It is the all-time great off-roader, beloved workhorse and countryperson’s friend but the Land Rover Defender is now being retired after more than half a century.
Introduced in 1948 and rebranded as the Defender in 1991, it has been announced that production will cease in December this year. In 67 years some two million have been built and sold all over the world, working on hill farms, in the African veldt, for emergency services and for various armed forces.
It has been said that some three quarters of all the Land Rovers ever built are still on the road, although it is suspected that the government’s car scrappage scheme of 2008 led to many thousands of perfectly road-worthy vehicles making their last trip while there was still plenty of life left in them.
The Land Rover is a car that inspires great affection and deep loyalty. One such enthusiast is Paul Walton from Darlington, secretary of Nero, the North East Rover Owners’ club.
Paul’s love affair with Land Rover has been life-long. Indeed, his father Terry joined Nero in 1975, four years after its foundation and when Paul was still a toddler.
“Land Rover and Nero is something I’ve grown up with,’’ says Paul. “With a Land Rover, you can do so many things with it, from dropping the kids off at school to pulling a caravan to competitions, to driving off-road.’’
At the moment he and his family – for wife Zena, daughters Caitlan, 17, and Philippa, 13, are also fans – own a 1952 Series 1 80; a 1958 Series 1 109, which is being restored; their family car, a 12-year-old Defender 110 long wheel base station wagon, and their competition car.
land rover is no longer a utility manufacturer, it’s a Luxury car maker
The competition car, which is used for trials, is built to the dimensions of a 1955 88 Series 1 from a mid-1990s Discovery chassis under the Association of Land Rover Clubs’ rules which specify that a competition car has to represent the dimensions of a Land Rover model and be built from Land Rover parts.
It is used for trialling, which pits Land Rovers against each other, driving a prescribed course over rough terrain incurring as few penalty points as possible. They are also used for competitive safaris, which is like rallying but over rough terrain and shorter distances.
Nero, which covers the whole North East, organises these competitions about twice a month and regularly uses four sites: at Helmsley in North Yorkshire; Rothbury in Northumberland; near Sunderland and near Penrith in Cumbria.
“We also do a thing called green laneing, which is driving legal rights of way in the countryside,’’ Paul says.
It also holds a social club night once a month, with camping and caravanning at most events and does charity events. It has also provided Land Rovers for wedding cars for enthusiasts who are tying the knot.
On which subject: Paul and Zena have known each other since they were 15-year-olds.
“We used to go to trails and watch them with my dad,’’ he says. “I won’t say she’s a massive fan, but she likes Land Rovers.’’
There are a number of active Nero members who are women, including company secretary and treasurer Yvonne Mallam and competition secretary Heather Carroll, who is a successful trials driver.
Members include a retired surgeon, a judge, a solicitor, farmers, truck drivers, sales reps, factory workers, a washing machine repair man and Paul, who sells JCBs. There are about 60 of them, down from the days when they had about 140 on the books. But this decline is not down to any falling off in interest.
Paul explains: “The internet has changed a lot of clubs. In the past people who got a lot of information and interaction from being in a club can now go online and get an immediate response from forums. Forums have reduced club membership across the board.’’
Of course, not everybody is a Land Rover lover. It attracts criticism as a gas guzzler and global warming contributor. But Paul argues that the environmental impact has to be looked at in the round and taking into account the incredible longevity of Land Rovers.
“You have to put it in context,’’ he says. “Our 1952 Land Rover is now 63 years old. The most environmentally damaging part of any vehicle is the manufacture.’’
He is quick to defend the Defender but, asked about the decision to stop manufacture, he is surprisingly unsentimental.
“The Defender is a great car and it does so many things. I’ve got one, had a few,’’ he says. “But there are a lot of people who aren’t fans who would always cite the fact that it’s cramped and draughty and some still leak water through the seals. When you look at how they are built, they are still a 1940s design and manufacture process – you can’t expect a modern company to keep building things efficiently like that.
“Land Rover is no longer a utility manufacturer – it hasn’t been for some time. It’s a luxury car maker. Is the Defender’s replacement going to be a lifestyle car rather than a utility vehicle? The jury’s out but I don’t think that’ll happen.’’
Let’s hope he’s wrong.