Curbside Classic Capsule: A Land Rover with a Spanish Accent


Something seemed different as I approached this Land Rover parked outside a local tire shop. Santana! And not Carlos, who actually used to live in our area, but a Spanish Land Rover manufactured for local and export markets. I’d heard of these, but didn’t know much about them, and my research revealed an interesting story.

While CC has covered the older “Series” Land Rovers a few times (for example here), I don’t think the Defender has had a CC of its own. I haven’t had any personal experience with them, but as I did research on this Santana, I learned and re-learned enough that I decided a bit of Defender history would be interesting, and would help put this blue Santana into context.

Similar to the classic Jeep, which didn’t get its now familiar “Wrangler” name until quite late in its history, the “Defender” name also came late to the Rover. Earlier Land Rovers went through Series I, II and III before being significantly redesigned in 1983. Above is a Series III, headlights moved outboard  but still sporting the two piece folding windshield and skinny tires of the classic Land Rover. The parents of a high school friend had a two door (88″ wheelbase) Series II which I rode in quite  bit, and drove once or twice.

And here’s the 1980’s redesign. The grille got bigger, the interior was modernized, and the track was widened with bold wheel arches added to cover the tires. The new models were known as both 90’s and Nineties, and 110’s and One Ten’s, those designations denoting the wheelbase in inches. There was also a very long wheelbase version referred to as both 127 and 130. Solid axles of course remained, but coil springs replaced semi-elliptic leaf springs. Other changes included a one piece windshield and the first optional fitment of the ex-BOP 3.5 liter aluminum V8 in a Land Rover, as opposed to Range Rover or Rover sedan. But even these significantly updated Rovers were not yet Defenders; that name only came along in 1991, to differentiate these Land Rovers from the new Land Rover Discovery.

A few years later the Defender was introduced to the US market, in both 90 and 110 versions, now with a 3.9 liter V8 (most other markets got turbo diesels) and 5 speed manual transmissions. The 110 was only offered the first year, 1993, and the Defender was dropped here in the US after 1997. They had some catchy advertising, and I still have this ad pulled out of a 1995 magazine, tacked on the wall of my garage.

When I was test driving SUV’s in 1995, before eventually buying a Toyota Land Cruiser, I drove a “unicorn” Land Rover Discovery with manual transmission. I remember seeing a few Defenders on the lot, but the salesman told me they weren’t moving; once potential customers tried the more comfortable Disco or Range Rover, the Defender was ignored. Quite a change from now, when used Defenders are considered desirable and command premium prices.

So where does this Santana I saw in California last week, fit in? And is the one I saw a Land Rover, a Santana, a Defender? Is it all of the above, as implied by the badging on the back, or just one or two of those things?

Santana Motor, a Spanish manufacturer, started assembling Series Land Rovers under license from Rover in 1961, starting with knocked-down kits but progressing over time to 100% in-house manufacturing. Above is a Spanish police Series III Land Rover Santana, using both names, with Land Rover more prominent on the grille. Within a few years, Santana was exporting Rovers outside Spain, and by the late 1960’s the company name changed to Land Rover Santana.

Over the years between 1983 and 1990, the two companies’ relationship evolved to one of coexistence rather than licensing. In some markets, the two competed with each other; in others they complemented one another. For example, the Spanish vehicles continued with leaf springs, targeting a heavier-duty (or more traditional) buyer than the British coil-sprung not-yet-a-Defender. By 1990, any formal relationship seems to have ended; the information I found online was conflicting, but it appears that the last Land Rover Santana was built around 1994.

Santana did briefly revive a derivative product, the PS10, some years later, powered by an Iveco diesel. The front end styling bears little resemblance to any British Land Rover, but the heritage is pretty obvious from there back.

In a further twist, the PS10 was made over by Giugiaro, reputedly, and marketed as the Iveco Massif and Campagnola for a few years. In addition, Santana had a relationship with Suzuki and built SJ’s, Jimny’s and Vitara’s in Spain. In 2011 the company permanently shut down.

So what exactly did I see? Definitely a Santana: the grille and headlight surrounds don’t seem to come from any Rover variant, the steering wheel hub had the Santana name molded in, and it had leaf springs. My research revealed only ambiguity about whether Santana had ever used the Defender name, so the badge on the rear of the one I saw may have been added later. Or maybe it came from Spain that way. As for the “Land Rover Four Wheel Drive Station Wagon” badge? I’m pretty sure that vintage badge was not original fitted to this car when it was built in Linares, Spain. But it highlights the heritage nicely. If anyone knows more details about these, please educate us.