Land Rover pulled the Defender from the North American market in 1997, back when we got groovy with Austin Powers, wondered who would survive aboard the Titanic, and watched James Bond drive a BMW in Tomorrow Never Dies

In January 2020, before we retreated into re-watching Contagion, Land Rover welcomed back the Defender with a party — a large, lavish, over-the-top extravaganza. The 4XFAR Festival brought 9,000 people together in California’s Coachella Valley to drive the Defender and experience the breadth of what it means to be a Land Rover enthusiast. That would include performances by top contemporary musicians, Land Rover’s partners such as US Eventing and the US Ski Team, a fleet of heritage Land Rovers, and presentations as varied as Virgin Galactic’s space travel to reflections on the Camel Trophy. 

Designing the Festival

In an interview, Kim McCullough of JLRNA explained, “The genesis of the event was understanding the importance of the Defender’s return to North America to the brand and to our faithful enthusiasts. We recognized that a majority of people attending would be new to Land Rover, so the 4XFAR had to connect with people who knew nothing about Land Rover, as well as with those who knew everything. It needed to celebrate this critical moment, after a 23-year absence. It had to be the biggest party we’d ever had, something like we’d never done before.”  

Land Rover’s team of Karen Angus, Michael Curmi and Joe Stauble (among many others) worked closely with the Corso Agency, which creates and organizes 100 events annually. David Corso admitted, “This had something special about it,” because he’s a self-professed “Land Rover fanatic” and owner (’19 Range Rover Sport, Land Rover 110). He said, “The big challenge was to create an event to advance the brand. With the Defender introduction, the question was how do we introduce this new model to a younger consumer and enthusiast? We wanted to create a ‘Land Rover world’, merging the vehicles with the adventure activities to make it a world that newcomers would want to join!” 

Anastasia King of Corso said, “The 4XFAR was singular. None of us had ever done anything quite like this before. Land Rover’s team was visionary and showed great leadership. They created the best possible experience for every participant.” 

John Monroe of SBHH Events, which assisted with the creation of the Land Rover demonstration drive courses and the layout of the Festival events, commended Land Rover on a “new, very forward-thinking model for an event. People want to spend their money on an experience that they would otherwise not be able to do or see anywhere else. If you want to capture the maximum amount of time in any one space, you need to give them things to do and 4XFAR took that concept and ran with it. They took all that is adventure and spread it out through the site, from the rock walls to bike course all the way to water jet pack shows and a one of a kind drive course. Having Land Rover be the driving force behind all of this is what really legitimized it! I can’t even begin tell you how many people within the industry were calling me asking about it.”

The Defender Drive

Kim McCullough promised that the “core element” of the Festival would be the chance to drive a new Defender on a demonstration course, and Land Rover delivered brilliantly on that commitment. 

Land Rover took over a 15-acre agricultural field adjacent to the Festival site and created three off-road courses: two for the new Defender and one to showcase the other Land Rover models. Course Engineer Joel Raymond and his MGOLNIR team have been building courses since 1997, but he acknowledged, “This is the biggest one I’ve ever created for an event. It took our crew of eight about six weeks from design to completion.” Land Rover Mobile Events Team Instructors Jim Swett (Camel Trophy ’95) and Fred Monsees (Camel Trophy ’90) worked with MGONIR to design and create the hills, side slopes, rock fields, moguls, bridges and landmarks that would best show the Defenders capabilities. 

Jim Swett noted, “The Defender drive was dialed up from smaller events, but straightforward in what it offered. We wanted the challenges to be great enough to excite the enthusiast, but not freak out the novice. We did create the instructor-drive track that included some blind turns and more extreme angles, so the enthusiast could really experience the Defender’s capabilities.” Fred Monsees worked with Travis Martin and Geoff Myles to build the wood bridges and the decorative Defender silhouettes. He spent 26 days total constructing the course and another 3 days disassembling the bridges and flattening the hills.

John Monroe remembered, “We spent roughly two months going back and forth on the design. I think we were on the 24th design and even afterwards we still made some audibles on-site during the construction! Working with Joel Raymond and his team was a dream. It’s one thing to design these courses on paper; it’s another to watch them come out of the ground. Joel is an artist when it comes to both the way the course looks and the ability to demonstrate the vehicles’ limits. The course was designed in a fashion that allowed the best possible experience for each driver, while also allowing time for the instructors to showcase the features of each vehicle. Daphne Greene and her fantastic team of instructors were instrumental in maximizing the number of people that were able to experience the course.” 

Daphne Greene (Camel Trophy ’95) coordinated the 51 Land Rover Mobile Team instructors who rode and/or drove 3,500 enthusiasts and newcomers to Land Rover through the two days of the Festival. I asked some readers who flew out to the event for their reactions to their demonstration drives. 

Stephen Ogletree, Adventure Motor Cars, Birmingham, AL, refurbishes and restores NAS Defenders and has spent a lot of seat time in them. After his demonstration drive in the new Defender, he said, “It drove way better that I thought it would drive in terms of capability. My instructor during my first drive, Linda Malcheon, was unbelievable in terms of her ability to guide me. I was amazed at what the Defender would do.” 

“I also took a second drive on the instructor-driven course, which felt even more extreme. I don’t do a lot of off-roading, and I thought for sure we might tip over on the side slope. But my second instructor has a NAS ’97, so he helped me understand the off-road capabilities compared to his older Defender, such as the way the rear differential lock kept locking and unlocking many times a second, which clearly helped traction. It had far more capabilities and comfort, such as the seats, than I thought possible. I wasn’t shocked at the size and it looked right to me in terms of proportions. I recognized it as a Defender. As with many of my customers, I would buy one in a heartbeat if it came with a soft top option!”

Laura Rodriguez owns Xerbera in Dallas, TX, where she and her team create custom Defenders. She said, “This was a very necessary trip for me, even though I had to fly in on a Friday night and fly back the next night! This was the first time for the public to drive the new Defender, so I had to be there. The drive was surreal. I felt very privileged. The exterior styling might have struck a harsh chord with the purist, but I liked it. The capability was astounding; it was important for me to experience it in person. I left with a very solid opinion about it. I was very glad to be there, even if for only a day.”

Ike Goss owns Pangolin 4×4 in Springfield, OR, servicing the Series I community. “I’m likely a more diehard Series I Land Rover enthusiast than most; heck, I’m not even a fan of the Series III,” he said with a laugh. What I’ve loved most about Land Rovers is that they’re simple; the new Defender is much more complicated. But I struggle to drive an automatic transmission!”

“Land Rover incorporated a lot of visual details to have the Defender remain iconic, such as the alpine windows and much of the rear end, but it also uses a lot of the drivetrain technology of the newer members of the Land Rover family. I wish there could be a more utility-oriented version, but I recognize that it’s a limited market. However, I do believe the success of the new Defender will breed enthusiasm for the older ones — and vice versa.” 

Sven Larson is the General Manager of Land Rover Anaheim Hills, CA. He participated in the concurrent dealer training and presentations that concluded with the 4XFAR. “Land Rovers pre-launch trainings are always pretty effective,” he said. “There’s a lot of pent-up demand for the new Defender. We get inquiries daily about ‘When is it coming, what’s its current status?’ I think it could be a big success.” 

Let’s Turn to the Replay

I certainly enjoyed my Defender drives on both courses, the you-drive and the instructor-drive, but I recognized the course was designed for success, a sort of participation trophy for newcomers to the marque. While each 10-minute experience certainly proved entertaining, they in no way could make up for an extended test drive [The Defender Global Press Launch scheduled for March in the was cancelled in late February -ed.]

Instead, I turned to interviews with Land Rover Mobile Team instructors Greg Nikolas, Dan Monsees, Jim West, Tim Henley and Jim Swett to share their driving time in the Defenders and give me a hint as to how it handles off-road driving conditions.

Entering the Defender no longer requires a leap into a seat; you can step in as you might with any vehicle. My foot landed on a rubber flooring that could be cleaned out with a hose. The seating and interior grab bars gave you great confidence. The sightlines through the windshield let you see the front edge of the Defender; the rear view mirror and built-in camera help place the rear. You can sense the extra 8 inches of width and 16 inches of length, but they will only present problems in the most extreme off-road conditions. The extra interior cargo room will be welcomed. There’s still a “command seating position” for rear seat passengers [the 110 can be ordered with 5 + 2 seating -ed.]; seat adjustments are far more generous than the classic Defender. Kudos to Alan Sheppard, Land Rover’s Director of Interior Design, for removing the need for contortions to work inside of a Defender. 

The demonstration course sought to recreate obstacles that confront most off-road situations, with a water crossing a significant omission. The Terrain Response 2 system not only let you select the usual driving condition options — you can even create your own mix of engine and transmission response for unique off-road conditions. Even more appreciated is the ability to choose the level of power assist in the steering and the vehicle speed on hill descent mode. 

The new suspension engineering replaces solid axles and coil springs with an unequal length, double wishbone suspension (SLA) in the front and integral links in the rear. There appeared to be some trade-offs. Thanks to the air suspension, ground clearance is within 1/2 inch of the classic Defender. A different engine type and placement also increased the wading depth by 15 inches greater. The departure angle increased by over 15 degrees, and the side slope angle also increased. On the other hand, approach angles have been reduced from 50 degrees to 38 degrees.  

I asked the Mobile Team instructors about the loss of approach angle. Their uniform response was to note that the previous Defender’s drivetrain assumed that the driver would keep the two front wheels on the ground for traction; the open differentials would send power to a spinning wheel. On the new Defender, you can approach an ascent at an angle because power will be sent to the wheel with traction; a wheel in the will air will not spin. 

You felt this at work during the staged ascents as well as on the mogul fields. Balancing the Defender on three wheels turned out to be easy, and when you landed on the previously airborne wheel, you would not have any power windup or danger of cross-axle breakage. While climbing a hill, with the lowering of rpm to achieve maximum torque (2000 rpm instead of 3500 rpm) and the additional power (63-173 ft lbs, depending on engine) you retain much more control; the 8-speed transmission vs. the former 4-speed automatics held, too. A screen option will even let you “see” over the crest of a hill. 

The side slope angle on the demonstration course was only 25 degrees, which was enough to cause distress among the uninitiated, but well within the greater limits of the new engineering. The course track felt tight, but demonstrated that you could sense the edges of the wider and longer Defender. Again, the vastly improved seating made it less essential to use the steering wheel or the grad bars to hold you in place. The center information screen let you know the angle as well as indicating the placement of the wheels. 

The demonstration course offered a tantalizing experience, but a longer-term road and off-road test will reveal more about the Defender. Land Rover had planned a multiple day test drive for March, cancelled due to the pandemic, in conjunction with the Defender’s arrival at dealerships. Now, Land Rover anticipates the first Defenders will arrive at dealerships in late June and hopes to follow up with additional test drive opportunities — we can’t wait. 

Heritage on Display

To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Camel Trophy, Land Rover not only had a 1995 Camel Trophy Discovery on display, but made it possible for enthusiasts to meet and hear the experiences of US team members Daphne Green (’95), Jim Swett (’95), Fred Monsees (’90), Tim Hensley (’93) and Jim West (’91). Their tales were enlightening. Jim West remembered being stalked by a jaguar. Jim Swett commented on carrying a photojournalist through the mud. Daphne Greene remembered the 30 hours non-stop during the special tasks section. Fred Monsees told of the value of vodka in securing help from Russian forestry officials. Tim Hensley remembered the extreme athleticism required of the participants. 

For enthusiasts and novices alike, Land Rover peppered the grounds with displays of classic Land Rover models [see article pages 18-21]. In addition to the 1948 Amsterdam Motor Show Series I, Land Rover displayed the VELAR prototype of the 1970 Range Rover, a 1987 Range Rover Classic representing the re-introduction of Land Rover into North America. Since the new Defender appears in the latest James Bond Film, No Time to Die, you could also marvel at the beating taken by the Defender prototypes during filming — or even speak with some of the stunt drivers! 

One eye-catching display featured a 1983 Land Rover 110 soft top customized by Cool Vintage, Lisbon, Portugal. It sat on a pedestal —deservedly — atop a mirror to show off the brilliantly-painted frame by article Vasco Costa. Anastasia King of the Corso Agency remembered that David Corso had seen the 110 during a vacation in Portugal. “He wouldn’t stop talking about it,” she said, “and when we brought it to the 4XFAR, he bought it!” 

Land Rover Partnerships

The Land Rover spirit influences its adventure and athletic sponsorships such as the US Equestrian Team, the Kentucky Three Day Event, the US Ski Team and with Virgin Galactic. Wander through the event grounds and you could watch a dressage demonstration, test your skiing skills against a simulated slalom run, and chat it up with astronauts and their trainers from Virgin Galactic. 

While the US Ski Team members were off competing, US Equestrian provided presentations by Olympian Tamie Smith, international equestrian coach Erik Duvander and competitor Frankie Thieriot Stutes. If you ever doubted the athleticism and commitment required to compete in eventing, you left their presentations thoroughly impressed. 

Virgin Galactic’s partnership with Land Rover began in 2014, and continues through the provision of Range Rovers used at the New Mexico Spaceport. Over 600 people from 60 countries have reserved places aboard future space flights, noted Steven Attenborough, the Chief Commercial Director. In case you had plans to join them, Beth Moses, the Chief Trainer, walked you through the requirements. Ron Rosano, who reserved a space ride a decade ago, and Dee Chester, a recently retired teacher, spoke of the school and STEM activities supported by the Galactic Unite program of Virgin Galactic. 

That’s Entertainment!

The mix of activities and music gave everyone something to do, something to quench your hunger and your thirst, and something to hear, from early morning to late at night. From southwest cuisine to Maine lobster rolls, you never went hungry or thirsty. You could hoist yourself up a climbing wall, learn to throw an axe, fly fish, tie knots, mountain bike, slackline, practice yoga, forage for edibles, overland and photograph.  

At night you heard Anderson Paak and The Free Nationals, Mark Ronson and Q Tip, Kurt Vile and the Violators, Young the Giant, Sofi Tukker, Mahalia, the Tijuana Panthers and Chappaqua Wrestling. The sound stages rivaled anything at any outdoor concert venue. 

By the end of the Festival the average attendee had spent nearly seven hours on site daily — an unusually long time, according to event producers. Deborah Njam, a Rebelle Rally competitor and LR4 enthusiast, also attends festivals regularly; her husband works many similar events. She said, “I left the Defender drive with a conviction to go online to determine what my preferred Defender 110 would cost! Production-wise, the Festival was a class act. The setting was gorgeous, as was the concert venue. Every aspect was so well done, with lots of attention to detail! The partner organizations and activities offered incredible experiences on site. I hope there will be another one in the future!” 

Deborah summed up the weekend succinctly. “If you didn’t know what Land Rover was before, you knew what it was when you left.”