As many of you know, the Land Rover Defender is one of my all-time favorite cars, so this story has been on my mind for quite a while. When I first went to Spain three years ago, as I was walking down a street in Íllora I saw a really cool Defender, with a nice retro paintjob. However, as I walked around it, I saw that the front grille and lights were not like a Defender. At the time, I didn't give it much thought, I simply guessed someone decided to customize their car. Next year I returned to the same small town and I saw the exact same car parked in the same neighborhood. This time I gave it a proper look... and this is how I ended up spending hours and hours researching a now defunct car company and hunting for more examples of it as I was walking around Spanish cities.
It turns out that it was indeed a Land Rover... but not really. The iconic shape of the Defender and the earlier Series models were definitely there, but some quick googling revealed that I was in fact looking at a Spanish built Land Rover! Yes, Spain had its own Land Rover factory, which eventually went its own way in terms of design. It was called Land Rover Santana and it has a fascinating history.
In 1956 a company called Metalúrgica de Santa Ana, SA started negotiations with Land Rover to produce Land Rover products for the Spanish markets under license from the British company. Two years later, production started, with the cars being shipped over in pieces and assembled in Andalucía. This arrangement, I believe, allowed Land Rover to get their foot into the Spanish car market without paying the extremely high import taxes at the time. The Spanish company eventually started making their own cars, not just assembling them, but the cars were still pretty much identical to the ones produced in Solihull, England.
Above you can see a Land Rover Santana Series III, which at first glance looks pretty much identical to the Series IIIs that Land Rover itself was producing at the time. Already on this vehicle though, midway through production they began to diverge from what the parent company was doing in England, offering different engine options, redesigning the doors and the taillights and mitigating issues that the Land Rover never bothered to fix.
In 1983 Land Rover announced the Defender, which was the successor to the Series III and that's when the two companies parted ways. Land Rover ended its agreement with Santana and Suzuki bought a stake in the company, which changed its name to Santana Motor Company. It produced Suzuki off-roaders under license, just like it did with Land Rover, but it also built its competitor to the Defender.
In 1983 Santana developed what they called the Series IV or the 2500, which still was largely a Series III, but with everything modernized and updated and the front grille of the car was completely redesigned. This was the car that confused me so much when I first saw it!
This car was produced until 1994 and was actually quite a formidable competitor to the Land Rover Defenders of the time, with (some say) better off-road performance due to it retaining the leaf-sprung suspension design of the Series III. However, it never achieved the financial success that the Defender did. It is telling of the value of the company that Suzuki sold the Santana factory to the Andalusian Government for one peseta in 1995 (although the company continued to produce cars for Suzuki for a while longer).
In the early 2000s Santana launched an even newer version of its Defender competitor, with a much sleeker, modern design, called the PS-10 (admittedly, that name is not so sleek, however it was also called the Anibal). It was again a formidable competitor to the Defenders of the time, winning awards and doing well in car tests. Sadly, I have never spotted one out in the wild, as it didn't do as well in sales as planned. This car was eventually redeveloped in cooperation with Iveco, the Italian truck manufacturer, using Iveco parts and sold as the Iveco Massif. I think it was a really good looking car, and it used the legendary 3.0L engine from the Iveco Daily, making quite a compelling package. However, sales were weak and in 2011 the company went into liquidation. Quality issues, the lack of demand and probably just bad distribution ended the production of a promising vehicle, and with that, the whole company collapsed.
Nevertheless, it is not all sad: these Santanas continue to roam the Spanish countryside as tough workhorses. Some of them, thanks to the Dutch Safari Co. are even making an appearance State-side, giving the brand more recognition outside Spain. And the first Santana I saw three years ago? It is still being driven around Íllora daily.