Monday December 18, 2017
Although it was a refinement of the original World War II Jeep, the original Land Rover was a hugely influential vehicle. It was cheap, tough, and thanks to its permanent four-wheel drive system, capable of going anywhere. It was as hard as nails, and at the time, no other vehicle came close to matching the Land Rover off-road.
Unsurprisingly, the Land Rover ended up being a massive hit for its maker. The Rover Company soon ended up expanding massively to build its new off-road baby, and such were the levels of its success that the development of generations of its road cars ended up being funded by the Land Rover’s profits.
It was exported globally, and in huge Commonwealth markets, like Canada and Australia, the Land Rover become the most successful off-roader. It was an international symbol of British design ingenuity. In markets as diverse as Rhodesia and New Zealand, the default-choice off-roader was a Land Rover – and they were seen everywhere.
So why is it that within a decade of this 1950s and ‘60s sales boom, Land Rover was chased out of so many export markets only to return in the 21st century, as a very different, upmarket, type of carmaker? The answer to that question isn’t as simple as it seems – in reality, the Land Rover was attacked on a number of fronts, not least by its own lack of build quality and dependability.
Of course, in a market of one, such weaknesses aren’t apparent. Or, at least they’re accepted. But when a competitor comes along, and introduces a product that copies your best bits and eradicates your worst, then the situation changes drastically. For Land Rover, that was very much the situation when the Toyota Land Cruiser was rolled out in 1951 as a support vehicle in the Korean War.
This brilliant off-roader would end up taking the Australian market by storm, outselling the Land Rover massively from the word go. Why? Because it was cheaper to buy, more reliable, better made, and enjoyed far better parts and dealer support. With the Australian market lost, Land Rover would end up being on the defensive across all of its major export markers, not least Africa and South America.
Customers suddenly realised that tough off-road conditions didn’t render your car in need of a major overhaul on a yearly basis. Or that when bad weather struck, that you’d be disabled by the Lucas Prince of Darkness, which was preordained to immobilise your car in the first rain storm it encountered. Sure, Land Rovers were easy to fix, but wasn’t it preferable not to fix them at all?
The company fought back, but not effectively enough. The Land Rover Series II was little more refined but no more reliable than its illustrious forbear, and that was the case with the excellent Series III in 1971. In essence a Land Rover you could buy at the same time as a Lamborghini Countach still had huge parts commonality with its 1948 predecessor.
By the time the coil-sprung Land Rover 90 and 110 were launched in the early 1980s, it was under massive pressure from multiple rivals – all of which were either cheaper, better to drive or more reliable. Or all three. In short, the international market for utilitarian off-roaders had been surrendered.
Fast forward to the 21st century and despite Land Rover being a hugely successful maker of premium off-roaders and luxury SUVs, its founding market for simple 4x4s has never been recovered. Sales of the Defender (a rebranding exercise of the 90/110 series of 1982) dwindled until it went out of production in 2015 – and this iconic vehicle has so far gone unreplaced.
Farmers in the UK want a Defender replacement, but they will have to wait until 2019 to see what it is. They will probably wait, but will their overseas counterparts choose to do the same? Only time will tell.