When production of the Defender ended in 2016, it felt like the end of an era. Never before had such an impressive send-off been organised, as the world’s press gathered at Jaguar Land Rover’s Solihull plant to watch the last example roll off the line after 68 years of production.
Four years later and following much hype, the all-new Defender is here, billed to be as tough as ever but with on-road comfort too. And it’s being built at a new plant in another country: Slovakia.
The factory in Nitra has been up and running since October 2018, when it began building the Discovery, which also relocated from Solihull. A bit like Nitra’s operations director, in fact: Russell Leslie is a friendly Brummie who moved to Slovakia after 26 years working around the world for JLR, including managing the Defender line. He explains that getting production moving at Nitra was easier than usual, because the Discovery already had an established engineering process, but now the real challenge begins: “The eyes of the world are on us. We’re hugely proud to be building the Defender.”
Of course, some purists cried foul that the new model isn’t being built in Britain. Leslie comments: “We’re on a global expansion journey. We’re committed to the UK as our design and engineering base. We needed to find space in the factories in the UK for future products and therefore there was a need to move. And actually this [plant] gives us access to markets we didn’t have before, and it helps with currency fluctuations.”
At two million square feet, the purpose-built facility is almost twice the size of the Solihull plant and has clearly been a boon for the area; miles of perfectly smooth new roads lead here, passing a host of supplier factories. The figures back it up: local unemployment has fallen drastically. JLR employs 2800 people, more than a third of them women – unusually high for a vehicle plant. Its processes were ergonomically designed, it says, so 97% of people can do the job.
Nitra has an annual capacity of 150,000 cars; last year, around 38,000 Discoverys came off the line, plus up to 2000 Defenders. JLR won’t comment on volume predictions, but the fact the site is at just a quarter of its capacity suggests there’s an awful lot resting on the new Defender.
Leslie says: “We always build facilities with a three-shift capacity [there are two shifts at present]. You have to design a facility to enable a certain jobs-per-hour rate. We have what we believe we need for both today and tomorrow.”
As well as the Discovery, Nitra is set up for the 90 and 110 wheelbases alone, but a family of Defenders is coming. Due in the next few years is a Mercedes-AMG G63-rivalling luxury model, the 130. This will be crucial in creating a cost-effective and profitable model line – a feat the previous generation failed to achieve.