Production of Land Rover’s legendary Defender is currently being ramped up by almost 50 per cent to cope with increased demand during the model’s farewell year.
Last year, around 17,781 Defenders were produced at the car-maker’s Solihull plant but sales look set to soar this year with 2015 marking the final year of production in the UK.
Ordinarily, each shift might produce 84 Defenders but currently output has been increased to 125 to cope with a spike in demand as people avail of the last chance to own the latest version of the vehicle which first set the Land Rover ball rolling.
Time has been called on the Defender due to tough European Union emissions regulations.
Land Rover has indicated it could still produce the vehicle elsewhere in the world for markets where the rules are less stringent but it will no longer be built at the firm’s home in Lode Lane.
Until then, around 450 people will continue to produce the Defender in a process that fuses traditional and modern manufacturing techniques.
There are some robots on the line but much of the process involves skilled workers putting the vehicles together in a way that’s often compared to “Meccano set” assembly.
The current Defender is a direct descendent of the original Land Rover, which was launched in 1948. More than two million Land Rovers and Defenders have been sold since and there are currently 308 model derivatives.
Later named the Series I – when its replacement the Series II was brought out in the late 50s – it was dreamed up by the Rover Company as part of a drive to get British car manufacturing moving again in the wake of the Second World War and to create desperately needed jobs.
It was the brainchild of Maurice Wilks, Rover’s chief engineer, who famously sketched his original design in the sand on an Anglesey beach for his brother Spencer, who was managing director of the Rover Company.
The idea was based on the US Army’s Willys Jeep, a multi-purpose vehicle used by the Allies during the war. In all, 650,000 Jeeps were produced.
Although the Jeep brand later took off as a vehicle for the mass market, it was Maurice Wilks who saw the potential of a “go anywhere do anything” vehicle outside of a military environment.
However, even he couldn’t have foreseen the impact it would have and be the vehicle that paved the way for the now ubiquitous SUV.
Initially, it was seen as a commercial and farm vehicle but even so, when production started, 8,000 orders had been received for the first year.
It took about a year to develop the Series I using components from Rover saloon cars, along with innovations like corrosion-free aluminium and a new box section chassis, which allowed for exceptional load carrying capacity and off-road stiffness.
The initial investment required was £70,000, a significant investment in 1947, according to Michael Bishop, who led a tour of the Defender production line. A self-confessed Land Rover nut, Mr Bishop first became smitten by the vehicles as a teenager in his native Australia.
He now owns ten Series I Land Rovers and, as well as being senior instructor at the Land Rover experience based at Lode Lane, is also a renowned historian, author and writer on Land Rover-related matters.
“In 1947, £70,000 was a colossal amount of money,” said Mr Bishop. “It’s sometimes thought the first Land Rover was a stop-gap but I think that level of investment means we know it wasn’t.”
It’s a vehicle that truly was ground-breaking and the trail-blazer for every SUV that has come along since then, according to Mr Bishop.
“One of the things that set the Land Rover apart was its extended chassis which could be easily adapted,” he said.
“The Series I was responsible for everything and the reality is it hasn’t changed terribly much. A car that’s decades old could probably still run down the production line.”
It was in 1949 that the potential of the Land Rover was truly recognised by Rover bosses.
After its initial success, the car-maker held a celebration event at Lode Lane, with the idea of giving rides to children across the rough terrain that covered the air raid shelters – used when Lode Lane was a shadow factory during the war building engines for Bristol Hercules bombers. Explaining how the event came about, Mr Bishop said: “They got feedback from people saying we are doing this and that with the vehicle, so they started testing it.
“They hadn’t realised how capable the vehicle was and back then of course there was no such thing as off-road enthusiasts.
“That led to the second lightbulb moment. One year after production started they held this celebration event where rides for children soon developed into rides for everyone.
“They had 4,000 people there at what was probably the first off-road event.
“They thought we can replicate this, we can take it to the Royal Show or wherever and what we have here is something special, not just a farm vehicle or a commercial vehicle.
“People were saying ‘this is fun, we can make something of this.’
“It was probably the first SUV moment and it was so far ahead of its time it took other people years and years to catch-up.”
While the Jeep inspiration is common knowledge, it was that ability to recognise the potential of the vehicle that really set the Land Rover apart.
Mr Bishop said: “Like any vehicle design, you look at what already exists in the marketplace, what works, and say we can take that further.
“They looked at the Jeep and thought, ‘yes, this is good but we can develop this into something better, we can take this idea and improve it’.
“One thing Jeep didn’t do was look at the opportunity until much later.”
Mr Bishop said among the many things that helped make the original Land Rover special were the strength of the easily adaptable chassis and its constant four-wheel drive, a simplified system meaning people were less likely to make a mistake.
Over the years, Land Rovers have won fans in high places, something which is recognised in the Defender Celebration Line, a special visitor attraction that has been created at the heart of the Defender production line to mark its final year .
An authentic replica of the production line used to manufacture the first 4x4 in 1948, it forms part of a Defender tour which enthusiasts can experience for £45 and showcases replica models in various stages of production, each one built using identical parts and in precisely the same way as the original Series I.
The attraction also features an area dedicated to telling the story of the creation of the original Series I and among the exhibits is a specially-made book featuring some famous figures who have been fans.
They include the Queen, Winston Churchill, Argentinean president Juan Peron, the Shah of Persia, Marilyn Monroe and Steve McQueen.
As well as increasing output during the final year of Defender production, Land Rover has also launched three special edition models.
Though anyone wishing to place an order for a Defender of any description is being advised to get in there quickly by Mr Bishop.
He admits he’s still mulling over whether to order one himself as it would require him to dispose of at least one of his prized Series I Land Rovers.
He said: “There will be a line in the sand at some point and people who want one will need to get in there before that line in the sand is drawn if they are serious,” he said.