In January of 2015, as part of a year-long celebration of the impending demise of what many see as its flagship model, Land Rover opened its Defender assembly line in Solihull, UK, for public tours. Us mere mortals would finally be able to catch an in person glimpse of the manufacturing line where Land Rovers have been built since 1948.
Atlantic British had the privilege of touring the Land Rover plant during its last week of operation. According to our tour guide, Land Rover simply couldn’t build Defenders economically. They were expensive to produce, relying heavily on by- hand construction methods and complex assemblies, in contrast to the robotically welded, stamped and pressed structures of their more modern counterparts. In combination with the high production costs came long production times and lack of corporate will to re-engineer the vehicle in order to make the changes needed to meet the new standards. In short, they were difficult and costly to build, difficult to improve, and due to the cost and lack of refinement in comparison to newer vehicles, difficult to find purchasers for.
Not that difficult apparently, since the factory ran a month over the original shut down date in order to fulfill a rash of last minute orders. On our visit, the assembly line was as busy as ever, cranking out vehicles at the rate of approximately one every four minutes. After a brief introductory film, is The first stop on the tour the building known as “body in white,” where all of the metal panels that make a Land Rover- firewalls, rear tubs, doors, bonnets and seatboxes, are fabricated, assembled and hung together on a steel cradle, looking somewhat like an exploded diagram of a Land Rover. The thing that strikes you upon entering the plant is the sounds. This isn’t the regular, rhythmic sound of an automated process, rather, a very much irregular beat of human beings doing human work, to fit all of the Defender’s pieces together by hand. Of course there are many jobs that aren’t done by hand, such as fitting door frames to door skins and fitting bulkheads together. The welding of the bulkheads is done by a small gang of three or four robots known affectionately as “Damien.” Probably because of the creepy way they move and the claws with which they grab the heavy firewall sections. And perhaps the 12-foot long streams of sparks that fly every time they execute a spot-weld.
Finally, after the new panels are gathered on their cradle, they enter a quality-checking bay where they are wiped down with a glossy solution that shows any imperfections in the body. Once cleared for paint, the body panels, still on their cradles, are transported in covered lorries transported from “body in white,” to the paint facility, where the body panels on their steel cradles go through a multi stage process of dip tanks and eventually into the spray booths where they are given their final color coats, with finishing of the inner panels done by hand. The requirements for cleanliness in the finishing areas is so rigorous that the employees working there are not even allowed to wear deodorant for fear that particles may somehow end up on the panels and interfere with adhesion. For that reason, among others, the factory does not allow visitors into those buildings.
Skipping over the finishing, our tour moved to Trim and Final, which is where all the pieces and parts come together. At one of the very first station in this section, the chassis are stamped with their VINs by a machine that sounds like a demented robotic woodpecker. From there they move down the line to have axles and suspension all bolted in, and complete driveline packages dropped into place. From start to finish it took about 30 seconds for the engine to descend onto its mounts in the chassis. Then comes the fully dressed firewall and dash assembly, and the vehicles make their way around the corner to where the bodies begin to get bolted in place. Then they go in for upholstery, along with wheels and tires, which believe it or not were still hoisted up onto the wheel studs by hand.
After assembly is more or less complete, the vehicles pass through a water intrusion testing area where they are doused with high-pressure jets coming from all directions. Pieces of cardboard carton are placed strategically on the front floors to make it easy to see if any water has gotten through the various layers of rubber, sealant and other goo used by the factory to prevent the type of leaks that Defender owners are accustomed to. According to one engineer we spoke with, brand-new, unmolested Defenders simply don’t leak. OK, sure. I had a Defender that didn’t leak once. Just once. Moving on, the finished trucks get a wheel alignment that takes about 30 to 45 seconds and is done by hand. I will remember that next time I get charged an hour of labor for one of those.
Lastly, the finished vehicles were driven into a long booth to be fully inspected and from there, they line up to await delivery. Our tour ended with a visit to the Heritage Assembly Line exhibit where one can peruse various artifacts of the original Series One production in the late 40’s and a handful of restored Series Ones in varying states of disassembly, along with a complete reproduction of one of the Oxford-Cambridge expedition vehicles from the early 50’s.
Upon leaving the exhibit, the factory had already shut and the workers put their tools down. The quiet was a bit unsettling amongst all the machinery, a hint at what was to come only a short week later when the tools were to be laid down for good.
For those who did not make it to the factory before the lines were shut down, Land Rover has graciously provided a 360 degree virtual version of the tour. Though of course it doesn't quite convey the full experience, it is worth seeing.
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