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Land Rover's return: Last orders and leather seats for Defender nerds

Blighty's Jeep – done in a thoroughly British way

By Mark Whitehorn and Paul Hazell, 25 May 2015

We all know there’s only on one true Land Rover: the Defender. A cheerful, competent, boxy-shaped device that’s been in production since 1948, inspired by the Jeep, the Allies' WWII workhorse.

It looks as good pulling logs from a forest as it does pulling up outside a house in Mayfair and it was voted Greatest Car of All Time by the viewers of Top Gear in 2003.

The Defender has served in the countryside and in cities, appeared in TV and films – including, recently, Skyfall – and has been driven by royalty, civilians, military, adventurers and blue-light services.

It is the genesis of both other Land Rovers and the more luxurious edition beloved of middle-class mums, footballers wives and Russian Oligarchs in London – the Range Rover, or Chelsea Tractor.

Sadly, very sadly, production of the Defender is coming to en end, because it cannot meet (or be made to meet) new car emission rules from the European Council that kick in in 2020.

Production will therefore end in December. Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), the manufacturer, has hinted that the production line may be moved overseas, with the vehicle remaining in limited production elsewhere.

But, even if this is the case, the Defender will no longer be available brand new in EU markets, meaning the familiar sight of a Land Rover toiling across the British landscape – a presence that helped make it a stalwart of British automotive culture – will gradually recede from view.

Line of Land Rovers photo Mark Whitehorn Paul Hazell

Land Rovers series 2 and 3 on parade ... The entrance to the factory tour

In recognition of the Defender’s iconic status, JLR is running a year of celebrations. This includes three special, limited edition versions of the Defender, with prices running up to £62,000. The final date for orders is rumoured to be June 26.

JLR is also currently running a Defender Celebration Tour at the Meteor Works, Land Rover’s site in Lode Lane, Solihull.

As major fans of the vehicles, a small group of us couldn’t miss this opportunity, so in March took the tour.

The first surprise (for me, at least) was the location of the factory; it is close to the airport on the edge of Birmingham, but essentially is surrounded by housing estates.

This means that to approach it, you drive through a sea of domestic housing and suddenly come across a huge factory buried in the middle. As you arrive you are greeted by a line-up of older-model Land Rovers.

Inside the reception area (which doubles as a gift shop full of Land Rover memorabilia) you are met, identified and provided with biscuits and coffee. You also meet your guide, clearly chosen with extreme care to be amiable, charming and above all, knowledgeable: this tour, after all, is likely to be taken by Land Rover geeks, so the guides have to be able to out-geek the attendees.

Tilted Land Rover photo Mark Whitehorn Paul Hazell

Tilt if you dare – the early-series rig that lets you roll up to 30 degrees

From there we moved to a small theatre for films about the history of Land Rover and a brief look at the current vehicle range, just in case you had a spare £0.15m in your pocket for a top-of-the-line Range Rover. No-one did.

Then we all got dressed in high-vis jackets, went outside and sat in the HUGE Defenders for the tour. These are themselves interesting vehicles, built on a super-long 147” wheelbase chassis and specially developed for game viewing in the South African bush.

Sadly, they have never been homologated for use on British roads, so they are destined to spend their entire lives on the JLR factory site.

The "Body in White"

The site itself is amazingly cramped, with every square inch of space on, above and below ground utilised to the full. While we were there, a van which had parked three feet outside of its designated space caused mayhem to the movement of other vehicles around the site.

Two main parts of production are featured on the tour. The first is rather bizarrely named “Body in White”, which shows where the bodies are built up and bolted to the chassis. We unloaded from the tour bus Defenders and were shown around by our guide.

There are “safe” walking areas outlined on the floor and, as long as we stuck to them, we were assured that our chances of survival were relatively high. You might wonder if the people working at the factory would regard the "tourists" as a nuisance, but they didn’t appear to do so. They smiled and, if we asked questions that the guide could not answer, they were happy to supply the required information.

Cleat, photo: Mark Whitehorn & Paul Hazell

A tie-down cleat – one of the Defender's only remaining original features

From thence the vehicles (and the tour) move to “Trim and Final”, where the parts such as glass, engines and wheels are added and the vehicle is finished off. At first glance, these huge sheds seem a confusing mix of noise and random activity, but slowly, the explanations of the guide meant that it made a Land Rover kind of sense.

Remarkably, the vehicles are still put together largely by hand: a real live green-clad person lifts up a door and fits it to the vehicle. It’s a human workshop on a grand scale, not a clinical, robotic nightmare.

It is obvious that the Land Rover has been steadily updated over its production life and, while the shape remains clearly identifiable, virtually every component has changed during that time.

However, our guide delighted in showing us the two parts that the current Defender still has in common with the original pre-series Land Rover from 67 years ago. One is a small reinforcing bar for the body floor and the other is a tie-down cleat for attaching a canvas hood.

Next was a celebration area set up within “Trim and Final”. It is like an early production-line-cum-workshop complete with parts bins, drawing office and test area. Surrounded by photographs, among other things we inspected an example of the run-out Heritage model, put together to mark the end of prodction. There was also a fairground-like attraction: an early-series Land Rover that will tilt to its operating limit of 30 degrees with you in it.

Heritagen, photo Mark Whitehorn & Paul Hazell

The run-out special Heritage model

We were also given period brown overalls such as would have been worn in the early days of manufacture. These were not compulsory, but why go on the tour if you aren’t going to get involved?

Finally, it was back into the huge Defenders for the trip back to – and the inevitable exit via – the gift shop.

Thoughts? As JLR senior designer Peter Crowley-Palmer told us, you can think of it as “a classic car you can buy new”. But sadly, not for much longer.

Reverse gear – the Defender's history

To be technically accurate, the Defender is “the vehicle currently known as Defender”, because its moniker has changed several times over the 67-odd years of its production.

Land Rover history is complex – so complex that even the company gets it wrong, as it did on the official T-shirt, giving the garment instant schadenfreude appeal for aficionados.

The Land Rover didn’t start its life on the back of an envelope but as a line in the sand. The idea dawned on Rover technical director Maurice Wilks at Red Wharf Bay on Anglesey whilst walking with his brother, Spencer. Wilks saw the need for a robust utility vehicle for agricultural use. This was in 1947 and after a year of rapid development, the first Land Rover was launched.

Everything's a "Land Rover"

The earliest, pre-production Land Rovers (very highly prized these days) are now known as pre-Series. The first production vehicles were simply called “Land Rovers”. An updated version was produced in 1958 called the Series 2, meaning the original version was then retrospectively called the Series 1. The Series 2 was followed, logically enough, by the Series 2A and the Series 3.

Lix Toll Land Rover photo Mark Whitehorn Paul Hazell

A tracked Defender, for use in snow and boggy areas, at Lix Toll Garage, Perthshire

So, a Land Rover from, say, 1975 is known as a Series 3 Land Rover. Come the mid 1980s the naming changed and the Land Rover became known as the ‘90’ and/or ‘110’ (names, you will note, that are completely missing from the official T-shirt).

These names are odd at first glance but they reflect the Land Rover’s engineering origins. 90 and 110 inches are the approximate wheelbase lengths of the two main variants, which are also known generically as short- and long-wheelbase Land Rovers. With the launch of the Land Rover Discovery in 1990, what had simply been the Land Rover became the Defender, which is the current, soon-to-retire model.

One of the greatest strengths of the Land Rover is that it is built on a separate chassis. This design greatly facilitates adaptations of many kinds (as is also true of Mk VI Bentleys) – and Land Rover the company and the Land Rover community at large have never been slow to exploit it.

There are fire engine and crash-tender versions, there are tracked versions, camper vans, ambulances, amphibious versions, versions that run on rails and we even know of one that has been made two inches wider. Why? Because you can. Adding large engines is also a relatively common pastime: for a while one of the authors of this piece owned a magnificent beast with a 4.6 litre V8. There are 130 inch wheelbase variants, three-axle versions – the list goes on and on.

The military community adopted and adapted it too, pressing it into service as an armoured car, the Forward Control 101 (again the wheelbase in inches) to meet the Army’s requirement for a 1 tonne four-wheel drive gun tractor, and many other military types that didn’t proceed beyond a prototype.

The Lightweight, or more officially, the Air Portable Land Rover, with its even-more angular front end, was produced in large numbers for the armed forces as a 4x4 with easily disassembled bodywork to lighten it for air transport. Hilariously, given its name, the modifications made it heavier than the standard version: perhaps it too should have had a number for its name.

TACR 1, photo Mark Whitehorn & Paul Hazell

Service in many fields: a TACR-1, owned by Paul

Bringing us up to date are the three run-out editions.

One is the hideously pricey Autobiography version, with a slightly tweaked engine, leather interior, sundry gewgaws and two-tone paintwork: the base price for a Defender is around £23,000, while the Autobiography weighs in at an eye-watering £62,000. Only 100 Autobiographies will be sold in the UK.

Next it’s the much more cost-effective Adventure, with underbody protection and extra-butch tyres (600 for the UK). Last, but certainly not least, is the Heritage (400 for the UK). This is a nod to the Land Rover’s origins and specifically to the still-surviving first production Land Rover, HUE 166 – known as Huey.

In a fetching period pale green, the Heritage has painted steel wheels, a grill with echoes of those of the Series Land Rovers and HUE’s number on the side. It’s cute, very cute.

The run-outs were announced in January and will be built well before the December deadline. In addition to these, JLR will produce a final version called the Landmark that features a Black Pack, leather interior and more. ®

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