there are few icons in the automotive industry as lauded as the land rover defender, and the new, next-gen 2020 defender has just been unveiled at the frankfurt auto show to a great deal of world attention. c/d talked there with the designers responsible for bringing the defender to life.
for gerry mcgovern, land rover's chief design officer, the mission was clear, if not easy: respect the deep heritage while propelling the defender forward and widening its appeal.
"it's embracing all the relevant technologies for a world that's changing and has changed massively. it's got up-to-the-minute connectivity, the body structure is state of the art, it's got the stiffness as strong as anything you can mention," mcgovern tells car and driver. "it has the packaging for ergonomics, all embraced in a shape that pays homage, but it's a modern vehicle. there's an elemental quality, but still sophisticated."
the foremost challenge, according to mcgovern, was to make sure his team didn't overdesign. "no silliness on the design," he emphasizes. "not letting the car grow more than it needed to. at land rover we've had a lot of success, so it's proving by success. when vehicles have done well financially, it gives people confidence."
to get a sense of the defender, we first took a walk around it with land rover's chief exterior designer, andy wheel. for him, defender really begins with the silhouette, specifically the side view. "even with the drapes on, before we take the covers off, people go, 'oh, i know that's a land rover.' "
wheel says elements like the chamfered edge of the very horizontal roof, the sheer vertical rear end, the windshield—which sits prominently angled upright for a modern car—and the definitively horizontal hood are all strong cues that clue people to its purpose. add in the front end and short front overhangs, and it's clear what this vehicle is about. "you put all those together and you get this silhouette which makes it click for people. [they see it as] inherently a good all-terrain vehicle, and it is absolutely land rover."
wheel says the clearly delineated horizontal nature of the defender is essential. "we have horizontal lines dividing the roof from the glass, from the lower part of the car, and then everything else. it's all about these very clean but very sophisticated surfaces which send those subliminal messages that say: looks tough, is tough."
the front is a strong departure from the old car, with a reductive, single-bar grille that mcgovern believes gives it a modern aesthetic. familiar round headlights act as a bridge, although now fitted with led technology. wheel points out that the headlights are set back as well so it looks like a frown, suggesting cars are very anthropomorphic, often with defined faces. the metallic plates that break up the the hood "make it look like the car has been hewn from solid."
heading around to the back, you can see very constructed wheel arches. the longer-wheelbase model, the 110, gets the square graphic above the rear wheel, though you can delete that on the short-wheelbase 90s.
"that's to anchor the roof to the body. there's nothing purer than a square; it's the most honest shape. so we've put it on this car to drape the two areas together, to almost magnetize the roof to where we have this glass running all the way through. on the 90 you can have all glass, but some people, especially in the rear, like to have a bit more privacy, and some people will want that visual view all the way through."
wheel insists the rear end posed a real challenge, because vehicles are not often launched with a spare wheel in the back. "it's very rare, and those cars that are out there tend to be facelifts of facelifts or a refresh of a refresh of a refresh, something that was homologated in the '90s. but if you place the tire anywhere else, you'd need to change the proportions, it would be a much less elegant vehicle, and you would lose off-road capability. so it was a case of we're not going to do the easy thing, we're going to do the right thing. and that was our mantra throughout the whole of this vehicle. do what respects the past, while looking into the future."
and since those other cars were designed, lighting regulations have changed across the globe, requiring you have to have taillight visibility, 45 degrees on either side, and visibility when the tailgate is open.
"we have the two main vertical taillamps, like an old defender—they're not squares, they're not circles, we call them 'squircles'—but then that did not meet the legal requirements. so these little lights here which have the indicators and stop function meet the legal requirements, and what it's given us is this unique identity. when you see this car from behind you will know it can only be the new defender, because it's got this unique arrangement of lights in the back."
while the 110 we're walking around—the same one that land rover has been driving around for a year, and drove in kazakhstan for its promotional launch video—is fitted with 20-inch wheels, defender can be optioned with 18-inch steelies like on the stripped-down commercial model, or even 22s.
for wheel, he says his favorite feature is actually on the inside: the third seat in the first row. "the fact that we've done the three-across seat, like the very first land rover in 1948," he tells us, "makes it a much more sociable car. most of the time it's three people in cars rather than four or five. so with that we haven't got two people in the front, and one person consigned to the back. it plays into the car as an enabler to live your life and do it in a social way."
mcgovern says that's also a favorite feature, insisting that he would spec one for himself fitted with the three-seat front-row. specifically, a first edition with black wheels, green exterior, a white roof, and the center optional seat.
one of the unique things about the defender—we've now seen half-a-dozen different defenders in-person, not to mention many photos of the car—is that each one offers a different visual read. we wondered if this was intentional. for example the defender we did the walkaround with looks distinctly different from the two-tone versions on the show floor, and the 90 has quite a different feel than the 110. some look more rugged, others more sleek.
"yes that's very much intentional," wheel says. "we want the car to be treated as a blank canvas whether the owner be the first, or fifth, or sixth, they can personalize it in their own way. they can make it fit for whatever purpose they are looking for, whether that be urban use or professional all-terrain."
for mcgovern, this fits the ethos of his latest project perfectly. "there's a super poster in the early days of defender that shows it in various proliferations, in a lot of utilities: electricity board, gas board, ambulance, forestry commission, fire truck. and you can argue that this isn't necessarily going that way, but we've seen the proliferation of the different lifestyles that people are getting involved in now, that are different than years and years ago. cycling, hiking, climbing, and on, whatever it is. and this thing bridges all of those. the personalities set out for defender—explorer, adventure, country, and urban—span those different lifestyles. and with 170 accessories, there's a lot of thought going into all of that stuff."
this applies to the interior as well, where you can configure a forthcoming commercial defender 90 with as few as just two seats, or a 110 with three rows and as many as seven seats. the range and possibilities of customization are numerous. mcgovern recalls an expression that says that no two defenders are alike, and he admits that while that may have been an exaggeration, if you really want a unique one, that's very possible to do. the defender 110 will arrive in the u.s. this coming spring.