Is the next Defender destined for manufacture in Slovakia?

Is the 'next Defender' destined for manufacture in Slovakia?

The replacement for the Defender could be JLR’s greatest challenge, says Ray Hutton

No-one celebrates when a car goes out of production. But then Land Rover would argue that the Defender isn’t really a car. The vehicle that was the foundation of one of the most profitable motor companies of recent times indirectly led to the revolution that defined the sports-utility vehicle around the world.

Now the Defender is stopping, 67 years after the original Land Rover. It will be replaced but not yet – and not with the same type of simple workhorse. It is the end of an era. For Land Rover enthusiasts - and they are enthusiasts like no others - it is the funeral of a friend. A cortege assembled at Goodwood in September for the Revival race meeting: 50 Land Rovers from military to frivolous (one, used to promote a circus, appeared to be driven by an elephant) paraded round the circuit three days running. JLR wanted to present the Land Rover as a symbol of the second half of the 20th century, along with the E-Type Jaguar, the Ford GT40 and the Ferrari GTO.

I am not sure that was appropriate but then I’ve never really got the Land Rover thing. Of course, I respect their ability to get where angels and human beings fear to tread (and probably couldn’t reach). In the 1960s, one of my fellow students – a farm girl – used a decrepit Land Rover as daily transport in central London. Much as we liked her, most of us preferred to travel on the bus.

I was remembering that when, at JLR’s invitation, I recently drove a series of classic Land Rovers. They were fun to drive for a few minutes over the hills and fields but even the latest Defender is an uncomfortable and uncouth thing to use for everyday transport on ordinary roads. So why the desperate rush to buy the last Celebration Defenders, including the Autobiography at an eye-watering GBP61,845?

I enjoyed meeting Arthur Goddard, the chief engineer on the original Land Rover in 1948. Still lively at 93, he described the real story behind the first vehicle. Never mind JLR’s revisionist version, with Maurice Wilks drawing it with a stick in the sand on an Anglesey beach and using aluminium from surplus wartime aircraft; Goddard said that the objective was simply to build a better Jeep. The World War II Willys Jeep rusted badly which gave a second reason to use Birmabright aluminium alloy for Land Rover body panels (the first was that steel was effectively rationed in 1948). The Land Rover body shape - ‘all it had to do was keep out the rain and wind’ - was dictated by what could be achieved by bending the aluminium sheet as there was no money for press tools.

But Goddard’s most telling remark was: ‘We built it as an industrial vehicle and never expected they would be used to take the kids to school’.

He was to leave the Rover before Spen King and Gordon Bashford had developed the four-wheel drive concept by adding up-to-the-minute car features to produce the Range Rover. That was the direct ancestor of the highly successful (and profitable) luxury Range Rovers that have under-scored JLR’s remarkable performance since the Tata takeover in 2008.

While the Land Rover that continues until the end of this year before being outlawed by EU safety and emissions regulations is significantly different from the original, the truth is that the company never spent much money on it. For years it was sustained by military and government contracts and as most of those disappeared, Defender production dropped to below 16,000 in 2012. It never had most of the modern safety systems – air bags, pedestrian protection, seat belt buzzers - and it has always been known that one day its derogation from EU rules would expire. Ironically, it is the lack of these modern conveniences and the back-to-basics proposition of the Defender which has given it iconic status.

The unspoken thing in this unusual celebration of the death of an obsolete vehicle was: what will its successor be like? The DC100 concept cars that were presented in 2011 showed how a more stylish contemporary design might meet the demands of two very different groups of customers – the country folk who need a rugged, working vehicle, and the young and carefree seeking a four-wheel drive fun machine that looks tough enough to be cool.

DC100 – the name stood for Defender Concept 100 in. wheelbase – didn’t go down well with Land Rover traditionalists. The would-be surfers liked the open Sport version but farmers said that the hardtop was not a suitable replacement for the Defender. JLR was quick to point out that DC100 simply showed a ‘design direction’ for the new vehicle and instituted a market research study to gauge reaction from a wider audience.

John Edwards, at that time brand director of Land Rover (now head of JLR Special Operations), said: ‘We had a huge response to DC100, much of it very positive but some quite negative and we have taken guidance from that.’ But he warned the sceptics that L660, the new vehicle, would be quite different from the Defender as it needed to sell in much higher volume and in all world markets (Defender had to be withdrawn from North America eight years ago).

Even then it was known that L660 would not be launched as the Defender stopped; it was planned for 2016 and beyond. The gap between the old and the new may be a clever tactic because the vehicles will be so different – in design, equipment, and price. JLR is a premium car maker and a really basic transportation vehicle doesn’t fit with its current range.

So the Defender replacement (coded L663) will, inevitably, move up-market. To keep JLR’s CO2 average down, it can be expected to use a high proportion of aluminium, if not the entire aluminium platform (D7u) of the Range Rover and Range Rover Sport. And it won’t be made at Solihull, which is bursting at the seams with Range Rover, Jaguar XE and F-Pace production. That would seem to make it a candidate for the planned plant at Nitra, in the Slovak Republic, but JLR won’t confirm which vehicles will be produced there, and when.

We do know that several iterations of L663 are likely. As a minimum there will be two- and four-door and crew-cab pick-up versions. JLR promises that it will have all the off-road capabilities of the Defender (the leitmotif of the brand) and, to administer to its broad market appeal, we can expect it to use the gamut of JLR four-, six- and eight-cylinder petrol and diesel engines, including the Ingenium 2 litre engines, and the latest developments in four-wheel drive systems. As for its style and configuration, although there was something of a re-think after the concept cars in 2011 and 2012, DC100 set the pattern.

Will it succeed? As a Defender, as we know it, perhaps not. But as an addition to an ever-widening range it could find a new group of customers who want something that is cheaper and more utilitarian than a Range Rover or Discovery but superior to the old-style working 4X4s from Japan and Korea.

It is ironic that finding a larger market for the successor to the most famous Land Rover presents JLR with one of its greatest challenges. And that the closest competitor for the Defender replacement could turn out to be the new and more civilized Jeep Wrangler – which brings us right back to Land Rover’s origins.

See also: 

ANALYSIS: Slovakia plant could lift JLR over 1m a year

UK: Land Rover may continue Defender longer