Land Rovers, old and new, on the beach at Red Wharf Bay. Photos courtesy Jaguar Land Rover.
In 1947, a legend was created on a beach at Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey, U.K. when Maurice Wilks, engineering director of Rover, drew the shape of the original Land Rover for his brother Spence, the company’s managing director. Now, after 68 years, the life cycle of one of the world’s most influential 4x4s comes to an end; Land Rover’s Solihull plant will build its final Defender model in December.
The very first Land Rover, the Series I, was inspired by the Jeep developed for the U.S. Army during the Second World War. Maurice Wilks owned a surplus Jeep, which saw heavy use on his farm in North Wales; envisioning a four-wheel drive that could be used for agricultural purposes, Wilks designed a rugged and compact platform that included a power take off (PTO) for the purpose of running farm implements. The advantage of his Land Rover, Wilks rationalized, was that it could be used in the fields and then driven to town, unlike a pure tractor.
Wilks’s 1947 drawing, recreated in grand scale at Red Wharf Bay by a team of six Land Rover models.
Steel was still rationed in the postwar years, so Series I models used more plentiful aluminum in their body construction, which ultimately led to improved corrosion resistance. Paint, with the exception of army-specification dark green, was also at a premium, so early production models were offered only in this all-business hue. Rover still envisioned itself as a luxury automaker, and the Series I was seen as a way to generate the necessary cash flow until the automobile business re-established itself. Following the restart of automobile production, however, the Land Rover continued to outsell its more comfortable cousins, and remained in the product lineup far longer than Wilks could have imagined.
From 1948, when the Series I entered production, through 1951, the Land Rover was offered only with an 80-inch wheelbase and a 1.6-liter, 50-horsepower inline four-cylinder engine mated to a four-speed manual transmission. All Land Rovers were equipped with four-wheel drive and a two-speed transfer case, and amenities such as full doors, a canvas roof or a metal roof were optional extras.
Rover fell back on its luxury past during this time as well, offering a wooden-framed “station wagon” variant built by coachbuilder Tickford beginning in 1949. These models came with luxuries like leather seating, a heater, additional trim and a single-piece windshield; their downfall was they were taxed as automobiles instead of commercial vehicles, increasing their ownership cost and limiting their appeal.
Dragging the sand to create the massive drawing.
Engine size increased to 2.0-liters in 1952, raising output to 58 horsepower, and in 1954 the Land Rover grew in size for the first time, stretching to an 86-inch wheelbase. It would grow again in 1956, to 88 inches, but in 1955 a long-wheelbase model, measuring 170 inches (and later, 108
inches) was also added to the lineup.
The product line evolved over the years, adding models (such as pickups, troop carriers and even cab-forward trucks) when necessary and transitioning to the Series II in 1958 and the Series IIA in 1961. Both were marked with the introduction of new engines and subtle styling changes, but the trucks remained unmistakable as to their origin. The Series III arrived in 1971 and would carry the brand through the 1985 model year, eventually adding a V-8 engine to the option list. Rover sold over 440,000 of the Series III variant, enjoying brisk sales around the globe throughout the 1970s, with the exception of the United States, which remained loyal to the Jeep Wrangler.
The Defender series debuted in 1983, originating with the Land Rover 90 and Land Rover 110, depending upon wheelbase. Though stylistically and mechanically updated from the original Land Rover Series models, the Defender remained familiar in its appearance. The changes were enough to turn around Land Rover’s sales, which had dropped dramatically in the early years of the 1980s, and in 1993 the Defender was introduced (or reintroduced) to the United States.
The send-off models include the Heritage, Adventure and Autobiography Editions.
The model would be short-lived on these shores; though extensive modifications were made to comply with U.S. Department of Transportation regulations, further changes (such as driver and passenger airbags and side impact door beams) would have necessitated another costly redesign for the 1998 model year. Given the limited market in North America, Land Rover opted to withdraw the Defender and focus on sales of its luxury SUVs, creating an oddly strong demand for gray market Defender imports.
The Defender soldiered on in global markets, and in late 2013 Land Rover announced that production would end at the conclusion of 2015 (although the automaker is currently looking at off-shoring production for fleet customers outside the EU). For those living on the other side of the pond, the automaker is sending the beloved 4×4 off with a trio of special editions, including the Autobiography Edition, with an emphasis on performance and luxury; the Heritage Edition, which blends nostalgia with modern amenities; and the Adventure Edition, which embraces the Land Rover’s long-standing go-absolutely-anywhere ethos. All three are easy on the eyes (assuming, of course, one has an affinity for Land Rovers), but all will remain forbidden fruit on these shores, at least until 2040.
Land Rover is sending the model off with a fitting tribute, but it’s still sad to see it go. After almost seven decades of Series and Defender production, the truck’s replacement (which reportedly will be sold in North America) will have some tough shoes to fill.
UPDATE (24.July 2015): Thanks to a surge in demand for Land Rover Defenders, production has been extended into 2016. Though an exact end-of-production date has not been set, sources inside the Solihull factory expect the assembly line to continue running through February, possibly even into April.