The Land Rover Defender: A Look Back at the World’s Most Versatile SUV
After 67 years of continuous production, Land Rover will stop building Defenders in 2015. Although it never rivaled the Jeep here in the states, the SUV’s ruggedness has made it a legend in off-roading: It’s estimated that the Defender is the first automobile one-third of the people in the world lay eyes on
Like a Jeep, but Better
After using a surplus military Jeep on his farm, Rover designer Maurice Wilks thought he could build something better. With Rover trying to convert back to civilian production after WWII, he proposed a Jeep-like vehicle with PTOs to drive equipment, making it an ideal combination of tractor and car for use by farmers. With paint and steel in short supply, the finished “Series I” mixed Rover sedan parts with an aluminum body coated in military surplus gray. Its simplicity and corrosion-proof construction made it a massive hit, finding popularity with police and fire departments along with its original demographic.
From the Military to the World
After using American vehicles throughout WWII, the British Army developed their own small off-roader with Austin. By the time it was ready, the military realized that an off-the-shelf Land Rover could match the Austin’s capabilities at a lower price. Soon, the Army was working with Rover to develop variations on the Series I akin to the modern HUMVEE: trucks, ambulances, reconnaissance vehicles and even half-track models were built. Almost every country in the British commonwealth from South Africa to Australia added the SUV to their military fleets, spreading it to the remote corners of the globe. This worldwide spread made parts readily available in the most remote regions of the world, which led it to be the vehicle of choice for expeditions.
Land Rovers: The Defender in America
The Rover V8 used in the Defender may have its roots in a Buick design, and the military version has seen limited use by the U.S. military, but sales had always been small stateside.
Crash safety and emissions forced an end to importation in 1997, but its reputation has led to high demand and with it a very unusual black market: Vehicles over 25 years old can be freely imported into the United States, and since the vehicle has changed very little during production, it’s easy to modify a newer vehicle to appear to qualify for this restriction. With U.S. examples selling for almost $100,000 and vehicles in the U.K. trading for as little as $2,000, shipping these vehicles over can be extremely profitable. This has made the Defender the number one vehicle target for Customs and Border Protection.