When you think of Queen Elizabeth's wheels, you probably think of some stately Rolls-Royce or her armored modified Bentley. But in the film The Queen, the vehicle old Liz actually drives herself is a Land Rover Defender when on her family's Balmoral estate. Despite Charles' suggestion to get something newer, the Queen is rather insistent about driving her trusty green Defender 110 about -- she even diagnoses the damage caused to its undercarriage when she goes too quickly through a stream. "I was a mechanic during the war," she says. Sure this was all in a movie, but if something's good enough for the Queen, the Defender should be good enough for off-road enthusiast Yanks searching for a rough-and-tumble SUV with decades of Land Rover pedigree.
That pedigree dates back to the original Land Rover Series 1, which was created in 1948 to serve the same general purpose as the U.S. Army's Jeep. The later "Station Wagon" body style -- typically with the spare tire mounted on the hood -- is the one closely associated with any movie featuring an African safari. This body style in two- and four-door form carried on into the 1980s as Series II and Series III. These Land Rovers were the go-to vehicle for folks hunting water buffalo in Botswana or herding sheep in Berwick-upon-Tweed.
Land Rover's utilitarian off-road SUV became known as the Defender Ninety and Defender One Ten in 1985, with the numbers respectively representing the two- and four-door models' wheelbases (rounded to the nearest 10). These models were changed to the numerical 90 and 110 from 1991 on and continue to be sold in Great Britain today. (They are also the British Army's primary troop vehicles, much like the American Humvee.)
Of course, this is the history of the Land Rover Defender in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the world. Here in the United States, the Defender is a rare beast, having been sold in low numbers for only four years. Airbag requirements ultimately doomed Land Rover's ability to import the Defender (it didn't have them), and with so few sold, finding one should take considerable time and effort. But for those looking for a dedicated off-road SUV fit for a queen, the Defender is certainly worth the effort.
Most Recent Land Rover Defender
The two-door Land Rover Defender 90 was sold for 1994, 1995 and 1997. (Emissions requirements and low sales resulted in no 1996 model.) There were two body styles available. The convertible came with a standard second-row bench seat and a choice of a full soft top (with roll-up side windows), fastback soft top, "Bikini" half top or no top at all. The hardtop body style debuted in 1995 featuring an aluminum roof with pop-up sunroof, an internal/external "safari cage" and four center-facing rear seats. The latter allowed this relatively small vehicle to seat up to six people.
For 1994 and '95, the Defender 90 was powered by a 3.9-liter V8 that made 182 horsepower and 232 pound-feet of torque. This engine drove a full-time four-wheel-drive system and was connected only to a five-speed manual transmission. For 1997, Land Rover fitted the Discovery's 4.0-liter aluminum V8 that yielded 182 hp and 233 lb-ft of torque into the Defender. Mated only to a four-speed automatic, this engine wasn't any more powerful than its predecessor, but it had lower emissions, which granted the Defender a brief re-entry into the United States.
Those expecting to find an interior similar to those found in Land Rover's other products will be greatly disappointed. The Defender represents the definition of bare-bones, with a simplistic dashboard designed in the mid-1980s and a utilitarian cabin fashioned to be more easily vacuumed out after a Serengeti trek. There were also no airbags. (Even to this day, the thoroughly updated Defender sold elsewhere doesn't have them.) This lack of creature comforts and safety features doesn't even take into consideration the profuse amount of noise emanating from the road, wind and engine.
The Land Rover Defender 90 does the job it was intended to do well. But beyond tackling off-road trails, however, it is ill-suited for any significant journey involving pavement. Other off-road specialists like the Jeep Wrangler will probably suit your trail needs just as well as the Defender at a lower price, although none boast the Land Rover's British pedigree.
Past Land Rover Defender Models
In 1993, Land Rover sold 500 units of the four-door Defender 110 in the United States. Featuring a stretched version of the later two-door model's frame, it featured a wheelbase that surpassed that time's Range Rover. The 110 came only in a fixed hardtop body style with center-facing rear seats that allowed nine people to sit in all the comfort of a troop transporter. Power came from the 3.9-liter V8 that made 180 hp and 227 lb-ft of torque. The same praise and criticism levied at the Defender 90 can be directed at the 110 as well, but its extreme rarity should at least make it more of a collector's item some day.