Few cars can trace their direct lineage as far back as Land Rover’s much-loved Defender. Although the nameplate made its debut in 1990, it simply marked the ongoing development and continuation of a long-running series of Land Rovers – which, in earliest production form, had first taken to the fields in 1948.
Age and long production runs alone are not necessarily interesting, mind – but the Series, 90, 110, 127, 130 and Defender Land Rovers are noteworthy for so much more. Mechanical durability, capability and ease of servicing were all hallmarks of the line, helping make them popular with myriad owners.
Royal association, military service, and providing aid in hostile and unforgiving climates further helped build a tremendous following for what was otherwise a simple off-road vehicle.
The popularity of the Land Rover was evident in production numbers alone; by 1966, a total of 500,000 Series I and II variants had been built. When 2015 rolled around, 25 years after the launch of the subsequent Defender, that number had climbed to a total of two million.
All in, it’s no surprise that the ever-familiar Land Rover often makes a prominent appearance in countless pieces showcasing the most significant cars in history – but, while few have ever come close to matching it, there are cars out there that share many of its traits.
UTILITARIAN, NO-NONSENSE APPEAL
One of the Defender’s key charms, its off-road capabilities aside, is its classless nature. If you spot a standard one, parked up in a high street, there’s no telling who it really belongs to. It could have been driven there by a farmer, popping in for supplies, or it might belong to the Lord or Lady of a local estate.
This, in part, stems from the concept that had been applied from the Series I onwards – to build a simple car that was capable of roving over any terrain and ideal for agricultural use. The straightforward off-road vehicle that resulted, as well as being easily adapted to a wide range of uses, was free from any unnecessary design addendum or pretences. People bought them solely because of what they could do, originally, not because of what they looked like or suggested.
By the 1990s, many customers were buying the new breed of SUVs – Sport Utility Vehicles – as well as traditional 4x4s, such as the Defender, for more conventional duties. In an effort to cash in on this burgeoning market, Japanese manufacturer Subaru decided to launch its own contender. It took an existing platform, shortened the wheelbase, raised the suspension to give it more ground clearance, and adorned it with a subtle-looking exterior.
The car, dubbed the Forester for its ‘outdoor’ nature, aimed to blend the capabilities and appeal of these new SUVs with more car-like underpinnings. The result was a practical multi-purpose Subaru that served up remarkable off-road performance in conjunction with good on-road performance.
While the Forester’s core concept was more involved than the Defender’s, Subaru did apply a laser-sharp focus to mechanical quality and durability – in the similar vein to the fashion with which Land Rover designers had focused on all-terrain talents.
This, as was the case with the Land Rover, led to people buying Foresters for their capabilities alone. Not because they were stylish, or pretending to be something else, but just because they did exactly what they said on the tin. Consequently, given that it was practically impossible to nail down the type of owner by simply setting eyes on a Forester, it too became a classless vehicle.
ONE BOWS OUT, THE OTHER LOSES ITS EDGE
The Defender itself would remain true to its predecessors throughout its life and, with production running until 2016, it remained in the limelight for a long time. The Forester, however, fared less well, being constantly redesigned and altered from generation to generation – which resulted in dilution of its core appeal.
By the third generation, the Forester had morphed into what could be argued is just another crossover SUV. It had grown larger, heavier and more generic. That’s not to say it became less popular; it’s now in its fifth generation and remains a strong seller, in markets such as America, thanks to its reliability, practicality and safety.
The Defender name, that said, is set to return in due course. Time will tell as to whether it successfully echoes the past while advancing the line or, as is the case with the Forester, it ends up being just another SUV – albeit one bearing a legendary nameplate with a more storied past. Here’s hoping that the former proves true.
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