Why is the Land Rover Defender really killed?

Land_Rover-Defender-90-river-wadeAs announced almost a year ago, 2015 will mark the end of production of one of the longest running vehicle designs currently on sale. The Land Rover Defender was introduced as the Land Rover Series I in 1948, was renamed Ninety and One Ten in 1983 and renamed again as Defender in the 1990’s, but the basic structure and design haven’t changed much over the past decades.

Jaguar-Land Rover claims that it’s impossible to make the iconic Defender meet the stricter European Union emission standards that go into effect by 2020. The Defender had already been pulled out of the North American market in 1998 when it couldn’t meet the stricter safety regulations of the US and Canada. However, if we look at the sales figures, we can conclude that Europe is one of the Defender’s smallest markets, and not being allowed to sell the model in the European market wouldn’t result in a loss of sales large enough to blame the demise of the model on the regulations.

A real off-roader

Land Rover sold 17.137 Defenders worldwide in JLR’s fiscal year 2013, compared to 16.199 in 2012 and 19.736 in 2012. Europe only accounted for 810 of those 2013 sales, or less than 5%, and as the Defender is not sold in North America, we can conclude that the bulk of the model’s orders come from other regions, where emission and safety standards are less strict. Regions where off-road capabilities, easy-to-repair and towing capabilities are more important than a comfortable ride, a plush interior and 20 inch wheels.

Land_Rover-Defender-Red_Cross-rescue-vehicleAnd that makes perfect sense, as the Defender was never designed to be driven on Europe’s smoothly paved roads. Whereas the furthest off-road that other SUV’s will ever go is when they are parked with two wheels on the sidewalk in front of Harrods, the world’s first mass-produced civilian 4×4 comes into its own in the deserts of Africa, the rainforests of South-America and wherever the Red Cross need to carry their rescue troops and supplies. The fact that it’s sold mainly in second- and third world countries confirms the fact that the Defender doesn’t need to meet European emission standards to continue its successful 67-year production run.

Development costs of the Defender have been paid for decades ago, so even at a production of just 20.000 units a year, the model should be profitable or at least add enough to JLR’s bottom line to be sustained as an image-builder for the brand. And to put things into perspective: it’s corporate sibling the Jaguar XJ sells around 15.000 to 20.000 units a year as well and the similar Mercedes-Benz G-Class sells less than half as many as the Defender (8.404 in 2013 and just 4.750 in 2012).

A new Defender family

Land_Rover-DC_100-Defender-successorAs a replacement to the iconic vehicle, Land Rover is developing a small “family” of Defenders, similar to the Range Rover “family”, and even a sporty beach-buggy style Defender may be in the pipeline. A newly developed modern platform would need a volume of at least 50.000 annual units to make a viable business case, so the European and North American markets will be very important to reach these kinds of figures. Of course, a new model that meets emission and safety regulations in Europe and the US would boost sales and is likely to achieve the targeted sales numbers, but it will be less of an iconic image-builder as the Defender.

Naturally, Land Rover claims best-in-class off-road capabilities for the new model, but the reality will be that the closest these cars will ever get to off-roading is the parking lot of the golf course. That’s why I believe it would make sense to keep the original in production next to the “lifestyle” family of Defenders. Even selling the Defender at a loss would benefit the Land Rover brand, as it gives credibility and authenticity to the other vehicles in the line-up.

Land_Rover-Defender-110-river-wadeThat’s because despite the harsh environments where most defenders are used, about three-quarters of the 2 million Defenders produced since 1948 are still in regular use. There is no better marketing proposition for proving a brand’s trustworthiness and durability in the toughest of circumstances than this, even when the latest Range Rover doesn’t share a single part with the Defender, with the exception of the badge. And the badge is exactly the reason why people buy Land Rovers and Range Rovers. Not to take them out in the country to go deer hunting and wading through rivers.

Making the Defender’s successor a trendy car means saying goodbye a trustworthy and capable work horse and an off-roader’s favorite for decades, and the cheapest marketing item a brand can wish for. Land Rover has plenty of vehicles in their line-up to cover the Footballer’s Wife part of the market. What they need is a vehicle that gives those SUV’s credibility and help them stand out from the ever increasing crowd of soft-roaders.

  1. Hi Bart,
    Very useful sales figures. Thank you.
    I am doing a little research and as part of it trying to gather the numbers of passenger cars in use by country, make and model. Your sales figures could give me a good substitute if I summed up let’s say the last 10 years of sales. However, you show figures aggregated for (almost) all of Europe. Do I suspect correctly that you get them by summing up figures from individual countries? If so, would you be willing to share with me your source data? If easier, I will happily settle for just the biggest half a dozen markets: Germany, UK, France, Italy, Spain, Poland (I am guessing).
    Kind regards,

    1. Hello Adam,
      I do get my data of most brands as aggregated Europe sales. For individual countries, you could check the site
      Good luck with your research,

  2. I believe that the Defender should still be made, perhaps in a country like India where labour costs are lower and closer to markets it would continue to be sold in.

    The 810 sales in Europe you mention. Is that total sales registered as passenger sales? Many Defenders are sold as commercial vehicles in Europe, so I am picking that more than 810 vehicles are sold in Europe. Either way there is a case for continued production.

    1. You are right, RayCee. The 810 sales are only those registered as passenger cars, and most of the Defenders sold in Europe are commercial vehicles.
      And you’re also right that this still leaves enough market potential for the model to be continued in parts of the world where safety and emission standards are not as strict.

  3. From my reading of your data, you have looked at European volumes of the Defender registered as a car to get to your figure of 810 units, but have not considered Defenders registered in Europe as Commercial Vehicles, which were over 10,000 in 2013. Add the 810 Defender cars, and you get to almost 11,000 units, leaving only 6,000 units for the rest of the world. Lets assume some of those cars go to markets that apply similar emission rules to Europe (e.g. Australia), and you very quickly get to the situation where production isn’t sustainable.

    1. Hi Neil,

      you’re correct to say that the 810 only include those registered as a car, as I’ve mentioned above. Commercial vans have to adhere to much more lenient emission standards than regular cars do, so it would buy them some more time before these rules become effective for the majority of Defenders.
      If you have a reliable source for the 10.000 commercial units, I’d be very happy with that data. I get a lot of requests for data on commercial vans and pick-up trucks, so I’d be very grateful if you can help us out with that.

  4. I have data for that sort of thing. I didn’t know it was the sort of thing you would get asked for. If you want to drop me an email, I can tell you what I have.

  5. Hi Bart
    Despite this being an article from 2014, I’d like to add my comments. On our construction site in Slovakia we use the Defender (long wheelbase) every day to get around the various projects. The site tracks are atrocious therefore a durable 4×4 is what is required. The Defender does its job well here and would no doubt keep doing so for the next few decades without fear of wearing anything out. Despite its appearance from the outside it is a bit cramped in the cabin because it’s a slightly narrow vehicle, therefore elbow room is limited, especially in the back. Climbing in and out lacks a side step and hand grips inside the cabin at roof level. Otherwise, the Defender does its job, reliably but with basic comfort. Provided the new Defender retains the robust features of the original but adds the ergonomics, comfort and quality of the current generation of Land Rover, I’m convinced that it will be highly successfull especially in North America where 4×4’s, pickup trucks, etc. have a strong position in the market.
    NJ, Nitra, Slovakia

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