The end of Land Rover Defender production was initially scheduled for 2015, but the model got a stay of execution – for about a month. Land Rover rolled the very last Defender off production lines on Friday, putting an end to 68 years of Series/Defender production. It's not all bad news for Defender lovers, though; Land Rover's celebration of the event includes a new Defender Heritage program and a very thorough tour of great Defenders of the past. Plus, a Defender replacement is in the works.

As Land Rover recounts the tale, it all started with a sketch in the sand. Rover engineering director Maurice Wilks scratched a simple, utilitarian vehicle in the sands of Wales' Red Wharf Bay in 1947, and the idea of the Land Rover was born. With the backing of Wilks' brother Spencer, Rover's managing director at the time, Rover quickly put the idea in motion as a hard-nosed, go-anywhere agricultural 4x4 inspired by the Willys Jeep.

The Land Rover Series I debuted at the 1948 Amsterdam Motor Show and began rolling off the lines at Solihull a few months later. The new utility vehicle cost £450 (about US$650 by today's exchange rates) and relied on a 50-hp 1.6-liter engine.

It took the passing of more than 40 years for the original Land Rover to get a proper model name beyond a series number and/or chassis length. That name was "Defender," and it emerged in 1990 to add a bit more identity to the simpler "Ninety and One Ten" naming structure that Land Rover implemented after the Series III. The Defender was tasked with carrying the rugged DNA of the Series I, II and III forward into the future.

Twenty-six years after the Defender name was born, the very last of the Defender/Series models – number 2,016,933 – rolled out of Solihull. The model is a Defender 90 Heritage Soft Top and will become part of the Jaguar Land Rover Collection.

"The world has changed dramatically in the last 68 years, but this vehicle has remained a constant – something no other vehicle can claim," said Nick Rogers, Jaguar Land Rover group engineering director. "The last of the current Defender models embraces the vehicle's simplicity, honesty and charm – it represents its Series Land Rover heritage."

Land Rover invited more than 700 former and current employees to celebrate the occasion at Solihull, where it gathered about two dozen iconic Defenders of the past, including "Huey," the very first 1948 preproduction Series I.

While the celebration was undoubtedly bittersweet, both for the workers in attendance and for Defender lovers around the world, it did offer some positive news. Land Rover announced the Heritage Restoration program, which will operate on the site of the Solihull production line and task a team of 12 experts with restoring and selling Series and Defender models. The program will also offer parts and services.

A Defender replacement is coming, but it's not yet clear exactly when it will arrive or what it will look like. "Creating the Defender of tomorrow, a dream for any engineer or designer, is the next exciting chapter and we are looking forward to taking on that challenge," was all Rogers had to say about it at the celebration, and is about as much official word as we've heard in a while. Reports suggest that the new model will debut around 2018.

Land Rover released a hefty album of heritage photos in honor of the last Defender, and we've stocked our photo gallery with the best of the bunch. What better way to celebrate the end of an era than by seeing Defenders of every shape, size and spec do work and get dirty?

View gallery - 104 images