Written by Eric Becker
If ever there was a vehicle deserving of its lionized reputation, it would easily be Land Rover’s Defender. It did everything asked of it and more – much more. The models long and storied history could easily fill the shelves of a bookstore in London’s Notting Hill. It was the first production vehicle to cross the Bering Strait, navigate the jungles of Borneo and scale Patagonia’s mountains. The Defender earned its stripes ferrying the wounded out of war-torn hot spots and being the mount of choice for Britain’s fabled Special Air Service. But in deserving of its knighthood, the Defender remained a humble tool. Used by countless farmers around the globe, the “Landie,” even with its displays of operational gallantry, never broke from its agriculture roots.
It was a spared-down machine, a vehicle of mechanical honesty. Brutish and solely functional in its appearance, the boxed-off, no-frills shape is as unmistakable as the VW Beetle or ’63 Corvette. The “Series” Land Rovers remained in production for 68 years. Over 2 million left the gates of Rover’s Solihull plant, and for decades it went mostly unchanged, maintaining its original simplicity, functionality and charm. Across three generations, modernity slowly trickled its way into the Landie’s underpinnings. The Defender name wouldn’t take root until 1990, some 42 years after the Land Rover Series I debuted.
The final Defender rolled off the production line on January 29, 2016, still carrying much of the original’s DNA. It carved out a position as one of the most iconic and well-recognized vehicles on the planet and launched one of its most storied brands.
Recently hitting the showroom floor, the freshly unveiled all-new 2020 Defender has the enviable, or maybe unenviable, task of filling its forbearers’ mud-caked Wellingtons.
For a car with such a storied history, the Defender’s origins are remarkably humble.
The Series I Land Rover – as it was initially known – was engineered rather than designed, bred from absolute necessity. Like many countries in postwar Europe, the lingering physical and financial savagery of the second World War were still felt in the Great Britain. British carmaker Rover’s lineup of upmarket sedans was badly out of step with the needs of the consumer.
The initial idea came from a gentleman named Maurice Wilks, who, according to lore, drew the shape of the original Land Rover with a stick in the sand of a Welsh beach in 1947. Wilks served as Rover’s technical director, and while doing routine farm work in a borrowed Willys Jeep – as opposed to his daily Bren Gun Carrier – was impressed with the Jeep’s versatility and ruggedness. Wilks began musing with his brother Spencer, who just happened to be Rover’s managing director, about the potential of a new kind of Rover, a Land Rover, able to crawl through the mud on the farm and drive into town to attend Sunday brunch.
Wilks’ sandy scribble quickly morphed into a prototype. A Rover-sourced 1.6-liter 50hp inline-4 and 4-speed manual gearbox were used as the running gear; the 2-speed transfer case “borrowed” from a Willys, as was the chassis. The prototype opted for the use of a centralized seating position – a la the McLaren F1 – but that idea was done away with by the time the newly minted Land Rover brand unveiled itself, and its new model, to the world at the 1948 Amsterdam Motor Show.
The Series I Land Rover was meant to be a utilitarian workhorse for Britain, with the postwar British government placing stringent rations on all manner of basic items – most importantly, steel. A surplus of aluminum worked to the Land Rover’s benefit, giving it a lightweight construction and aversion to corrosion. Paint was also rationed and in short supply, leading most early-production Series Land Rovers to be finished in Army Green, appropriated from supply used for the Supermarine Spitfire fighter plane.
But the marque and model’s legend has always been derivative of its uncompromised off-road prowess. If Indiana Jones were a car, he’d be a Land Rover Defender. The road less traveled has always been mainstay of the Land Rover’s legend. In what could be called the first true overlanding trek, the Land Rover, just a single year into its production (1949), would be piloted from London to Ethiopia. A few years later, in 1955, a team of undergrads from Cambridge and Oxford would cement Land Rover as the ultimate adventure-mobile. The six students saddled up and drove two Land Rover Series I wagons from London to Singapore and back: A round-trip journey of 32,000 miles, full of deep river crossings, dense jungle, endless mud and arid plains. The only modifications made were winches, spotlights and bigger fuel tanks. And for good measure, the only mechanical hiccup was a single flat tire.
Defenders have been piloted to all edges of the Earth, with some of the most renowned explorers sitting at the wheel – Arctic explorer extraordinaire Sir Ranulph Fiennes being just one notable example. A catalog documents near endless stories of expedition and adventures involving many generations of the Land Rover Defender.
In North America, the Defender’s run would go a bit different. Already privy to the Defender’s capabilities, most of the world knew the model’s reputation. Save for some “gray-market imports,” the Defender wouldn’t officially make its way across the Atlantic until 1993. Just a hair under 7,600 total North American Specification (NAS) Defenders were sold in the U.S., giving it a rarefied and more exotic quality than other off-roaders. The NAS Defender was powered by a 3.9-liter variant of the Buick-derived Rover V8 paired with a 5-speed manual. On American shores the Defender would be offered only until 1997, just four years after it went on sale. The company deemed the economic cost of U.S. Department of Transportation regulations (fitting of passenger airbags and side-impact door beams) too high and retired the model to focus on sales of its luxury offerings, the Range Rover and Discovery.
More than just an agricultural, military and expedition workhorse, the Land Rover quickly morphed into something else, and became associated with power, wealth and style, something that would have surprised Maurice Wilks and his team in England’s Midlands. Both Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen posed with the Land Rover. Other notable owners over the years include Bill Murray, Sean Connery, Paul McCartney and the “Tomb Raider” herself, Lara Croft, as portrayed by actress Angelina Jolie. Even Queen Elizabeth II has been an outspoken Land Rover fan, having owned several over the decades.
The Defender has always gone the extra mile, both figuratively and literally. An icon, it has recently seen an uptick in popularity and become a hotbed of for Resto-Modding and overlanding. Over the years Barrett-Jackson has seen a number of Defenders cross the block; a far cry from the gales of the Arctic or heat of the Sahara, but the Defender handled it with the same aplomb.
The appropriately named Series I Land Rover was produced from 1948 to 1958 and was offered in a variety of body styles. This pickup sold for $22,000 at the 2018 Palm Beach Auction alongside a matching trailer. Power comes from an upgraded Series II powertrain; this Land Rover uses a 137ci inline 4-cylinder engine and 4-speed manual gearbox for motivation.
The Series IIA, built from 1958-71, is the archetypical adventure-mobile. The IIA is the vehicle most people around the globe associate with Land Rover. It is common to see IIA wagons, like this 1967 example, still trekking across the Serengeti. Sold at the 2019 Las Vegas Auction for a final price of $33,000, this 5-door wagon is powered by a 2.25-liter 4-cylinder gas engine mated to a 4-speed manual transmission.
Assembled in the final year of production for the IIA model, this “Landie” was treated to a respray in the original factory colors of Light Green with Limestone trim. The gas-powered 2.25-liter 4-cylinder engine originally produced 77hp from the factory. It’s also equipped with a manual 4-speed transmission, 2-speed transfer case, 4-wheel drive and has seating for seven. This fine example of British ingenuity crossed the block at the 2018 Scottsdale Auction and met a final price of $26,400.
This Defender 1997 90 is No. 240 of 300 built in the final year for the North American market. It is powered by a 3.9-liter 8-cylinder engine and 4-speed automatic transmission. Finished in the rare Willow Green color, this Defender 90 – so named for the length of its 90-inch wheelbase – commanded a final price of $128,700 at the 2017 Las Vegas Auction.
Finished in a gorgeous high-gloss Fire Engine Red paint, this 1991 Land Rover Defender 110 wowed when it crossed the block at the 2020 Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale Auction. An overlanding special, this Defender is powered by the stout 2.5-liter four-cylinder, turbocharged diesel engine backed by a 5-speed manual transmission. The red exterior is complemented by black accents and accessories, and the Defender was lifted slightly for a menacing stance. The ’91 110 brings that perfect combination of American hot-rodding to a British classic. The 110-inch wheelbase Defender met a final price of $49,500.