At last, the final version of the Land Rover Defender. Thomas Falkiner tries hard, but can’t find much to praise
There was an outcry at the beginning of the year: wails of despair that could be heard from the moors of Scotland all the way down to the Australian outback. After 69 years, Land Rover had finally decided to bury the Defender six foot underground. It was the end of the road, so to speak. No longer would this post-war behemoth roll off the Solihull production line.
To many people, especially Kingsley Holgate, this was a tragedy. So to try to sweeten the sadness, the company decided to give us all one last hurrah to mark the end of this sentimental journey. And the result was the Heritage Edition you see here.
To please the khaki-loving traditionalists it comes in Grasmere Green metallic paint tastefully offset by an Alaska White roof. And to reinforce the fact that this machine was built before the advent of the polio vaccine, Land Rover kitted it out with a set of old-school steel wheels plus a radiator grille that’s more or less identical to the one that was fitted to HUE 166 — the very first Series 1 whence the Defender originates. These, and a few other touches like silver door hinges, make for a handsome retro steed. Indeed, the Heritage Edition beckons you to climb aboard and embark on an adventure. Which is where things start going downhill rather rapidly.
Now I fully understand that the Defender is formidable off-road. I have experienced its mud-slinging might at first hand and it is, especially in this short wheelbase 90 model, something to behold. Unfortunately, when it comes to navigating the urban jungle, which is what most people do most of the time, it is pretty diabolical. The turning circle is as wide as Madagascar. Ride and refinement, courtesy two live axles, are on a par with one of those pneumatic rodeo bulls you find at nightclubs down in the Free State. The Ford-derived Puma engine may produce impressive shove at low revs but it sounds like it’s gargling a strange mixture of rusty nails and ground glass.
Cockpit ergonomics are, quite frankly, appalling, while the controls and levers operate with all the polish of a Victorian era engineering experiment. Again, you can no doubt live with this out in the bush, deep in rural Africa, but on the N1 in rush-hour traffic you’ll soon be pleading loudly for a Toyota Fortuner.
In our digital world where people have managed to blend livability with capability the Defender feels antiquated, and has done for years. My opinion was always that, for the money, you could get something much better balanced and versatile: a Leatherman multi-tool over a Kershaw pocketknife. So for me this nostalgic swansong, the Heritage Edition, couldn’t come quickly enough.
But here’s the thing. As flawed, outdated and compromised as the Defender was, it had something no modern vehicle can match, and that’s charm. In between those questionable panel gaps and riveted door skins you get a sense of a simpler time. An era free from social media apps, painful political correctness and annoying armchair revolutionaries who always have to have the last say.
The Defender is and will always remain a time capsule of nostalgia. It is a mobile monument to postcards and corporal punishment and family dinners during which the conversation was spoken, not typed on a screen. Which is why, despite its many faults, I actually think I’ll miss it.
FAST FACTS: Land Rover Defender 90 Heritage Edition
Engine: 2198cc four-cylinder turbodiesel
Power: 90kW at 3500rpm
Torque: 360Nm at 2000rpm
Transmission: six-speed manual
0-100km/h: does it matter?
Top speed: does one care?
Price: Sorry, they’re all sold