Resurrecting the Defender

While the story of the Defender’s potential rise from the grave continues to garner column inches, does it mask a more compelling drama?

The ultimate durable car? Image: Topspeed
The ultimate durable car? Image: Topspeed

Something of a minor storm has been taking place amid sections of the media over reports that industrialist, Jim Ratcliffe has been in talks with Jaguar Land Rover over purchasing the rights and tooling for the recently axed Defender model. The story which first appeared in The Times newspaper claims the chemicals boss intends to re-start production of the 68-year old model, with some suggesting a Caterham-style reinvention and modernisation programme under an alternative nameplate.

This story was picked up with some seriousness by Autocar but has been refuted in robust terms by JLR – a spokesperson telling reporters; “There is no way this is happening, we’re not going to let anyone build our Defender.”
Such is the strength of feeling the Defender elicits that even speculative stories like this one become the subject of feverish comment and opinion, but are perhaps more illustrative of the apparent vacuum that has been left by JLR’s prevarication regarding its likely replacement.

Having lost a long-running battle with safety and emissions regulations, the Defender ceased production earlier this year. Being virtually hand built, and employing a labour-intensive separate chassis construction which shared little with the bulk of LR products currently in production, the economics of continued production became less viable with each passing year.

It’s likely that were it not for the car’s position as the talisman of the Land Rover legend, the Defender would have been pushing up daisies some time back. But with tooling amortized decades ago, a loyal if modest cadre of customers and a good deal of hand wringing over its replacement within the corridors of JLR-central, the venerable Landie lived on well past its prime.

It’s clear that replacing a vehicle (despite evolving like the archetypical woodman’s axe) which has been in continuous production for almost seventy years falls very much into the ‘Lemon Difficult’ category. Heaven knows how many concepts have been created by Gerry McGovern’s Land Rover design team; certainly, the DC100-series concepts shown in 2011 appear not to have resonated with either the brand faithful or it would now seem by Land Rover themselves.

Autocar’s Steve Cropley reported earlier this year that while McGovern has at last definitively nailed down the new Defender’s body style, it’s now unlikely to see the light of day much before the end of the decade. (It was supposed to be on sale in 2015).

Image: blog.greenflag
Image: blog.greenflag

But this prevarication is perhaps suggestive of something a good deal more serious – the lack of a sufficiently robust business case. Given the necessity for a Defender-type vehicle to support multiple body styles, to appeal to outdoor recreational types, farmers, businesses, public services and the military while remaining vaguely affordable, designing a car based on an existing LR monocoque platform would represent an engineering task of immense complexity.

But given likely volumes in the region of 50,000 per annum, producing a bespoke architecture makes little economic sense either. And while JLR could shave something off the bottom line by producing it in a low-cost country like India or their forthcoming plant in Slovakia, the Landie is now such a British icon that doing so could erode its appeal to a fanbase for whom, frankly anything JLR do now will likely be viewed with something approaching dismay.

The upshot of all this is likely to be continued speculation about JLR’s intentions, and unless a viable business case exists, the increased likelihood of any serious replacement Defender being kicked further into the long grass.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

11 thoughts on “Resurrecting the Defender”

  1. With VW, Renault and even Mercedes piling in, the market for mid size pick ups appears to be booming. This is where the new Defender should be – a separate chassis (for strength and adaptability), and something akin to the VW Amarok but with more off road ability – perhaps customizable with proper heavy duty suspension etc. Perhaps a short wheelbase option and a proper station wagon too. After all, the Defender was also available as a pick up. Land Rover could make a success of this, couldn’t they?

    1. It’s frustrating that a proper technical interview isn’t done to explain why proposals like Jacomo’s are not realised.
      A priori you’d think a BOF workhorse would be a steady seller, no?

    2. Body on Frame construction offers several advantages, aside from strength and relative low cost of providing different body styles. Minor crash repairs can be cheaper, also cheaper to restyle the vehicle to keep it looking fresh. I’m not convinced that JLR really values this kind of customer anymore, though… or they are so wedded to their aluminium monoque architecture that they cannot imagine developing a new vehicle without it. In fact, their wholesale adoption of this technology seems flawed – and it must really rankle that the Discovery Sport (based on an old platform inherited from Ford) has beaten the F-Pace (based on the pricey new architecture) in some comparison tests.

    3. The global for vehicles such as those Jacomo mentions is huge, which makes Land Rover’s reluctance to enter it all the more surprising. I wonder if it’s a matter of prestige – a fear of diluting JLR’s upmarket image. From what has so far emerged from Whitley, the next Defender does not appear to be a workhorse – more a small family of slightly less luxurious but still upmarket SUV’s. Is this being driven by Sales and Marketing? Certainly engineering such a vehicle isn’t beyond their capabilities – making it pay appears to be the issue. But whatever the reason, Land Rover appear happy to cede the go anywhere workhorse market to the likes of Toyota and Mitsubishi.

      Which may be why this story developed legs in the first place.

  2. This entire business sounds a lot like the dozens of announcements of some billio-/millionaire building a new Titanic.

  3. I can see why they think a Defender successor should be less of a ‘workhorse’ type. Like the Mercedes G, it has more and more become an accessoire for urban Yuppies. I just wonder if a more civilized base would really go down with this audience, as it’s probably not ‘authentic’ enough in their eyes.

    By the way: don’t we have a very beautiful signature colour up there?

  4. Possibly Land Rover have taken the view that, devoid of the Defender’s national icon image, their product would be on a level playing field with Toyotas and others, needing to compete directly in terms of reliability, versatility, comfort and price. The Defender was cut a fair amount of slack by many customers, just because it was The Landie.

    Personally, I have never drawn a proper conclusion on LR quality control. I doubt it’s as bad as the most vehement detractors, but I have seen quite a few stranded Range Rovers over the years. If you can’t get your halo model right, a cheaper workhorse, one likely to come in for abuse, is an even more daunting prospect.

    However, it would be a pity if that was so. It is an inheritance that shouldn’t be squandered.

  5. Amazing. All these words and not a mention of the Jeep Wrangler, by far the best selling of the BOF four wheel drive machines worldwide at 255,000 units worldwide in 2015. It’s also as doggedly unrefined as the Landie except for a coil-sprung front axle.

    There’s always been a market here in North America among those with a bit more (twice) cash for the Land Rover and a sense of adventure with regard to reliability. The relative scarcity and high prices are a magnet for a certain type of person who wishes to be noticed. So, if you include the fact that the best selling Ford F150 pickup (800,000 pa) is entirely aluminum-bodied on a steel chassis, surely the whizbang marketing types at JLR can work out another retro Landie for sale that would appease the types to whom muddy boots are a way of life. And make some good dosh at it too, as Archie Vicar might have said.

    1. I’d certainly mention the Wrangler. As I mentioned a while ago, with an hour or so to lose hanging around a Fiat showroom a while back, I sat in all the cars – Fiats, Alfas, Jeeps. The only one I actually felt at home in was a Wrangler.

  6. I have been driving a 1996 Defender LWB for 14 years now & provided stinking bastard Khan lets me keep it ( I live just inside the A406) I will keep it until I can no longer drive.
    I can do 95% of my owm maintenance, it can carry 8-9 people & their dance/music kit OR 20 bags of horse manure & it doesn’t need tarmac.
    The high driving position, permanent 4WD & the post-1990 transmission make it one of the safest cars on the road, too.
    It is, quite simply, irreplacable ….

    As for Jeep Wranglers … euw.

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