Classic Land Rover Defender still a theft risk due to lack of modern security features

Dr Ken German
·5-min read
Land Rover Defender (1995 N-reg)
Land Rover Defender (1995 N-reg)

There’s one car that the UK’s most wanted professional car thieves covet, the classic Land Rover Defender. The renowned 4x4 has been a fixture of their “shopping list” of cars to steal for many years. While the increase in sophisticated electronic tools to bypass vehicle security systems is used to steal modern cars, many models of the old-fashioned Defender can be entered and started with “any old key”.

The UK’s “most stolen” list includes the Defender’s sisters, the Range Rover and Land Rover Discovery, alongside the Audi S3, Mercedes E-Class and BMW’s 3-Series and 5-Series. All of these are liable to attack via cloning the keyfob’s signal – the previous-model Defender, which went out of production in January 2016, however, lacks the latest security and, if not fitted with aftermarket deterrents to theft, is at risk of being stolen by traditional techniques such as breaking and entering then bypassing the ignition system.

Five Defenders of the old type were being stolen every week a year ago. Despite a small drop in reported thefts between April and May 2020, the figures are going up again according to the police, insurance companies and social media sites such as Landy Watch (which has more than 15,000 members) amid fears that last year’s grim total will be exceeded – and we are not yet halfway through 2021.

Almost any Defender from any year is one of very few cars that can be sold in any guise, left- or right-hand drive and in any body configuration anywhere in the world. This is what makes them a prime target for thieves.

stolen Land Rovers - composite image
stolen Land Rovers - composite image

Late models can realise £50,000 while a 10-year-old Defender 110 with more than 100,000 miles can still realise nearly £20,000; a low-mileage, Series 1 model in good condition can sell for more than £30,000.

Unfortunately of those stolen within the past 12 months, only 28 per cent were recovered, the majority of which were not fit enough to be returned to their owners due to being stripped, burned or otherwise written off.

The figures do not include those that were stripped for their constituent parts. Sadly these are not classified as stolen if the chassis remains. If they were, the total of Defenders affected by theft would be even more of a concern.

The National Vehicle Crime Intelligence Service (NAVCIS) confirms the Defender’s continued top placing in vehicles targeted by thieves but suggests that while organised criminal gangs increasingly use electronic tools to bypass car security systems many Defenders can be entered and started with “any old key”.

Land Rover Series 3
Land Rover Series 3

The fact that that this highly desirable car remains one of the most easy to steal is the conundrum facing the police, insurance companies and victims.

Production of the long-running Defender ceased more than five years ago and much of the increase in thefts is recognised by the factory as being with earlier models and their lack of standard-fit security that is taken for granted on an up-to-the-minute model.

Land Rover suggests adding layers of modern “secondary security” items. These include steering wheel locks, anti-theft door and bonnet hinges, battery isolation switches, rear door and window security mesh. Retro-firtted alarms and remote tracking and identity systems also aid recovery of a vehicle after it’s been stolen.

While today’s police officers rely heavily on Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) readers, covert tracking devices that allow them to place cars at a particular location are among the more successful tools in reuniting a car with its owner. This is most particularly the case if only a stolen car has been “broken” and only its component parts have been found.

Land Rover Defender special editions - Richard Pardon
Land Rover Defender special editions - Richard Pardon

Many of the UK’s constabularies appear to have gained a new momentum when it comes to vehicle crime, not so long ago thought of as a low priority. Several forces hard hit by statistics have recreated stolen vehicle units. This has brought rich pickings for some units; the West Midlands and Essex forces have fully realised the extent of car crime in their areas and suggest that them being ultra-proactive means the more they look the more they find.

Main insurance companies such as the NFU have also recognised for some time the trend in Defender theft, suggesting that more than 500 were stolen from farms alone across the UK last year, a number it suggests will continue to increase annually if owners do not consider more security.

In the north-east of England, thefts have rocketed by 69% and victims’ claims have increased by more than £2 million in just three years. Five years ago, 530 Defenders were reported stolen in West Yorkshire alone.

Rebecca Davidson, NFU Mutual rural Affairs Specialist, said that organised criminals appear to be scouring out-of-the-way farmyards and country properties to spot examples they can steal.

Data supplied by the Department for Transport that suggests 44 per cent of incidents where thieves had gained entry to a car were because the door was unlocked.

It may be true that many Defenders are stolen to order and are trafficked whole or in parts to other countries by Eastern European gangs, ending up far afield as Africa, the Middle East or China.

The problem with car theft, however, lies here in the UK in tackling our own estimated 5,500 criminal gangs, the majority of which use car crime to support their other activities.

This timely police initiative has clearly reduced vehicle crime, albeit 113,000 stolen vehicles at the last count is still too many.

Dr Ken German is a former Scotland Yard detective and a vehicle crime consultant to the police, automotive and insurance industries.

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