Cover image credit: Motor Trend
73 Not Out: The Evolution of the Land Rover Defender
The first Defender may have rolled off production lines in 1990, but the history of the Land Rover Defender goes back to the company’s earliest models. Here we chart 73 years of off-road motoring evolution by looking at Land Rover models throughout time, from the 1940s to the present day.
1948: Land Rover Series I
Image Credit: Wikipedia
To understand how the Land Rover Defender has evolved over the years, you need to start at the very beginning.
The original, jeep-inspired Land Rover model launched in April 1948 at the Amsterdam Motor show and later became known as the Series I. Designed to meet the need for rugged off road performance, it was powered by a 1.6 litre 50 horsepower engine from a Rover P3 and had an 80-inch wheelbase. It cost £450 – the equivalent of around £16,500 today. Within a year, more than 8,000 had been made, and the British Army had placed its first order.
1958: Land Rover Series II
Image credit: Historics.co.uk
The second Land Rover model is also the one that gave us the form factor we still know and love today. It upgraded the engine from 1.6 litres to 2.5 and boasted big, iconic headlights with round ‘shoulders’ on either side that became an aesthetic hallmark for the next 13 years.
1961: Land Rover Series IIA
Less of a brand-new model and more an upgraded version of the Series II, the IIA was the first Landy to boast a diesel engine (2.3 litres, if you’re interested. We know you are!). Renowned for its reliability, the Series IIA helped Land Rover pass the milestone of 500,000 vehicles made by 1966.
1962: Land Rover Series IIA Forward Control
Image credit: Road and Track
When you look at how the Land Rover Defender has evolved over the years, this one is a bit of a black sheep.
The most unique Land Rover of the lot, the Forward Control was a heavy-duty vehicle built for military use. Named as such because the driver’s seat was positioned forwards from the front wheels, the first Forward Control could carry 3,360lbs and came with either a four-cylinder diesel or six-cylinder petrol engine. It was revised in 1966 with lower headlamps, a wider track and an anti-roll front bar, before being discontinued in 1972.
1971: Land Rover Series III
Image credit: Motorious
The Series III arrived in the year that the 750,000th Land Rover was made. Amongst its design changes were a full-width dashboard and Land Rover’s first built-in heater. Five years later, the millionth Land Rover would roll off the production line, and three years from that the Series III got the option for a 3528cc V8 engine. The latter choice also led to an aesthetic design change that continues to this day: the larger engine needed more space, and so Land Rover finally did away with the inset nose on either side of the chunky ‘shoulders,’ giving us the more familiar square-fronted bonnet.
1990: Land Rover Defender
Image credit: Classic & Sports Car
If you’re less interested in Land Rover models pre-Defender, then this might be where the evolution of the Land Rover Defender truly begins for you.
After numerous further revisions to the Series III across the 80s, the 90s finally brought the next evolution of Land Rover and the one this site is largely dedicated to. The first Defender came in three wheelbases: 90, 11 and 130 inches, and packed in a 2.5-litre 200Tdi turbo-diesel engine for a more modern ride.
1998: Defender TD5
Image credit: Silodrome
The Defender’s first notable revision came eight years on, with the introduction of a 122 brake horsepower, five-cylinder TD5 engine, giving Defender owners more power than ever.
2007: Defender TDCI
It took another nine years for further engine revisions, when the TD5 was superseded by a new TDCI four-cylinder turbo diesel engine. This was also the era where Land Rovers started crossing over into the lifestyle sector, and other additions reflected that fact. A more modern dash, safer rear seats and a six-speed gearbox for extra oomph all helped make the 2007 Defender more well-suited to everyday use, while still retaining the model’s inherent off-road suitability.
2012: From 2.4 to 2.2 litres
The year Mo Farah ran to double Olympic gold in London was also the year Land Rover made the Defender run leaner than ever. However, the need to comply with new Euro-V emissions regulations meant this was also the first year across the history of the Land Rover Defender where the model’s future on the market looked less than assured.
To comply with those regulations, Land Rover replaced the TDCI’s 2.4-litre diesel engine with a more efficient 2.2 litre one, before introducing an LXV edition Defender to celebrate Land Rover’s 65th anniversary in 2013.
Yet it wasn’t much longer before the writing was on the wall, and a big decision was made at Jaguar Land Rover headquarters…
2016: Defender Production Ends
29th January 2016 was a sad day for everyone living the Landy life. After 67 straight years of production and just over 2 million vehicles made, the final old-style Land Rover in mass production rolled off the assembly line.
The reason was clear and made complete business sense: stricter safety and emissions regulations meant Jaguar Land Rover was left with no other choice but to discontinue the storied line.
Still, it’s a day looked back on fondly by those who were there, and every one of the 700 employees who worked on that final Defender was invited to a special send-off event, which we think was an especially nice touch.
2018: Special Edition Defender Works V8
Image credit: Driving.co.uk
Although in some senses the history of the Land Rover Defender ended with 2016’s shutdown of mainstream production, 2018 saw a special 70th-anniversary swansong with the launch of just 150 limited edition Defender Works V8 models.
Boasting a 5-litre V8 engine, 18” alloy light-alloy wheels, taller off-road tires, a rear-mounted spare wheel, improved headlights, sportier seating and a dashboard featuring modern digital radio and sat-nav systems, the Defender’s encore presentation was an outright love letter to Land Rover fans, and will stay a sought-after collectable for decades to come.
Of course, while in one sense the evolution of the land rover defender ended with the Works V8, in another sense it was only the start of something new…
2020 and Onwards: The New Land Rover Defender
Image credit: Carwow
Finally, our fly-through of the history of the Land Rover Defender brings us to the present day.
After 26 years we were sorry to see the first Land Rover Defender go. But even if the company’s reimagining shares no components in common with the original, it certainly captures much of its spirit.
Revealed in 2019 and launched officially in 2020, the new Defender keeps the familiar 90 and 110 model names, and design hallmarks like the upright windshield, iconic circular headlights and side-hinged rear door remain. You can even order old-style steel wheels if you want to keep the retro feel intact!
That said, the overall design is undoubtedly more modern, with crisper lines outside and in. The mod con interior approach of the V8 Works is something Land Rover has taken and run with, and behind the wheel the new Defender performs incredibly well as an off-road vehicle, while also proving more comfortable to ride on the road.
Of course, this modernity has a cost – and it’s not cheap! The new Defender starts at just under £45,000, which even allowing for 73 years of inflation is just under three times more expensive than the 1948 Series I.
For those who love Landy life, the investment might be worth it. For others, nothing will ever beat the purity of earlier Defender models. One thing we can all agree on, however, is that it’s great to have a Defender back on the market – and it’s exciting to think where the evolution of the Land Rover Defender could take us next.
Keep Your Prized Landy Safe and Secure
Whatever model of Land Rover Defender you own, we have a security solution to keep it safe from theft or track it down should the worst happen. See our selection here.