By Eric Yang
on 2.11.11

This story begins more than a decade ago. Two, really. All the way back to 1993. When you say it, 1993 doesn’t really seem like all that long ago. But it was a year full of memorable events. Lennox Lewis beat Tony Tucker for the heavyweight title, Intel announced the groundbreaking Pentium processor and NBC aired the final episode of Cheers. Elsewhere, Land Rover was relaunching its footprint in the United States, which they kicked off by bringing the fabled Defender to North America — the first time Land Rover had officially sold their utility vehicles outside of individual importers since 1974. The stateside onslaught was, at its core, a marketing/PR initiative designed to build recognition by importing a widely recognized vehicle in their stable with a series of modifications designed for the fickle North American market. The Defender.

Little did anyone know that Land Rover would ignite a nationwide obsession.

Scan of the original 1994 Car & Driver article by Csaba Csere courtesy D-90.com

America, Meet the Defender

The North American Defender has a captivating provenance here in the United States. Requiring extensive modifications for American safety standards, Land Rover created what would go down in history books as the North American Specification Defender, commonly referred to as the NAS Defender. Outfitted with a 3.9 liter V8 engine, 5-speed transmission, all 500 of the initial Defenders brought to the US were only available in a single configuration: four-door and white. This would also be the last time they were ever sold here (legally) as well. Land Rover called these Defenders the 110 County Station Wagon denoting the hard top four-door configuration and wheelbase length in inches.

…the Defender is an improbable maelstrom of mechanics. It imparts a concussion-inducing ride, has terrifyingly low gas mileage (think: gpm versus mpg), a flummoxing interior with haphazard ergonomics, and a bevy idiosyncratic mechanical issues. So, why the hell would any one want to pursue owning a NAS Defender? Simple… it inspires.

Capturing what would eventually become the culturally consuming sport-utility zeitgeist, the Defenders practically sold themselves and Land Rover followed the four-door 110 in 1994 with what would become a bona fide icon in the US: the Land Rover Defender 90 (the D90). The hearts of Southeast, Pacific Northwest, Southern California and Atlantic coast men (and women) quickly gravitated to the D90, with its irresistible bold North American specification colors (e.g. AA Yellow, Monza Red, Alpine White), soft top configuration, chunky roll cage, BFGoodrich mud-terrain tires and brutish yet handsome stance. The Defender exuded a singular statement, “the way I got here was more exciting than yours”, and in time Defender owners the world over would vaunt the NAS Defender to one of legend.

The icon also helped reestablished Land Rover’s status here in the US and paved the way for mass-market successes like the Range Rover, Discovery and maligned Freelander. To that date and elsewhere in the world, Land Rover had already reached every touchpoint of the British Empire with the Defender. Only the US had been deprived of the utilitarian brick-on-wheels (perhaps the Brits did have the last laugh). Its incremental production numbers for North America — a mere 6,500 over four years — made the Defender 90 an instant classic and later evolving into a truly rarefied vehicle.

Today and the Future

Alas, Land Rover being the company that it was (today’s LR is quite different) did little to improve on the Defender, not that anyone wanted changes. 1997 would be its last year in the US due to increasingly stringent safety regulations and after a hiatus in 1996, the 1997 Defender landed outfitted with “upgrades” including a ZF four-speed automatic transmission, larger 4.0 liter V8 engine with marginally more power, slightly revised interior and (gasp) standard air conditioning. Along with a limited batch of 500 hard tops offered in 1995 with manual transmissions, this would also be the only other year the Defender was available in either a soft or true hard top configuration — with $32,000 and $34,500 price tags, respectively. A limited edition version in Willow Green would also be available packed with nearly every option including a massive Safety Devices Safari roof rack with ladder, swaths of diamond-tread plating, and a Warn winch. The Defender SE (special edition) clocked in at $40,000 or nearly $60,000 in today’s dollars — a hefty outlay for a vehicle about as spartan and comfortable as a war-torn tank, circa 1943. But the Defenders sold, and we’re willing to bet a gallon of gas that even today’s most car-aloof can draw a silhouette of the Land Rover Defender along with imaginitive descriptions of African safaris or The War.

Fast forward to 2011. The Defender’s future is now uncertain. The current Defender, essentially the same one that rolled off the lines 60 years ago, has simply outlived its usable life. Safety standards overseas have reared their ugly head requiring the Defender to undergo a ground-up rethink. The good news. Rumors are that Land Rover is currently underway with a secret taskforce called Project Icon (an appropriate name) to create a redesigned Defender and with it may come a reintroduction to the critical US market. The bad news. Initial sketches and ramblings about the Defender haven’t been entirely reassuring, but it’s worth noting that the market today is a nightmare of customer demands, loyalist-fervor, fuel price flux and regulations. In other words, previous research and development dollars. Nevertheless, the same stubbornness that ended the Defender’s own life here in the US may also be its greatest potential strength. Combined with the Defender’s army of advocates, there are high hopes for Project Icon — though what it will eventually yield is anyone’s guess.

Today’s world of unibody, over-bloated SUV’s are a unfortunate necessity for the masses, leaving with it a dearth of purpose-built utility vehicles. Grass roots initiatives from boutique brands like TLC Icon and Ariel Atom reinvigorate hope for the driving enthusiast, but in a tightened economy buyers understandably gravitate towards functionality and price over passion and inspiration. One thing is for certain, though, and it is a convenient segue into our Grail Quest. We will in all likelihood never again see a vehicle comparable to the original NAS Defender. Today’s Land Rover is simply too smart to make such a wonderful mistake.

The Grail

Today, a pristine example of the NAS Defender is extremely rare. Most were relegated to off-road mavens, trend-followers or even worse, modified beyond recognition. Some were simply left to rust and rot (cringe) by incompetent owners who failed to recognize the sample of vehicular history they owned. After all, by any acceptable measurements in today or yesteryear’s standards, the Defender is a maelstrom of mechanics. It imparts a concussion-inducing ride, its V8 petrol engine has terrifyingly low gas mileage (think: gpm versus mpg), a flummoxing interior with haphazard ergonomics, and a bevy of idiosyncratic mechanical issues. So, why the hell would any one want to pursue owning a NAS Defender? Simple… it inspires. Ask yourself this. What purpose does a rare Rolex or Patek Philippe serve? Why would you buy a fixer-upper as a primary home? Why do we find so much satisfaction in heritage, restoration and renewal? The relationship with a man and his obsession is neither explainable nor justified. It is, to quote Diamond Rio, a beautiful mess.

Editor’s Note: This personal grail quest that’s lasted in excess of a decade has at long last come to an end. It actually appends a previous (successful) quest which involves a 1973 Land Rover Series III but we’ll save that story for another time. After scrupulous searching, dozens of false leads and far more phone calls and emails than I care to remember, I recently came into possesssion of a nearly untouched Alpine White 1997 Defender 90 Station Wagon (hard top). Procuring the Defender 90 is just the beginning of this tale though as this particular Brit Beast has a derivation story of its own, which we’ll dive into more in the follow-up article. In the meanwhile, pardon me while I grab some Tylenol and head out for a drive…