The last Defender: Is Land Rover's off-road heyday over?

By Clare Lissaman
BBC News Online

image copyrightJaguar Land Rover
image captionJaguar Land Rover's classic vehicle is perhaps the most recognisable off-road car of them all

The last of Jaguar Land Rover's classic Defenders will roll off the production line this week, ending 68 years of production - does this mean the carmaker's best off-road days are behind it?

Picture a Land Rover and you might imagine a box-shaped green vehicle etching desert sand or surging through floodwater.

It's a nostalgic vision of a car whose practicality is legendary - and according to motoring journalist Quentin Willson one that is redolent of a bygone era.

"The world has changed. We don't have the same needs as in the post-war era when it was developed," he said.

The classic Land Rover model, today called Defender, has evolved but JLR said it had essentially "changed very little during its lifetime", while vehicle standards had "changed dramatically".

image copyrightJaguar Land Rover
image captionLand Rover enthusiasts have been lamenting the end of an era

Devoted fans of the model say they are "gutted" about the vehicle's demise.

"It's the death of an icon," said Simon Collins, Warwickshire and West Midlands Land Rover Club (WWMLRC) secretary.

image copyrightJaguar Land Rover
image captionThe famous 4x4's fate was sealed by European laws on safety and emissions
image copyrightJaguar Land Rover
image captionThe Land Rover Series 1 was built from an aluminium/magnesium alloy left over from aircraft production
image copyrightJaguar Land Rover
image captionThe safe operating angle for the vehicle is 30 degrees

A tour to see the last Defenders made at the Solihull factory, where the vehicle and its predecessors have been hand-built since 1948, has attracted 10,000 visitors in a year.

And the passion for them is clear to see on a memory wall at the plant. "Possibly the most looked at vehicle in the car park," writes one proud owner.

image captionLand Rover fans have made their mark on a memory wall at the Solihull plant where production of the Defender ends on Friday
image captionEnthusiast Samantha Miller said she loved Land Rovers because they "had the capability of a tank"

Willson said the original Land Rover's journey - starting with the Series One in 1948 through to today's Defender - was a success story which has seen the "longest continuous production of a vehicle in the world, surpassing the VW Beetle".

"As an invention, it is really quite brilliant," he said, adding that Rover jet engineers had a hand in the original design.

And he believes the Defender's longevity will mean people's adventures will continue for years to come.

"With some 70% of Land Rovers ever built still around we will still be able to cuddle them and see them on the road. And while we can shed a tear, there are still lots and lots of Land Rovers," Willson said.

media captionLandrover being demonstrated being driven off road.

The journey is continuing for JLR too, which is working on a "new Defender", although it has not confirmed where or when it will be made. However, experts believe the vehicle will be quite different from the original.

Willson said: "I think its replacement will be more of a passenger vehicle, rather than an agricultural, utilitarian one."

He said such a new and more comfortable vehicle might "not get to climb every mountain" which could upset "hardcore mud-pluggers" who wanted it mainly for off-roading.

Willson, who replaced his last Defender with a Range Rover, said: "JLR's got to make money and use the latest technology rather than build something for that minority."

image copyrightJaguar Land Rover
image captionThe windscreen on the Series One model, pictured here in 1949, folded down on to the bonnet

He says the vehicle's demise had created a "market gap", such as among some farmers, who have been replacing Defenders with pick-up trucks.

"And I've heard a lot of utility firms have been buying Land Rovers up and they are being mothballed to set them up for the next few years," he said.

Simon Collins, 50, became hooked on Land Rovers at 17 after driving one before passing his test. He saved up for months and at 18 bought a 1979 Series 3 Safari.

"We got married in it, went on honeymoon in it and used it to move all our stuff from Newcastle to Birmingham," he said.

image copyrightSimon Collins
image captionSimon Collins, pictured aged 18 with his first car, a Land Rover Series 3, said the "bolt on, bolt off" parts were a big draw for enthusiasts

The couple hope their latest model, a 2013 Defender 90, will take them through retirement.

"It opens up your life and allows you to experience another world," Mr Collins said. "You have the confidence to go anywhere and the question becomes not will the Land Rover do it, but can I do it?"

One of his best experiences was driving across Africa, where he spent several summers maintaining Land Rovers in Kenya.

"Driving a Land Rover in the bush is so fantastic. If you know how to drive them, you can go anywhere. I loved driving down riverbeds and into the wilderness."

Mr Collins, a gas pipeline engineer who lives near Lichfield, believes JLR is "giving up on farmers and utility firms".

image copyrightSimon Collins
image captionMr Collins believes many of JLR's successor vehicles will not be bought new by traditional off-roaders because of their cost, which starts at about £30,000

But David Cousins, a machinery specialist at Farmers Weekly, said farmers had chosen a range of off-road vehicles since the 1970s.

"Farmers still have a lot of affection for Land Rovers and many have had them in their families for years," he said. "I'm sure some will be buying up individual ones to keep.

"But if you looked at the car park at any agricultural event you would see a whole range of 4x4s."

Nissan pick-up trucks were particularly popular, he added.

image copyrightJaguar Land Rover
image captionHue 166, the oldest Land Rover built is still on the road. JLR says 66% of all its vehicles ever made are estimated still to be operational

A JLR spokeswoman said the perception Land Rovers were just for off-roading was a "skewed reality" because they were, and always would be, about versatility.

She said with modern technology, such as JLR's terrain response system, "we believe we can actually make it more capable off road".

media captionJaguar Land Rover in numbers

The firm supplies parts for 15 years, so those with older Defenders will be able to keep them going, she added.

Dave Phillips, Land Rover Monthly's editor, believes the new 'Defender' model "may be just as versatile" as the original.

He said: "It is certainly not the end of off-roading for Land Rover."

image copyrightJaguar Land Rover
image captionJLR says the Land Rover was the first British product to sell out on its first day
image copyrightSimon Collins
image captionA new hand-built Defender rolls off the production line every four minutes. In comparison, a new Range Rover rolls off the line every 86 seconds

BBC Inside Out West Midlands is available on iPlayer.

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