As a new version of the Land Rover Defender is released, a new generation are also rediscovering the boxy older version – an iconic workhorse that changed the face of adventure travel
First published in Conde Nast Traveller, April 2020. Photography by Ricardo Pessoa.
Owners of Land Rover Defenders aren’t like normal car owners. No, the attachment to this boxy, rattling, virtually indestructible machine runs much deeper. Adventurer Bear Grylls describes his Land Rover as a ‘silent, reliable, comforting friend, which seems to smile as the mud hits’. Geordie Mackay-Lewis, the founder of the Pelorus adventure company, says that the Army taught him to look after the vehicles ‘like beloved pets’. Ricardo Pessoa, who does high-end revamps of old Defenders in a Lisbon garage, talks of ‘an emotional attachment to this thing you want to fix, to love.’ People don’t tend to talk this way about their Nissan Micra.
The Land Rover Defender – known as the Series I, II or III until 1990 – had the same basic outline from the moment it launched at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948, until it went out of production in 2016, the longest continuous run of any mass-market vehicle. The hundredth machine off the Solihull production line was given to King George VI, and the Queen took delivery of her first Land Rover Series I shortly before her coronation in 1952, becoming an early adopter in a long list of often fanatical owners, including most of the royal family. By the late 50s, Churchill and Fidel Castro were both discovering the Land Rover rattle; Marilyn Monroe posed in her white version, and Steve McQueen was photographed by Life magazine loading his up for a camping trip into California’s Sierra Madre mountains.
Despite the Series I being designed primarily as an agricultural workhorse, its rugged elegance gained a certain cachet. Ralph Lauren, obsessed by the rugged glamour of safaris and Steve McQueen, made his black Defender a prop in a series of ad campaigns, a trick followed by Hackett, Michael Kors and Louis Vuitton. Ben Fogle has written a book about a vehicle that he is ‘hopelessly, obsessively in love with’, while car obsessive Jodie Kidd has described the Defender as her favourite car. Grylls, whose family car is a 1974 Series III, calls the vehicle ‘the unsung hero of many of my expeditions, this machine that somehow reminds me that everything is going to be okay.’
The Land Rover is the unsung hero of many of my expeditions, this machine that somehow reminds me that everything is going to be okay.
The early Land Rovers also changed the face of travel, opening up serious exploration to normal travellers. For an estimated half of the planet’s population, a Land Rover is said to be the first vehicle they ever saw. In the post-War years, it could go where maps and roads didn’t, reaching tribes and species that had never been recorded, becoming the de facto mode of transport for UN Medics, safari guides and Malaysian tea plantation owners. It facilitated the concept of overlanding, widely popularised when six Oxbridge students drove to Singapore in a Land Rover called Oxford in 1955 – a trip that’s now being done in reverse, in the same vehicle and with an eight-strong team including 87-year-old original adventurer Tim Slessor. The battered blue Oxford, restored to its original glory, is typical of the machine’s resilience: of the two million or so vehicles ever made, more than 70 per cent are still on the road, and many owners swear they get better with age.
A new version has been released this spring, with health and safety having finally caught up with the old Defender, especially in Airbag-mandatory America. But, as excitement has built over the new design, with its onboard computers and brand new silhouette, prices for the iconic old analogue machine have soared. And a new generation have been rediscovering and repurposing the ultimate adventure vehicle, drawn to its heritage and visual appeal as much as its performance.
Take Ricardo Pessoa, who learned to drive a Defender at seven on family winters in South Africa and Mozambique, and whose Cool N Vintage company now does 12 bespoke restorations a year from a Lisbon garage, often in non-standard colours like mint green or Porsche orange. ‘To me, the Defender is the shape of freedom,’ says Pessoa, who charges between €75-150,000 for the thousand man hours behind his beautiful custom creations. ‘Like a lot of people these days, I first and foremost see a beautiful piece of industrial design; a thing that has everything it needs but nothing more.’
I first and foremost see a beautiful piece of industrial design; a thing that has everything it needs but nothing more.
His customers, though, don’t tend to be the conventional Defender hardcore. ‘When I started doing cars in different colours, and with tweaked designs in 2012, the community wanted me to go to Hell,’ he says. ‘But even the old-school owners love what we do now. Our clients tend to be architects, designers, fashion people, who love the Defender’s simplicity, and want something to take surfing up the coast, or to the family summer house in Comporta. It is a car that can go anywhere, but I love driving it in the summer, without a roof, alive and free.’
In Iceland, photographer Gunnar Freyr doesn’t just drive his white Defender to access wild corners of the volcanic landscape. ‘I’ve taken it up active volcanoes and through deep rivers,’ he says. ‘But it’s also become my muse: it adds scale to the landscape, and the white either pops from the black lava or fades into the snow. No other car that screams adventure like this.’
As Amy Shore, an award-winning 28-year-old automotive photographer and recent Defender owner, says: ‘If you asked a child to draw the outline of a car, it might look like a Defender. But it’s also a very graphic, pleasing outline, which is partly why it’s one of those universally beloved cars, like a classic Mini. To me, the best way of describing it would be as honest. It doesn’t mind a few dents and scratches, and just does what it does. My fiance and I put a canvas roof and bench seats in the back of ours, and we’re planning to drive guests up and down muddy farm tracks on our wedding day.’
The real love comes less from what the Defender looks like than what it can do. Geordie Mackay-Lewis first drove one on the family farm in Herefordshire, aged eight, but says he truly fell in love when he joined the army. ‘We’d go to Lohatla in South Africa, and drive it over huge rocks and termite mounds all while being shot at by live rounds,’ he says. ‘Pretty much everything else you throw at the Defender, you can repair it and keep going. It took IEDs in the Middle East to destroy it.’
Pretty much everything else you throw at the Defender, you can repair it and keep going. It took IEDs in the Middle East to destroy it.
When Mackay-Lewis organises epic adventures through his Pelorus outfit, he tends to seek out Land Rovers. ‘It just feels more proper somehow,’ he says. ‘There was one trip in Patagonia where the client wanted to tour in Defenders. Because of the difficulty of finding them in South America, they were prepared to pay almost double for the privilege.’
In Africa, the Toyota Land Cruiser may have replaced the Defender as the standard-issue safari vehicle, but Scottish fine art photographer David Yarrow says that the Defender is still the way he accesses the continent’s wilderness for his intense black-and-white wildlife shots: like his epic image of a hulking Kenyan elephant, which sold at auction for $106,250, or his shot of a fierce Cara Delevingne with a snarling lion looking over her shoulder. ‘It just makes sense in places like Kenya and Tanzania,’ he says. ‘Not just the performance, but what it evokes: British colonialism, certainly, but also adventure and romance.’
Even younger safari guides miss the ubiquity of the Defender – like Mike Kirby, 27, a cheery, broad-shouldered safari guide at Singita’s Lebombo concession on the edge of South Africa’s Kruger National Park. ‘When it comes to rocky terrain, riverbeds and steep climbs, the Defender is still the best,’ he says. ‘The Land Cruiser is so reliable, but it feels like you’re getting into a normal car. The Defender really feels like driving – changing gears is like the bolt of a rifle, this mechanical feel, and the engine is pleasingly easy to work on.’
But what Kirby comes back to, above all, is that soul. ‘Driving a Defender just takes you into a different space,’ he says. ‘It feels like it could be 50 years ago, in a real machine in the real heart of Africa. It’s a vehicle that transports you, in every way possible.’