Wednesday 16 October 2019

A fond farewell to the Land Rover Defender

It's hard to think of a car with a more iconic image than the Land Rover Defender, writes Geraldine Herbert

CLASSIC DESIGN: ‘They are the most versatile vehicles in the world,’ says Land Rover Defender owner David Feely, pictured with his 110 model. David has been working on Land Rovers for over 14 years. Photo: Tony Gavin
CLASSIC DESIGN: ‘They are the most versatile vehicles in the world,’ says Land Rover Defender owner David Feely, pictured with his 110 model. David has been working on Land Rovers for over 14 years. Photo: Tony Gavin

From the sand dunes of the Sahara to the glaciers of Iceland, Land Rover's Defender is the very epitome of adventure. But rumours of its imminent demise have persisted for years and finally new and stringent requirements for carbon emissions and EU safety regulations will send this iconic vehicle to the motoring archives.

On December 20 the last Land Rover Defender will roll off the production line and many will mourn the passing of one of the most recognised vehicles on the planet. And I will be among them. Some of my most memorable motoring moments have been behind the wheel of a Defender. They may be unglamorous, uncomfortable and thirsty, with the turning circle of a small town, but once behind the wheel these concerns are left behind and the world becomes a vista of fordable rivers, scalable peaks and crossable tundras.

But I accept that, to the casual observer, the attraction of a car that still bears a resemblance to the Maurice Wilks-designed 1947 original can be hard to fathom.

Former engineer Ian Howard, a committed long-term Land Rover owner, explains the enduring appeal of this beast of burden. "The Defender has an adventurous and go anywhere image and it offers all-round dependability. Unlike modern vehicles a Land Rover doesn't depend on computers to keep it going," he says.

Despite being out-gunned by younger models, the basic Land Rover is still eagerly sought after, restored and driven by thousands of fiercely loyal enthusiasts around the globe. Famous owners of the Defender and its forefathers include Fidel Castro, Sean Connery, Jennifer Aniston and Oprah Winfrey.

David Feely has been working on Land Rovers for over 14 years. He learned to drive in a Defender and bought his first at the age of 15. Today he owns a 110, bought six years ago for €12,000.

"They are the most versatile vehicle in the world" says David. "I've customers whose Defenders wouldn't cross a kerb and others that bring their Defenders in at the end of the busy season for TLC in preparation for more hardship."

The Land Rover Defender is a classic you can use every day and is a perfect car in winter. And if someone bashes your pride and joy, don't worry - a few 'character dents' add to the charm. But regular maintenance and breakdowns seem to be a common feature of these "charming" classics.

Aidan Bailey, a surveyor from Co Kildare, bought his first Defender in 1983 and sold it in 1999, during which time he re-engined it with a Nissan LT28 diesel engine and rebuilt the suspension and drive train several times.

"Patience and fortitude are good attributes to have," says Aidan. "Breakdowns were common, replacement parts were on long and slow delivery and extra maintenance was ongoing from the first year."

Despite its agricultural pedigree the Defender has universal appeal and while it can be best described as an off-roader with acceptable road manners it has become a common sight of everyday suburban motoring.

Ever since she was a child, Alex Loughrey had her own dreams of owning a classic Land Rover - and a bashed-up Corgi Defender in turquoise was one of her most treasured toys as a child.

"I had just sold my Defender when I got pregnant with my second child and wavered about replacing it with a safe family car that doesn't leak and has airbags," says Alex. "But, when the decision came ,I just couldn't get a regular car. I always feel bereft if I see a Defender and I'm not in it".

Christy Curtis, a PR agent and busy mum, is the proud owner of a gunmetal-grey Defender. "My last few cars have been little run-arounds and I got tired of having to take the wheels off the pram to fit it into the boot. I wanted something a bit bigger and I saw a Land Rover Defender and just thought wow," says Christy. After taking one for a test drive she was smitten.

"The minute I sat in it I just knew this was the car for me," says Christy. "My friends think I'm mad. They prefer luxury and comfort, you don't get that with a Defender. A lot of people see them as farm vehicles. Most people think they are slow and I get cut up a lot by other drivers who think I am going to be slow so they jump out in front of me. But it's just a normal car."

Away from the fashion parade, the Defender is still at its core a hard-working vehicle capable in the toughest terrain, driven by emergency services, farmers, relief workers, engineers, explorers, defence and humanitarian forces the world over.

Denis Ferry, a garage owner and part-time explorer from Donegal, believes the attraction is based on "its iconic design and go-anywhere attitude".

"Defenders are classless. It's one of the few vehicles that don't put the owners in a group, they look as much at home at the foot of Mount Errigal in Donegal as they do alongside a Bugatti Veyron in Casino Square in Monte Carlo," says Denis.

"I have driven many 4x4s in most parts of the world, from the Dalton highway in north Alaska to the death road in Bolivia, but I chose the Defender to drive as my daily vehicle because it does it all without any fuss, just like it did nearly 68 years ago."

So could the Defender also be the ultimate in car recycling? It seems with a bit of hard work and determination they can be kept going almost forever. Martin Conroy, a free-range pig farmer from Cork, has travelled over 200,000km in his trusty Defender.

"It has the original clutch and the only parts I change are brakes, steering joints, etc. I do virtually all the repairs myself," says Martin. However, it is a work vehicle first and foremost and "the build quality leaves a bit to be desired, especially the fitting/sealing of the doors".

On the road it may be a motoring time warp, timeless on the outside and spartan on the inside, but the Defender has a cult following and owners spend thousands on serious modifications. Enthusiasts fit everything from snorkels and roll bars to modified suspension while some just opt for something a little more unusual.

Alan Bird, a restaurateur, owns a rare V8 petrol engined, automatic SWB Defender 90. Bought in 2012 Alan has spent over €3,000 restoring it. "Defenders are for people who need a reliable workhorse vehicle that has the flexibility for a multitude of uses" says Alan "It's the coolest work horse in town - but a work horse nonetheless."

Sunday Independent

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