Larry Printz: Land Rover designer turns to modern art as inspiration for the 2020 Defender
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Larry Printz: Land Rover designer turns to modern art as inspiration for the 2020 Defender

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LOS ANGELES - Do you remember what your life was like 23 years ago, the year Great Britain ceded control of Hong Kong to China, President Bill Clinton started his second term in office, and Princess Diana died in a car crash.

That would be 1997, the last year that Land Rover sold the Defender in the United States. For fans of the vehicle, the wait for a new one has been too long, although their patience is about to be rewarded.

Unveiled in November in Los Angeles, the four-door Land Rover Defender 110 is scheduled to go on sale in May with prices starting at $49,900 in the U.S. The two-door Land Rover Defender 90 First Edition will be available come summer starting at $65,100, while the remainder of the Defender 90 models arriving in the fall, priced around $50,000.

The Land Rover Defender is a descendent of the first Land Rover, the Series I, a vehicle that mimicked the Jeep developed for the U.S. Army. Uniquely, it used aluminum construction because of steel shortages in postwar Britain. Ultimately Rover, the company that built the Land Rover, added luxury variants while always keeping a utilitarian line intact. That would be the Defender, which debuted in 1983 and remained in production through 2015, although U.S sales stopped for the 1998 model year when U.S. Department of Transportation regulations required a costly redesign that proved prohibitive given the Defender's meager sales volume. Nevertheless, its design became iconic, mostly because Land Rover lacked the resources to change it. Eventually, it became too archaic to meet changing government regulations worldwide.

Which brings us to the new 2020 Defender, one of three product families at the Land Rover alongside Discovery and Range Rover.

The 2020 Defender, still built of aluminum, uses a new D7x platform and is offered in ascending Standard, S, SE, HSE, First Edition and X trim levels. Standard and S models get a 300-horsepower 2.0-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine wearing a "P300" badge, while other variants get a 400-horsepower 3.0-liter inline six-cylinder engine wearing the "P400" badge. A new Terrain Response system, twin-speed transfer case, locking center differential, active rear and locking differential ensures the Defender's capability regardless of terrain.

Creating a new version of such an iconic consumer product is a tough assignment, but not to Gerry McGovern, chief design officer for Land Rover. "I wasn't constantly thinking about the old one and told the team not to do that either," he said. "I think if we became preoccupied with that, it would become debilitating."

Instead, McGovern and his team developed the vehicle as if had never existed while maintaining its legendary off-road capability and durability. The resulting exterior styling changed little from the first prototype, although the same is not true of the interior, which initially had a lot more exposed structure, but couldn't pass safety regulations.

"I think the car pays a very respectful nod to the original without being held back by it," McGovern said. "It would be completely dishonest as a group of professional designers to create something for today that looks like something that was designed 60 years ago. To me that stop design that's retrospective in the extreme is dishonest."

While the new model comes as a shock to those accustomed to the old Defender, the new model reinterprets classic Defender styling along with Land Rover cues to create a uniquely modular look that stands apart - just like the previous model.

"It's got these big open eyes; it's confident," McGovern said. "It's not trying to be overtly aggressive. It's happy, but no less bold. It's got a charm about it, which when you start seeing this car on the road, its charm and its character will start to become more apparent."

One of the more interesting details in the new Defender are its floating pillars, metal plates that float below the roof and above the vehicle's beltline and are designed to hold different accessories, such as the exterior-mounted gear carrier, which holds up to 37.5 pounds of mucky equipment.

"To me the car is more interesting visually with it," said McGovern, whose design sense is a natural outcome of his own interests.

"The honest thing is I'm not a car nut; I am a designer. I'm just as interested in interested in art as I am car design or any other type of design. I've always loved the artist Josef Albers' 'Homage to the Square.' And I think subconsciously, maybe that was just evolved from that."

It's a distinction that sets Land Rover design apart.

"I grew up in Coventry, which is a city that was absolutely destroyed during the war and it was rebuilt in an international modernist style," McGovern said. "And it really, I think, set me off on this path of modernism, no matter what it was."

It's led to a line of vehicles that are minimalistic yet possessing essential design details, something that is very tough to pull off effectively. "Being able to pare back doesn't mean to say that you have to be clinical. You can still have detail in, and they'll be certain things that are there just to celebrate the visual of it, but it's got to be right."

It must be.

In 2019, Land Rover's U.S. sales hit a record 94,736 units; up 3% from 2018. With the coming Land Rover Defender, expect consumers to break that record in 2020.

As McGovern put it, "They can see the value of getting that balance between design leadership and engineering integrity."

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Larry Printz is an automotive journalist based in South Florida. Readers may send him email at TheDrivingPrintz@gmail.com.

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