Land Rover design chief defends Defender’s new direction

By Willem van de Putte Time of article published Nov 19, 2019

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TOKYO, JAPAN - There have been many new car launches this year but none attracted as much attention as the unveiling of Land Rover’s new Defender.

When the covers were drawn at the Frankfurt Motor Show, motoring hacks from around the world thronged to the reveal of one of the world’s most iconic vehicles.

There had been pictures shared over social media platforms, showing a camouflaged Defender being put through its paces around the globe and interviews from those driving it for purpose.

So when it drove down from the roof, into the Jaguar Land Rover display area, there was applause all round and, within a matter of seconds, the world had been flooded with thousands of pictures and even more opinions.

“We almost had to change the plan to drive the Defender down the ramp on the eve of the reveal,” said chief design officer for Land Rover and executive board member of Jaguar Land Rover Gerry McGovern.

“The organisers were concerned that something could go wrong with the ramp but I was adamant - it was coming down and they had to make it happen.”

It seems that it’s that kind of dogged determination that has made McGovern one of the leading lights in today’s tough vehicle design industry.

It was the afternoon before the Rugby World Cup final in Tokyo and no doubt a first for McGovern, dressed in a white T-shirt and red handkerchief in his blue jacket, subtly indicating his support, while sitting opposite two South African journalists, dressed in green and gold.

“May the best team win,” he smiled.

But, before kick-off, we spent time talking about the Defender, which has a special place in South African hearts and, whether you love them or hate them, everyone seems to have an opinion.

Willem van de Putte and Gerry McGovern.

“It’s ironic that once a model is released, everyone suddenly becomes an expert, which is very much the case with the Defender.

“Look, we knew that it was going to be scrutinised under a microscope, so we spent a lot of time and money doing research to get it right. At the end we had a 97% approval rating and I reckon the 3% nay-sayers weren’t going to buy a Defender anyway.

“Land Rover is a business and, let’s be honest, when we took it off the market - we were selling in the region of 7000 models a year, so it would have been madness to continue.”

McGovern obviously understands the rich history that comes with the Defender and that seems to have underpinned the whole design process.

“Our vision was to take the Series 1 and envisage what it would have looked like, had it gone through the normal vehicle rejuvenation cycle over the years. We needed to show that form and function can live together in harmony, along with technology and legislation. It needed to be safe and the interior had to make sense ergonomically.

“We’ve done all that. It would have been dishonest to design something of 70 years ago. We’ve managed to combine modern and contemporary.

“We’re a manufacturer of highly desirable products.

“We have the Range Rover on one end and now the Defender on the other.

“It’s also the first time, as a designer, that I’ve had to incorporate steel wheels (which will be an option) in to any vehicle,” he said, with a broad grin.

And, if anyone has anything to say about the Defender’s offroad ability, McGovern is adamant. “It’s the toughest Land Rover we’ve ever built.”

Confirming the Defender legacy, which stretches back to 1947, the company invited the family of original designers, the brothers Maurice and Spencer Wilks, to view their work. “They agree that this new Defender still has the spirit of all those years ago.”

Recently, there have also been rumours of the Defender possibly bringing out an SVR version.

“Really?’ McGovern responded. The same answer we got when asked about a bakkie version, as well as the 130.

“The design certainly has legs though, but I’m also excited about cracking the American market, as well as the future, when it comes to the Discovery and Range Rover,” McGovern concluded, before we headed out to what would be a memorable evening.

Well, for us at least.

The Defender is likely to be in South African showrooms around the middle of next year.


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