The History of the Land Rover Defender

The iconic Land Rover Defender has recently been revitalised and revised for the 21st century, but as a model line, its origins date all the way back the 1940s, and the very earliest Land Rovers.

At its core, the latest Defender is still the tough, go-anywhere off-roader that Land Rover imagined in 1947 when it introduced a vehicle that would later be known as the ‘Series I’. But the latest Defender brings modern technology and powertrains to the line-up for [arguably] the first time.

As well as impressive off-road ability, the new Land Rover Defender continues to sport truly iconic looks that strike that balance between functional and stylish. Square proportions, round headlamps, and a familiar silhouette make the lineage easy to trace.

Read on as we look back as where it all started for Land Rover, and the journey Land Rover has been on to reach the very latest Defender.

Land Rover Series I: 1948-1958    

The Series I wasn’t known as the Series I to begin with. It was simply the ‘Land Rover’, described by the Rover Company board as an “all-purpose vehicle” which took inspiration from the Willys Jeep.

Launched at the Amsterdam Motor Show at the end of April 1948, the original Land Rover had an 80-inch wheelbase, and was powered by a 1.6-litre, 50-horsepower engine from a Rover P3.

Its price? £450 new, though that’s more like £16,000 in today’s money.

Land Rover Series II: 1958-1961   

The second iteration of the Land Rover – the Series II – didn’t take too long to come along. Launched in 1958, the Series II is perhaps the most recognisable ‘classic’ Land Rover, with a silhouette that is clearly visible in even the very latest Defender.

It had a 2.25-litre engine – much bigger than the engine found in the Series I – and was characterised by large, distinctive headlamps with round shoulders pushed ahead of them.

Land Rover Series IIA: 1961-1971

Not totally content with the Series II, Land Rover launched a subtle model revision in 1961. The cutely-named Series IIA came with a 2.3-litre, 62-horsepower engine, but this time with diesel power.

The Series IIA has a reputation for being extremely hardy and reliable too, and would be the Land Rover that took production through the 500,000 mark in 1966. That’s half a million Land Rovers produced in a little less than 20 years.

Land Rover Series IIA Forward Control: 1962-1972

Land Rover wasn’t afraid to manufacture a unique vehicle for a unique purpose, and so the fascinating Forward Control was born in the early 1960s.

Big, obnoxious, and visually pretty different to the standard Series IIA, the Forward Control redefined the phrase ‘heavy duty’.

Where did the name come from though? Quite simply, the driver was seated above and slightly ahead of the front wheels, so the ‘controls’ were ‘forward’.

It could carry 3360lb [1524kg] in its 109-inch chassis, and was available with a choice of four-cylinder diesel and six-cylinder petrol engines.

Land Rover revised the Forward Control in 1966, adding lower headlamps and a wider track, though it would be discontinued completely in 1972, never to be replaced.

Land Rover Series III: 1971-1990  

The Series III Land Rover arrived a bit more quickly than the Series II did, arriving in 1971 with mod-cons like a full-width dashboard and flatter door hinges. A heater was finally available as an option too.

Just five years further down the line and the 1 millionth Land Rover would roll off the production line, while a further three years later – in 1979 – the Series III would become available with a 3.5-litre V8 and permanent four-wheel drive via a centre differential lock.

Land Rover Defender: 1990-2016

The Series III was fine-tuned during the 80s, and it was even renamed as the Ninety and One-Ten in the first half of the decade, but in 1990, Land Rover launched a new vehicle, this time under the Defender nameplate.

It was available with 90-inch, 110-inch, and 130-inch wheelbases, and Land Rover named those three different models accordingly.

The Defender took power from a 2.5-litre 200tdi turbo-diesel engine at launch, though that was replaced in 1998 by a five-cylinder Td5 diesel engine.

The engine revisions continued into the 2000s too, with the 122bhp four-cylinder ‘Puma’ diesel engine becoming standard in 2007, also joined by a six-speed manual transmission and a more modern dashboard and safety measures.

That engine was in turn replaced in 2012, with a slightly smaller 2.2-litre engine replacing the existing 2.4-litre version, and a special LXV Edition was introduced in 2013 to celebrate an incredible 65 years of Land Rover.

New Land Rover Defender: 2020-present

The first-generation Defender was in production for a total of 26 years – an incredibly long lifespan, but there could be no doubt that the legendary off-roader was starting to show its age.

And with a fan base that clamoured for a new reimagining of such a well-loved vehicle, Land Rover hardly had a choice when deciding whether or not to create a new Defender.

The rumours started shortly after the final original Defender rolled off the Solihull product line in 2016, but the new Defender wouldn’t be formally revealed until late 2019.

Reprising the 90 and 110 model names of the previous generation, the new Defender was everything that fans had hoped for. Modern and stylish, with imperious off-road ability, and a look that was unmistakably ‘Defender’, it’s already proving a massive hit with fans and buyers around the globe.

Are you ready to start your Land Rover Defender 2020 adventure? Talk to the team at JCT600 Land Rover about new Land Rover Defenders we have for sale in stock, or about configuring a Land Rover Defender to your exact specification. And for a limited time, you can even arrange an extended test drive in the 2020 Land Rover Defender – just click here to get started!


Think you know everything there is to know about the Land Rover Defender and its predecessors? Prove it by trying out our Defender history quiz! You have three minutes to get all ten questions right. Let us know how you do by Tweeting us!

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