When I immigrated to South Africa more than two decades ago, the first car I bought was a Defender 110. Now I took one of the very last ones for a memory trip to Namibia. A swan song for one of the last automobile icons.
Growing up in Germany nothing symbolized Africa more than the square-edged Land Rover. I remember clearly seeing him for the first time on TV in ‘Hatari’, when John Wayne caught rhinos with it. And in ‘The Gods must be crazy’ he pulled himself out of a river with his own winch! No wonder, that the first car I bought after arriving in South Africa in 1994 was a Land Rover Defender 110. Equipped with roof tent, second battery, fridge, gas cooker – basically everything you need for proper safaris into the bush. All my coffee table and travel guide books for the German speaking market of Europe were originally researched in this piece of British primary rock.
And now it’s over. One of the most iconic cars has been forcefully retired at the age of 68. Strict emission and pedestrian safety regulations made this sad decision necessary. He survived both BMW and Ford. And Tata – at least for three years. The current Indian owner of Jaguar/Land Rover announced immediately, that the old Defender is obsolete. It was impossible to molly cuddle him. He couldn’t be rendered effeminate. After having produced more than 2 mio. units in the traditional factory in Solihull, England, the Defender was officially terminated on 29th January 2016. Sometimes for an icon to remain what it always was, it has to die.
But luckily for the fans he went out with a bang. in the shape of three celebration models: a hyper-luxurious Autobiography, a fully-equipped Adventure edition and – my personal favorite – the Heritage. Both Adventure (35 units) and Heritage (180 units) were coming to South Africa. and now, I am standing in front of the classic,with his beautiful old-school green paint job. Grasmere Green Metallic, to be exact. Combined with the characteristic white roof. The older grille badge version inscription says ‘1948-2015′ Solihull, England’ – the ancestral home of Land Rover.
The undesigned beauty originated on a beach. Literally as a drawing in the sand. In Red Wharf Bay on the Welsh Island of Anglesey. Maurice Willis made his famous, rather square sketch of a utilitarian 4×4 in the sand in 1947. The iconic Land Rover was born. The first model ‘Series I’ was presented at the automobile show in Amsterdam on 30th April 1948. Followed by the ‘Series II’ in 1958 and the ‘III’ in 1971. Subsequently the legendary 4x4s were named after their wheelbase. 90 was the shorty and 110 the longer station wagon. In 1990, when Land Rover introduced a second model, the Discovery, the icon needed a name as well. So from then onwards it was called the Defender. defending primal driving ever since.
The 2016 Heritage carries several style elements from Series I, II and III. The Defender naming on the bonnet is removed. It has silver bumpers and silver door hinges. I love the badge with those old-feel off road instruction notes with heritage logo behind the knobkerrie-sized gear shift lever on the green centre console. But most striking is the 1940s style mesh front grille, painted in the same pale green as the car. Unfortunately it’s plastic. And the head lamp surrounds awake the early series feel, as well as the sturdy, steel wheels. The HUE 166 logo on the seats is a reference to the number plate, mounted on the very first Land Rover ever built.
Stepping on to the steel running board and climbing inside is cult already and brings back a tidal wave of memories. It’s like a time capsule. I forgot how narrow it is. My right leg is flush against the door. The steering wheel is truck like, the seating position very upright. Yes, I remember, the ignition lock is on the left, as the car started of as a right-hand drive. There are no electronic peeping sounds at all. Even when you don’t put your seat belt on, there is no ear-piercing reminder to do it. In the Defender you make your own decisions. You feel like a grown-up again. It’s like a package of fags without the cancer warning. This is no honey drenched SUV. It’s a tough off road buddy – honest, reliable and confidence inducing. A distinctly analogue vehicle. If the Range Rover is broadband, the Defender is dial-up. The only thing clashing with the style are the electric windows in front. That’s almost embarrassing.
The vibrating and shaking 2.2-liter diesel sounds exactly like the one I had in my Defender 20 years ago. It’s rough and loud and ridiculously under-powered. In 68 years the horsepower has doubled to 90kw. the top speed of 145km/h is only reached by crazies – hitting 110 feels like 160km/h in a normal car. And 360Nm allows you to pass only slow trucks and lumbering tractors. But in the Landy it doesn’t matter – it was made for areas where there is no traffic at all.
Driving the Defender is hard work. The leaf springs reactions to rough terrains are relentless. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my 3500km trip through Namibia in the Heritage. It was time travel. So I took my time for a proper goodbye. Farewell, Defender. Judging by what Jaguar/Land Rover did so far in the last couple of years, I am cautiously optimistic that the new Defender, which is currently been developed won’t put his iconic, square-edged ancestor to shame.