Rarely does the death of a car cause a period of national mourning. But not every car is a Land Rover Defender, which has been a stoic servant of our nation for 67 years. That was, until early this morning, when the very last one rolled down the production line at Lode Lane, making it the 2,016,933rd and final Defender. To mark the occasion, the conveyor belt was slowed to a stately pace while hundreds of guests – including TG.com – helpfully crowded around the workers still popping in the last rivets.
You are here
TG waves farewell to the Land Rover Defender
We watched as the last ever Defender rolled off the production line. Dan Read reports
On Monday, the 600 men and women involved with Defender assembly will move to the other side of the factory and build Jaguar F-Paces. Today, with nothing much to do except pack up tools, they watched the last car down the line, forming an impromptu guard of honour. And when you consider that some of these people have spent whole careers in this building, making one Defender after another, you’ll understand why there was a collective lump in the throat.
Jeff Shannon is the longest serving employee on the Defender line. He’s been making them for 40 years, since 1976 when he was in charge of screwing the rifle brackets and stowage boxes to army versions. Why do people love this car so much, we ask him? “I think it’s because it’s put together with nuts and bolts,” he says. “It’s the product of proper hard work. And when you see it on telly around the world, in conflict zones especially, you know it’s made a difference”. When he clocks off tonight, Jeff will begin his retirement. Let’s hope it’s long and happy and full of beer.
There are many stories like Jeff’s. The Bickerton family has played a part in Defender assembly for four generations. The Martins? Three generations. If we were to interview them all this story would’ve taken a whole lot longer to publish, but that’s what happens when you’re dealing with the longest-running production car the world has ever seen. So if any vehicle deserves a bloody good send-off, it’s the original Land Rover, a car that’s always been ready to lend a hand, whether it’s mending a downed power line or moving a fallen soldier out of harm’s way.
It’s become part of the British landscape. That’s an overused phrase but on this occasion it’s true. Just like hedgerows and drywalls the trusty old Defender lives on the fens and fells and dales of this Kingdom, as happy in mud as the pigs on the back seat. It has even put down roots in cities, where it’s become an unlikely fashion accessory among the usual supercar tinsel. There’s even a stripy Paul Smith edition.
It is famously democratic and driven by people from all walks of life, from humble farm folk to the highest ranks of royalty. Lara Croft had one. And Bond. Having said that it’s never been cheap, not even second-hand, but you always felt like you were buying a substantial amount of material that would last an awfully long time. Much like an old country cottage, in fact. Even the handling is comparable to one.
That doesn’t matter today. After the final example was completed – a rather fetching one in Grasmere Green with a Khaki soft-top – it led a procession of 30-or-so iconic Defenders around the Solihull factory. Fire trucks, ice cream vans, even a small mobile crane version… the full medley of Land Rover oddities. If this were a funeral, it would be one where you’re encouraged to wear loud shirts and go to the pub where you’d drink until your teeth hurt.
Sounds like some have already started on the good stuff. There’s a proper atmosphere in the factory, spontaneous cheers go up (maybe they’ve realised it’s a half-day), horns honk each time a car drives out of the roller doors, and some old-timers are even struggling to hold it together. Maybe they didn’t expect all this fuss. Television crews have set up satellite trucks outside. It’s been all over the news. Seems like everyone wants to say a little goodbye, and – as soppy as it sounds – it’s actually a little overwhelming. Especially if you’ve spent your whole working life in here.
But dry those tears, because this is not an obituary. Remember, we’ve just observed the creation of the final car, which will be looked after by Land Rover, though not in the corner of a fusty museum. Nope, it’ll be put to work around the world at various events, soldiering on like it’s always done. And the millions of cars already out there will hardly cease to exist. There will of course be a new model in due course. Will it become a national treasure like the one we know and love? It’s a hard act to follow…