Gavin Green on the enduring appeal of the Land Rover Defender

Published: 12 October 2016

Production of the dear old Land Rover Defender has ceased, after effectively 68 eventful years of farming, warfare, exploration and – latterly – urban posturing. It’s worth examining why it achieved such success and, even more importantly, such widespread affection. Apart possibly from the original Mini, there has never been a more beloved British car. Just over a decade ago, Top Gear viewers voted it the greatest car of all time. This shows what a strong emotional tug the old Landie has. Why was it so loved?

Its longevity helped. Any car that can stay in production so long is bound to create emotional bonds. (The Mini lasted 41 years.) Mind you, the latest Defender shared only one component with the 1948 original – the hood cleat on the soft-top version. 

Celebrated owners including the Queen and Churchill added to the allure. It became a national treasure, like an all-terrain David Attenborough or Ran Fiennes (who both used Landies for their adventures). The Land Rover became part of our green and pleasant, along with hedgerows, old stone bridges and cathedral spires. It was to the countryside what the Routemaster bus was to our cities.

You’ll read that it was a technically advanced machine back in 1948, but it wasn’t really. The Series 1 was inspired by the World War Two Jeep, with Rover car mechanicals added. It had an 80-inch wheelbase, solely because that is what the Jeep had. True, it had an aluminium body, nowadays a sign of technical progression. Back in 1948, this was more convenience than cutting-edge. There was a chronic steel shortage in post-war Britain and a surplus of aluminium, stockpiled for wartime aircraft production. 

Rather, the Series 1 was pioneering because it begat a new breed of car, the 4x4. It became Europe’s first commercially successful civilian off-roader, and an important step to today’s SUV, now the world’s fastest growing breed of car. Not that the old Rover car company had any inkling of that. They saw the Land Rover as a fill-in until the good times returned, and Rover could earn strong profits from cars again. 

The Series 1 was amazingly all-terrain capable, of course, and cemented Land Rover’s ongoing reputation for going ‘above and beyond’, as evinced by adventures from the Serengeti to the Sahara, from the Darien Gap to Dakar. But, towards the end, the Defender was actually one of Land Rover’s least capable off-roaders, partly because of its lack of electronic controls and its non-adjustable ride height. Plus it was never as tough as a Toyota Land Cruiser, its great nemesis. Nor was it as powerful, a major reason why the Land Cruiser easily usurped it in Australia and Africa. The Landie continued with anaemic four-pot power long after the ’Cruiser showcased meaty six-cylinder torque.

So there are manifest and manifold reasons for the Landie’s strong bond with buyers and the public. There is another important factor, which modern car makers – obsessed with trying to emotionally engage customers – should learn from. Namely, it was supremely functional. And it’s amazing how many of the world’s best-loved cars have aesthetically pleasing form-follows-function design, devoid of frippery, froth or fussiness. (True, also, for the 21st century’s most successful piece of industrial design, the iPhone.)

The list includes the original Mini, the 1957 Fiat 500, the Renault 4, Citroën H Van, Mk1 Fiat Panda (Giugiaro’s masterpiece) and first Range Rover. It includes fast cars too, like the C-, D- and E-type Jaguars (designed by an aircraft engineer), as well as most Ferraris, the ’90s McLaren F1 and the Miura, Lamborghini’s greatest car. The stylists later corrupted the Miura into the Countach, a car that was visually spectacular but also the beginning of Lamborghini’s journey into style-over-substance parody, from which it still suffers.

Emotional appeal is now the key to sales success, even the boss of sensible-shoes Toyota says so. To ramp up emotion, car makers give their designers greater freedom, to appeal to the sensibilities of fashion-conscious buyers. Thus many stylists – convinced that appearance matters more than practicality – frequently create ever more ornamental and tangled shapes. They add design details to increase drama, no matter how poorly packaged the result, how wretched the visibility, and how ephemeral the styling appeal.

The Japanese, some Germans, the French, the Koreans, and the Americans, are all guilty. Coco Chanel was right: ‘fashion goes out of fashion’. There was never anything fashionable about the Defender, or for that matter most of the other great cars that have engendered lasting affection.

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By Gavin Green

Contributor-in-chief, former editor, anti-weight campaigner, voice of experience