same coin, I hear you asking? Well, we are not going to lie: Defenders can be a lot of work. They need endless amounts of love, patience and attention. They can be temperamental, noisy and finicky. But this is just what makes them uniquely wonderful. We name them and treat them like a family member and every dent and scratch and mechanical foible will evolve into a story that will be remembered more vividly than the name of that pretty village you once stayed in down in Southern France.
The Original Land Rover's legacy grows further every day.
There are cars that are more comfortable to drive, there are faster cars and there are less quirky cars. There are cars which have seatbelts that do not constantly get caught in the doors, that have seats which can actually be tilted and that even have a coffee cup holder and never mist on the inside of the windscreen. But there is just no car with as much character and stories to tell like the Defender – they are dependable, robust and loyal. They are your best friend and, while testing your patience from time to time (or how waterproof your shoes are when the rain drips into the footwell again), they will never, ever let you down.
If anything, their legacy grows further every day: After 67 years, the production of the Land Rover Defender ended in January 2016, due to expected emission regulations it could not meet. The last Defender rolled off the production line in Solihull amid cheers and tears of production workers and Land Rover enthusiasts all over the world.
The discontinuation of the Land Rover Defender has clearly facilitated our fascination with the imperfect, boxy and loyal vehicle even more. Every Land Rover is as individual as its driver, and whenever you climb into a Landy, you will feel the invitation to just look forward to a care-free day on the road and the unstructured freedom of the English countryside.
More than two million Land Rover Series and Defenders have been manufactured; given that an estimated 70% of all Series Land Rovers and Defenders ever made are still on the road, that's a lot of waving! And now be honest: don’t you want to get into one and see how many miles it will take to get your first wave?