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It's nearly the end of the line for the perennial Land Rover Defender. This Heritage limited edition harks back to the early days

What is it?

Say hello to Huey Junior. Huey Senior, for those who don’t know, was the original 1947 pre-production Series I Land Rover, so-called because it carried the registration plate HUE 166.

This limited-edition (only 400 will be made for the UK) Heritage model carries the HUE 166 number on its front wing and on labels stitched into the seats, and is one of three run-out models that will draw 67 years of Defender production to a close next January.

As well as the evocative badging, these exclusive Heritage models also come in this very attractive shade of Grasmere Green metallic paint, with Almond Cloth seats, steel wheels, a white roof and a Heritage Style Grille, to complete that 1940s look.

If you fancy one, you’ll need to look lively and sprint down to your nearest Land Rover dealer. They may seem expensive at nearly £31,000, but plenty of people will want to buy one for a slice of history, and they’ll be confident that this brand new classic will become highly collectable in the future.

What's it like?

As a kid, I used to trundle about a farm in a Defender (a B-plate 1984 soft-top 90 model, to be precise), regularly sharing the open-backed load area with a sheep or a bale of hay. As a result, I have first-hand experience of just how astonishingly good all Defenders are off road.

It was this go-anywhere ability that once saved my dad’s bacon, too. He was due to be the best man at a friend’s wedding, but woke up that morning in December 1963 to find himself completely snowed in at the family farm in Wales. It was only because there was a Series II Landie lurking about on site that both he and my mum - who was dressed to impress but accessorised with a pair of wellies - were able to complete the 100-mile trek and make the nuptuals.

So, does that mean climbing up into the cab of Huey Jr here was a pleasurable trip down memory lane? No, not really. You see, as gifted as Defenders are off road, I’ve always thought they were uncomfortable, slow and noisy.

Back in the late 1980s, when Flossy and I were cosied up in that 90, the Defender was a 40-year old relic then; I would much rather have been riding in the back seat of one of the new and far more comfortable Discoverys - a car that was no slouch off road itself.

That original Disco is long gone now, and even the current Discovery 4, complete with a fancy TDV6 engine and air suspension, is on its last legs and will soon be replaced. Time moves on, and things, more often than not, get better in the process.

So, pottering about Surrey in the cockpit of Huey Jr does beg the question: why has the Defender lasted so long, and why would you buy one now?

Just to get in, I needed to remember that special origami trick of how to fold my 6ft 3in frame to fit into the cramped - but admittedly supportive - driver’s seat of a Defender. Once aboard, you sit behind a vast steering wheel that feels like a leftover from the days before power steering - the days when a large-diameter wheel was essential for extra leverage.

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It’s got hardly any steering lock, either, so U-turns are near-impossible unless you’re in the middle of a field, so on road it’s best to think in terms of W-turns, instead.

The engine is pretty good, though. These late models use a Ford Transit-derived 2.2-litre diesel, which has a pretty effective slug of low-down torque. It may take 14.7sec to hit 60mph from a standstill, but it feels punchy in the low gears and, with good driveability, would no doubt be perfect for off-road use. Despite the comically long-throw gearlever, the six-speed manual gearbox is also surprisingly obliging and easy to use.

Beware of the shorter, stubbier gearlever for the transfer box, mind; touch it and this irksome blighter has the potential to waste five minutes of your life, as you wrestle with it in an effort to escape a box full of neutrals.

It was 1984, the year Land Rover introduced the 90 model, that Defenders finally lost their ancient leaf springs and gained something approaching modernity: the coil spring. However, live axles, front and rear, remain to this day, and they certainly are lively. I can’t think of a single moment when Huey Jr wasn’t bouncing and bobbing over some bump or other - or, for that matter, listing mid-bend like a stricken ocean liner.

You’ll be unlucky to get caught speeding, mind, as these Landies struggle to reach much more than 80mph flat out. But before you hit that heady speed, you’ll be wishing all Defenders came with ear defenders. The combination of wind noise and road roar is deafening, and that’s before the added percussion from the vibrating driver’s door.

How about the ergonomics? Well, you need to open a window if you want any elbow room, and the lights-on warning device in a Defender is an ignition key that you can't remove while the British Leyland-sourced light switch is still in the ‘on’ position.

There are attempts at luxury, such as air conditioning and heated seats. But even with the Alpine head unit - which includes a single-slot CD player - there's no disguising Junior’s bloodline, which runs directly back to Huey Sr and 1947.

Should I buy one?

After sounding less than enthused by the whole experience, you’re probably expecting the answer to be no, right? Well, on any objective level, it should be. By modern standards, the Defender is terrible on road, and this Heritage model, at £30,900, is woefully pricey, too. It may still be one of the best off-roaders on sale today, but are you really going to use this potential future collector’s item to go greenlaning in? No, I didn’t think so. So what is the point of even contemplating buying one?

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It’s this, I think: on my trip through Surrey, I got stuck in a traffic jam on the M3. Sitting there, going nowhere, I became aware of the many, many looks, smiles and approving nods I got from the otherwise glum-faced motorists around me. All because I was sitting in this charming ‘old’ thing. And that’s the point about the Defender, in all its guises: it’s been too old for too long now, but for some reason, people still love it.

If you’re one of these smitten folk, and you’ve got the cash setting light to your pocket, you’ll enjoy trundling about in Handsome Huey here. No doubt you'll have a smile on your face and induce a few on the faces of those around you.

And who knows, maybe it will be a future classic. In which case, 20 years from now, someone equally eccentric might be willing to double your money, so it could even end up being a bargain, after all.

Land Rover Defender 90 Hard Top Heritage

Location Surrey; On sale Now; Price £30,900; Engine 4 cyls, 2198cc, turbodiesel; Power 120bhp at 3500rpm; Torque 266lb ft at 2000rpm; Gearbox 6-spd manual; Kerb weight 1902kg; 0-60mph 14.7sec; Top speed 90mph; Economy 27.7mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 269g/km, 37%

 

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TBC 31 July 2015

Dead Air

I still believe that Iain Banks made the strongest case for owning and driving a Land Rover in town in his book Dead Air. I used to own a shabby, well used Series IIA 109, and can attest to some of the points his character makes. Of course, the Heritage model covered here really doesn't cut it in terms of urban LR ownership. Give it a couple of decades, and some genuine patina however, and it might just fulfill the role of the perfect urban vehicle..............
bruceb 30 July 2015

Why are looks not revered any more?

It seems to me that there are some people who cannot wait to jump all over a good looking vehicle? Yes maybe it is nuts to want to own something that makes people glad to see it. It makes a change! Our roads are filled with the ugliest pieces of utterly boring and cruel looking drabness. Of course, car manufacturers dont want to make their cars TOO good looking anymore, I understand perfectly why, because we'd cherish them for far too long. So please leave the very few alone who want to own a car that brings joy to people OTHER than the driver. They do us a great public service. All you selfish people in your perfect but utterly boring horrible and repulsive machines, you need a telling off for uglifying the place!
Harry P 30 July 2015

Just like Marmite,

You either love or hate the Defender. They are slow, bouncy and cumbersome to drive, but they are also iconic and when used in the right circumstances incredibly rewarding to drive.
We have just leased a new 90 XS model which is used for towing and short distance country driving. The lease cost is incredibly cheap, as whilst they may be expensive, they hold their value so well.
Quite often when we park the vehicle, someone will comment favourably on the vehicle. Land Rover does indeed have a very hard act to follow with the replacement!

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