Usually a line drawn in the sand is the beginning of the end, but for Land Rover it was just the beginning. In 1946, Rover chief engineer Maurice Wilks and his brother Spencer were discussing ways to improve on the Jeep’s successful formula, and made a rough sketch of their ideal vehicle on a British beach. Two years later, the Land Rover entered production, and the company has since gone on to build of some of the finest SUVs in the world. But it never forgot its roots, and last week, after 68 years, production of the company’s first model — the Defender — finally came to an end.
Changes had been made over the years – the Defender name didn’t appear until 1990, for instance – but at its core, it was the same rugged aluminum-bodied 4×4 that carried countless numbers of soldiers, adventurers, and even royalty across some of the most rugged terrain on earth. And despite emerging in the shadow of the Jeep, the Defender has grown into a legend of competing stature – in many parts of the world, its utilitarian reputation has entirely overshadowed its comparatively domesticated American counterpart.
In America, the Defender is somewhat forbidden fruit. Only offered stateside from 1993 to ’97, the Landy was driven from the U.S. market because it couldn’t comply with safety and emissions standards. In recent years, its rugged reputation and relative exclusivity has made it a rich man’s Jeep Wrangler of sorts. The ’90s-era U.S.-spec trucks can fetch upwards of $60K, and they’ve proven to be so valuable over here that the U.S. Customs and Border Protection has launched operations to confiscate and destroy illegally imported Defenders.
Now, nearly two decades later, the Defender can no longer keep up with Europe’s safety and emissions standards either. An all-new model will arrive for 2018, but from what little we know, it’s shaping up to be very different from its predecessor.
Land Rover had announced that the end was in sight for the Defender as early as 2013, and resolved to see it out with a bang rather than a whimper. A trio of Final Edition trims were introduced for 2015, but because of high demand, a stay of execution was granted with production extended into the 2016 model year. The Autobiography model would be most recognizable to American Range Rover drivers, with its deep metallic paint and opulent interior. The Adventure model pays homage to the long-wheelbase 110 Defenders built to tackle entire continents without breaking a sweat. With massive tires, a snorkel air intake and eye-catching Phoenix Orange paint, it put an exclamation point on Land Rover’s off-roading accomplishments.
But the universal favorite of the trio seemed to be the Heritage model, which the final truck to roll of the line happened to be. In its signature Grasmere Green, body-colored steel wheels and available olive drab canvas top, it seemed to be the perfect summation of Land Rover’s 68 years on the planet, combining everything fans love – and will miss – about the Defender.
To celebrate the life and times of its eponymous truck, Land Rover invited more than 700 past and current employees to its factory Solihull, England, to watch the final truck roll off the line. And while it didn’t look all that different that it did in the ’40s, few vehicles have ever accomplished as much. With technology advancing so quickly, we aren’t likely to see another vehicle make it 68 years. That only goes to show how brilliantly purposeful the Defender was – and how strange it is to think about it in the past tense. As we take a minute to mourn one of the greatest 4x4s of all-time, we don’t envy Land Rover’s team working on the next Defender. They have some very big shoes to fill.
Like classics? It’s always Throwback Thursday somewhere.