What does Prince Charles have in common with the new Defender?
With 30 days to go until D(efender)-day, should Land Rover be worried about replacing a legend?
Have you ever wondered why it is that whenever you see Prince Charles in public he always looks just a little bit nervous? Seriously, watch the guy closely the next time you see him on the news giving a speech about the plight of sea anemones or the dangers of buying honey from bees that aren’t free-range. There’s an air of quiet apprehension that seems to follow the man around in everything he says and does. A slight sense of foreboding that causes him to pull the same face that my Beagle pulls when I walk into my kitchen and catch him attempting to eat out of the bin. It’s the look of someone resigned to the fact that difficult times are on the horizon. And I think I know why.
I like the Queen. She’s the matriarchal lynch pin that for sixty-six years has almost single-handedly maintained Britain’s position on the world stage, despite the best efforts of almost every single Prime Minister beneath her to ruin it. I like the fact that every summer 37 trillion Japanese tourists descend upon London to spend their money at souvenir stands and take photos of her house, and I like her sense of humour. A sense of humour we all got to see at the 2012 Olympics when she wryly played along opposite Daniel Craig.
But the fact of the matter is that she’s getting on a bit now. One day she will be gone, and poor old Charlie is going to have to step up to the plate and take over from the most famous stateswoman in the world. He knows this all too well, it's no wonder he looks a bit twitchy.
He can take some comfort though, because I think he'll find a few kindred spirits over at Land Rover HQ. In around a month, they’re going to have to pull the covers off of their all-new Defender, a car that has enjoyed a longer career as an ambassador for Britain than Mrs Queen herself.
Fortunately for Land Rover, the old Defender differed from HRH in one crucial aspect. It was crap. Don’t argue, it was. I like the Defender, always have. We’ve had an ancient 110 in the family for years, and despite the fact that on the rare occasion it does decide to work it’s slow, noisy, leaky, cumbersome and generally useless, I always enjoy driving it. Partly because I know that it’s almost peerless off-road, but mostly because everyone else I encounter seems to like it more than any other car.
Thing is though, if you walked into a Hyundai dealership tomorrow and asked to buy a family car and the salesman said “Well, you can either have this nice new i30N, or for the same price you can have a 1978 Pony.” Which one are you going to pick? The fast, comfortable, economical hot hatch, or the brainchild of a man who had to leave Britain and move all the way to Seoul after leading the team that curled out the Morris Marina?
Over at the Land Rover showroom though, you would walk in through the swish glass sliding doors, and until very recently you’d be presented with the choice of a new Discovery, or for pretty much the same sort of money, a relic firmly rooted in a time when food was still being rationed.
How did they get away with it for so long? Well, for a large portion of its life, the Defender was produced under the auspices of the sprawling and unmanageable British Leyland empire. By the time they’d finished paying out for all the warranty claims on Austin 1100's and Rover SD1's, there was simply never any cash left in the till to even think about replacing the Defender.
Later on, after a bit of political faffing about, Land Rover found themselves under the control of BMW, and after a bit more faffing, Ford. But by this time the Defender had become one of those legends within its own lifetime like the Beetle and the Mini. It was no longer just a car, it was an army tank, it was a loyal farmers friend, it was a faithful old dog and even though it was deaf, blind and peed uncontrollably on the rug, it was as much of a symbol of Britain as fish and biscuits, or tea and chips.
In later years it wasn’t the money that stopped the suits in Munich or Detroit from putting the Defender out to pasture, I think it was simply because they simply had no idea whatsoever how to replace it, and that scared them. If they messed it up there’d be a colossal public backlash, it would be like the Rolling Stones replacing Mick Jagger with Gary Glitter and wondering why nobody was buying tickets to their shows.
Nothing lasts forever though, and a couple of years ago incoming safety and emissions legislation meant that it was going to be simply impossible for Land Rover to keep nailing the old girl together in a quiet corner of Birmingham. They’d tried every trick in the book to get around the ever more stringent laws, even sending a few brown envelopes to the DVLA so that they could have the Defender listed as a van instead of a passenger car, even though it was clearly nothing of the sort. Reluctantly though, in 2016 they finally had to admit defeat and pull the plug after sixty-eight years.
Luckily though, Land Rover has never been in a better place to design a new Defender for the 21st century. The current range is by far and away the best it’s ever been. Alright, the new Discovery is as ugly as a cat in a mangle, but the Range Rover is still the best 4x4 by far. The SVR is truly vulgar, but it is hilariously good fun. Ooh, and have you seen the Velar and the new Evoque? Climb aboard either one of those in a showroom and you’ll be instantly reaching for your chequebook. Those two cars have a bigger ‘want-one’ factor than pretty much anything this side of an Aventador.
So the signs are good for the new Defender then, and they’ve gotten even better since the new car has been photographed in testing looking suspiciously like a shorter, punchier version of the much-missed Discovery 4.
There is just one thing worrying me though, and it’s probably the same thing that’s causing the Land Rover board to pull the same faces as Prince Charles. It’s not the people who are actually prospective customers, it's the hardcore fans with their outdoor clothing and ropey old Series III project cars.
Defender fans are as numerous and as militant as any protest group you’ve ever seen. If they were to head to London for a spot of disruption they’d make Extinction Rebellion look like a group of street pastors. We must remember that these are the sort of people who actually enjoy driving their cars half-way up a Welsh mountain in the middle of winter in the hope that it’ll get stuck so they can stand around outside in minus ten blizzards digging it out with their bare hands.
And once they’ve got home and recovered from the frostbite, they’ll go on the internet and use the stumps where their fingers used to be to write things on Land Rover websites like “If you can’t hose out the interior I’ll be FURIOUS” and “If they even think about fitting a heater that works I will fly into a MURDEROUS RAGE.”
Give up lads. Who’s going to take a sodding jet wash to the interior of their brand-new fifty-grand car? Because that’s what the new Defender will cost. It’ll have to if it’s going to make any business sense in the first place.
That sounds expensive if you’re picturing the old farmers knockabout Landie of old. But it won’t be, all the farmers I know have Hiluxes and whatever that Isuzu thing is called. They wouldn’t entertain the idea of buying a Defender any more than you’d entertain the idea of going scuba-diving with breeze blocks strapped to your feet.
This Defender is going to be a pose, pure and simple. Yes, it’ll be brilliant off-road, but will it ever go there? I doubt it, not with 20 inch rims and expensive matte paintwork. In a world seemingly in love with the SUV, the Defender is going to be the ultimate fashion statement, and yes Land Rover, you’re going to have to deal with the whinging of a few crusty old bores who are stuck in 1956, stick at it lads, because you’re going to clean up.
In fact, I don’t think you should be worried at all. Mercedes on the other hand, will turn up at the Frankfurt motor show next month with their G-Wagen, which does pretty much the same thing as the new Defender but costs £91,000.
If you can't find them, they'll be the ones pulling the kind of face that makes even Prince Charles look calm.