The Land Rover Defender is truly an off-roader for the ages, which can trace its heritage back to the original Land Rover launched in 1948. It was designed under the premise of being an inexpensive, all-purpose vehicle that could conquer any terrain.
That original Land Rover evolved over the decades to become the Land Rover Defender, which continued the model’s success until finally ending production in 2016.
An all-new Defender finally entered production in 2020, bringing a new focus to the famous nameplate that is a far cry from the utilitarian role of the original Land Rover.
From its ancestry to the modern day, we take a look at the evolutions and revolutions of one of Britain’s most famous motor cars.
Series I (1948 – 1957)
The first Land Rover was launched at the Amsterdam motor show in April 1948. This model would later become known as the Series I. It had a 1.6-litre petrol engine from the Rover P3 that produced all of 50hp, and the first verions were built with a pick-up body style.
After a year, 8,000 had been built and the British Army ordered its first trial cars, while selectable two- and four-wheel-drive was added in 1951. In 1952, the engine was increased to a 52bhp 2.0-litre unit, while a new long-wheelbase version was added.
Series II (1958 – 1974)
The second generation model was introduced in 1958, featuring a lightly updated body and a 2.25-litre petrol engine. A facelifted version called the Series IIA, arrived in 1961 and brought a new 62bhp 2.3-litre diesel engine option.
Ever popular, it would be the Series IIA that would influence the British public’s perception of Land Rover for the decade to come. It’s remembered for both its rugged strength and its many appearances in popular films and television documentaries in the 1960s.
This popularity soon led to Land Rover production surpassing half a million vehicles in 1968. At around that same time, the headlights were moved out to the front wings to meet various new safety regulations around the world.
Series III (1971 – 1985)
The next evolution in the Land Rover story launched in 1971 with the Series III. This generation is recognisable by its plastic grille, flatter door hinges and a full-width dashboard. To demonstrate its increasing popularity, production hit 750,000 in 1971 and then one million by 1976.
In a small glimpse of what the future would hold, Land Rover started to offer new interior trim options with the release of the Series III, looking to attract buyers who wanted a more comfortable driving experience.
The Defender is born (1990 – 2016)
In 1983, the Series III underwent some modernisation, evolving into the new 90 (short wheelbase) and 110 (medium wheelbase) and 127 (long wheelbase) models being introduced. Coil springs replaced the original leaf spring units, along with new four-cylinder engines that connected to a full synchromesh five-speed manual gearbox.
In 1990, the range was renamed Defender, although the 90, 110 and 130 length designations remained. A new diesel engine was also offered. Gradually, more creature comforts were added and several special editions were released, all of which were more lifestyle models than workhorses.
The next major milestone for the Defender didn’t come until 2007, with a major overhaul that was largely aimed at complying with new safety and emissions rules. It consisted of a new four-cylinder diesel engine with a six-speed manual gearbox, updated dashboard, and minor body alterations.
In 2015, Land Rover celebrated ‘The Year of the Defender’ with three new Limited Edition models being launched, as well as recreating the Series I production line in Solihull. Production finally came to an end in January 2016 after nearly 68 years of gradual evolution.
The car’s design may have seemed static, but in reality it was anything but. By the time the Defender ended production in 2016, there were very few parts that could actually fit onto the older Land Rover Series I and Series II models as almost every component on the car had been redesigned over the years.
The end of production in 2016 genuinely marked the end of an era for both Land Rover and the British motor industry. It may have become most popular as a rather ridiculous urban SUV by the end of its life, but it remained a remarkably flexible vehicle design.
The number of different uses for adapted Land Rover Series I – III and Defenders was almost endless – fire tender, ambulance, military transport, recovery vehicle, emergency response, exploration vehicle and mobile workshop are just some of its many careers.
New Defender (2019 – present)
At the 2019 Frankfurt motor show, an new Defender broke cover, sporting an all-new platform, advanced off-road technology and a cool, retro-inspired look. The model hit UK streets in early 2020.
Some purists were disappointed to see the interior move upmarket as the traditional model was known for being easy to clean when being used as a true workhorse. But the new Defender boasts some of the most advanced off-road technology ever fitted to a production car to make it capable on any terrain, while also being pleasant inside for families who want a practical SUV.
Successes continue to mount for the ever-popular Defender. Among a string of local and international awards, it was recently named 2021 World Car Design of the Year at the annual World Car Awards.
Highlighting Land Rover’s ongoing ties to the silver screen, a new James Bond edition of the Defender has been unveiled in 2021, marking the release of the new Bond flick, No Time To Die.
Looking to the future, electric models will be the way forward for Land Rover and the Defender. In Summer 2021, Land Rover released the Defender P400e, the first plug-in hybrid model to be added to the Defender family.
The current Land Rover Defender is part of our industry-leading Expert Ratings index, where it has achieved an outstanding Expert Rating of 87% based on 34 reviews from UK media sources. Check out the Expert Rating for the Land Rover Defender here.
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Additional reporting by Stuart Masson and Darren Cassey (PA Media)