By: IOL Motoring Staff
Solihull, West Midlands - It was the end of an era on Friday 29 January as the last Land Rover Defender came off the line after 68 years of production.
To mark the occasion Land Rover invited more than 700 current and former Solihull employees to see and drive some of the most significant vehicles from its history, including the first pre-production ‘Huey’ Series I as well as the last vehicle off the production line, a Defender 90 Heritage Soft Top, which will be housed in the Jaguar Land Rover Collection.
It was among 25 Landies that took part in a procession around the plant, cheered on by a number of previous employees from the past 68 years. The last of the Defenders even carries one part that’s been used, unchanged, on every soft-top Land Rover since 1948 - a hood cleat.
What killed the Defender was European Union and North American nanny state regulations that classified the Defender as unsafe because it didn't have airbags or crumple zones (apparently Land Rover drivers regard the other car as their crumple zone) and unhealthy because it cannot meet upcoming EU and EPA emissions standards.
But all that history - and the expertise that goes with it - won’t be wasted. Land Rover confirmed in March 2015 that it there would be a new generation of the 4x4 - and that production of the iconic box-shaped version would be restarted "for sale outside Europe".
Neither model, however, will be made in Britain. The new Defender will in all probability be a production version of the DC100 concept first shown in 2011 and will probably be made in India, while the 'rebooted' beetlecrusher Is likely to be assembled in either Brazil or China. No timetable for either has been released yet.
Land Rover is also setting up a new Heritage Restoration Programme, which will use the space where the Defender production line is now to rebuild and restore ‘series’ Land Rovers from the days before it was renamed Defender, under the guidance of a team of experts, including some Defender employees.
The team has 172 years of combined experience working on Defender or series Land Rover production. One of them, Tony Martin, has worked at Solihull all of his life, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather; he’ll be restoring Land Rovers that his grandfather helped to build.
The first restored vehicles will go on sale in July 2016.
TWO MILLION LANDIES
Land Rover fans are also invited to upload their most memorable journeys in series Land Rovers or Defenders on the online ‘Defender Journeys’ platform, to create a digital scrapbook that users can view and share.
What began as simply a line drawing in the sand has gone on to become one of the world’s most iconic 4x4s; more than two million series Land Rovers and Defenders have been built at Solihull since 1948.
In 2015, the two millionth Defender was auctioned for £400 000 (more than R9-million) - nearly 1000 times the £450 that was paid for the Land Rover sold at the 1948 Amsterdam motor show.
In 1958 the Series II brought about a new design and engine updates, including an diesel engine that remained in service until the mid-1980s. Sales had reached the half million mark by 1966, while annual production peaked in 1971 at 56 000 as the Series III took over.
By 1990, Land Rover was also producing the Range Rover and the newly introduced Discovery, so the original model, long identified simply by series number and wheelbase, needed a name of its own. Thus it became the Defender.
Tim Bickerton, 55, started as an apprentice at Solihull when he was 15 and, like his grandfather Charlie and father Peter, who clocked up 35 and 30 years respectively working on the same line, became a foreman. His daughter Jade worked on logistics and materials for the Defender, before recently moving to another section of the plant and in 2015 his son Scott became the fifth member of the family to work on the Defender.
“The Defender has become part of our family,” said Bickerton. “It’s what you think of when you say “Land Rover”. It may be seen as a workhorse but we think it has become a real thoroughbred.”
David Smith, 56, is a 37-year Defender veteran; a former butcher, he joined Land Rover as a 20-year-old because it doubled his wages to £80 a week and gave him a job with long-term prospects. He’ll be moving across to the Jaguar XE production area.
“The Defender is a special vehicle and very much hand-built,” Smith said. You need to get a feel for it; we call it ‘the knack’ and it takes months to learn - it’s an intense combination of skills.”