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So, Farewell To A Legend...

So, Farewell To A Legend...

I’M SURE THAT MOST READERS will be as sad as I was to see pictures of the last Land-Rover Defender leaving the Solihull factory of Jaguar Land Rover (JLR).

The official reason for this cessation, after more than 67 years of continuous production, was that the vehicle could not meet forthcoming EU safety and emissions standards. No doubt that’s true. But more pertinent, perhaps, is the fact that the Defender no longer made money. It was built on old-fashioned, labour intensive production lines, with much hand-finishing.

Therefore, it was necessarily expensive, both to make and to buy, and sales were low (under 20,000 p/a, compared to over 50,000 in the early 1970s). From JLR’s point of view, the Defender’s real importance had long been as a symbol of their offroad competence. In a crowded, highly competitive market, they could promote sales of profitable Range Rovers by saying, in effect: “We are the people who build the Defender, which makes us the four-wheel-drive experts.” It seems likely, therefore, that the Defender will be replaced quite quickly, albeit with an entirely different vehicle.

For economic reasons, any replacement would need to share its major components with other models in the range (as did the original Land-Rover, of course). Crucially though, to meet modern regulations, it can no longer be a simple ‘mend it yourself at home’ type of vehicle.

Yet, presumably, JLR has to retain it as the rough/tough ‘workhorse’ member of the Land Rover family, and thus place the emphasis on unmatched off-road capabilities. Prototypes with an all-aluminium monocoque are known to exist - JLR has considerable experience in this method of construction, which brings obvious weight savings. There have been suggestions that the new vehicle might be built abroad; an idea that must be abhorrent to traditionalists, who - not realising that JLR is Indian owned - regard ‘Land-Rover’ as being as British as the BBC or the NHS. (Ironically, the Defender’s appalling ride quality has probably resulted in very many visits to the NHS...) There is also the possibility that existing Defender plant/tooling could be moved to, say, Turkey - feeding a continuing demand outside the EU for a basic, easily maintained, go-anywhere vehicle.

It may have finished up as a niche product in Britain, but the Defender fulfilled its allocated role better than any of its rivals. So what alternatives remain for existing customers? Well, the Jeep Wrangler is perhaps closest in character, but that, too, is ready for replacement. (Like JLR, it seems that Jeep is also investigating aluminium monocoques.) In my own rural community, many farmers have been buying big Japanese 4wd pickups.

They don’t have anything like the stability of a Defender (which can tilt to 30-degrees on sloping ground), but these ungainly behemoths evidently meet a need. Other Japanese competitors, such as the Toyota Landcruiser, have gradually moved away from the original concept - becoming ever more luxurious. They may have excellent qualities, but are now much more in the Range Rover class. Interestingly, the Lada Niva is being touted as the Defender’s natural successor. This is still available in the UK, surprisingly enough, but only in left-hand drive form, I believe. That said, it’s half the price, remarkably tough, and has a lot in common with earlier Land-Rovers (ie. the less sophisticated ‘Series’ models, before the ‘Defender’ name was coined).

I have never owned a Land-Rover, although I’ve driven quite a few - ranging from an early Series I to a more recent, coil-sprung, 127 crew-cab. I had the use of a Series II one summer - and it was truly awful. This sorry specimen had originally been used for carrying explosives at a nearby quarry, and it looked as if had been caught too close to the action more than once! The wings and doors were all different colours, and the bulkhead showed unmistakable evidence of hasty, botched repairs. In return for borrowing it, I had agreed to weld up the chassis to get it through its next MoT test. This turned out to be a Forth Bridge exercise... each patch revealing yet another corroded section hidden under sticky black bitumen. By the end, I reckoned that the cross-members were one-third original, two-thirds repair pieces. Very little on it worked properly - there were loose wires everywhere; switches had to be waggled whenever the lights or wipers packed up (as they regularly did), and the transfer-box kept jumping out of high-range. But that old thing just kept on running...

Of the ones I’ve tried, my favourite was a long-wheelbase Series IIA station wagon. This had the six-cylinder petrol engine - never a popular choice on account of its horrendous (12-14mpg) fuel consumption. However; that same lack of popularity had brought the (then) five-year old vehicle within the budget of three friends who were planning a trans-Africa expedition. Rather than extreme off-roading, preparation had been aimed at allround, ‘rough road’ ability.

So the addition of a Fairey overdrive and free-wheeling front hubs helped improve fuel consumption, and allowed a decent cruising speed on asphalt. I drove it just before they left, and I have to say that the Rover straight-six was beautifully smooth and sweet. Performance felt really good - it’s quite a shock to read contemporary road tests and learn that 0-60 must have taken a full half-minute!

That Landie did its job brilliantly, and they actually made a small profit when they sold it on their return to the UK.

That’s one of the attractions of ownership: when the time comes to sell, a sound Land-Rover will always find eager buyers. And, after the first few years, annual depreciation is effectively nil - value is almost entirely dependent on condition. Even that patched-up, ex-quarry Series II recently went to a new home - at more or less the same figure that it had been purchased for, decades earlier. Indeed, JLR claim that, out of the two-millionplus ‘proper’ Land-Rovers built between July 1948 and January 2016, at least 70% are still in existence.

So there should be enough of them to go round in the future.

David Landers - lobby@classicmotor.co.uk

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Landers Lobby, from p. 10 of issue March 2016
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