Production of the Land Rover Defender came to an end in 2016 but a new version of the new off-roader has been unveiled today at the 2019 Frankfurt motor show. Here we look back at its illustrious history.
Iconic is a wildly overused term, but if there's one car that's worthy of it, it's the Land Rover Defender, which went out of production in 2016 after almost 68 years on sale and with more than two million examples built.
Driven by everyone from farmers to the Queen, the Defender is not just a signifier of go-anywhere style in the way that most modern 4x4s are, but also of daring engineering and derring do.
It started out as a sketch in the sands of Red Wharf Bay, Anglesey, drawn by Rover engineer Maurice Wilks, and was unveiled at the Amsterdam motor show in 1948, before making its UK debut at the Bath and West agricultural show (which for some reason was held in Cardiff that year).
Wilks originally wanted something to replace the old Jeep he used on his farm. And Rover's engineers learned quickly, swapping the Jeep's flexible top-hat frame for a tough box-section chassis.
In addition, permanent four-wheel drive and a set of crawler gears so low you could climb out and have a smoke on the bonnet while the Land Rover wound itself across a muddy field, made it the perfect farm vehicle for the age.
Legend has it that the car was aimed as a stop-gap while the Rover Car Company got back on its feet after the war. But Michael Bishop, a senior instructor at Land Rover's Experience Centre, reckons that's not entirely true given the original Land Rover's advanced engineering for the time, and the fact that other derivatives were already being developed at launch.
Either way, the Land Rover was an instant hit, with the first year's production of 8,000 quickly selling out. Rover quickly ramped up production to cope with the demand, and 24,000 Landies rolled off the production line in the next year.
Soon enough, Land Rovers were being produced at the heady rate of 1,000 a week, eclipsing sales of the saloon cars Rover had become known for.
But to maintain this success, the Land Rover had to continually improve. In 1954, the wheelbase expanded to 86in, with a new 107in-wheelbase option also made available. By 1958, the Series II had been introduced, bringing with it longer wheelbases again, and both petrol and diesel versions were available.
But it was in the Sixties that the Land Rover really hit its stride. More and more body styles became available, including a 12-seat station wagon version and the first heavy-duty “forward-control” variants, so-named because their cockpits sat above the engine bay to increase their carrying capacity.
The Land Rover had also gained one very special repeat customer; the Queen was often spotted behind the wheel of one, a trend which has continued to this day.
By 1976, one million Land Rovers had been produced, and the first Land Rover spin-off had emerged: a luxurious version that promised all of the Land Rover’s off-road ability, but with enough comfort and style for frequent on-road use too. It was called the Range Rover.
Fitted with the 3.5-litre Rover V8 engine, the Range Rover offered plenty of grunt, and soon customers were asking for similar pulling power in their Land Rover. So in 1979, the first V8-powered example was introduced, featuring the same engine, but with a longer bonnet in order to make it fit.
This body style was adopted for all Land Rovers in the mid Eighties, when the Land Rover entered its fourth incarnation: the 90in and 110in models. These defined the styling that the Land Rover would retain until the end of its production, with a broad, one-piece nose and a black plastic grille.
But while the car was to last for many years to come, the name wasn’t; in 1990, Land Rover launched the Discovery, and a new name was needed to bring the 90in and 110in into line with the rest of the range. “Defender” was chosen, a name which has stuck with the model ever since, and is today often used to refer to early Land Rovers retrospectively.
By now, the Defender was already venerated as one of the most enduring pieces of British design and engineering and a formula that worked as-was, so Rover stopped fiddling with its classic and allowed it to chunter on into a retirement as a fashionista, with spangly new paint finishes and a host of glossy special editions that traded on its rugged image.
It continued to make up a fair chunk of Land Rover sales as a result, and even when the smaller Freelander was introduced in 1997, the Defender still had its place.
In 2015, the two millionth example was built, making it one of Britain’s most popular cars, and when the last example rolled off the production line, it was truly the end of an era – not before time, some would say, though others will mourn its passing.
Land Rover will replace the Defender with an all-new version. Its styling and specification are closely-guarded secrets.
Until then, farmers – and Her Majesty– will have to look elsewhere for their ultimate go-anywhere vehicle.
For all the latest news, advice and reviews from Telegraph Cars, sign up to our weekly newsletter by entering your email here
This article was originally published in 2016.