Richard Truett
Richard Truett
Technology and Engineering reporter

Land Rover fans' eyes are on Gerry McGovern as the next Defender takes shape

Gerry McGovern with a Defender concept.
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Redesigning an iconic vehicle is a job that’ll add plenty of gray hairs to a veteran designer’s head -- if there is any hair left.

But that’s what Gerry McGovern, Land Rover’s design director and chief creative officer, is facing with his current project: the next Land Rover Defender, the boxy, four-wheel-drive vehicle that has clinged to its same basic shape and remained in continuous production since 1948.

The Defender is one of the granddaddies of modern, off-road vehicles. The aluminum-bodied Defender ends its long production run next month. The new Defender is slated to appear in 2018, but Land Rover executives are not saying much about its looks just yet.

A 1966, left, and 1995 Bronco. Ford morphed the Bronco away from its original roots, and the vehicle eventually died.

Jeep and Ford are two brands that have dealt with the tough job of redesigning iconic off-road vehicles.  

There’s the Ford Bronco that debuted in 1966 as a stripped-down, rugged, compact soft-top, off-road vehicle to compete with Jeeps and Land Rovers. By the time it died in 1996, it had morphed into a gigantic lumbering two-door, F-150 based SUV that no one wanted.

A 1946 Jeep Willys Universal.

Then there’s the body-on-frame, solid-axle Jeep Wrangler, whose ancestors date back to World War II. Wrangler shows how you keep a vehicle true to its original roots while modernizing it. The Wrangler has gone through many revamps over the years but still looks basically the same, still occupies the same basic footprint and still can go nearly anywhere. (With each generation the Wrangler has become more comfortable and more fuel-efficient, and the vehicle has added more off-road capability, better performance and more technology.

That kind of evolution is what we’ll likely see in the next Defender, says Paul Snyder, the chairman of the transportation design department at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies.

He says the next Defender should embrace technology but remain true to the vehicle’s original mission. “The best brands in the history of the auto industry have evolved over time by virtue of technology that is new, whether that be mechanical underpinnings, the power source or aerodynamics,” he said.

Land Rover has tested the waters with Defender concepts that move the vehicle away from its current looks, but those have not gone over well. McGovern has hinted that’s not the plan for the new Defender.

“When this vehicle comes out, people will know it’s a Defender, it’s a modern Defender,” McGovern told my colleague David Undercoffler at the recent Los Angeles auto show. “But it will bear no resemblance to those Defender concepts,” he added.

More demands

Moray Callum, Ford’s vice president of design, understands the pressure McGovern is facing. Callum oversaw the recent redesign of the Mustang -- a project always filled with competing and conflicting demands -- and he led the team that created the new Ford GT coming next year.  

I asked Callum about his approach to creating new versions of vehicles that are beloved for their design. Here’s what he told me:

“When designing an iconic car, you want to really understand what cues are absolutely necessary and which you can edit or reinterpret with a more contemporary feel,” he said.

In the case of the Defender, its signature design cues include boxy fenders, exposed door hinges and a flat windshield. The new model likely won’t be a full-out retro design, as very few retro vehicles were successful for more than a year or two. Think: 2002-05 Ford Thunderbird, Plymouth Prowler and Chevrolet SSR.

“There has been a point in time where many iconic designs hit the reset button and went back to the original one, resulting in several brands coming out with retro-looking designs. We did that ourselves with the Mustang and the Ford GT in the early 2000s,” Callum said.

“And it was the right thing to do at the time. Today, we have taken a different approach, and our iconic designs pay homage to the original ones, without mimicking them. The key cues are clearly recognizable, but the design is modern and communicates that level of innovation and technology that can only be accomplished in a 21st-century car.”

McGovern has faced this pressure several times before at different companies. In fact, he’s one of the most experienced designers in the business when it comes to dealing with beloved vehicles with massive heritage baggage.

A 1980 MGB, the last of the line that started in 1962.

When McGovern worked at the Rover Group in the 1990s, he led the team that produced the final production version of the MGF, the first new MG roadster since the 1961 MGB. The MGF appealed to the brand’s faithful customers and brought in new ones as it went on to become Europe’s top-selling roadster for nearly a decade.

A 1995 MGF.

In 1999 McGovern moved to Ford where he was design director at Lincoln and Mercury. His concepts, the Lincoln Mark 9, 2002 Continental and 2003 Mercury Messenger, showed a blend of historic brand-specific design cues, modern materials and forward-looking design elements -- all the ingredients that could make up the next Defender.  

When he returned to Land Rover in 2004, he led the team that designed the third-generation Range Rover, which tastefully updated some of the design DNA from the classic original 1970-95 version.

You might be wondering why the next Defender is such a big deal, since the vehicle has not been sold here in the U.S. in nearly 20 years.

Buying, selling and restoring classic Land Rovers are a huge global business. Today, the vehicle is in such demand in SUV-crazed America that thousands of Defenders have been imported privately, some illegally. Any vehicle 25 years old or more is exempt from federal emissions and crash regulations and can be legally registered and driven in most states.

Jaguar Land Rover, on a drive to boost its annual volume to 1 million vehicles from about 500,000 currently, will be exporting the next Defender to the U.S. where many potential buyers love the vehicle’s rugged African-safari image but want reliability and modern safety to go with it.

For JLR to meet its volume goals, the next Defender must be hugely successful in the U.S.

“A lot of people love the idea of [the previous Defender], but they never buy one,” McGovern told Automotive News Europe's sister publication Automotive News. “While I’m a designer, and I love designing, I’m also a businessman. We need to build a critical mass in order to sustain ourselves in the long term and reinvest.”

You can reach Richard Truett at rtruett@crain.com.

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