Land Rover Defender farewell drive
As production of the iconic Land Rover Defender comes to an end, should we mourn its passing or question how it lasted as long as it did?
THEY were playing The Rolling Stones’s 1964 version of All Over Now on the FM wireless when I climbed into one of the last-ever Land Rover Defenders to leave the company’s press preparation department.
The line “Because I used to love her, but it’s all over now,” pretty much sums up what I’d been thinking about this vehicle with a lineage and several part numbers that can be traced back to the sketch in the sand drawn by Maurice and Spencer Wilkes as they planned the first Land Rover.
“It’s had its day,” said Roger Pride, a local farmer who claims it doesn’t tow as well as it should, rusts like crazy and simply isn’t as good as its Far-Eastern rivals.
Pride’s father, who most often drives said vehicle, is more forgiving. However, even he admits Defenders were a lot better before the company was owned by Ford; it bought Land Rover from BMW in 2000, before selling it on to Tata eight years later.
“But it’s the last utility vehicle on sale,” argued my good friend John, who owns one and drives it mostly off road. “That’s not to say it’s any good, just that there’s nothing out there like it.”
Now that production of the Defender is coming to an end after 67 years, Land Rover has produced three run-out models: the absurdly priced, £61,845 Autobiography, with two-tone paint, leather upholstery and lots of extraneous equipment; the £27,800 Heritage, painted in Grassmere Green with a white roof to recall one of the most famous prototypes; and the £43,495 Adventure tested here, with aggressively treaded Goodyears, a roof-rack and an engine-breathing snorkel.
‘As I get in, the roof dumps half a pint of water on my leg’
You literally climb into a Defender and before the aluminium door flaps shut, the roof has dumped half a pint of rain water on to my trouser leg.
The dashboard features a haphazard plethora of push-buttons, black-faced instruments with white figures, and an old fashioned DIN-sized radio with a CD player and hard-to-find Bluetooth.
The freeze-or-fry heating and ventilation is a source of wonder with five demist settings –entirely justifiable since the windows steam up if you’re just breathing.
The first thing I used the car for was a trip to Waitrose, where the snorkel attracted the sort of stares you might get if you pushed your trolley around in a frogman’s suit and flippers.
With a steering lock that is more of an orbiting device, it took about five minutes of toing and froing to park. The Defender eschews reversing sensors and rear-view cameras, and instead has a mechanical parking sensor in the form of a huge spare wheel on the rear door, which nudges whatever is behind until it breaks or rings its solicitor.
Next I drove to Wales. Crazy, yes, but some people use a Defender as their daily driver and as we so often point out, we do it so you don’t have to.
Well, you wouldn’t want to, actually, because when I finally disgorged in Penybont, I felt like I’d survived a tour of duty in Vietnam. My back had been reshaped by the seat, my right elbow by the door trim, I was deaf from the continual din, the jolting ride had thrown my brain around my skull, and the heating had desiccated my eyeballs.
‘This car is about as wieldy as a draught horse doing dressage’
This is probably the best handling Defender ever built and it’s still dire. Blame the body-on-frame construction and coil-sprung live axles (located with Panhard rod and radius arms at the front and trailing arms at the rear), which take exception to large potholes and cause the car to leap like a spring lamb over road ripples.
Body roll is controlled but abundant, and the steering, while well weighted and not quite as bad as it used to be, is still vague. As long as you keep four wheels on the ground a Defender will corner at speeds that most people would scream at, but it feels like 20,000 bolts and components flying in close formation and about as wieldy as a draught horse doing dressage.
On the plus side, the all-round disc brakes are powerful and sensitive.
The 2.2-litre diesel engine and six-speed manual gearbox come from the Ford Transit van. Most of the urge exists after 2,000rpm and before 3,500rpm, so you need to keep busy with the gearchange, which has a horribly sharp stitched leather gear lever knob. Oh, and the clutch is absurdly heavy, heavier in fact than a Transit’s – we stopped a delivery driver to check!
Top speed is limited to a heady 90mph and acceleration is leisurely. Still, on a long run we coaxed the beast to 25.2mpg, which is pretty good considering it weighs 1.9 tonnes and has the wind catching aerodynamics of a topgallant.
It’s an ill-kept secret at Land Rover, but the Defender is no longer the most consummate off roader it makes. Basic dimensions and geometry are impressive: approach and departure angles of 47 degrees, capable of taking a 45-degree slope forward and backwards and 35 degree slope sideways, with wading in half-metre depths. However, it’s an unsophisticated vehicle, and the fine control of clutch, throttle and the low-ratio gears required to maintain stability and traction in all terrains isn’t at the command of all drivers.
‘It’s exactly what you need when derring-do is called for’
This is a vehicle for adventure, though; it looks better dirty and dented, and it’s exactly what you need when the clouds are pregnant with snow and when derring-do is called for. As a consequence, Land Rover Defender owners possess brand loyalty that makes even Altrincham FC supporters look fickle.
Yet the more I drove it, the more the Defender annoyed me. Everything that is good about it dates from years ago. Everything else is mend and make do, from the blanked off scuttle ventilators that look like windows bricked up after the 17th century window tax, to the inadequacies of the driveline and chassis.
Land Rover has starved this vehicle of investment, ignored utility and military contracts and allowed the Defender to stagnate. So, while the PR drips with crocodile tears about the demise of this old war horse, that demise has actually been a foregone conclusion for years.
And judging from the concepts and studies we’ve seen for its successor, they don’t want to replace it with anything as competent or rugged. As one former Land Rover executive told me recently: “All they want to do is replace it with an SUV.” And if they do that, where will their credibility be? I’ve got a sneaky feeling it really is all over now. -Telegraph.com