The Land Rover Still Lord of the Land

Article excerpt

The Land Rover has long been an icon of toughness and adventure in Africa and the demand for this 'go anywhere' vehicle is showing no signs of declining. Dexter Jerome Smith test-drives the Defender, the most popular model in Africa.

When the original Land Rover four-wheel drive (4x4) multi-purpose utility vehicle was launched at the Amsterdam Motor Show in 1948, no-one anticipated it would still be on the market 50 years later, or that its greatest demand would come from Africa. Today, there is still plenty of life in that original design. Further evolutions of it are being developed, and when the UK-based Land Rover company decided to open a second manufacturing plant in the early 1990s it located that plant in South Africa.

The original Land Rover vehicle was intended to be a 'stop-gap' design for Britain's Rover car company. It used war-surplus aviation specification aluminium for the launch of the new quality saloon car because motor car-grade steel was not in sufficient supply in Britain's post World War Two austere economy. Instead, 'The Land Rover', now re-branded the Land Rover Defender, has become a design icon - the classic off-road vehicle whose 'go-anywhere' capabilities are nowhere more appreciated (or needed) than in Africa.

For many years there simply was no other vehicle that could access and survive the untamed expanses of Africa. It has proved its worth, over and above those competitors that have come along since, in an unmatchable variety of roles, including life-saving visits to otherwise inaccessible rural communities, emergency rescue operations, scientific explorations, safaris, and civil engineering projects in inhospitable terrains, as well as being the preferred work-a-day transport of farmers in all corners of the world.

Moreover, it has been widely used by the police and ambulance services and, of course, by the military, who have used it not just for transport but in combat roles with heavy machine guns and even light missiles attached.

African best seller

In 1997, Land Rover sold more than 5,000 Defenders on the African market. This accounted for about one quarter of all Defender production and, interestingly, some 1,800 of these sales for Africa were to various charities or non-governmental aid organisations. Unlike for Land Rover sales in general, the Defender is the biggest selling of the then three, now four Land Rover models available in Africa. Meanwhile, Land Rover's latest model, the Freelander, a sporty leisure/utility vehicle aimed particularly at young drivers, has just entered South Africa's Top 20 of best selling cars within a few months of its African launch.

South Africa is Land Rover's biggest African market and, therefore, an obvious choice for an African manufacturing subsidiary. In 1997, South African customers bought about 2,250 Defenders, compared to Land Rover's next biggest African markets Tanzania taking some 430, and Kenya taking some 350 Defenders. South Africa was also the biggest African market for Land Rover's luxury 4x4 vehicle, the Range Rover (which even Heads of State are pleased to be seen in), selling about 170 of them in the Republic; and likewise for the 'mid-priced' 4x4 station wagon, the Land Rover Discovery, which sold 1,440 in South Africa last year.

Land Rover's plant in South Africa only produces Defenders, and so far satisfies only slightly less than one quarter of the Republic's domestic demand, though it does produce some exports too. Since the plant was opened in January 1995 in the town of Rosslyn near Pretoria, production has risen steadily - 18 Defenders now roll off its production line daily, compared with two-a-day when the plant opened. Land Rover, in fact, currently offers 10 basic versions of the Defender across three wheelbase lengths - standard (90[inches]), long (110[inches]), and extra-long (130[inches]).

The South African plant specialises in only some of these versions, and presently just the standard and long wheelbase. …