Driven by everyone from farmers to the Queen, the Defender is not just a signifier of go-anywhere style in the way that most modern 4x4s are, but also of daring engineering and daring do.
It started out as a sketch in the sands of Red Wharf Bay, Anglesey, drawn by Rover engineer Maurice Wilks, and was unveiled at the Amsterdam motor show in 1948, before making its UK debut at the Bath and West agricultural show (which for some reason was held in Cardiff that year).
Wilks originally wanted something to replace the old Jeep he used on his farm. And Rover’s engineers learned quickly, swapping the Jeep’s flexible top-hat frame for a tough box-section chassis.
In addition, permanent four-wheel drive and a set of crawler gears so low you could climb out and have a smoke on the bonnet while the Land Rover wound itself across a muddy field, made it the perfect farm vehicle for the age.
Legend has it that the car was aimed as a stop-gap while the Rover Car Company got back on its feet after the war. But Michael Bishop, a senior instructor at Land Rover’s Experience Centre, reckons that’s not entirely true given the original Land Rover’s advanced engineering for the time, and the fact that other derivatives were already being developed at launch.
Either way, the Land Rover was an instant hit, with the first year’s production of 8,000 quickly selling out. Rover quickly ramped up production to cope with the demand, and 24,000 Landies rolled off the production line in the next year.
Soon enough, Land Rovers were being produced at the heady rate of 1,000 a week, eclipsing sales of the saloon cars Rover had become known for.
It was in the Sixties that the Land Rover really hit its stride. More and more body styles became available, including a 12-seat station wagon version and the first heavy-duty “forward-control” variants, so-named because their cockpits sat above the engine bay to increase their carrying capacity.
The Land Rover had also gained one very special repeat customer; the Queen was often spotted behind the wheel of one, a trend which has continued to this day.
The Defender venerated as one of the most enduring pieces of British design and engineering and a formula that worked as-was, so Rover stopped fiddling with its classic and allowed it to chunter on into a retirement as a fashionista, with spangly new paint finishes and a host of glossy special editions that traded on its rugged image.
It continued to make up a fair chunk of Land Rover sales as a result but EU emissions rules and higher car safety standards were the Defenders downfall as unlike most new cars boasting airbag volumes into the early teens per vehicle Land Rover introduced none and the heavy rugged frame meant that the engine wasn’t the cleanest on sale so motoring evolution consigned the Solihull built vehicle to the history books.
The two millionth defender, part built by many famous owners and drivers of the historic vehicle like Bear Grylls, Theo Paphitis and members of the Armed Forces was recently sold in a charity auction in aid of the Born Free Foundation for £400,000.
Land Rover will replace the Defender with an all-new version. Its styling and specification are closely-guarded secrets, though it’s thought it’ll break cover for the first time next year.
Until then, farmers – and Her Majesty– will have to look elsewhere for their ultimate go-anywhere vehicle.