Owners of Land Rover Defenders aren’t like those of normal cars. The attachment to this boxy, rattling, virtually indestructible motor runs much deeper. Explorer Bear Grylls defines his as ‘a silent, reliable, comforting friend, who seems to smile as the mud hits’. Geordie Mackay-Lewis, the founder of the Pelorus adventure company, says the Army taught him to look after the cars ‘like beloved pets’. Ricardo Pessoa, who does high-end revamps of old Defenders in a Lisbon garage, describes ‘an emotional attachment to this thing you want to fix.’ People don’t tend to talk this way about their Nissan Micra.
The Land Rover Defender – known as the Series I, II or III until 1990 – had the same basic outline from the moment it launched at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948 until it went out of production in 2016 – the longest continuous run of any mass-market automobile. The 100th machine off the Solihull line was given to King George VI, and the Queen took delivery of her first Land Rover Series I shortly before her coronation in 1952, becoming an early adopter in a long list of often fanatical drivers, which included most of the royal family. By the late 1950s, Churchill and Fidel Castro were both discovering the Land Rover rattle; Marilyn Monroe posed in her white version, and Steve McQueen was photographed by Life loading his up for a California camping trip.
Despite the Series I being designed primarily as an agricultural workhorse, its rugged elegance gained a certain cachet. Ralph Lauren, obsessed with the glamour of safaris, made his black Defender a prop in a series of ad campaigns, a trick followed by Hackett, Michael Kors and Louis Vuitton. Ben Fogle is ‘hopelessly, obsessively in love’ with the Land Rover and has written a book about it, while petrolhead Jodie Kidd is the proud owner of a Defender. Grylls, whose family car is a 1974 Series III, calls it ‘the unsung hero of many of my expeditions, this machine that somehow reminds me that everything is going to be okay’.
The early Land Rovers also changed the face of travel, opening up serious exploration to regular travellers. It is claimed that for an estimated half of the planet’s population, a Land Rover was the first vehicle they ever saw. In the post-war years, it could go where maps and roads didn’t, reaching tribes and species that had never been recorded, becoming the de facto mode of transport for UN medics, safari guides and Malaysian tea-plantation owners. It facilitated the concept of overlanding, widely popularised when six Oxbridge students drove from London to Singapore in a Land Rover called Oxford in 1955 – a trip that’s now being done in reverse, in the same car and with an eight-strong team including 88-year-old original explorer Tim Slessor. The battered blue Oxford, restored to its glory, is typical of the machine’s resilience: more than 70 per cent of the two million or so ever made are still on the road, and many owners swear they get better with age.
Health and safety has finally caught up with the old Defender, especially in the airbag-mandatory USA, so a new version has been released this spring. But, as excitement has grown over the design, with its on-board computers and sleek lines, prices for the old analogue one have soared, and a new crowd has been rediscovering and repurposing the ultimate adventure ride, drawn to its heritage as much as its performance.
Take Pessoa, who learned to drive a Defender at the age of seven on family winters in Mozambique. His Cool & Vintage company now does 12 bespoke restorations a year at its Lisbon base, often in non-standard colours such as mint green or Porsche orange. ‘To me, the Defender is the shape of freedom,’ says Pessoa, who charges up to £125,000 for the thousand man hours behind his creations. ‘Like a lot of people these days, I first and foremost see a beautiful piece of industrial design; a thing that has everything it needs but nothing more.’
His customers, though, don’t tend to be the conventional Defender hard-core fans. ‘When I started doing cars in different colours and with tweaked designs in 2012, the community wanted me to go to hell,’ he says. ‘But even the old-guard owners love what we do now. Our clients tend to be architects, designers, fashion people who like its simplicity, and want something to take surfing up the coast or to their holiday house in Comporta. It can go anywhere, but I love driving it in the summer, without a roof, alive and free.’
In Iceland, photographer Gunnar Freyr doesn’t just drive his white Defender to access wild corners: ‘I’ve taken it up active volcanoes and through deep rivers – but it’s also become my muse: it adds scale to the landscape, and the white either pops from the black lava or fades into the snow. No other car screams adventure like this.’
As Amy Shore, an award-winning 28-year-old automotive photographer and Land Rover owner, says: ‘If you asked a child to draw a car, it might look like a Defender. But it’s also a very graphic, pleasing outline, which is partly why it’s one of those universally beloved models, like a classic Mini. To me, the best way of describing it would be “honest”. It doesn’t mind a few dents and scratches, and just does what it does. My fiancé and I put a canvas roof and bench seats in the back of ours, and we plan to drive guests up and down muddy farm tracks on our wedding day.’
The real love comes less from what the Defender looks like than what it can do. Mackay-Lewis first drove one on his family farm in Herefordshire aged eight but says he truly fell in love with it when he joined the Army. ‘We’d go to Lohatla in South Africa and steer it over huge rocks and termite mounds, all while being shot at by live rounds,’ he says. ‘For pretty much everything else you throw at the Defender, you can repair it and keep going. It took explosive devices in the Middle East to destroy it.’
When Mackay-Lewis organises epic trips through his Pelorus outfit, he also tends to seek out Land Rovers. ‘It just feels more proper somehow,’ he says. ‘There was one trip in Patagonia where the client wanted to tour in Defenders. Because of the difficulty of finding them in South America, they were prepared to pay almost double for the privilege.’
In Africa, the Toyota Land Cruiser may have replaced it as the standard-issue safari drive, but Scottish fine-art photographer David Yarrow says the Defender is still the way he accesses the continent’s wilderness for his intense black-and-white shots, including his image of a hulking Kenyan elephant, which sold at auction for $106,250, or his picture of a fierce Cara Delevingne with a snarling lion looking over her shoulder for Tag Heuer. ‘It just makes sense in places such as Kenya and Tanzania,’ he says. ‘Not only the performance, but what it evokes: adventure and romance.’
Even younger safari guides miss the ubiquity of the Defender. Mike Kirby is a cheery 27-year-old who works at Singita’s Lebombo concession on the edge of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. ‘When it comes to rocky terrain, riverbeds and steep climbs, the Defender is still the best,’ he says. ‘The Land Cruiser is so reliable, but it’s like you’re getting into a normal car. With the Defender, changing gears is like the bolt of a rifle, this mechanical sensation, and the engine is pleasingly easy to work on.’
But what Kirby comes back to, above all, is that soul. ‘Driving a Defender feels like it could be 50 years ago, in a real machine in the real heart of Africa,’ he says. It’s a vehicle that transports you, in every way possible.’
How to spot the species
It’s not always clear where The Land Rover Lover is going for his or her next adventure, but it usually begins with ‘The’: The Carpathians, The Karakoram, The Westfjords, The Pir Panjal, The Termit and Tin Toumma. Destination vagueness is acceptable when you can slap a bivvy on the roof and light a Primus stove inside. They love the pleasing clunk of popping the bonnet, even when a seventh check of the fan belt isn’t necessary. And they speak to their motor like a partner or a pet: ‘Gwendoline, you leaky, squeaky, windy hunk of junk…. I love you.’ Style-wise, Land Rover Lovers used to be heritage types in Barbour or Belstaff, who would never share their trips on Instagram. A newer generation is just as likely to wear Rains anoraks and Finisterre beanies, filling their cars with Ryan Lovelace longboards. There were tensions early on, but now everyone rubs along just fine and obeys the golden rules of the tribe: learn basic mechanics, always wave to another Land Rover – and never, for God’s sake, call it a Jeep.
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