The first introduction of my old Land Rover Defender was brief, without too much detail or history. In this instalment, we delve into the story of buying and modifying the Defender, and some of the adventures we've had since.
After my 1971 Series IIA Land Rover – my daily driver at the time – failed its annual roadworthy test in spectacular form many years ago, I decided to get something a little bit newer. And being so fond of Land Rovers, and struggling to fit much stuff into a short-wheelbase vehicle, the decision was a simple one: buy a Defender 130.
And after reading of problems many were having with the weaker rear differentials of Defenders 110s and 130s fitted from around 2002 onwards, I found the perfect candidate amongst the picturesque south-west slopes and plains of New South Wales. It was well maintained, without many big modifications: a steel tray replaced the tub, and there was an ARB steel bullbar.
At first, I was blown away by the Defender. The long wheelbase and coil springs gave a brilliant ride, compared to the Series. And a somewhat modern turbo-diesel? No tappets to adjust and carburettors to swear at? Amazing.
Compared to most, I had exceedingly low expectations.
The engine, a 2.5-litre five-cylinder TD5 (90kW/300Nm), is increasingly slow by modern standards, but has proven to be a reliable powerplant over the years. It’s currently showing around 285,000km on the odometer, and even did a decent job towing a mates old LandCruiser Project across Sydney.
Big advantages of this model, in my eyes: A big wheelbase (127 inches, or 3225mm), 1461kg payload in standard form, plenty of ground clearance and a good suspension design.
The Defender is also mostly simple from a mechanical point of view, allowing it to be serviced and maintained by an owner with basic tools and a willingness to learn. This suited me perfectly.
And compared to an ever-popular 79-Series LandCruiser, the Defender comes with coil springs all-round, a proper wheelbase, matching track widths, a better payload, and the ability to articulate without major shortcomings or modifications. If only it had a diesel V8, eh?
It wasn’t long until the modifications began. Working then at a four-wheel drive magazine, I used the Defender to fill many pages (print and digital) of installs, reviews, travel stories and how-to guides. And the end result is similar to what most other four-wheel drivers end up with.
The old ARB bullbar made way for a new winch compatible unit, coupled to a Bushranger 9500 pound unit with synthetic rope.
Taller and wider tyres, fitted to Dynamic steel wheels helped with off-road traction, and a two-inch suspension lift improved clearance and minimised tyre scrub. A basic 12V system was shoehorned under the passenger seat, with a single extra gauge on the dashboard.
A Tong Metal dimple-plate canopy went onto the back, and I fitted out the interior myself along two major tenets: cheap and lightweight. That means no drawers and no drop-slide, because they are generally both heavy and expensive.
So an Engel upright fridge got bolted on to the 7mm plywood floor, using some brackets from Bunnings. I’ve since cobbled together a distribution panel into the canopy, once again on a tight budget and keeping things simple.
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Even though I have owned this car since 2014 and have put around 100,000km on it (mostly four-wheel driving) since owning it, I still love clambering in behind the wheel.
And over the Christmas holidays, that’s what happened.
Firstly, I don’t want to sound like I am complaining: I love this job, and am in a lucky position to drive plenty of new metal all of the time.
Throw in a young family jostling with an often busy work life, and time spent behind the wheel of my own car is quite rare. And it’s a little bit of a shame, because I greatly enjoy driving this old, clapped-out Defender with all of its problems and foibles.
And what’s better, is that I got to spend some time out in the bush with the family and spend a few days staring at starry nights and a crackling fire. We braved the wet weather over the Christmas holidays, and with our new purchases of a gazebo and some shadecloth, spent a few days relaxing away from phone reception, televisions and traffic.
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We returned once again to the magnificent Turon River National Park, around four hours drive from central Sydney. And although it was quite busy, we managed to jag a great spot by the river. We even got lucky with the weather.
Camping has also given me a chance to properly test out my home-brew 12V distribution panel in the back. It’s mostly cheap and plenty nasty, especially when you compare it to the kind of stuff you often see on Instagram. But it works well, powering everything I need without issue.
Recently, the rear suspension needed some attention. Bilstein gear, normally famed for its quality and reliability, needed replacement after the rear units expelled most of their oil all over themselves.
Yes, Bilstein is a German company; I always chuckled when I saw an outline of the Nurburgring on the shock body for a three-tonne, 90kW four-wheel drive. However, Bilstein Australia is a notable local operation, which does a significant amount of development, research and manufacturing right here in Australia.
I don’t think it is a fault of the shocks so much: I believe they weren’t long enough for the application initially, and have since been topping out at maximum extension for the past five (or so) years. And considering all of the hard work they have done over that time, I can’t complain too much.
To replace them, I’ve got some old units a friend has given me, which will tide me over until I get something proper and long-term. They are Old Man Emu LTRs, which date back to the early 2000s. While no doubt over the hill, they still have some nitrogen left in them, and perform a lot better than the dead Bilsteins.
My fridge, normally another beacon of reliability, has also had trouble. It’s an Engel ST90F 80-litre upright fridge, but refused to turn on one day. Repaired at the cost of $250 at my local Engel-approved guy in Western Sydney, the problem was put down to being turned off for too long without drying out, and some of the internal circuit boards had corroded enough to fail.
Lesson learned: leave the Engel on as much as possible, and that will avoid most problems in the future.
On top of the nondescript steel tray, lives a canopy from Brisbane manufacturer Tong Metal, and lets us carry the upright fridge, a basic homebrew 12V setup and all of our camping gear. It’s a fair bit of extra weight to handle, especially when loaded up. You can see the impact it has on off-road driving during our 2021 Defender off-road review.
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However, its still a good thing off-road, especially when the tyres are aired right down. The old Defender is a real pleasure to take off-road, because of its mechanical and engaging nature. This also makes it quite unique, these days. No locking differentials means I need to pick a line smartly, and use as much of the suspension travel as possible to keep wheels on the ground.
For those interested, here is a quick rundown review of the gear I have fitted to the Defender, along with a brief review from years of use/abuse/neglect. Where I can, I’ve added costs. Also worth noting: all of those companies, aside from Mickey Thompson, are Australian-based and owned. Although, a lot of the manufacturing does occur off-shore these days.
Bulllbar: ARB Deluxe, winch compatible ($1806, fitted)
It’s bounced off 'roos and scraped on rocks without problem, and looks good to boot. Still one of the best choices of bullbar out there, albeit one of the more expensive also.
Winch: Bushranger Seal 9.5 ($1545)
A reliable companion, which has saved my bacon plenty of times. It’s starting to make some grinding noises after seven years of use, telling me the gearbox needs a re-grease. I’m a big fan, but the Seal has now been superseded by a new model called ‘Revo’.
Driving Lights: Lightforce Genesis 210 ($469 each)
It’s often hard to justify more expensive lights when there is a plethora of cheap competition out there, but these lights perform well and still look good after years in the weather. I actually don’t use them too often, because they are so bloody bright and I like to make camp before sundown.
Wheels: Dynamic Steel Triangle
Aftermarket wheels that have the right stud pattern and load rating for a 130 are few and far between. With a zero offset and eight-inch width, they suit the tyres well and sit just inside the standard guards. Rock rash attests to the hard life they have had, but haven’t broken.
Tyres: Mickey Thompson Baja MTZ
They’re one of the louder mud-terrain tyres these days, especially now that they have a few miles under their belt. But these tyres grip impressively off-road, on rocks and mud in particular. These tyres have some cracks on the sidewall now, but haven’t had any issues. If you prefer a quieter tyre, probably steer clear. But if you want to go all-in on off-road grip, they are a good option. Size: 285/75 R16
Springs: King progressive-rate
King is a brand synonymous with the Australian aftermarket scene, and its off-road range is massive. A progressive rate means I’m not stuck with a super-stiff spring unladen, but they’re able to handle an ungodly amount of weight when needed. Interestingly, the front springs are the same spec as heavy-duty rear springs for a Discovery.
Shocks: Bilstein B6
Bilstein comes with a solid reputation for four-wheel drivers in Australia, and is one of the better options for those wanting a quality unit without blowing the budget. While my front shocks are still fine, the rears didn’t last long. But I’m putting that down to being the wrong size for the application. If you can, measure your own open and closed lengths of suspension travel, before fitting anything up that’s not part of a proven kit.
Catch Can: Flashlube Catch Can Pro ($260)
The only under-bonnet modification didn’t work out so well for me, even though the premise is solid. Filtering oily mist from your crankcase gasses before they go back into your intake makes sense, but this unit (a rebranded Mann + Hummel ProVent 100) couldn’t handle what my TD5 was pushing out. Maybe it’s because after many kays and lots of dust, my engine breathes heavier than Clive Palmer after three sets of stairs. But, the Flashlube unit clogged up and forced some seals to leak. I'll look to replace it with a larger ProVent 200.
Canopy: Tong Metal Dimple Plate (approx $4000)
Opting for a standard-sized canopy to suit a dual-cab from Brisbane-based Tong Metal makes it a much cheaper option than the more specialised and custom-made options available. Dimple-plate is more expensive than chequer plate, but has a better strength-to-weight ratio. We also got the slide-on option, with built in jacking points.
Fridge: Engel ST-90F ($1349)
An upright fridge is lighter than an equivalent chest fridge, and becomes significantly lighter when you realise you don’t need a slide, tilt-slide or drop-slide. This 80-litre Engel unit works wonderfully for my setup, but does use more power than a chest fridge. It also died recently, costing $250 to fix. After being left turned off for long periods, some internal electrics had corroded.
Radio: Uniden UH9080 (approximately $400)
The Defender is deafening on the road, so the radio's speaker in the handpiece doesn't cut it at highway speeds. No problem, $20 spent at Jaycar for an auxiliary speaker, and problem solved. This radio seems to be very high quality, and loaded with more features than I know about or need. The replay feature, however, is very handy.
Auxiliary Battery: Revolution Power Australia 100aH lithium ($1398)
Next to the long-serving Optima Red Top cranking battery under the passenger seat, my local auto electrician squeezed in a fan-dangled lithium battery. Compared to AGM or flooded lead acid, it's quite expensive at roughly three times the price. But, prices have gone down lately, and lithium is undoubtedly a superior product. Power lasts much longer, it's one third of the weight, and it works with solar wonderfully. It's controlled by a Redarc BCDC charger.
Solar Blanket: Redarc 112W Amorphous solar blanket ($2401.48)
At nearly two-and-a-half gorillas, it's no surprise = you don't see these out in the wild too often. And in direct comparison to a slew of significantly cheaper competition, it's difficult to recommend... unless you demand the best of the best. Then, amorphous is your only choice. Cost aside, performance and durability have been great. My unit looks second-hand now after plenty of use, but it hasn't skipped a beat, charging up the battery well even under thick cloud.