A new Defender will be announced later this year. But is the case for it already holed beneath the waterline?
Some plans are simply better left in the realm of theory. One means of establishing this is to interrogate the fundamental necessity of the task, not to mention the level of enthusiasm that exists for both it and its likely conclusion – assuming a destination point has first been plotted. But some projects exert such a strong emotional pull that even if they fail the basic due diligence, the urge to press on regardless can overwhelm reason.
Furthermore, the longer one defers a difficult task, not only does it become more onerous to execute, but the clamour for it to take place amongst those who truly believe in it becomes a deafening bellow. In addition, one of the dangers of procrastination is that by the time the task has been initiated, the parameters may have shifted, giving rise to the action itself proving futile.
This is as much a truism for the automotive sector as it is for politics or indeed other walks of life, but in particular for Land-Rover, who have for years kicked the replacement of their cornerstone model far outside known boundary lines. Because in pragmatic business-rational terms, one wouldn’t necessarily replace a model as broadly irrelevant as the stirringly named Defender. Indeed there is a strong sense that were it not for strongly held emotional arguments within the business, the decision might have continued to be kicked into the wilds.
Truth be told, replacing the Defender has not been the highest of priorities at Gaydon, there being for some time now, other, more lucrative fish to fry. Complicating matters further was the fact that there seemed to be considerable uncertainty within JLR as to exactly what the nature of the new-generation Defender ought to be – aside from where it should be built or indeed whether it should be built at all.
Indeed, one might have thought carbuyers had moved on from the virtues offered by the Defender and its ilk – even amongst those who purchased them for their all-terrain capabilities. Its deeply austere charms seemed faded and for most, a slight loss of off-road functionality appeared a small price to pay for additional creature comforts and on-road refinement provided by LR’s more road-centric offerings.
But a significant factor in the Defender’s resilience in hearts and minds is perhaps tied to a growing sense of previously inviolate certainties spiralling out of control, a desire for the kind of capability in reverse that appeals to our latent inner survivalist, an urge for authenticity in a world of widespread illusion and fakery and, might one also be so bold as to suggest, a deep-rooted longing for a departed version of old Albion?
Land Rover’s product strategists certainly determined that the market for the type of austere, no-nonsense, all-terrain utility vehicle from which Land-Rover earned its carabiners was not going to create a viable business case, given the volumes the Defender was achieving towards the end of its production life.
But having first shown their hand (in concept form) in 2011, the ensuing backlash was said to have elicited the proverbial sharp intake of breath in that area of the Warwickshire countryside between Chadshunt and Bishops Itchington. But in the intervening period, not only had the outgoing Defender fallen victim to tightening efficiency and safety protocols, but the business case underwent a major rethink, along with, we’re told, the styling theme.
Now as heavily disguised prototypes ply Warwickshire’s lanes and the frigid wastes of the Arctic circle, the tealeaf prophecy is that the Defender, while employing the requisite short overhangs and generous departure angles will probably sit somewhere between the outgoing car and the previous generation Discovery in overall form. Which on balance is probably the pragmatic approach, but as with all such matters, the devil is expected to lie in the detail.
Naturally, a prime component of the Defender’s business case lies with the likely price it will command in the marketplace. With optimistic volumes said to be in the region of 50,000 per annum (this being the putative break-even point), it will by necessity no longer be the affordable workhorse beloved of marque loyalists. Autocar have suggested an entry level price in the region of £40k, rising to over £70k for the top of the range model. But despite howls from some quarters, bitterly proclaiming this wasn’t what they’d asked for, isn’t there a price to be paid for emotion?
But are there further prices to be exacted? For instance, what hasn’t been made clear is where the Defender is expected to exist within the Land Rover hierarchy? Is its purpose to sit above the Discovery or simply beyond? Because if a luxuriously appointed LWB Defender can offer most of the Discovery’s functionality and civility but with greater off-road capability, where does that leave the Disco? After all, matters of product overlap cannot be excluded from any dissection of the rather egregious financial situation JLR currently finds itself in.
Which brings us neatly to the subject of timing. The Landie is to be formally announced in the Autumn, towards the end of perhaps the most tumultuous year facing both the carmaker, to say nothing of its country of origin. So far the news emanating from Gaydon appears to be worsening by the week, with Automotive News recently reporting that the carmaker is facing a significant debt crisis.
To add insult to injury, the advent of the Defender, a matter which ought to be a matter of warm celebration has been tinged by the announcement that this much-loved and admired national symbol is to be built at JLR’s newly opened manufacturing plant in Slovakia. The reason? See under Business Case.
Since its inception as a simple all-terrain vehicle for landowners and farmers, the Land Rover has evolved into the potent symbol of British values a UK Secretary of Defence could post smugly about on social media. Cloaked in the Union flag, emblematic of all that is solid and true in the national character – a little rough around the edges, a tad unreliable perhaps, but basically a good egg.
But is it not also possible to read amid the Defender’s reforging a disturbing parallel to the kind of rhetoric one frequently hears from the free-market libertarian Whigs and disaster-capitalist-supporting politicians who fervently espouse a chaotic and damaging exit from the EU? Because alongside the Land Rover’s iconography also sits imagery of Britain’s past military glories; of Agincourt, Churchill and the Blitz – of a nation staunchly holding firm against foreign aggressors – the plucky underdog narrative the ‘one true Brexit’ supporters increasingly imbibe from.
The bitter irony is that like Britain’s bungled departure from the EU itself, the forthcoming Defender could arrive into a situation where the projected market appears to be at best, problematic, owing in part to Global geopolitics, but more to the point, the steadily worsening state of affairs at home, rocked by the culmination of a series of ill-considered product and business decisions and what one might have to simply call, events.
Because depressingly, the risk now is that the Defender could eventually emerge, blinking into a World for which it is no longer relevant and the reality of its existence, its appearance, to say nothing of its rationale will ultimately please no one, least of all the true believers.