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