The Land Rover Defender is the last iconic British car still in mass production. Next week, it won’t be. Today, its 68-year continuous production run – the longest of any vehicle in automotive history – is coming to an end.
Its nearest rival on that score was the original Volkswagen Beetle, which ended a 65-year run in 2003, and the two cars are simultaneously companion pieces and counterpoints to one another. The Beetle is to the city what the Defender is to the country. Both are plain, dependable and rudimentary enough to fix easily if they break. One is German, long outliving its Nazi origins to become a symbol of the freewheeling 1960s. The other is distinctly British, and while it has a wartime quality about it – its designer, Gordon Bashford, made no secret of its debt to the Jeep – it originated just after the war, and was constructed of metal left over from military aircaft manufacture. It was, literally, made of sterner stuff.
To those of us who always knew it only as “the Land Rover”, the Defender (rebranded in 1990 to distinguish it from the new and very different Discovery) is steeped in symbolism – something the choice of name overtly recognised and reflected. The classic Land Rover was the vehicle most closely associated with the modern British army, which in an era of defence-budget cuts gives its discontinuation a particular resonance. It embodied a host of attributes, real or assumed, of post-war British life. It was basic and hardy, a mechanical expression of austerity, a tough vehicle for tough times. Yet it also represented invention, adaptability and a certain understated style. Its very simplicity was the key to its longevity, both as a design, and in the case of individual vehicles, of which a large majority are thought still to be in use. It wouldn’t get you there in comfort – you would feel every bump, every jolt – but get you there it invariably would, through anything, over anything. It was British indomitability manifested as four-wheel drive; make-do-and-mend in vehicular form. It went where roads and maps didn’t. It survived where other cars couldn’t. And it was, in its own spare, boxy way, beautiful.
Whether you had the longer or shorter version, or the pickup, van or passenger vehicle, the Land Rover was always instantly recognisable by its rugged yet friendly exterior. As a passenger vehicle it was something of a cross between a charabanc and tank, equipped with bench seats and what felt like armour plating. Which brings us to another symbolic quality: it was the car of Britain’s end of empire. When I was growing up in Kenya, the Land Rover was the very image of safari.
Curiously, it was by no means the best safari vehicle, which is why my family never owned one. That accolade, at the time, I would have given to the Toyota Land Cruiser, which matched the Land Rover for simple durability, and beat it for power and comfort. But the Land Rover was much more popular: it was cheaper, in plentiful supply, and perhaps most importantly, it looked the part. When visitors pictured themselves in the bundu (“out in the bush”, as the English phrase had it), it was surely in a Land Rover. Almost nothing could stop it, except itself: its one serious flaw lay in the halfshafts that made up its wheel axles, broken specimens of which were to be found in many of the campsites we pitched up at.
We had, for a little while, owned a Range Rover, the Land Rover’s sleek, well-appointed and powerful cousin. This proved unsuited to our purposes. Its soft tyres punctured easily off-road in the Kenyan wilderness, and replacing them with harder-wearing ones made it unwieldy and dangerous on tarmac. Yet it is the Range Rover, one of the very earliest SUVs, that has effectively supplanted its forerunner. The Land Rover models that remain, the Discovery and the Freelander, are much more akin to it than to the sturdier and more likeable beast that became the Defender. With the passing of that line, Land Rover is fully a luxury marque now, a producer of extravagant Chelsea tractors far removed from its utilitarian roots as a vehicle for the everyman – or at least, every man or woman with some serious terrain to cross. Should you view that development as another symbol of its times, I wouldn’t argue with you.