Looking Back at the 68-Year Legacy of the Land Rover Defender

Originally designed as an agricultural vehicle, the Land Rover Defender has become one of the most beloved automotive icons of all time.

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In the spring of 1947 Maurice Wilks sketched out his vision for the perfect all-terrain vehicle — in the sand at Red Wharf Bay on the east coast of the Isle of Anglesey. Mere months later, using a combination of a Willys Jeep chassis, a 50 horsepower engine from Rover and raw material allocated by the British government, Wilks had built his first prototype. Dubbed “Centre Steer,” it was a rounded, dignified take on the go-anywhere, do-anything, ubiquitous Jeep, and it would eventually become the first production Land Rover.

The stakes were seemingly high: Britain, ravished both physically and financially by WWII, was in need of a vehicle that could both act as a suitable workhorse for the country’s agricultural and commercial efforts, and act as a desirable export to bring a steady cashflow to the country. The production Land Rover that debuted in 1948 was intended as a stopgap; a temporary source of income that would keep the factory active until the suffering consumer car market was back up and running. Instead it continued production for another 68 years.

The Land Rover became a sensation overnight. Britain’s military ordered over 1,800 vehicles in 1949; the RAF and Royal Navy placed their own orders in 1950. Meanwhile, the Land Rover was quickly becoming a favorite among farmers and civilians. Rover’s Solihull factory — which was churning out 500 vehicles a week — initially couldn’t keep up with production demands.

It was also in those early years the Land Rover proved itself to be the original adventure-mobile. In 1949, just a year into its production, explorer Colonel LeBlanc drove his Land Rover from England to what is now Ethiopia, arguably inventing the automotive overland expedition. Two years later, British motoring magazine Autocar dispatched a Land Rover on a 6,000-mile journey from Calcutta to Calais, citing a single tire puncture as the only mechanical issue they dealt with in the entirety of their voyage.

The Land Rover’s most significant expedition occurred in 1955, when six students from Cambridge and Oxford drove two Land Rover Series I wagons from London to Singapore and back to London — a 32,000-mile voyage previously thought impossible. Incredibly, the expedition was completed with minimal off-road modifications: only winches, long-range fuel tanks, spotlights and jerry cans were added.

More than just an agricultural, military and expedition workhorse, the Land Rover quickly became associated with the powerful and the stylish. In 1954, Winston Churchill received his own Land Rover for his 80th birthday, custom-fitted with an extra-wide seat, heated footwell and wooden box for his bricklaying tools (everyone needs a hobby). Queen Elizabeth II has always been a Land Rover fan, having owned several over the decades, and she can still be seen roving the countryside from time to time.

Land Rovers made waves with more than just the British upper crust — the the elite’s favorite truck quickly became a pop-culture icon. In one of its first silver-screen appearances, Clark Gable drove a Land Rover in 1953’s Mogambo; the Land Rover later appeared in the 1966 British drama Born Free. In 1957, Marilyn Monroe famously posed in a swimsuit with a white Rover Series I, and Steve McQueen was photographed in 1963 with a Land Rover for Life magazine while on a camping trip in the Sierra Madre Mountains. Other notable owners over the years include Bill Murray, Ralph Lauren, Sean Connery and Paul McCartney, who was so fond of his Land Rover in the years following the Beatles’ breakup that he wrote the song “Hellen Wheels” about it.

It explored continents, fought wars, ferried royalty and stars alike and has become one of the most beloved and sought-after cars of all time.

As years passed, the Land Rover saw many iterations — from the Series I, II, IIA and III to the Ninety and One Ten, and eventually the iconic Defender series. Though the name changed frequently and modernity slowly leaked into its underpinnings, as with other iconic contemporaries like the Mini Cooper and Volkswagen Beetle the Land Rover defied industry changes in regulation and in taste. Indeed, it went mostly unchanged for decades, maintaining its original simplicity and charm.

The long and illustrious Defender saga is proof that some things don’t need to change to be successful. Its lifespan is the aphorism “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” fully realized. But that sentimentality and practicality can survive only so long, and iconicism and automotive nostalgia can trump good business sense and ever-tightening regulations for only so long. As of January, 2016, production of the original Defender has ended for good. The name will return in a couple years on a completely redesigned model — one that is equipped to meet current safety and emissions standards; a car more refined than what we’ve grown to love over the last 68 years. And that makes sense.

But still it’s right to mourn the end of the aging, unrefined Defender. From its inception it was meant to be a utilitarian workhorse for Britain’s working class, and upon its back an industry gravely wounded by WWII rebuilt economic stability. The Defender did all that was asked of it and so, so much more. It explored continents, fought wars, ferried royalty and stars alike and has become one of the most beloved and sought-after cars of all time. It has always gone the extra mile, both figuratively and literally, and after 68 years it has earned its retirement.

So long, Land Rover Defender, and thank you for your service.

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