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Land Rover Defender discontinued: Farewell to the cult box on wheels

The Land Rover has been in use since 1948. In 2015 is story is to come to an end, with production being discontinued. We are taking a look back.

What a career! Having gone into production in 1948, the Land Rover has continued to be built, undaunted, for 65 years, following more or less the same basic design. The all-wheel drive, all-conquering hero was originally designed merely as a stopgap, a vehicle that the Coventry-based Rover Car Company intended as a short-term means of helping them through the difficult post-war years.

But it is now approaching 70 years in existence. The Land Rover Defender will not live to see another birthday. At the end of 2015 Defender production is to be discontinued, and with it a legend will be consigned to the automotive history books. The management at Land Rover plan to position its successor at a similar level to that at which BMW positioned the new Mini in comparison to the original model: lifestyle, retro-modern, at a reasonable price point. And unfortunately without the character loved by the die-hard fans of the original.

Until then, Land Rover is sugar-coating the announced departure with a total of 5,111 limited edition special models, which will be offered at prices of up to 64,000 Euros. The majority of these three limited edition models will most likely find their final parking spaces in the garages of wealthy collectors and will as such also document the departure of an iconic all-terrain vehicle, which was originally only intended for practical use. And not as a cult vehicle. So its about time we looked back over the story of the Land Rover.

In the beginning there was the farmstead

The Second World War had also made its mark in England. Following the attacks of the German Luftwaffe in November 1940, Coventry lay in ruins, including the Rover production halls at Garfield Road. Thus, the Rover Car Company relocated its headquarters to Sollihull and – like the majority of its competitors – resumed production of its pre-war models. However, sales of these models in foreign markets produced barely anything worth writing home about. In this regard, increasing importance was placed on export business, and as such, when distributing steel, which was still subject to rationing, the English government gave preference to companies that could demonstrate good export results.

For Rover good results would only be possible with a new design. And this is what they were lacking. And thus, a small car in the style of the Fiat Topolino was to suffer a sudden death, as the managers in Solihull favoured a modern mid-sized vehicle for the global market. Just one problem: to develop and build such a vehicle would take years, something that Rover boss Spencer Wilks knew only too well.
What to do? The saving inspiration came unexpectedly. Spencer Wilks had a brother, Maurice, who at the time managed the Rover engineering department, as chief engineer. Alongside this, he also ran a farm,  where he put a decommissioned army Jeep to good use. Some time around the beginning of 1947 Spencer Wilks wanted to know what Maurice wanted to buy as a replacement for the now outright rickety Jeep.
Another Jeep of course, was the prompt response. This made Spencer Wilks wonder whether Rover could build a similar multi-purpose vehicle with all-wheel drive itself. For civilian use, where there was clearly huge demand. After all, in April 1944 the trade journal by the name of "The Autocar"  had already reported that requests for a civilian Jeep had already been piling up at Willy's in the USA.
Maurice Wilks was initially taken aback by the idea, but then became excited– so excited that work on the Land Rover, as the vehicle was called from the very outset, began just a few days later. Because haste seemed necessary, the team working under Robert Boyle (two whom Maurice Wilks had delegated the execution of the project) threw themselves into the job. And by mid-1947 they were able to present the initial prototypes. From a purely visual perspective, this vehicle came fairly close to the subsequent series model – in spite of lacking any doors and the rounded front wings. The bodywork was made from Birmabright alloy (more expensive than steel, but available and also rust-free and simple to manipulate - without expensive presses) and rested on a Willy's Jeep chassis. The mundane reason: the chassis produced in-house could not be ready on time.

The first Landy was half-Jeep

In terms of technology, the designers borrowed heavily from the Rover shelf and fitted their creation with axles, a four-gang transmission and an engine from the contemporary rover saloon. The reduction gear, on the other hand, represented a new design specific to the Land Rover, which was equipped with permanent all-wheel drive. However, due to the lack of centre differential, it was essential that the front wheels could free-wheel, in order to prevent stresses on the drive train when on the road. Another peculiarity could be found only in the initial (assumed to be four) prototypes: the centralised steering. This made the question as to whether the vehicle had left- or right-hand drive, which arose when exporting, moot, which would have resulted in considerable cost savings, but was then done away with.

Land Rover launch in Amsterdam

48 pre-series vehicles (of which at least 18 still exist today) were built and extensively tested from the end of 1947 to the beginning of 1948 – before the Land Rover was officially launched on the occasion of the Amsterdam motor show in April 1948.
Here it became clear that there was enormous demand for the Land Rover: the order books filled up rapidly. Most of all, it became clear that the new addition had what it took to be an export hit. By as early as October 1948, just three months after the launch of series production, the English outdoorsman was available to buy in 68 countries.
IN terms of visuals, the series version of the Land Rover differed from the initial prototypes primarily in terms of the higher front bumper and the side doors. A few technical changes had also been made: thus, the aluminium bodywork now rested on a galvanised box frame designed by Olaf Poppe, while in place of the 1.4-litre engine with 47 HP, a 49 HP, 1,595 cm³ drive system was now being used. A brand new design, this four-cylinder engine also served in the Rover 60 saloon and featured suspended inlet valves and mounted outlet valves - truly unusual even back then.
With this engine the vehicle, which weighed around 1.2 tonnes and had the aerodynamics of a brick, is said to have reached a top speed of around 75 km/h. Only its hardcore contemporaries could manage such excessive speeds over longer distances. The noise level of the Land Rover reached nerve-inducing levels, the wind whistled by and the entire car, which never sought to deny its character as a utility vehicle, pitched, shook and bumped around – comfort had not been taken into consideration in the planning of the Land Rover.

It charged forth like a Spartan

This must have been clear to anyone who cast a glance into the sparse cockpit of the Land Rover, where thinly upholstered seats and a great deal of painted sheet metal defined the interior appearance. At this point, the pair of rigid axles with their leaf springs made clear that you were dealing with a rough and ready journeyman. Nonetheless, and this was one of the big surprises, alongside farmers, manual labourers and the military, even private individuals wanted to get their hands on a Land Rover – as they lived in remote areas with poor roads, were looking for a towing vehicle or simply had a thing for unusual products.
In 1950, in a market such as Switzerland, this piece of fun cost exactly 9,500 Francs. For 750 Francs less you could have acquired an Opel Kapitän. However, the price of a Land Rover could be jacked up with little effort. Special accessories such as central and rear power takeoffs (drive units for various add-on devices), rope winches, mounting kits for attaching the spare wheel to the bonnet and many other accessories were available to choose from.

The Land Rover proved itself as an all-round genius

In addition, the Land Rover could be fitted with a wide range of add-ons. The series-produced Land Rover was initially available as a pickup (with or without a tarpaulin) and in an open-top version with a fabric roof. A hardtop followed soon thereafter. The fully glazed combi-version put on display at the Earls Court motor show in 1948, on the other hand, had disappeared once again by 1950 – owing to lack of demand. This resulted in the remaining models selling all the better, reaching an export ratio of 80 percent.

In 1950 the Land Rover, originally conceived as a stopgap, received a new power transmission. In place of the rigid, permanent all-wheel drive, all four wheels were now only powered in the off-road setting, with its shorter gear ratios, whereas when driving on the road the driver could choose between rear and all-wheel drive. With this, the overrunning clutch was omitted.

1952 – the headlights were no longer behind the protective grille of the radiator – there was finally a larger engine, which, with a capacity of 2.0 litres, now produced 51 HP at 4,000 rpm. In 1957 the range was expanded with a pre-combustion diesel engine with a 2.05-litre cylinder capacity and 50 HP.

The long Landy has been around since 1955

The Land Rover was also extended externally: the wheelbase was increased from the initial 80 to 86 and finally to 88 inches (2,235 millimetres) in 1957. In addition, since 1955 there has been a so-called long version, which extended the wheelbase to 107 inches. Of course, clearly this was not long enough as just two years later it reached the 109-inch mark (2,769 millimetres). And they left it at that: for the next quarter of a century the two models were simply referred to as the Land Rover 88 and 109.
The new engine, first offered in 1958 with the introduction of the Series II model, from its 2,286 cubic centimetre capacity, this OHV four-cylinder engine produced 76 HP, which helped the Land Rover to achieve a top speed of around 100 km/h. When the Series IIa was introduced in 1962, the diesel engine followed suit: based on the same basic engine as the petrol version it produced 61 HP. Ever since 1967 a six-cylinder with 82 HP has also formed part of the range.

Alongside this, throughout the long production history of the Land Rover (which has also been built on licence in Belgium. Spain and even by Tempo in Hamburg) there have also been a host of technical and visual modifications. The most striking of these were with regard to the front section: for example, in 1968 Rover was forced to relocated the headlights from the radiator grill to the wings, in order to satisfy the requirements of a number of export markets. In 1972, when the Series III, which was built for twelve years, was introduced, in addition to the five-bearing, four-cylinder engines and a "more sophisticated" dashboard, there was also a new radiator grill.

1983: the dawn of the Land Rover Defender

The new era finally dawned in 1983. The Series IV was introduced and with it, the Land Rover as we know it today: the entire car was rebuilt from the ground up, the frame extended to a 90 and 110-inch wheelbase and, in place of the leaf springs, helical springs were installed with an axle guidance system that was already familiar from the Range Rover.
And in 1990 the day finally arrived: following the introduction of a second land Rover model the previous year, in the form of the Discovery (from the very beginning the Range Rover had been marketed as a separate brand), a differentiation had to be made by means of a separate name.
The Land Rover became the Defender.

Autorenbild Torsten Seibt



Land Rover


20 January 2015
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