New meets old: Here's how the Land Rover Defender has evolved since 1980

We bring together the new Land Rover Defender with one of its iconic predecessors – the Series III V8 – to see just how the model has evolved over the past few decades.

There’s no doubt that the Land Rover Defender is one of the most iconic and unmistakeable vehicles in automotive history, and that it’s firmly presented itself in the book of all-time greats after 67 years in continuous production between the original Series first launched in 1948 and later Ninety/One Ten and Defender-badged models that were phased out in early 2016 after the model saw the coming and going of the original Rover Company from which its name was borne, British Leyland, Land Rover Limited, and now Jaguar Land Rover.

Unashamedly inspired by the Willys Jeep used in World War II, the original Land Rover set many firsts, being the first mass-produced civilian four-wheel drive vehicle with doors or an available hard roof, and helping Rover pioneer constant four-wheel drive systems in the very earliest 1948-51 examples. Low-production versions fitted out by coachbuilder Tickford helped it attract an upmarket audience that would form the basis of Land Rover’s future customers, too.

At the core of the Land Rover was its off-road ability, though, with its live axle setup (leaf-sprung on Series models, and coil-sprung on Defenders), fully box-welded frame, and aluminium body ensuring that it was, above all else, capable and sturdy off-road.

Compare that to the Defender of today, a vehicle which is no more, really, than a spiritual successor to the original Landie, and its positioning and aim couldn’t be anymore different. While ruggedness was core before, Land Rover’s repositioning has seen the brand become a builder of exclusively luxury SUVs, and key to this new Defender is its improved on-road performance – something that wasn’t much of a consideration previously.

Naturally, this made the hardcore Land Rover enthusiasts of old rife with disappointment in the new car before it even hit the market, but the reality was that it could never be anything other than the car it is – a modern SUV based on a unibody chassis and deriving much from within the wider Land Rover and Range Rover lineups.

But just how different is the new model from its iconic older siblings when you sit them next to each other? To find out, I brought together the all-new 2021 Defender in long-wheelbase 110 P400 S guise with one of the most intriguing Series Land Rovers I could find – a 1980 Series III Stage One V8.

Although the Series III Land Rover had already seen the first substantial design changes made to the Land Rover by moving the headlights to the outset guards, rather than next to the inset radiator grille, the Stage One V8 took it a step further by launching the look seen on the first models to sport the Defender name, with the grille brought forwards to be inline with the wings. Offered exclusively in 109-inch long-wheelbase form – bar 24 rare 88-inch wheelbase examples – it was aimed as a direct competitor to the six-cylinder Toyota LandCruiser and Nissan Patrol of the time which offered far more in the way of performance.

Borrowing the 3.5-litre twin-carbureted Rover V8 petrol engine from the original Range Rover in a detuned 68kW guise (compared to the more potent 101kW it originally made), it nabbed the rest of the Range Rover’s driveline, too, meaning a standard LT95 four-speed manual gearbox along with a constant four-wheel drive system, making it the only Series III model to feature one.

Although the 2.25-litre four-pot versions were deemed to be more than enough for most buyers in Britain, the Stage One V8 – named as such due to it being developed under the first stage of investment by the British Government in improving the Land Rover range – found favour in export markets, even being utilised by the New Zealand Army for around 24 years.

A more advanced drivetrain, it may have had, but an updated interior, it did not. The same sparse cabin design of the Series III was a carry-over to the V8, meaning you got a couple of dials (although a tachometer was not one of them), a steering wheel, a gear lever, and some pedals, and that’s about it.

Air conditioning? Forget it – only some flaps to the outside world below the windscreen and in the roof (fed by the big scoop fitted over the roof) are all you’ve got. Radio? There’ll only be one there if you or a previous owner have fitted one. This is bare-bones motoring, but that’s all you wanted when you were out in the middle of the bush. After all, more gizmos means more things to potentially go wrong.

Not short on gizmos, by comparison, is the new Defender which looks like a spaceship next to the antique that is the Series III. With a digital gauge cluster; 10.25-inch touchscreen infotainment system with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, integrated satellite navigation, a 360-degree camera system, and systems to detect things like the depth of water you’re wading through; the Terrain Response drive mode system that caters for different road surfaces and driving conditions through both automatic or manual selection; and convenience items like powered windows, a wireless phone charger, heated seats, and three-zone climate control, it’s safe to say the old model can't hold a candle to the spec list of the new Defender. There’s even a proper fridge in the centre console – the closest you’ll get to that in a Series III is by bringing your Esky with you.

While these features are what the wider market including Land Rover’s typical clientele these days ask for, fans of the old one bought them for their simplicity, so the cynicism of many towards the abundance of electronics can’t exactly come as a surprise. Times change, though, and the new Defender feels to have kept up with them perfectly, and while it may break from its original focus of before, a rugged, bare-bones vehicle wouldn’t be in keeping with the green oval’s current brand image and lineup.

Curiously, there are some design elements that have been carried over between the Series models and the new Defender, most notably the skeletonised dashboard – something which is a structural component and allows for an abundance of storage across the whole width of it. Both cars you see here came with a three-row layout (do note that the third row had been removed from the Series III by the owner, but it is original equipment) although it is an optional extra in the new model and only seats seven, not nine. Of course, the exterior styling of the new model is where the greatest similarities are, with the headlight and grille design, checker-plate panels on the bonnet, side-hinged tailgate, safari windows, and overall proportions being directly influenced by the Landie of old, while even small details such as the location of the air intake on the passenger-side front guard remain the same.

Although a constant four-wheel drive system still features in the new model, it couldn’t have a more different drivetrain otherwise if it tried. With this example powered by the P400 3.0-litre straight-six turbocharged petrol engine which also features a 48V mild hybrid system and a small electric supercharger, it produces 294kW – more than four times the power on offer in the old Stage One V8, which is fitting given the four decades between them. An eight-speed ZF automatic transmission also features, meaning there’s double the number of gears on offer, too.

Moving not only from a body-on-frame arrangement to a unibody chassis, the new model has also ditched live axles in favour of independent suspension, and air suspension was made standard on 110 models like this, although coil springs – first introduced on the old model in 1983 – remain available on the smaller 90. The result is improved ride comfort on the road, while the air suspension allows for ground clearance of up to 293mm in its highest setting. The downside is reduced wheel articulation compared to a live-axle setup, and those airbags are a liability when you’re off-road as well.

The new Defender certainly drives every bit like a modern SUV, though – the steering is perfectly tuned to be light around town and weightier at higher speeds, the ride quality is truly excellent, and there’s a pure abundance of power as it launches you from 0-100km/h in a hot hatch-rivalling 6.1 seconds. With that said, it feels like a big car dimensionally – one bigger than it already is – which is compounded by how heavy it feels, too.

It’s an apples and oranges comparison with the Series III, however, as the old Landie feels almost like more of a comedy act than an actual usable car in some ways. The steering, in particular, is utterly hysterical – a non-power assisted recirculating ball system, you’re having to make adjustments all of the time, as near as makes no difference, just to keep it pointed in a straight line, meaning it looks as though you’re driving it through an American movie. It’s a constant battle as it sways between the lane lines, with the complete lack of any aerodynamics not making life any easier for you.

Although the Rover V8 might make a fantastic bellow, it has about all the verve of a slug to actually get up to speed. Once you’re there, though, it comes into its own as it happily holds you at speeds above 80km/h with ease, trundling along perfectly happily in fourth gear. As far as bringing it back down from speed is concerned though, I’ll simply say that you shouldn’t expect the drum brakes to ever inspire much confidence in the middle pedal for you.

The gearbox is one definite highlight, actually, as the ratios feel well spaced – if very short – and it slots into gear incredibly nicely. Granted, the clutch feels to be made out lead, but it’s easy to get a feel for even if it is on the heavy side – and even if you’re forced into sitting in a relatively unergonomic position as I was at 6’2″. Much to my surprise, the ride quality wasn’t half-bad either, as despite the leaf springs both front and rear it has surprisingly decent damping abilities, all things considered.

Make no mistake, this isn’t really a rational, usable vehicle by 2021’s standards – yet, I walked away from the experience absolutely loving it. The level of involvement and awareness that’s required to drive something like this is exactly what makes it fun, and for as objectively impressive as the new Defender with all its electronic aids is – trust me, I think it’s a brilliant car – the Land Rover of old just leaves you with a far bigger smile on your dial, even if it is hard work getting anywhere in it.

In case you’re wondering what the verdict on the new Defender is from the owner of an old one, Addison, who very kindly provided the Series III for this test, had a quick steer of it and noted to me that the tuning of the steering was a particularly big highlight of how the new model feels for him. However, owning a quick daily driver in addition to two old Land Rovers, his final verdict was perhaps a predictable one, saying, “I’ll wait for the V8.”

Getting these two side-by-side was an eye-opening comparison for a number of reasons, most surprisingly as a way of seeing just how many subtle design similarities there are between the new Defender and the Series models of old. It was an eye-opening experience to see how just far the performance of four-wheel drive vehicles like these have come over the past 40-plus years, as their transformation from agricultural appliances to luxury status symbols is a truly remarkable one.

Make no mistake, if you’re after a new old Defender, the new Defender isn’t it – the car you’re after there is a 76 Series Toyota LandCruiser. Given the fact the Defender name didn’t even exist for another 10 years after this Series III was built, and given a lot changed for the model during that time as well, I do think that the new Defender is enough of a Defender to bare the name given the looks are all right and the off-road performance is still there – although given just how different the two are, it probably is only just.

This article originally appeared on drivesection.com on May 31, 2021. My thanks to Addison for providing the Series III Land Rover, and to Jaguar Land Rover Australia for providing the 2021 Defender tested here.

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Comments (37)

  • Much prefer the original

      13 days ago
    • Has more charm but it’s a pig to drive

        12 days ago
    • well, it was designed for off-road. Even the Wrangler - which has been kept up to date - is a bit of a pig to drive..

        11 days ago
  • The old one is better in every way especially offroad

      12 days ago
    • Hmmm, not sure about that, but maybe benefits from it’s simplicity, and that live axle. But I’ve watched some comparison tests and the new one ultimately is more capable off road. What we really need to see ultimately is how reliable the new...

      Read more
        12 days ago
    • Some valid points in there, but the live axles are key for offroad without them you have a crossover.

        12 days ago
  • Weirdo here, I’d much prefer the new one.

    Old one looks cool but it’s slow, uncomfortable, weirdly annoying to live with and frankly unless you like being uncomfortable, a Range Rover Classic or Discovery 1/2 is basically exactly the damn same vehicle but nicer to drive and about 6k cheaper.

    New one is exactly what the Defender sorta needed to be, it’s got off-road capabilities which some may doubt but it keeps proving them wrong, it’s practical, much nicer to drive and has quite a lot of charm and character for a modern 4x4.

    Most of those who say the new one isn’t one… don’t actually get the old one.

    The old defender was essentially mechanically a Range Rover Classic with a Series 3 based body and chassis. The new one is a heavily modified Range Rover platform which is focused on offroad and payload, just like the old one. Just lacks the rustic charm I suppose

      13 days ago
  • You could of summed it up in one word... poorly.

      13 days ago
  • I don't get the hate for the new Defender I think it's a great capable SUV for what it is and it's something different from the Land Rover lineup

    I would totally get one... on a lease

      13 days ago
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