The History of the Land Rover Defender

How did a company like Land Rover, with such a large range of modern 4×4’s manage to let the iconic Defender simply plod along for so long, and then allow it to be absent from the market for nearly four years?

We look back at the history of the iconic Defender

The original Defender can trace its roots back to the initial Land Rover that was unveiled at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948. This was developed into the Land Rover Series I, which soon found massive sales success thanks to its unequalled versatility. The Land Rover went on to become a British manufacturing success story that far exceeded initial expectations. In the first year of production, a total of 3048 Land Rovers were made, then 8000 in 1949 and 16,000 in 1950.

Eventually, the Series I was replaced by the Series II in 1958, followed by the Series IIA in 1961 and the Series III in 1971, and by 1976, one million Land Rovers had been produced! As early as 1975, Land Rover knew that a replacement for the Series III was needed, and it toyed with the idea of a new pick-up based on the Range Rover’s body-style, called the SD5 project, but limited budgets put the brakes on its development.

Instead of the SD5, in 1980 Land Rover launched the Series III Stage 1 model with a 3.5-liter V8 engine, and this was essentially a practice run for what would come next. While Stage 1 still ran leaf-spring suspension, Land Rover already had plenty of experience with coil springs thanks to the development and launch of the Range Rover a decade earlier, and this technology was applied to the Land Rover in March 1983 with the launch of the 110.

Welcome ‘The Defender”

The following year the coil-spring 90 (actually a 93-inch wheelbase) variant was introduced, followed again by the long-wheelbase 127 models. All of these coil-spring models are now retrospectively referred to as Defenders.

The Defender nameplate was (officially) introduced in 1990, at which time the vehicle was equipped with the same 2.5-liter turbo-diesel engine (200Tdi) introduced in the Discovery a year earlier.

At the launch, the Defender was available as a five-door wagon or two-door cab-chassis, both with the 200Tdi that had relatively modest outputs of 80kW at 3800rpm and 255Nm at 1800rpm; although, it proved very economical.

The only gearbox option was a five-speed manual, and the Defender ran a two-speed transfer case with a full-time 4×4 system. The centre diff could be unlocked and locked in high or low range, which many found to be a handy feature.

While Land Rover production had decreased significantly by the early 1990s due to the success of Japanese manufacturers, in July 1993 the Defender range celebrated another sales milestone: the 1.5 millionth vehicle since production began in 1948.

The ‘Defender’ production plod

Over the next three decades, Defender production plodded along at the Solihull plant in much the same way as it always had. While other Land Rovers such as the Range Rover and Discovery would undergo revolutionary revamps, and all-new models including the Freelander and Range Rover Sport introduced. Land Rover evolved the Defender just enough over the years to keep it relevant … and compliant with much of the world’s emissions standards.

The Discovery 1 was developed around Range Rover on a very, very limited budget and became very successful. Land Rover was then able to get the money to develop a new Range Rover, the P38, to move Range Rover into the future, because it was the king. However, the Defender had to wait, which may be, in hindsight, from an iconic point of view, the right decision!

The 200Tdi was replaced by the 300Tdi in 1994, with various changes including the introduction of Bosch electronics. Power and torque were up slightly (to 83kW at 4000rpm and 265Nm at 1800rpm) and the Defender scored a new five-speed manual gearbox.

The 300Tdi was replaced by a new five-cylinder Td5 engine in 1998 featuring Electronic Unit Injection, with power and torque now up to 90kW at 4200rpm and 300Nm at 1950rpm respectively.

In 2007, a 2.4-liter Ford turbo-diesel replaced the Td5 and was mated to a six-speed manual. While max power output was still a modest 90kW at 3500rpm, peak torque was now up to 360Nm at 2000rpm. This greater torque output, along with the six-speed ’box, made the Defender a much better on-road touring vehicle, while retaining its legendary off-road capability.

Build quality was also significantly improved, with later-model Defenders less likely to have water leaking into the cabin when it rained! The last Defender update included the adoption of a 2.2-liter four-cylinder turbo-diesel in 2012, with the same peak outputs as the previous 2.4-liter engine. This would see the Defender out until production wound up in 2016.

No one envisaged it would go on for this long, as numbers dwindled for use as a traditional pick-up, and people started buying the Defender as a specialist vehicle. In the last year of the Defender, Land Rover built roughly 100 vehicles a day, and about 90 of these would have been station wagons, and just 10 would have been standard pick-ups.

Mr. Tata had to look at the production pragmatically, the world had changed and the vehicle had done an amazing job. Even though the Defender got to the point of being one of the world’s ‘hero’ vehicles, it could never reach its full potential because it was held back by its production scale and its takt time.

The final Land Rover Defender Limited Edition models to roll off the Solihull production line in 2015/16 paid homage to the nameplate’s long and distinguished history.

Designed to evoke memories of the 1948 Land Rover, the Heritage Limited Edition was painted in Grasmere Green, inspired by the original post-WWII RAF surplus paint applied to the first Land Rover. One of these collectible Defenders will now be worth a lot more than the original price.

The Adventure Limited Edition stood out in its bright orange paintwork and special graphics, as well as extra underbody protection plates and unique interior trim, while the Autobiography had boosted power and torque outputs plus a host of luxury appointments.

Introducing the All-new Defender

Since the demise of the ‘original’ Defender, there had been countless rumours regarding a replacement. For the first couple of years Land Rover remained tight-lipped on the subject, but then came the ever-increasing number of ‘spy shots’ – most likely intentionally leaked by Land Rover’s marketing department.

Finally, the all-new Defender descended a ramp onto the stage at the 2019 Frankfurt Motor Show in September, it confirmed what many fans had feared: the Defender was no longer the simple, tough and capable utilitarian it had been for nigh-on 70 years.

While this new model is writing its own chapter in Land Rover history, there’s not much chance it will be as long as the original Defender’s … and that’s probably a good thing!

Read our blog: Timeline of the Defender

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