You’d think Americans have enough trucks right at home. But there is, amidst the millions of pickups and SUVs that crowd US roads, something Americans can’t find enough of: The original (1983-2018) Land Rover Defender. The venerable off-roader has emerged as the top used car imported from to the United States from the United Kingdom, according an analysis of Hagerty’s shipping data. An average of 23 Defenders per month are now tracked leaving the UK destined for North America, a huge rise of nearly 1300 percent from six years ago, when an average of fewer than two per month were making the same journey. Defenders are now travelling to the US at a rate double that of any other vehicle.
The Defender's journey from rural workhorse to collectable classic has been a long one. Even the UK Hagerty Price Guide fell behind: although we’ve tracked series Land Rovers (1948-85) since the Guide’s inception, the Defender was considered too much of a "used" vehicle to be included. Defenders were hosed-out, patch-welded and filled with dogs rather than pampered, polished and stored in a dehumidified garage.
But in the last few years the Land Rover Defender has become recognised for what it is: the last in the line of a classic model that was in production for nearly 70 years. The Defender was the vehicle that kept the British Army on the move, enabled farmers to traverse their land in any weather and, as we saw last month, one even took HRH The Duke of Edinburgh to his final resting place. If there’s ever a debate about what is the most important British car of all time, surely the Defender is in with a strong shout.
But it wasn’t always the case, neither to British nor American enthusiasts. Between 2012 and 2014, an average of just over 23 Defenders per year were exported into the US, the vast majority from the UK. Then, imports suddenly increased, until by 2017 it was up to 597. It’s fascinating to see that this trajectory was matched almost exactly at the time by a very different car: the 1989-94 Nissan Skyline R32. Then though, the Skyline fell away but Defender imports just kept increasing. By 2020, the Defender had reached 709, with the Skyline back down to 203.
So, what happened to make this most agricultural of British cars suddenly become so attractive to buyers, especially those in the USA? Three factors have significantly affected Land Rover values: the launch of Land Rover Heritage operations by Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) in 2015, the prominent placing of the vehicle in the James Bond Spectre movie of the same year, and the cancellation of the model in 2016 when exposure of the model was at its highest.
JLR’s investment in heritage operations was a masterstroke in creating a new market. In these times of restomods and manufacturers investing in their automotive past, it’s hard to remember just how ahead of the game JLR was back in 2015 when it launched Land Rover Heritage and the Special Vehicle Operations (SVO) departments at the Techno Classica show in Essen, Germany. I remember standing next to their fully restored Series 1 Land Rover at the show, the model being the first of the works-restored vehicles that JLR offered, and I remember the motoring press being slightly bemused by the thought of buyers paying well over £100,000 for a pristine early Land Rover. I spoke to JLR’s Tony O’Keefe and asked him what they had planned. “That’s next,” he told me, pointing to a chassis mounted on the other side of the stand. It was a Land Rover Defender, and at the time, I didn’t realise just how much of an impact that day would have on the Land Rover market and Defender values in particular.
This leads directly to the second factor: James Bond. The 10 black 110 Defenders rebuilt by JLR SVO and Bowler for the Spectre movie created yet more exposure for the model and suddenly, like any vehicle associated with the suave special agent, the Defender was even cooler than it was before.
The third factor was that the following year Land Rover cancelled the Defender just when it was reaching peak demand thanks to SVO and Bond. Then, it returned to rebuild old Defenders as 70th Anniversary Heritage specials in 2018. And the crowd went wild.
So, what impact has this had on Land Rover Defender values? The original SVO vehicles from the Bond movie were the first to collect real money: back in 2017 and 2018, two of these vehicles punched through the £80,000 auction record for the model, with sales by RM Sotheby’s in London for £230,000 ($300,679 at the time) and then Bonhams at the Goodwood Festival of Speed for a whacking £365,500 ($483,045 at the time), supposedly to Gordon Ramsay.
US buyers weren’t far behind, their eyes on the North American Specification (NAS) models. Today, these outperform Hagerty Price Guide values by around 150 percent. This January, Bonhams sold an NAS 110 for $123,200 and in March, Barrett Jackson sold an NAS 90 for $126,500. Dealer listings in the US for clean NAS Defenders frequently show similar asking prices, and there are reasons for the big NAS premium. For one, despite the original Defender's long production run, Land Rover only officially sold it in America for the 1993-97 model years. NAS versions also featured a 3.9-liter V-8 when the majority of Defenders elsewhere got a four-cylinder diesel. Lastly, Defenders that sold new in the States were very expensive, so Land Rover only sold a little over 7000 examples there. It's often cheaper to import a regular right-hand driver to the States than it is to spring for a genuine NAS Defender. Simple supply and demand, then, is another reason for so many less expensive home-market examples making the long trip to US shores.
And in the UK, prices have been rising. In the first half of 2020, the average UK auction sales price of a Defender was £22,319. By the second half of the year this had risen to £23,690. This year so far, the average is £34,002.
One model though stands head and shoulders above the rest: the aforementioned limited edition V8 ‘70th Anniversary’ models restored and remodelled by the factory and released in 2018. This March, UK online sales site Collecting Cars sold a Defender 90 Works V8 70th Anniversary for £146,000 and even now that doesn’t seem excessive: JLR have a Classic Approved version of the same model for sale at £155,000 and The Hairpin Company are advertising one at £160,000, a shade over the top Hagerty Price Guide value of £159,000.
Is there a downside to this particularly British success story? Is a vehicle price range where the top values are more than 70 times those of the cheapest a healthy situation? Certainly, where Hagerty has seen individual model peaks over the last few years, a trough has generally followed as the market corrects back to a more realistic level. Take the Defender’s upmarket brother, the Range Rover. Values had been climbing steadily since the model entered the UK Price Guide in 2015, and in May last year the Hagerty valued a condition #2 ("excellent") example of the classic two-door Range Rover at £45,000. Today, we value the same car at £38,600, a 14.2 percent drop.
But although stablemates, the Range Rover and the Defender are very different beasts. Collectors of classic Range Rovers demand originality and perfect restorations, or those with matching numbers that can be restored. The Defender buyer is very different: it is one of the very few vehicles that Hagerty tracks (maybe along with Volkswagen vans) that well-built modifications can add significantly to the value: of all the Defender auction lots that Hagerty has tracked in 2020 and 2021 so far, six of the top seven most expensive sales were of modified vehicles.
The critical difference between a pristine two-door Range Rover and a sought-after Defender is that the latter is still extremely usable. And that has always been the point of the Land Rover, maybe the ultimate utility vehicle.