The nation stood still for a moment last week and honoured a British institution. The final version of the Land Rover Defender was unveiled, or rather three versions were, and people well outside the usual adoring motoring cohort delivered heartfelt odes to the boxy mud-slinger from the Midlands.
Like the rest of you, I watched on with a mixture of pride and bafflement – the latter emotion not so much caused by any great feelings of cynicism towards the old soldier, although more of that in a minute, but because it dawned on me that I had no idea why it was called a ‘Defender’.
“the suspicion still lurks that the fundamental issue was the Defender, despite its charms, it wasn’t quite charming enough to offset its obvious shortcomings”
It doesn’t really defend anyone, does it? I’ve investigated the etymology of the word in Land Rover speak and have come up with nothing more than the company needing to give the model a name in 1989 because of the new Discovery. Before that it was simply a Land Rover. And the company must have thought something beginning with a D lent a sense of connection. I have also dropped Land Rover a line to see if there’s anything anecdotal from the archives – I’ll update you if I hear anything.
We all enjoy very personal relationships with motorcars, especially iconic models like the Mini and Land Rover. We tend to better retain memories of first meeting these cultural landmarks – of driving them and often crashing them. My formative Land Rover memories were of my best pal’s Series One which he owned at the same time I was driving around Somerset doing my best to injure myself in a Mini.
I didn’t really understand the appeal of the Landie, nor why my mate chose one as his first car. For me the first car choice was simple: my father wouldn’t allow anything more than a litre of engine displacement so I wanted maximum tune-ability and a chance to scoot around corners without first braking. I assumed my pal wanted this too, but instead he was completely contented with his Landie and did a very good job of hanging with me on country roads. He could also ferry people in the back of his machine, and I don’t need to explain how advantageous a canvas rear section, some foam underlay and a duvet can be to a 17-year-old chap.
“And then I moved to the country and, like the clichéd wally I am, decided that the only way to confirm my rural-credentials was to buy a proper Land Rover”
But I was never that fond of his Landie, and I didn’t really appreciate them much for the following decade. I knew they were good off-road, but lacked the locking front and centre differentials of the hardest off-roaders. I knew the driving position was terrible and that the bodies rusted and that every time one came into the Autocar office people would literally scrap over the keys. It was all rather strange. A family member had a Daihatsu Fourtrack at the time and it seemed superior in every way to the British product.
And then I moved to the country and, like the clichéd wally I am, decided that the only way to confirm my rural-credentials was to buy a proper Land Rover. Actually, I bought a 322 Series Range Rover first, but after it digested two gearboxes, I ordered a new Defender. A 110 version, County spec with some heated seats and none of your fancy exterior trimmings. I wistfully imagined that I’d keep it forever, my children would be born in it and then they would pass their tests in it and then 300 years from now it would be embalmed and entombed.
The only impediment to this deification was the steering lock. The Defender didn’t have any steering lock. In the school car park you quickly learned the noble-art of the seven-point turn. During which you skinned your right elbow on the door trim. In fact the driving position was so tight that even my child-like 5ft 7in frame would barely fit behind the wheel and Mrs H, usually capable of driving anything without complaint, said she felt it was a little agricultural for everyday use.
Of course it was slow, handled abominably and running the standard rubber wasn’t much cop on wet grass, but it was also vast inside and it really did give me that sense of being part of a newer, less frantic rural world.
Of course the mistake was to try and use a Defender as everyday wheels. Even with the then-new Puma diesel – this was 2007 – and a few creature comforts, it was all too 1950s to work for us. And so after a year I sold it, and since then I’ve run a few older classic-shape Range Rovers.
Am I denigrating the legend that is the Defender? Not at all. I think as occasional transport and simple machines to own and tinker with they’re some of the best cars a chap or chapess could ever want to own. I just never really got on with ours, and I suspect that might have been as much to do with the expectation placed upon it as anything else, although the suspicion still lurks that the fundamental issue was the Defender, despite its charms, wasn’t quite charming enough to offset its obvious shortcomings.
I shan’t be in-line for one of the run-out models, but I’ll smile when I see a happy face behind the wheel of one later this year.
Wonder what my pal’s Series One would be worth now? A chunk more than my Mini.