The UAE's love affair with the Land Rover Defender
The Land Rover Defender is no more. Or it won’t be at the end of January, when the last one emerges from a factory in the outskirts of Birmingham in the UK. The iconic, square-sided, round-head-lamped, chunky-tired workhorse will now be reduced to a chapter in automotive history – a long, possibly even glorious chapter, but one to which owners Tata have applied a definite and definitive full stop. “Time to move on,” they said last year.
A victim of changing tastes and new emissions rules, the original and, many would argue, best Land Rover will be shelved, with a new concept to replace it coming on stream within three years. Whatever form the new model takes, though, it’s almost certain it won’t be used, loved or discussed in quite the same way. The Land Rover Series 1, which was rebranded “Defender” in a 1990 marketing upgrade, was the automotive world’s great survivor.
In the words of Roger Crathorne, who worked in the factory for 50 years, the vehicle was a “toolbox on wheels”, a mini tractor that could work on all terrain types. Conceived in the shadow of World War II by designer and engineer Maurice Wilkes, it was inspired by the US Army Jeeps that criss-crossed Europe as the Allies closed in on victory. It was certainly a product of its straightened times: as steel was in short supply, the first Land Rovers were built from aluminium with a canvas roof, while the dull green paint was Royal Air Force surplus. When the first model rolled off the production line in 1948, it was offered to the market with a price tag of £450.
Over the next seven decades, the Series 1 became a staple of armies, explorers and farmers on every continent, its uncomplicated, rugged form changing little in the seven decades it was produced. It is believed that of the two million ever built, more than three quarters are still in working order. Many of those are in the UAE, a country that has enjoyed a long love affair with the Land Rover. According to Adam McEwan, managing director of Platinum Heritage, a Dubai-based tour company that offers desert safaris in restored 1950s Series I Land Rovers, they would have been the very first vehicles many Emiratis would have ever seen – when the UAE was known as the Trucial States and still a protectorate of Britain.
“The Series 1 Land Rover was introduced into the region by the Trucial Force, also known as the Trucial Oman Scouts,” he says. “Not only were they used by the military, but early surveyors ventured deep into wadis and prospected far into the uncharted desert inland to Liwa and into the mountains of Hatta. In most cases, the Land Rover was the first vehicle ever to make tracks in these locations.
In some of the earliest films of the country, the late Sheikh Rashid bin Saeed Al Maktoum can be seen in a Land Rover as he toured the Emirates in its formative years, inspecting developments and visiting remote communities. The founding father of the United Arab Emirates, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, confirms Adam, owned several Land Rovers during his lifetime. “In local society, a community would generally share the use of a Land Rover and use it to open themselves up to commerce and trade with distant communities. If you ask any Emirati elder what was the first car he ever saw or drove in, the answer will most likely be a Series 1 Land Rover.”
Khalifa Al Ghafli from Umm Al Quwain can confirm that. He was 14 when, in the 1950s, he got behind the wheel of his father’s Land Rover, beginning an obsession with the vehicle that has resulted in a collection of more than 190 models – all painstakingly restored. “In 2004, my friend brought over a model from Britain, the same my father owned, and I bought it from him,” he said. “And I simply continued buying.”
His collection eventually grew so large that the ruler of Umm Al Quwain, Sheikh Saud bin Rashid Al Mu’alla, offered him a tract of land, which has now become home to a permanent exhibition – as well as a magnet for other enthusiasts from around the world. Over New Year, for instance, Canadian explorer Ray Hyland paid him a visit in his 1954 Land Rover during his attempt to drive from Cambridge, England, to Singapore – recreating a journey first made by students in 1955. “It was an honour to meet him,” said Ray. “And they carried out some much needed maintenance on the truck and even donated some parts.”
The passion, though, is more than simply nostalgia. Off-road enthusiast Zaid Siwady bought his 2012 Land Rover Defender in May, 2015, replacing his Toyota FJ Cruiser. He recently started an Instagram account – @projectoverlandy – to chart his adventures in his favourite vehicle, attracting more than 5,000 followers in a little over two months.
“When compared to other vehicles, the best word I can think of to describe it is ‘pure’. It was born as a sketch in the sand and rushed into production to serve a purpose and it’s one it has been serving for nearly seven decades,” he says. “It’s the most straight-to-the-point vehicle ever conceived, no useless computerised electronics, no curvy fibreglass spoilers, no complex aerodynamics – simply all out torque and sheer durability.”
For Zaid, who ventures out into the deserts and mountains of the UAE and Oman most weekends, it is the ideal mode of transport to explore remote wadis and dry riverbeds. “It doesn’t go fast, it lacks most of the basic comforts you are used to in a vehicle, but you completely trust it to take you anywhere you want to go. Even when it leaks or breaks, you can pop up the hood or slide down under it and fix the problem with basic mechanic’s tools – unlike all the new high-tech cars that need to be connected to a computer and reprogrammed.”
The real comfort, he says, is in knowing that everything that has made the Defender so popular over the last 70 years will keep them on the road for another 70. The end of the line for the Defender isn’t remotely the end of the line for all the Defenders out there.
“They’ll be around for generations,” adds Adam McEwan. “They are brash and rough but will never let you down. It’s because of this they have become synonymous with adventure and mysterious and exotic destinations. Who doesn’t find that appealing?”