Commentary / World

RIP Land Rover Defender, the greatest car ever

by Leonid Bershidsky


Last Tuesday was the final day you could have ordered a new Land Rover Defender, one of the world’s last real cars. In 2013, when the British carmaker Jaguar Land Rover first announced plans to discontinue the model, I didn’t really believe it: The Defender is by far the best car I’ve ever owned, and many others are as emotional about it as I am. Yet, here we are. Regulation and marketing-driven blandness, the enemies of everything original, have killed it.

Rover, the original manufacturer, based its design on a World War II warhorse, the American Willys MB, also known as the Jeep. In 1947, British farmers needed a cheap, sturdy off-road vehicle, and Rover built one using what was available in a war-ravaged country. With steel scarce, the body was made from cheaper aluminum. Military paint was plentiful, so you could have any color you wanted so long as it was green. The steering wheel was initially in the dashboard middle, akin to a tractor; in the 1950s, a version with tank treads was available. By then, it had already become an icon, a symbol of British patriotism: a car that rejected comfort as a concept but got the job done — and was a design masterpiece.

The modern version, called the Defender since 1991, has the DNA of its predecessor. It still has a riveted aluminum body, and it’s so drafty that when you wash it with a high-pressure hose, it rains inside. It’s also so noisy that a radio is almost pointless, but you do eventually get used to differentiating music from machine.

In the 2006 movie “The Queen,” Elizabeth II — played by Helen Mirren, who won an Oscar for the part — breaks down fording a stream in a Scottish forest. (The monarch drives one in real life.) The Queen trained as a mechanic during World War II, and her Defender is so simple that she attempts to tackle the problem herself. She can’t fix it alone, though, and sheds a tear of frustration as she waits for help.

My eyes, too, got wet when I had to sell my Defender to move overseas. My most memorable adventure was falling asleep at the wheel in the depopulated area around the Chernobyl nuclear plant. I drove off the road, and the Defender rolled over and landed on its side in a ditch. Even though the car lacks airbags, the four people inside suffered nothing worse than bruises. We climbed out through a window and rocked the Defender upright — it’s surprisingly light for such a big car. I drove it up a slippery slope, and we continued our journey.

In my view, it’s wrong to apply U.S. safety standards for “normal” tin-can cars to the (rather slow-moving) fortress on wheels that is the Defender, but the lack of now-standard features has kept it out of the U.S. market. New European emission standards are making it illegal in Europe, the official reason Jaguar Land Rover is retiring the model. Yet the Defender is no gas guzzler: It does about 28 miles on a gallon of diesel fuel, a respectable number for an off-roader. This year’s BMW X5 consumes about as much fuel.

The Defender is arguably “greener” than the BMW. According to its maker, as many as three-quarters of the basic models ever made are still on the road. You don’t recycle or dump a Defender, you fix or even rebuild it. That should earn it an exception to the emission rules. Besides, only 14,000 Defenders were sold last year, a number that’s been pretty stable in recent years. So how much damage to bodies or the environment can they really cause?

Instead of battling with regulations, Jaguar Land Rover’s Indian owner, Tata, decided to develop a new car and call it the Defender. It’ll be produced somewhere in Eastern Europe, not at the Solihull factory in the U.K., where 450 people made the real Defenders, mostly by hand.

In pictures, the new model looks like a cross between a Range Rover and a Kia Soul. It’ll have a modern entertainment system, and offer a “model family” with a choice of engines and other options, not just one simple car with a mechanical gearbox and an interior so uncomfortable that you have to learn how to sit in its elevated position (once you get the hang of it, you get to ride high over the rest of the traffic). In other words, it’ll be just another dull SUV — something the world can do without.

The U.K. car industry is booming, with sales increasing 6.6 percent last year. Jaguar Land Rover is very much part of the trend, with a 22.8 percent sales increase in 2014. Models including the Range Rover Sport and the Discovery are doing great and contributing to productivity growth in the U.K.: The country now builds 11.5 vehicles per worker compared with 9.3 five years ago. The Defender is too small and labor-intensive to tie up a factory that will now switch to making modern cars, with no job losses.

From a business point of view, it makes sense. Those who want a basic car that is not stuffed with electronics and unnecessary comfort options can buy a Dacia. A high-end producer like Jaguar Land Rover wants higher profit margins, and the new Defender will meet that goal by sharing parts with other models. The old Defender only shared them with previous iterations of itself.

People like me, however, who don’t want a car that drives itself, shouts at me electronically, hits me in the nose with an airbag, requires professionals for the smallest repairs and pretends it’s the main concert hall of the Berlin Philharmonic, are losing one of the last opportunities to own a real, no-nonsense, truly safe and enjoyable vehicle. Its list price was about $40,000, compared with $55,000 for a BWM X5. And good luck buying a used model. Owners hate to sell them, and they hardly depreciate — they weren’t made to throw away, after all, like most merchandise these days.

Here come those tears again. Perhaps this is what getting old feels like.

A Bloomberg View columnist based in Berlin, writer Leonid Bershidsky is the author of three novels and two nonfiction books. He was the founding editor of Russia’s top business daily, Vedomosti, and the first publisher of the Russian edition of Forbes.