Farewell to the king of the off-road, the Land Rover

Farewell to the Land Rover Discovery, the workhorse of the UAE for more than half a century.

The era of the original Land Rover - the Defender is near its end.
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It was a rough, tough, no-frills, four-wheel-drive bruiser, conceived as a farm vehicle by a British car company emerging battered and bruised from the Second World War.

Nobody, least of all Rover, known in the 1930s for its upmarket saloon cars, expected the cheap-and-cheerful Land Rover to last.

But last it has. When Indian owner Tata Motors finally kills off the Land Rover Defender later this year it will mean the end of the road for an iconic vehicle whose lineage can be traced back to 1948.

“Britain was in a terrible recession and the company needed to earn export dollars,” says Mike Gould, former Land Rover brand manager.

“The company turned to the Land Rover as something they could sell as a utility vehicle, to the farming market and overseas, and earn American dollars through aid programmes.”

From the outset, the Land Rover was an endearingly back-of-the-envelope kind of vehicle. Rushed into production over the winter of 1947-48, the first sketch was drawn with a stick in the sand near the Welsh holiday home of Rover’s engineering director, Maurice Wilks.

But conceived as a stopgap to kick-start car production in a time of austerity, the Land Rover quickly became an industry phenomenon.

In 1948 Rover sold just 1,758. The following year, thanks in part to its adoption by the British armed forces, more than 12,000 Land Rovers left Solihull. By last year the company had sold more than two million Series I, II and III and Defenders.

The secret, Mr Gould believes, lay in the appeal of the Land Rover’s uncompromising devotion to function over form.

“When I was brand manager (in the 1990s) we had a concept to replace it with a vehicle based on the Discovery platform, which would have had more cabin space and been a good-looking vehicle,” he recalls.

But the plan was scrapped, partly as a result of customer feedback.

“One of the most telling comments was made in France,” recalls Mr Gould. “The loose translation was that the Land Rover ‘speaks its vocation’ — in other words, it does what it says in the tin.”

The Land Rover has stubbornly declined to move with the times. In 2012, when the Defender underwent its final upgrade, Autocar magazine lovingly celebrated its shortcomings.

The driving position remained “cramped”, its “tiny, flimsy” windscreen wipers were “awful by modern standards”, the interior trim was “dreadful” and the incongruous chrome running boards were “one of the few remotely style conscious elements”.

But Autocar concluded there was no point in comparing the Defender to any other car. This was a vehicle “for farms, outbacks, jungles and deserts”, capable of tackling a 45-degree slope — forwards or backwards — and wading through water half a metre deep.

In the 66 years since it first rolled off the production line in the British Midlands, the Land Rover has won the hearts of everyone from farmers to royalty.

“It has been a love affair,” admits Matt Prior, road-test editor for Autocar.

At work, Prior has driven the world’s fastest and most luxurious cars. But at home, the family car is a Land Rover Defender — and it’s not immediately clear why.

“It’s slow, it’s noisy, we do 15,000 miles a year in it, which is far too many, it’s uncomfortable and quite thirsty,” he says. “But we love it to bits.”

Diehard enthusiasts such as Prior are attracted to what he calls the “purity” of a vehicle designed to be hosed out, rather than “It was born out of a very straightforward principle and has never carried more mass and fripperies than it has needed to do the job, and that appeals a lot, especially as cars get more complicated,” he says.

The cramped, cold, noisy, boxy workhorse struck a chord right from the off, and in all the right places.

When the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth II embarked on her first tour of the Commonwealth in 1953, a Land Rover Series I went with her. Today, Her Majesty still drives a Defender over the challenging terrain of her Balmoral estate in Scotland.

Like many countries around the world with an historic relationship to the UK, the UAE has a soft spot for the Land Rover, which can claim to have played a significant supporting role in the foundation of the nation.

Quickly adopted by the British army for use in inhospitable climates and landscapes around the world, Land Rover first came to the future UAE in 1951 as the vehicle of choice for the Trucial Oman Levies, the Sharjah-based force set up by the British to protect the borders of the emirates.

In the road-free days of the embryonic UAE, the vehicle quickly became the transport of choice for everyone from fishermen to royalty.

In the years before the foundation of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed relied on a Land Rover for his regular excursions to far-flung desert communities — a partnership commemorated by the Land Rover that has pride of place in the courtyard of the Al Ain Palace Museum, home to Zayed until he became Ruler of Abu Dhabi in 1966.

The Land Rover was also the natural vehicle for oil companies when exploration and production took off. Ferrying oilmen and their gear to and fro across the desert, it played a key part in helping Abu Dhabi to tap into the vast wealth that lay beneath its sands, and which would transform the country beyond recognition.

One mystery is how the archaic Land Rover, with as many failings as charms, has managed to survive all these years as the company passedthrough several owners, including British Leyland, British Aerospace, BMW and, as Jaguar Land Rover since 2008, Tata Motors.

After all, when it comes to such concepts as precision engineering, “the Defender defies description, really,” says Gould. “If you look at the way it’s built, the dash and the rear body are put on to the chassis and then all the other bits and pieces fill in the gaps, basically.”

Such haphazard precision, unsurprisingly, irked BMW, but the Land Rover somehow managed to outwit its new owner’s attempts to impose Germanic efficiency.

“BMW tried to bring in their own method of quality control, which plays a lot on fit and finish of panels, and the Defender simply couldn’t get anywhere near it,” recalls Gould. “So in the end it had its own quality standards.”

Over the years, the family has grown, each new model sprouting refinements that have taken it progressively further from its roots — the Range Rover, first introduced in 1970, followed by the Discovery (1989) and the Freelander (1997).

The original Land Rover was relaunched and renamed the Defender in 1990, but it is in this line of the family, says Gould, through which “a complete line of mitochondrial DNA runs”.

The last really big change was in 1983, when — to the horror of purists — the Land Rover acquired coil-spring suspension, “but although the vehicle has changed engines a few times the heritage is complete all the way back to 1948.”

A “replacement” may be in the wings — the company has released images of something it calls a Land Rover Defender 100 Sport — but it’s more closely related to a Transformer toy than the original.

“It’s a bit like the latest Mini or Volkswagen Beetle, or Fiat 500,” sniffs Autocar’s Prior. “It’s that sort of caricature, which is fine. But it isn’t a Land Rover.”

Few doubt the real Land Rover could bounce, grind and climb its way far into the future — thanks to rustproof aluminium panels and a galvanised chassis, models built in the ‘50s are still on the road, and there is surely a realistic prospect of some Land Rover, somewhere, in about 2050 eventually becoming the first car to be in daily service for 100 years.

In the end, though, economic reality has brought the Land Rover to the end of the road. With no room even for airbags, modern safety and environmental regulations have proved to be a hill too steep.

Heavy reliance on hand-building has also priced it out of a market now dominated by modern, Japanese rivals, complete with creature comforts.

Nothing, perhaps, better captures the incongruity of the Defender’s defiant existence in the modern world than the images currently promoting the modern Land Rover range on the company’s own website.

Photographed in a desert location, with the towers of Dubai clearly visible in the distance, is a parade of six vehicles. At the head of the convoy is the luxurious Range Rover, followed by the Range Rover Sport and Evoque, the Discovery, the new Discovery Sport and the Freelander 2.

And there at the back of the pack, its shape and lines gloriously out of place, trails the Defender, looking for all the world as though it has driven accidentally into the picture through some kind of rent in the fabric of time.