Legends… Icons… We’re losing more and more of them these days, and in motoring terms few legends cast a bigger shadow than the Land Rover Defender. Certainly in the off-road realm. The modern realities of safety, design ergonomics and general cabin geometry mean the Defender’s days have been numbered for some time – it was just a matter of when.
The motoring world has thus been counting down the days, and for those of us who continue to revel in this British icon’s off-road ability, we have simply tried to ignore the inevitable.
Where most new motoring tech is more smartphone than dot matrix, the Land Rover Defender goes back appreciably further than the latter. It’s almost hammer and stone stuff in engineering terms – just take a look at an original example and a current model side by side if you don’t believe us. Strip away the LEDs, funky alloy wheels, coil springs, modern electronics and EFI, and a brand spanking new Land Rover Defender isn’t really that far removed from the earliest versions.
That’s exactly what we’ve done here, bringing together two genuine icons of the Defender’s heritage and putting them side by side. The first being the 1983 Land Rover Defender 110 County, which was a first for the grand old British brand. The other being the 2016 Land Rover Defender 110 Adventure, which will be the last model. You see, while the County represented the very first Defender with four coil springs taking care of suspension duties, the Adventure is the very last of the line. It’s a final farewell before the Defender heads off into the sunset, no doubt down some dusty, remote, potholed road in a faraway country. Adventure by name and adventure by nature.
We’ve been reminiscing a lot of late. Every time we get the chance to step into a Land Rover Defender of any kind (or climb awkwardly up into, to be more specific), we’ve been acutely aware of the reality. We won’t get many more opportunities to review ‘new’ Defenders. This in fact, is probably our last.
It means we can forgive some of its shortcomings – of which there are many in modern terms – and instead reflect on what the model has meant for a brand and a legion of off-road explorers around the world. The name “Explorers” is right too; numerous Defenders have been taken to areas that other vehicles would fear to venture, especially back in the early days. It’s wasn’t just a vehicle for grey nomads, post retirement.
Few vehicles generate as much enthusiasm in the CarAdvice garage, including Supercars. Everyone leaves their desk to take a closer look when a Defender rolls into the garage.
The usual gripes remain of course. Confined cabin, not enough seat adjustment, appalling on road dynamics, possibly the worst turning circle outside of an Airbus A380, a removable face CD player from the early 90’s, poor insulation and cabin refinement. My special favourite deserves mention too – the driver’s window needing to be open to properly use the steering wheel. The list of quirks goes on. Few vehicles however can do what the Defender can, and even fewer can do it with the same innate sense of style. A Toyota LandCruiser 70-Series is just as tough and just as fit for purpose, but it can’t even begin to match the Defender’s incredible street cred.
We spent inordinate chunks of time during our week of testing explaining to passers-by which model this Defender Adventure was, how much it costs in dealers and that no you probably can’t buy one, because they’re all sold out. A severely limited batch of 2277 will be built globally, even though Land Rover Australia could probably have found homes for three or four times that many, if not more.
As tested, the Defender Adventure starts from $47,500 plus on-road costs. Add the wind-up sunroof fitted to our test vehicle and the starting price moves up to $48,090. It seems a small price to pay for a slice of history. You can read our pricing story here.
Over the years we’ve logged plenty of off-road kilometres in Defenders, so we didn’t need to bush-bash this super exclusive final model into the dirt to remind you how capable it is. Remember though, that it’s a crime to own a Defender and not explore the land around you.
We don’t mean your local suburb and a few speed humps on the way to work either. These vehicles are built to tackle the most remote areas, the harshest terrain and climates, and they come into their own when you toss them into that environment.
Which brings us to Marcel Kaegi and his 1983 Land Rover Defender 110 County. 271,000km. That’s what the odometer was reading at the time of our photoshoot. Most of that distance was covered touring and exploring all corners of the Australian continent. Marcel came to Australia from Switzerland on holiday in 1985 and never went back. He did something else in ’85 too.
He purchased this County from the original owner, added some touring gear and never stopped driving it. Those kilometres haven’t been earned running round Sydney to and from work, either. They’ve been hard won out in the most remote areas of Australia.
Marcel reckons the County has been a faithful servant too, “It’s not perfect, but no car is,” he says as we discuss the various Defender foibles that only make us love them even more. “It’s only ever really needed routine maintenance and a few minor things repaired over the years. You have to drive them regularly, which we’ve done, and you have to keep that maintenance up, which we’ve also done. It’s never once let us down badly during any of our remote touring though.” A toolmaker by trade, you only need to take a look at how neat and well-kept Marcel’s County is to know he’s looked after it and that he knows what he’s doing. You also know that he’s a hard marker, so the County winning him over would have been no easy feat.
“The turning circle is awful around town,” he says with a laugh as we discuss me having a crack about that in our recent CarAdvice Defender video. “Everything you said in that video was true, you know? Every Defender owner would have been laughing when you said you have to drive them round with the window down. It’s 100 percent true. They aren’t great at all around town, but that’s not what they were designed for and we’d never consider selling it.”
Marcel tells the story of how he converted the points ignition to an electronic ignition some time back and the Defender just refused to start after a routine roadside stop to stretch the legs, “I tried everything, I thought something might have been seriously wrong,” he says. Marcel eventually worked out that the electronic ignition wasn’t working and by chance he’d packed the old points system in with some various spares for the trip. “We had it towed back into town, I swapped everything back over, it started first go, and never conked out again.” One thing the County does highlight is the simplicity of older vehicles, which is something that those of us who like to tinker with all things mechanical really appreciate. If a computer controlled modern vehicle decides to stop working on the side of a remote road somewhere, there’s a fair chance a backyard hack won’t be able to fix it.
Park these two side by side, and there’s plenty that’s remained the same for decades. The rear barndoor handle on the new Adventure is the same design as all the handles on Marcel’s County, for example. Exposed rivets, wavy alloy panels, sliding rear windows and the angles of the windscreen and pillars are all remarkably similar. The Adventure might look bigger and chunkier, but in reality it isn’t. The external dimensions are almost identical. The Adventure’s bonnet bulge is one difference, as is the awful wind up sunroof that beats the 90’s stereo in retro terms by harking all the way back to the 70s.
The very first Land Rover badge has been reproduced for the Adventure and sits within the gloss black grille. Unique graphics adorn the front quarter panels, while tough underbody bash plates have been added to the Adventure, along with specially designed alloy wheels. It promises to be every bit as indestructible as a standard current Defender, perhaps even more so. The relative value of the last ever Defender might preclude these models from any serious bush-bashing though.
The sharp edges, square corners and tough off-road sense of purpose are evident in both Defenders, no matter which angle you look at them from. The Adventure is fitted standard with the same kind of expansive roof similar to the one that Marcel added to his County. This sunroof doubles as a second skin and some roof insulation on super hot days in the desert, and according to Marcel, it actually works in reducing heat in the cabin too.
Marcel’s bull bar looks like it would plough through a brick wall too. It’s an Aussie built bar and is an invaluable addition if you’re going into really remote areas. It not only gives you mounting points for driving lights and aerials, but also provides added protection from stray animals that might wander onto the road. But could you sully the lines of the new Adventure with a bullbar with the heft of Marcel’s? It’s a tough call, and I’m not sure I could.
What surprised me the most was the extra room afforded by the County’s driving position. It’s significantly more spacious than the Adventure or any current Defender for that matter. There’s more front to back seat adjustment and the dash doesn’t eat into interior space as much as the new model either. It’s basically a whole lot more comfortable for taller drivers, and therefore feels a lot less cramped in general, especially from behind the wheel. Speaking of which, the steering wheel in the Adventure is more chunky and less spindly than the tiller in the County.
Marcel’s County even has air conditioning, which is another surprise. It works too. After a short trip in the Adventure on what was a hot day, he reports back that the County’s system doesn’t cool the cabin quite as well, “We had an issue with the standard compressor,” he says, also adding, “We replaced it with a more compact, Japanese unit, and it’s never given us a problem since.” You get the sense that Marcel would have needed the AC too, especially out in the Australian desert in summer.
So much else is remarkably similar. The commanding sense of visibility, expansive glasshouse and upright driving position is almost identical between the two. The switchgear, gauges and controls are more rudimentary in the County, but not by much. The Adventure simply hasn’t moved into modern times as much as you might think. Almost comically and completely by accident, Marcel has retrofitted the exact same removable face CD player as the standard offering in the Adventure. “I thought Bluetooth would be handy,” he says.
The second row seating is likewise more spacious and simple in the County, especially when the front seats are racked all the way forward. The Adventure gets quality leather trim and a much more luxurious feel overall, although our test model was fitted with carpet and carpet mats, which is something that no other Adventure will have. It was a one off thing fitted at the factory according to Land Rover Australia. Despite that, the shame sharp angles, exposed metal surfaces and rudimentary feel are present in the new Adventure.
The load space is almost the same if you were to remove all of Marcel’s camping and touring gear out of the County. His vehicle is well set up for road trips, as you’d expect when someone has had so much time to refine their system. With bench seating, some countries used the Defender 110 to seat up to 12 people, so there’s no shortage of room back there either. The impressive load carrying capabilities of the Defender were always a highlight, and continue to remain that way.
Under The Bonnet
Marcel’s County is fitted with the venerable 3.5-litre V8 petrol engine that powered all manner of affiliated products through that period, including Range Rover. It’s got that classic 80’s V8 burble at start up and idle, and when it comes to the soundtrack at speed, it has the Adventure beaten, hands down. Marcel has had the gearing changed in the four-speed manual gearbox too, which means he loses a bit of low down gusto, but gains back some engine rpm at speed. This results in not working the engine as hard on long highway runs and reducing overall fuel usage. What the petrol engine doesn’t have is the flexibility, torque delivery and fuel efficiency of the modern turbo diesel, which will run in the very low 10s or even into the 9L/100km region around town.
The Adventure runs the 2.2-litre turbo diesel engine, which generates 90kW at 3500rpm and 360Nm at 2000rpm and is backed by a six-speed manual transmission. Granted, the clutch feel and gearbox isn’t much less clunky around town in the Adventure than the County, but the extra cogs (two overdriven gears) make for significantly better cruising ability.
Both Defenders get proper low range gearing, which affords genuine off-road ability in the harshest of conditions. The County was the first Defender to be fitted with independent coil springs all round, and it’s all the better for it too. It’s a marked improvement from the leaf springs present on previous models, if you’ve ever bashed your way around behind the wheel of one. Advances to design and manufacture mean there are myriad subtle improvements under the skin, from the coils themselves, to the shock absorbers, bushings and mounting points for example, but the general geometry of the suspension setup is very similar.
Poke your head around under either Defender and there’s a beefy, serious appearance to everything. The chassis rails are solid and chunky, and the entire undercarriage looks as tough as nails, befitting the Defender’s off-road capabilities.
Funnily enough, at low speed around town, the ageing petrol V8 is nowhere near as harsh or unsophisticated as you might have expected. In fact, it’s just as easy to drive at city speeds as the modern oiler. It’s thirsty though, and chews through PULP with gusto as you’d expect, but that comes with the territory of classic car ownership.
The most obvious difference between the two Defenders is the rough road ride and bump insulation. The County still feels remarkably solid despite its advancing years, but the Adventure is able to soak up poorer roads in a more sophisticated fashion. It irons out surface imperfections and ruts with more comfort and insulation. You feel each bump less, either behind the wheel or as a passenger, and there’s a more obvious sense of quiet in the cabin too.
The V8 petrol engine is lazy and it really does sound great. Once you get away from a standstill, you can roll around town between 2nd and 4th gears without ever having to rush to do anything. You can also chug along in a lower gear than you might have thought possible, such is the effortless delivery of the V8’s torque.
The turbo diesel engine is obviously vastly more sophisticated than the V8 petrol engine (it might be the only part of a current Defender that actually is), but retains some of that loping ability despite the advancements in refinement. It’s an easy combination to use around town paired to the six-speed and it feels quite smooth despite the roar of air going in through the snorkel and the rattle of the diesel engine as the revs increase.
That we can still drive a Defender County from 1983 and find numerous reasons to love it is a stark reminder of what we’re going to be missing when the current Defender Adventure takes its final curtain call. It’s old and it’s a reminder of the past (the new one, not the old one) but it remains a true off-road great that we might never see the likes of again.
Remember that the Defender’s reputation was forged when large areas of the globe were a lot less accessible and connected than they are now. I’ve had numerous conversations with ‘Mr. Land Rover’, Sir Roger Crathorne, about some of those very expeditions. They were wild, remote and often dangerous. Most of those overland expeditions would never make it past the OH&S department in 2016, that’s for sure.
The legendary Land Rover Defender is yet another icon we’ll miss when it’s gone. We’ll miss it for it’s foibles as much as for it’s strong points. Indeed, it’s like the runt of the litter that you can’t help but love. You know about the wonky ear, crooked eye and the tail that’s a bit too short. You love it though and you won’t hear anyone speak a bad word about it. It’s as faithful as the day is long, and it won’t ever let you down. We’ll farewell a legend and hope that Land Rover can recreate some of that magic when the Defender’s replacement hits the showroom.
Click on the Photos tab for more images by Christian Barbeitos.