It feels like a lifetime ago, 2017, but it was then – at the launch of the Range Rover Velar – when Land Rover design director Gerry McGovern uttered the brand’s desire to put tuning companies “out of business” through its SVO division.
There’s no doubt in my mind that he was thinking of the Defender when he said it. The history of small independent firms profiting off more individual, bespoke versions of the old 4x4 is long, and when Land Rover dropped the V8 Defender from its range in 1994, many of these firms picked up the baton and created their own.
As engine conversions go, taking the old model from a four or five-cylinder diesel to an eight-cylinder petrol is relatively straightforward as the design hasn't changed since it was sold with a V8. Most used the venerable Rover V8, or related TVR variants. But more recently firms such as Twisted upped the ante, dropping a Corvette LS3 crate engine in with up to 520bhp.
As values sky-rocketed after the Defender’s death in 2016, Land Rover finally cashed in and created its own limited-run V8 conversion. This used JLR's latest 5.0-litre V8 (minus a supercharger), mated to a ZF autobox and with some necessary upgrades to the chassis and brakes. Despite Land Rover charging £150,000 for the privilege, it sold out a month after being announced.
It's natural, then, that JLR will reboot the formula for the all-new Defender, as new spyshots show. We can question the morality of a massive V8 4x4 in these emissions-conscious and cost-cutting times, but there’s certainly a market for it to serve.
It'll have to be strictly limited in numbers to reduce its impact on the brand's fleet average CO2 emissions, which means JLR will likely again charge a hefty sum for the privilege. The biggest question mark is whether it will deliver on the character front. Nobody bought V8 Defenders because a big engine suddenly made them driver's cars; it was because they oozed charm and desirability, not competence. It seems already that the new car has plenty of the latter, but can it feel as unique and special as the old car?