History of a Legend: Defender

In 1990 the original Land Rover gained its own name: Defender. Twenty-five years later, it's proved itself as a mainstay of off-road challenges.

Scroll down

With improved road manners and comfort, Land Rover 90, 110 and 130 were significant departures from the Series III. Read their story here.

By 1990, such was the popularity of our vehicle portfolio, that the original Land Rover gained its own name for the first time. Read on to find out how the Defender was born. 

Until 1990, the descendants of the original Land Rover were simply referred to by their series number and the length of their wheelbase in inches. The arrival of the Range Rover in 1970 didn’t confuse matters. But the debut of the radical and very popular Discovery in 1989 would have done, because it too was badged as a Land Rover. So the original Land Rover gained its own name for the first time: Defender. It was a nod to the armed forces, and the original Land Rover has now borne the Defender name for 25 years.

The Defender debuted with the new 107bhp, 195lb-ft 200Tdi engine shared with the Discovery. It was uprated again to the 300Tdi engine and the L380 manual gearbox shared with the Discovery and the Range Rover Classic in 1994. That year also saw the end of V8 Defender production for the UK, although the 4.0 V8 was fitted to the 385 UK examples of the ‘50’ special edition made to mark Land Rover’s first half-century in 1998.

The original Defender

The V8 was also fitted to the popular North American Specification cars from 1992. Known by their NAS acronym and made in relatively small numbers, the 110 Station Wagon came first, fitted with a full external roll cage. The 90 NAS arrived the following year and would become one of the most collectible of recent Land Rovers, with good examples now changing hands for in excess of their price when new. A special soft-top and a choice of bright colours (including the exclusive ‘AA Yellow’) made it perfect for Californian beach use, and anti-roll bars meant the on-road handling matched the urge of the 180bhp 3.9-litre V8.

Back home, the Defender kept on getting better. For 1998 the powerful, refined, 124bhp, 221lb-ft five-cylinder TD5 engine arrived. The following year the Defender received a suite of electronic driving aids which further extended its off-road ability. And in 2001 the Defender entered the new millennium, gaining modern creature comforts such as electric windows, central locking and heated seats for the first time.

But there was no question of the Defender going soft. In 1996, the Ministry of Defence placed an order for almost 8000 military-specification Defender XDs. The XD stood for ‘extra duty’, but the model is simply referred to by its codename: Wolf. It first entered service in 1997 and has seen action around the world, and especially in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Defender proved its toughness in peacetime too as one of the mainstays of both the Camel Trophy and the G4Challenge, which Land Rover created in 2003. The Sandglow paint of the Camel vehicles and the Tangiers Orange of the G4 cars have become instantly recognisable, and these two events allowed Defenders to prove their worth as competitor’s vehicles, support cars, and even prizes.

But there can be few tougher customers than Lara Croft, who drove a Defender in the 2001 film Tomb Raider. Land Rover Special Vehicles built three for the film, and a Tomb Raider special edition went on sale that year in the same Bonatti Grey. Angelina Jolie was not included.