We Love the Globe-Trotting Defender

Cover Photo: Tim Trad

This year marks Land Rover’s 70th Anniversary and the rebirth of the Defender. To pay tribute, we are recognizing the creators of the iconic utility vehicle and taking a look at Land Rover’s past. We also thought you might like to know how the Defender got it’s name.

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Photo: Land Rover: The Impossible Journey

A Land Rover was the only vehicle more than half the world had ever seen.

-James Taylor

The Rover Company and WWII

Originally called The Rover Company, Land Rover had modest beginnings and only sold cars to the British professional class. During WWII, The Rover Company had suspended car manufacturing in order to build war machines and aircraft equipment. Rover didn’t have a new car in production when hostilities came to an end in 1945 and had no other choice than to hastily update old 1940’s cars, building them out of a new factory at Solihull in the West Midlands. Another problem was hurled at them when British government announced that it wanted companies to prioritize to selling overseas. The Ministry of Supply asserted a steel ration and companies emphasizing overseas trade were favored. Rover wouldn’t be able to continue selling cars if didn’t create a car that sold well overseas. This meant that they needed to come up with an idea quickly and have an entirely new vehicle in production within a year.

Sir Winston Churchill, British Prime Minister during WWII, standing beside the Land Rover

The Founding Fathers

Brothers Spencer and Maurice Wilks are credited for Rover’s success and for building a foundation that set Land Rover on a path to a legacy of adventure. Spencer Wilks became Rover’s General Manager in 1929. Soon after, Maurice began working in the engineering department and quickly became Rover’s Chief Engineer. Together, the two brothers stream-lined the scattered product line by designing cars that used common components.

Unexpected Inspiration

The winter of 1946 brought some of the worst conditions Britain had ever recorded. Maurice Wilks borrowed a Jeep from his neighbor, Colonel Nash, because the conditions made it almost impossible to travel down the drive to get to his house. He was so impressed by the Jeep’s capability, that he was immediately inspired to utilize Rover’s existing production components to produce their own take on a utility vehicle.

If Maurice hadn’t borrowed his neighbor’s Jeep, Land Rover as we know them probably would never have had existed.

Putting the “Land” in Land Rover

The idea was solidified somewhere around Easter 1947 when Maurice Wilks and family were at their cottage on the island of Angesley. Brother Spencer Wilks kept a boat there and brought it to Red Wharf Bay. While sitting together on the beach, Maurice drew out his idea of what the vehicle would like with his finger tips in the sand.

The vehicle’s name came about while Spencer was at his retreat on Isaly, an island in the Hebrides off the coast of Scotland. He had been walking up grouse on Isaly’s Moors with his son and nephew. During a lunch of beer and sandwiches, Spencer informed his companions that he planned to have a Rover engine and gearbox fitted into a Jeep frame upon his return. He also mentioned that he couldn’t think of a name for the vehicle. Richard suggested Roverlander, but Spencer thought it sounded too similar to the Jeep’s creator: Willys Overland. It was Thomas that finally suggested Landrover. These “Land Rovers” became known as the Series models. This first Series I was followed by Series II, and Series III Land Rovers.

A Plan Comes Together

Rover aimed to market their vehicle to farmers and others involved in agriculture. This also happened to be Willys’ marketing scheme in the U.S. The vehicle needed to be equipped with tools that would make working easier. Options such as take-offs to power belt driven farm machines were added in multiple places.

The Design

Gordon Bashford was put in charge of designing the chassis frame. He bought four Jeeps from a wrecking yard to take apart and resolved to use box section side members rather than Jeep channel section members because they were prone to cracking.

Joe Drinkwater adapted the new 4-cylinder engine to 4×4 utility. This engine had 12hp and was originally designed for their P3 Saloon cars.

Tom Barton designed a two-speed transfer gear box to bolt onto existing Rover gearbox.

With a minimum of new tooling, Sam Oster designed the body simply so that it could be made from sheet metal by hand on wooden formers.

Rover never envisioned the vehicle to become as popular as it did. Their plan was to stop production when the company was stable and trading at pre-war levels. Then they could continue where they had left off: making quality saloon cars for the professional class.

Why the Name Defender?

Fast forward to the mid-1980s and you would find a very successful Land Rover fully embracing their well developed overland reputation. At this point, the company was steadily growing and had recently launched a new model called “Discovery”. However, the addition of this new family member left the original Series vehicles without their own name. As James Taylor points out, “If the Discovery was a Land Rover Discovery, the Land Rover was a Land Rover . . . what? A Land Rover Land Rover?” Taylor alleges that the name was proposed when a few Solihull engineers and their American colleagues were meeting at a bar in Boston. The name Defender stuck because it represented the vehicle’s British military heritage and the “D” worked well with the Discovery name.

After 67 years of continuous production, the last Defender left the Solihull assembly line in 2016. Later this year Land Rover has plans to unveil the new Defender and we can’t be more excited.

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Do you love Land Rover and their Defender as much as we do? Leave a comment below!

Links to learn more:

Birthplace of the Land Rover Name

Land Rover: Series I Reborn

Land Rover: Origin of the Species


Purchase the book: Land Rover: 65 Years of the 4 x 4 Workhorse by James Taylor (2013-06-01)

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