You may be the type of classic car obsessive that lives in a retro bubble and never comes up for air, blissfully unaware of the outside world and rarely glancing up from your pot of Swarfega. If that’s you; hi there, thanks for reading, but please remember to feed yourself and check in with your loved ones once in a while. The slightly more well-adjusted amongst us may take a passing interest in the current motor industry. I take a vague interest, but mainly only to reinforce my own confirmation bias. However, you’d have to have been living with your head in a cardboard box to be completely unaware of this year’s big news from Land Rover. They’ve just launched their hotly anticipated new Defender at the Frankfurt Motor Show, and in some quarters it has been more eagerly awaited than the second coming of the actual Messiah. ViaRETRO’s invitation to the launch obviously got lost in the post, so I’ve monitored the situation from a distance. That suits me fine because the thought of padding the carpet at Frankfurt isn’t top of my list of things to do in the Rheinland, but I’ll admit a curiosity regarding the reactions of others.
For several years, the usual internet forums have been clogged with speculation tracking every stage of the new Defender’s gestation. Grabbed shots of heavily camouflaged prototypes have sparked endless debate, which can be summarised as one side demanding that it would only be a proper Land Rover if it exactly replicated their own highly bastardised Series III, whilst the other side salivated at the prospect of how shiny the new shiny thing would be. Neither side had any more actual visibility of the forthcoming model than a mole rat, but religiously clung to their convictions like glue, regardless. I can’t pick a side in this debate, because whilst I’d run a mile from the lease jockey social climbers, I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with the hardcore “off road” enthusiasts either. I’ve been known to roll around in a 4×4, but at no point did I feel the need for a lift kit, hefty winch, strategically riveted checkerplate or roof mounted Ring spotlamps. I have never bulk purchased “One Life Live It” stickers and I don’t have a CB radio call sign. I don’t have a fixation with theoretically being able to hose out my car’s interior, because for multiple good reasons literally nobody has ever done this more than once. My greatest crime would be to have recognised that other than in statistically insignificant cases of extremis, other brands of 4×4 do the same job more cheaply and reliably.
The hardcore mob may be tedious buffoons, but more critically for them their blinkered view of what defines a “proper Land Rover” has made them irrelevant to the very company they worship. Land Rover can’t afford to cater for the whims of a tiny niche of swamp people who won’t ever put the money down on a brand new one. The cheapest new Defender 110 starts at £45,240. There won’t be many getting bumped around the pay-and-play at that sort of price. So with the hardcore getting het up about axle articulation and not being able to straighten the wings with a crowbar, the real target market for Land Rover has taken a more real world view. The aspiring middle classes, especially awful urban dwellers with faux-country pretentions, will doubtless love what they see. The new Defender is so on-trend and slots right into Land Rover’s range of multiple similar variations on a theme. It’s not meant to sell to farmers or the offroad scruff bags, it’s for accountants in Amersham and surgeons in Shanghai. No competent management structure would chase a low margin and low volume sector when the market offers a significantly more profitable opportunity.
But still a few voices plaintively cry that it doesn’t quite look like an old Defender. Well, it wouldn’t, would it? The original product was largely unchanged for 70 years. The last big revision occurred in 1983 and the reason it was finally dropped was because it had become uneconomic to reengineer to the latest safety standards. It may have been considered an icon in some quarters but not enough people actually bought one for it to be financially sustainable. There’s no denying it had a pretty good run but it was desperately antiquated by the end. Being out of date wouldn’t have been such an issue had it stayed as an agricultural working tool and been priced appropriately, but it only survived so long by seeing out its latter years as a lifestyle trinket. Given the need for comprehensive redevelopment and the target market being so firmly defined, why would anyone expect the new version to be a faithful facsimile of the 1948 / 1971 / 1983 original? Nostalgia sells, but new technology and contemporary features sell a whole lot more.
In the case of the new Defender we have the strange situation of a car being criticised at launch for being not old fashioned enough. Imagine Ford unveiling their new Focus to be greeted by shouts of protest at the demise of millennium era New Edge styling, or Vauxhall pulling the covers off an Insignia to be faced by a roomful of fleet managers grumping about it not being a proper three box saloon with a boot. In all other car launches, new is deemed to be good but Land Rover were always going to get hecklers with this one. In my view, the new model marks a watershed moment, with any real pretence of making honest functional vehicles being firmly consigned to history. They’ve been a hawker of trinkets for a long time now, but this really slams the door for the last time. Good luck to them, and I mean that sincerely because if that helps secure jobs who am I to argue.
Land Rover may have made the final shift away from their roots, but even with my ViaRETRO head on, I can’t get too worked up about it. There are enough of the old ones around to last until the oil runs out or internal combustion is outlawed, so nobody needs to worry about supplies drying up. Now the new one is finally here the chancers wanting top money for their ratty old “appreciating guaranteed investments” may get reigned in a bit as those chasing a fashion statement will find more satisfaction with next year’s 2020 version. I appreciate that reading about a new car on these pages may have violated your trust in what may have been considered a safe space, but I didn’t spring it upon you with any malice. Instead I think it proves that those who seek the past within the future will only end up disappointed. Retro inspired is all very well, but only genuine retro will really hit the spot. You can go back to your pot of Swarfega now. It’ll all be ok.