Best 4x4 or legendary relic?
BRIAN BASSETT shakes and rattles, but does not roll well with the Land Rover Defender 90
OVER the years we have reviewed a number of Land Rovers in this column. Cars like the Discovery, Range Rover and Freelander.
We considered these to be among the finest cars we have driven in terms of design, technology and durability.
They also had the ability to go just about anywhere in comfort.
The one Landy we have not had the opportunity to drive was the Defender, an icon designed in 1948 and phased out after 67 years in production in December 2015.
In those 67 years, other than the addition of a small amount of comfort, electric side windows for the front passengers and a tall front window instead of a split window, there were few visible changes.
This is after all a car in which front wind- up windows were only introduced in 1983.
Engines and drive trains, as well as suspensions have also been improved and the vehicle we drove, courtesy of Allan Neave, used car sales manager of Jaguar/ Land Rover Pietermaritzburg, had the last 2,2- litre diesel engine, introduced in 2011 and delivering 90 kW/ 360 Nm.
The original utility vehicle
The Defender is powerful and tough with a recommended maximum gradient ascent of 45° and an ability to tow several times its weight. Sounds great but there is a problem.
The Defender is a utility vehicle; it has also been extensively used as a military vehicle, both during the Irish troubles in the 1970s and as a platform for Rapier missiles for the British Army.
Recently, in Afghanistan, the British added a revolving 50- calibre turret to a conversion of the vehicle and the Defender rendered great service there. The problem is that, while the Defender is as tough as a bag of nails, it’s as uncomfortable as sleeping on a bag of them.
In fact is the Defender cannot be talked of in terms of comfort but in terms of the roles its robustness and strength allow it to perform.
When one thinks of the range of fine, durable vehicles Land Rover now produces, all of them very capable in the rough, one cannot help wondering how the Defender has managed to last so long.
I found the vehicle cramped, while entering the cabin required a great deal of grunting and groaning, my cellphone caught on the door handle and my foot could not quite find the running board for that last push to take me on to the edge of the driver’s seat, where I could then slide into an admittedly comfortable high- riding seat. Leaving the vehicle was a continuation of the nightmare, with my right foot only touching the ground once my left leg had cramped while trying to disengage from the running board. There is, however, an upside.
The body work is tough and the vehicle’s architecture contributes to the image of brute strength it portrays, with a no- nonsense functional simplicity and a slab- sided profile that makes it all the more adaptable to any off- road conditions.
That tough body is made of lightweight aluminium, with its panels riveted on to a metal frame to allow easy repair in the field. The cargo bed in all models is also aluminium, allowing for a rust- free life for your Defender. But alas, after I drove the Defender for about a week I found it uncomfortable on tar, with boneshaking manners over deep potholes and speed platforms. The pleasure of course is that you did not have to slow down for either.
On the Midlands D roads the Defender is more than competent but not easy to drive with its longstemmed gear lever operating a sixspeed gearbox and a heavy clutch.
It is very much a man’s car to drive, although I’m told the coil- spring suspension I had on the model I drove makes for “a soft ride” compared to earlier models and meant I wasn’t being quite as manly as I thought I was.
Real manly drivers, I was told, would hook the permanent AWD and lock up the centre diff to drive this vehicle anywhere. I retorted I have already did so — in the Land Rover Discovery, with automatic gears, electric seats and a sublime sound system. The Land Rover Defender is, then, as much an object of desire as it is one of the most remarkable marketing success stories ever.
I will admit to having two friends who have Defenders. The one vehicle is 28 years old and the other 32 years old. I have driven to Durban in both of these. Conversation is impossible because of cabin noise and air- conditioning is provided by small windows that open below the windscreen.
Thankfully the Defender we drove was fully air- conditioned, although cabin noise was still distracting.
Nonetheless these vehicles are loved and cared for by their owners and any criticism of them is viewed as treason. Comments about noise and drivability are pushed aside as “wet” and not understanding the purpose of the Landy.
Taking the vehicles from their garage is viewed as an event and in fact Defender owners can be said to have developed a captive’s love for their vehicles, also known as Stockholm Syndrome. But, as we wrote in Wheels, life is too short not to fall in love, which is why the Landy legend will continue to grow, even while the original fades into history as we await the new Defender at the end of 2016.
The problem is that, while the Defender is as tough as a bag of nails, it’s as uncomfortable as sleeping on a bag of them.
Having one life and living it is what having a Land Rover Defender is all about, as owner Ronnie Drew is always keen to demonstrate in his highly modified Landy. Note the recovery rope, because pukkah Landy drivers who do not get stuck, simply are not trying hard enough.