The defense of an empire is over: After 68 eight years, the Land Rover Defender ends production officially today, and no replacement is on the horizon. A simple, boxy design sketched in wet sand on a Welsh beach, the original Landie has been obliterated by a rising tide of complexity, safety regulations, and emissions requirements. A chapter written in the blood of a busted knuckle draws to a close, and we mourn.
Sketched out by a pair of Welsh brothers, Maurice and Spencer Wilks, the original Land Rover offered the durability and rugged nature of a tractor. And the comfort of a tractor. It was 1947 and Britain was still reeling from the aftereffects of WWII: The postwar years would be lean, and a practical solution for farmers was needed to keep Rover afloat. Maurice was the technical director of Rover, and his simple solution would become both car and symbol, the definition of an icon.
Based on the Jeep that Maurice used around the family farm, the prototype Land Rover had its steering wheel mounted in the middle, and a squarish silhouette that is still familiar nearly seven decades later. With steel in short supply, and the necessity of keeping the design free from hard-to-stamp curves, the blocky Land Rover's aluminum panel sides looked like a child’s drawing. The first production unit was registered HUE 166 in 1948, and is lovingly referred to as “Huey.” It has a clattery little 50hp four-cylinder engine, a low-range gearbox and four-wheel drive, and is painted in an institutional green. It’s the kind of color you'd find on the walls of a 1950s British hospital, wherein a cheery RAF pilot makes chirrupy passes at no-nonsense nurses despite being down to one leg and a half-singed moustache.
The Land Rover was an immediate success. Some 8,000 sold in the first year, 24,000 in the second; by 1978, the million-unit mark was passed, and the tally stands today at over 2 million. It's so ubiquitous in the far-flung corners of the earth, that it's reckoned to be the first motorized vehicle most of the world’s people ever saw. Land Rovers soldier through the Amazon, bake in the Sahara, scrabble on balloon tires up the sides of volcanoes in Iceland. They are everywhere. They can go anywhere.
This is not to say that they were or are in any way reliable. There's a great scene in the 1990 film Mountains of the Moon in which Dr. David Livingstone (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”) and Sir Richard Burton, discoverer of the Nile's source, compare the scars they got while exploring. It’s much the same tale at any gathering of Land Rover owners, all purplish fingernails, gouged forearms, and bandaged elbows.
A Land Rover will have its pound of flesh from you, but you can fix the thing with nothing more than a medium-sized hammer and some really good swear words. They break, and you fix them, and they break, and you fix, and no owner truly seems to be finished working on their Landie. They get under your skin, and bits of your skin get under them.
A modern Defender has had the handle and the head replaced at some point, but it's still the same agricultural shovel. You grasp the big wheel, slot the railway switch gearshift into first, and off you go to pick up groceries or climb Kilimanjaro or aid a Kalahari Bushman in his questing. Even just puttering around town, you can feel the potential for adventure coming up through that jouncy suspension and whistling around the sheet-of-plywood aerodynamics.
Like the Humvee, highly optioned Defenders became popular with the moneyed set as a sort of designer Wellington boot, but that’s all wrong: You might as well put a rhinestone collar on a border collie. It’s best instead to bookend the era with the simple green Heritage edition Defender released last year, exposed hinges, eggcrate grille and all. A Defender is a tool, not a fashion statement.
Although we’re sad Defender production has ended, let’s find solace in the fact that some two-thirds of those 2 million Land Rovers are still on (or off) the road today. Most of them probably leak. Many of them are crammed with creaks and dents. None will be without its intermittent flaws. But in a crowded world, bathed in a sea of electromagnetic waves, the Defender still offers the hope that somewhere out there is an undiscovered adventure. If you're handy with a wrench, a Land Rover will get you there.
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