The life and times of the legendary Land Rover Defender

From its debut in 1947 right through to its rebirth in 2019, we take a concise look back at the illustrious history of one of the world's most celebrated off-roaders

26 March 2020 - 18:54 By Motoring Reporter
The Defender nameplate is synonymous with adventure and exploration.
The Defender nameplate is synonymous with adventure and exploration.
Image: Supplied

For more than seven decades the Defender and Series Land Rovers before it have gone above and beyond, securing iconic status for their ability to help people make more of their world. Now, the new Defender prepares to carry the legacy on with a character that remains true to 73 years of Land Rover DNA.

Here is a look into the life of the Defender and Series Land Rovers over a timeline beginning in 1947 and ending with the present day.

Series 1 production at Solihull, 1948.
Series 1 production at Solihull, 1948.
Image: Supplied

1940s — Inception and Launch 

1947: Rover Engineering Director Maurice Wilks sketches his vision of the original Land Rover in the sand at Red Wharf Bay. The beach is largely considered the birthplace of the Land Rover brand. Christened 'Land Rover' the initial 'mule' prototype features a central driving position. By September, the Rover Company board approves the “all-purpose vehicle on the lines of the Willys- Overland post-war Jeep”.

1948: The Land Rover is launched at the Amsterdam Motor Show on April 30. Later known as the 'Series I,' it had a short 80-inch wheelbase, a handy bakkie body, a 37kW 1,595cc petrol engine from the Rover P3 series saloon and was priced at today’s equivalent of roughly R8,600.

1948: 3000 right-hand drive 80-inch Series 1s are built for home UK and export markets, including SA.

1949: Within a year, production totals 8,000 and the British Army orders its first trial batch of Land Rovers.

Sophia Loren enjoys the view from inside a Series II. This model was released in 1958.
Sophia Loren enjoys the view from inside a Series II. This model was released in 1958.
Image: Supplied

1950s — Royal Relationship and Series ll Launch

1950: A facelift which incorporates 7-inch exposed headlamps is introduced in May, which gives the Land Rover a “face” it would keep until February 1969.

1951: Five Land Rover agents are officially listed for SA including:

  • Diesel and Auto Services, Paterson Rd, Port Elizabeth
  • Fisher & Simmons, Albert St, Johannesburg
  • Manning Motors, Western Ave, East London
  • Maxwell Campbell, Smith St, Durban
  • Robb Motors, Strand St, Cape Town

1952: After four months of transcontinental travel, South African Robin Halse arrived at the Beit Bridge border having driven a brand new Series 1 from London to SA. The Land Rover managed the entire trip without a single mechanical problem or tyre puncture.

1953: The first 86-inch custom-built State Review Land Rover enters service with the Royal family.

1955: Rover South Africa (Pty) Ltd was registered on September 28, with a manufacturing plant subsequently opened in Port Elizabeth. In its first year of operation the facility was producing a peak of 34 vehicles per week. By 1963, the plant was making Land Rover chassis and petrol tanks from SA steel, in line with government’s drive to grow the domestic motor industry.

1958: The Series II is launched. It's recognisable by deep side sills and rounded shoulders in the side panels. The petrol was also enlarged to a ‘two-and-a-quarter’ litre engine.

Robin Halse in 1952 drove a brand new Series 1 from London to South Africa. The Land Rover managed the entire trip without a single mechanical problem or tyre puncture.
Robin Halse in 1952 drove a brand new Series 1 from London to South Africa. The Land Rover managed the entire trip without a single mechanical problem or tyre puncture.
Image: Supplied

1960s — 500,000th Land Rover produced

1961: The Series IIA is launched with a larger 46kW, 2,286cc diesel.

1962: The Series IIA Forward Control model is launched with four-cylinder diesel and six-cylinder petrol engines available. It's a heavy-duty model with 1,500kg payload on a 109-inch chassis, and most are fitted with convenient dropside bodywork. It's replaced in 1966 by SIIB 110in Forward Control with lower headlights, a wider track and a front anti-roll bar. This model runs until 1972.

1966: The 500,000th Land Rover vehicle is produced.

1969: Headlamps are moved outboard onto the front wings, due to foreign market safety legislation.

1970s — Series lll launched 

1971: The Land Rover Series III is launched in October. It features a plastic grille, flatter door hinges and a full-width dashboard with optional fresh-air heater. 1971 is also the year that the 750,000th Land Rover is produced. The Series III makes its way to SA in 1973.

1976: 1,000,000th Land Rover built.

1979: A 3,528cc V8 engine option is introduced to 109in with permanent four-wheel drive via a central differential lock. To accommodate the V8, the Land Rover loses its familiar inset nose.

The Series III arrived in 1971. The horse was not included.
The Series III arrived in 1971. The horse was not included.
Image: Supplied

1980s — The Series lll is fine-tuned

1982: The County Station Wagon, featuring plusher trim, is launched in April along with the High Capacity Pick-Up.

1983: The Series III 109 is replaced by a new One-Ten model (110-inch wheelbase) in March. Leaf springs are replaced by coils (influenced by the Range Rover) and four-cylinder engines come with all-synchromesh, five-speed gearboxes. The Series  III is Identifiable by a full-width black plastic grille and wheelarch lips fitted to house wider track suspension.

1984: In January, a 2,495cc diesel replaces the previous 2,286cc diesel engine.

1984: The coil-sprung Ninety (wheelbase closer to 93-inches) is launched with four-cylinder engines. In March 1985 the V8 becomes available.

In 1990 the Ninety and One-Ten range is renamed Defender 90, 110 and 130.
In 1990 the Ninety and One-Ten range is renamed Defender 90, 110 and 130.
Image: Supplied

1990s — Launch of the Defender

1990: The Ninety and One-Ten range is renamed Defender 90, 110 and 130.

1992: SA adopts the Defender title and offers the vehicle in a choice of 16 different body configurations, trim levels and engine variants. Prices at the time ranged from R103,168 for the basic Pick-Up, to R166,615 for the Hi-Line Double Cab Tdi.

1995: A R60m plant was opened in Rosslyn, Pretoria, by Queen Elizabeth in January, 1995. The facility could build Defenders at a rate of six per day using SA wiring harnesses, stainless steel exhausts and Continental tyres.

1996: Land Rover South Africa wins a R90m order to export leather Defender seat covers to the Solihull factory.

1997: A truly SA special, the Defender 2.8i which used a BMW M52 2.8-litre engine, was released in 1997. The straight-six Defender was a popular seller and became the first locally-assembled Land Rover to be exported.

The SVX came exclusively in black with satin black decals, while unique features included Recaro bucket seats, alloy gear knobs and numbered plaques
The SVX came exclusively in black with satin black decals, while unique features included Recaro bucket seats, alloy gear knobs and numbered plaques
Image: Supplied

2000s — Major Defender Evolution

2002: Land Rover South Africa’s Special Vehicles division launches a 5.3m-long 11-seat Defender with three sets of side doors. Only 10 units of this bizarre Defender limousine were produced.

2007: A major Defender evolution includes the replacement of the Td5 engine with a Puma/DuraTorq TDCI four-cylinder turbo-diesel engine, the addition of a six-speed gearbox, a more modern dashboard and safer, forward-facing rear seats in the Station Wagon. A new Utility body also becomes available.

2008: Land Rover celebrates the Defender’s legacy with a 60th Anniversary Edition SVX model sold in both 90 and 110 guises. The SVX came exclusively in black with satin black decals, while unique features included Recaro bucket seats, alloy gear knobs and numbered plaques. Only 200 units were made — 140 of the 90 and 60 of the 110 Station Wagon.

On January 29 the last of the previous generation Defenders rolled off the assembly line in Solihull, UK.
On January 29 the last of the previous generation Defenders rolled off the assembly line in Solihull, UK.
Image: Supplied

2010s — End of an era

2014: A special Defender Africa Edition is launched locally with Santorini Black bodywork and contrasting Firenze Red roofs. Interior highlights include a set of the Melvill and Moon seat covers in bespoke black canvas with red leather piping, red contrast stitching and a unique ‘Africa’ map tag.

2015: A 1km sketch of the world’s most iconic vehicle is drawn on the beach at Red Wharf Bay — the same place where Maurice Wilks first pencilled the original Land Rover’s silhouette in the sand in 1947. Land Rover also introduced the nostalgic Heritage Edition Defenders with historic Grasmere Green paintwork, and the robust Adventure Editions with extra underbody protection and beefier Goodyear tyres in the same year.

2016: On January 29 the last of the previous generation Defenders rolled off the assembly line in Solihull, UK. From 1948 to 2016, more than two million Series Land Rovers and Defenders were produced at the facility.

2018: A limited edition Defender Works V8 is introduced with a 298kW 5.0-litre V8 engine. The Works accelerates to 100km/h in 5.6 seconds and reaches a top speed of 170km/h. Only 150 units of the extremely desirable model were made.

The new Land Rover Defender is ready to conquer a new era of exploration.
The new Land Rover Defender is ready to conquer a new era of exploration.
Image: Supplied

Today — An icon reborn

2019: 71 years after the original debuted in Amsterdam, Land Rover unveils an icon reimagined for the 21st century. The New Defender is instantly recognisable with envisioned trademarks including a purposeful upright stance and Alpine light windows in the roof, while retaining the side-hinged rear tailgate and externally-mounted spare wheel.

2020: The New Defender is scheduled for its SA release in 2020 in both 90 and 110 guises. Customers are able to personalise their vehicle in more ways than any previous Land Rover with four Accessory Packs. The Explorer, Adventure, Country and Urban Packs each give Defender a distinct character with a specially selected range of enhancements.

In addition to the Accessory Packs, new Defender is available with the widest choice of individual accessories ever assembled for a new Land Rover, with everything from a Remote Control Electric Winch, Rooftop Tent and Inflatable Waterproof Awnings to more conventional tow bar systems and roof racks.

Both body styles are available with a choice of engines including a 2.0-litre D240 diesel with 177kW and 430Nm, and a 2.0-litre P300 petrol with 221kW and 400Nm. The range-topping model is a 3.0-litre P400 straight-six petrol with mild-hybrid (MHEV) engine technology and outputs of 294kW and 550Nm.


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