Modern Classic Review – the CarAdvice team take time away from Australia’s new car landscape to look at machines we consider true modern classics.
What’s more, we’ll try to turn our focus to cars that haven’t quite fallen out of reach in terms of scarcity and affordability. Is there something on your radar? Let us know what modern classics you would like to see the team review.
While many manufacturers might refer to their own vehicles as iconic, true automotive icons are a rare breed. To qualify, they need to have a few things: a cult-like admiration from a dedicated enthusiast base, defining performance characteristics, and an unmistakable shape. Something that is instantly recognisable and, well, iconic.
Throw in a long and uninterrupted production run, global sales and recognition, and then all of a sudden that list grows much shorter.
You could blow up the comments section of a story – and cause endless online fisticuffs – by trying out a definitive list of what and what isn’t a true icon. However, I reckon this is a shoo-in: the Land Rover Defender.
Starting off in 1948, famously prototyped atop a Willys Jeep chassis, the Land Rover went into service for multiple armies in countless battles, as well as being the vehicle of choice for explorers around the world.
In Australia, the original Land Rover (now called a Series I) began forging a go-anywhere reputation in the steep and rugged hills of the Australian Alps in the 1950, where up to 370 were pounding around through the bush and over mountains during the construction of Australia’s biggest and most daring engineering project to date: the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme.
While Toyota might have popularised their involvement in the scheme, their numbers were more like 13. Imported by Theiss – who at the time was contracted to the Snowy Hydro' Scheme – these were the first LandCruisers to arrive in Australia.
And, of course, this began a long love affair between Toyota LandCruisers and Australia, which culminated in the Japanese four-wheel drive dominating our market for decades.
While Land Rover hasn’t enjoyed the same sterling reputation of reliability as Toyota over the years, and has sold only a fraction of the volume, there is a passionate and dedicated fan base for the Land Rover down under.
Famous names like Len Beadell, Malcolm Douglas and Les Hiddins all found themselves spending big chunks of time looking through a Land Rover’s flat, vertical windscreen during their lives.
It’s also been the four-wheel drive of choice for the Australian military since 1958, only trading in the green oval for the three-pronged star in the last few years.
And when production of this four-wheel-drive vehicle finally wound up, after 68 years of continuous production at Solihull England, Land Rover commemorated the occasion with two special-edition Defenders.
And in my eyes, this is the most desirable of the lot: a Heritage 110. Finished off in a lovely Grasmere Green with a retro-correct white roof, the Heritage Defender is a wonderful ode to the history of England’s famous off-roader.
It’s the unique grille, the metal badges, the steel wheels and the mud flaps emblazoned with the old Land Rover logo. There are plenty of other small details that bring it all together: clear indicator lamps, a silver front bumper (mimicking the original galvanised unit) and contrasting door hinges.
Inside, there are some nice touches as well: red and yellow rings on the gearsticks, and a colour-coded dashboard. Ours is further improved by Melville and Moon seat covers, resplendent in a sandy cotton canvas.
Red and yellow details on gearshifters, a throwback to the Series Land Rover 4WD levers, are fantastic, and shows a real attention to detail and respect to past Land Rovers.
Under that bulging bonnet resides a 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo diesel engine borrowed from Ford’s commercial-vehicle range. Despite dropping down from 2.4 litres, outputs remained steady at 90kW at 3500rpm and 360Nm at 2000rpm. Unimpressive figures, when compared to most other dual-cab utes. However, traditional off-road gearing was always low and tight, allowing the engine to feel torquey and muscular.
Although the Defender stuck with manual transmissions throughout the life of the vehicle, later iterations with the 2.4- and 2.2-litre engine benefitted from six gears. This gearbox, called an MT-82, was also borrowed from Ford and saw action in the Mustang. Along with having two overdrive gears for (relatively) low-rev highway cruising, the very low first gear (5.443) can almost be dodged completely when driving around town, and helps yield a nice low crawl ratio of 63.9:1.
Around town, you find yourself constantly changing gears in the new Defender, with each of your left-side limbs getting little respite. It can be seen as either infuriating or involving, depending on which way you swing. But if you’re a fan of the connection of driving something old and mechanical, you’ll probably enjoy it.
It’s an immersive experience: the seating position; the visibility through a flat windscreen and big mirrors; the steering ratio and clutch weight; and the seemingly endless requirement to change up and down gears. And because many chassis hard points haven’t changed over the years, it’s not dissimilar to driving a Land Rover 40 or 50 years older. You might hate it. You also might love it.
You can hear every combustion stroke under the bonnet, and track its departure out the back with your ears. Gears thud and clatter, and the differentials whir. It’s like a tractor, with an indicator stalk.
Ergonomically speaking, a Defender takes getting used to. Many complain about the lack of elbow room, no tilt and rake through the steering column, and the handbrake that lives in the footwell. Many a belt loop has met its demise on the door striker, as well.
Personally, because I have grown up with them, I don't find these problems, and have found it comfortable enough to pound out full days behind the wheel for weeks at a time. I've moulded my body to suit, maybe.
Once again, some will fit. And others will clash.
Off-road, the Defender remains ever capable, even without the locking differentials that other 4WDs (especially LandCruiser and Wrangler) boast. For some reason, Land Rover never offered diff locks as an option in the Defender and Series vehicles. Although, a fairly rudimentary off-road traction-control system did help out later models (like this one).
Coil-sprung suspension, replacing leaf springs in 1983, uses a recipe of front radius arms and rear trailing arms that debuted in the first Range Rover, and inspired use in many other four-wheel drives since. It’s rugged and durable, easy to modify and maintain, and offers good off-road performance.
While more advanced, complex and contemporary suspension sets can yield good combinations of off-road and on-road performance, this is something like having a parmi and a schooner at the pub: it’s probably not the best thing on the menu, and it’s certainly not the best thing for you. But it’s absolutely irreplaceable, and does things to you that nothing else can.
The stability, articulation and good off-road gearing let the Defender feel absolutely at home off-road. And in a way, it allows the on-road experience to make sense.
Special credit also must go to the Goodyear Wrangler MT-R Kevlar tyres, some of the most aggressive off-road tyres I can think of as a factory fitment anywhere, which suit the Defender perfectly with the heavy off-road bias. Although, with permanent all-wheel drive and only 90kW to count, they never really get stretched in terms of on-road grip.
One main reason why the Defender is so good off-road is bucketloads of good old-fashioned ground clearance. The body sits high and proud above the ladder chassis, much higher than most other so-called ‘body-on-frame’ set-ups.
While ground clearance around the differentials – dictated by the 32-inch tyres – is good, the approach angle and clearance around the sills are great. And with two whopping great chassis rails underneath to slide on, you’ve got little risk of damaging underneath when four-wheel driving.
The approach angle is 49 degrees, while 110 Defenders have breakover and departure angles of 30.3 degrees and 34.6 degrees. These numbers are impressive, and line up more closely with the likes of a Wrangler than a Ranger.
And while a new Defender might be able to out-drive an old Defender nine times out of 10 off-road, all of that technology and advanced capability does take some of the fun out of it. The original Defender needs to be driven, with plenty of adjustments and driver inputs needed to get the best out of it. But in the right hands, it’s properly formidable.
Just 2654 Heritage Defenders were built, split between 90 and 110 specifications. It was offered alongside an Adventure edition, with a more garish orange and black exterior hue, along with machined alloy wheels and a pimped-out interior.
With big global appeal, only 40 Heritage Defender 90s made their way to Australia. Heritage Defender 110s were even rarer, numbering only 15.
A Heritage Defender 110, just like the one in this picture, originally had an asking price of $59,900 before on-road costs. These days, asking prices are more like six figures instead of five, and can even extend to double that original figure. And considering that value, sighting them in the wild is a rare experience.
Losing the old Defender marks the end of an era, no doubt. And regardless of how good, advanced, safe, capable, compliant and comfortable the new Defender might be, it simply cannot replace the icon and the legend that is the original.
A huge part of the charm lies in its antiquity: it’s coarse and rowdy, with a tangible and direct connection to the original from over seven decades ago. The prices are horrendous, and only seem to be going higher. While many will bemoan the fact that the Defender, something once within reach of the everyman, has gone up so far in value, it’s a testament to the unique appeal of the original Land Rover. And its true icon status.