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08 July 2024
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Rear crossmember is painted body colour. Banded steel wheels lend chunky stance : credit: © Rich Pearce
When two brothers decided to breathe new life into a scruffy ex-RAF 90, they were determined to make the most of some of the finest suppliers the UK has to offer

Unlike many of the other Land Rover projects that grace the pages of Land Rover Monthly, the Defender 90 you see before you wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming from a hedge, rescued from the scrapyard’s crusher or brought back from the brink of extinction with a pair of vice grips and a box of welding rods. “We spotted it on Auto Trader. It’s an ex-RAF runway vehicle, and when it left the services it got bought by a fellow enthusiast, so it was actually in fantastic condition when we went up to Newark to buy it,” enthuses Miles Stephenson, who’s responsible for this now stunning 90, along with his brother, James.

Contrasting, warm interior colour greets you as you climb aboard

​​​​​​“We cruised back down to Dorset in awe of how sweetly it drove; it really is a credit to its previous owner. He’d spent far more on the Defender over the years he’d had it than it was worth, really.” So why did it need eight months of evenings and weekends pouring into it, then? “It was just… ugly! I used it to commute to London for a while, and the times I’d normally beam with pride when catching the reflection of my Land Rover in a glass-fronted building, the look of it just made me sink into the seat. We had to do something about it.”

Centre front seat replaces the original cubby box

Miles, an historic building specialist, is no stranger to Land Rovers, having owned 20-odd of them already, and he used every shred of experience and passion to transform the old yellow Defender into his vision of the perfect 90. “I wanted it to be unique, and use as many local suppliers and small companies as possible along the way,” he explains. “There’s nothing wrong with off-the-shelf parts and I’ve used hundreds of them on my other Land Rovers over the years, but both James and I wanted elements of this one to be extra-special.”

The Land Rover itself is a very late Td5, built in 2006 but not registered on civvy street until 2016.“It’s a basic station wagon, which seems to be quite rare in itself, as almost all were ordered in County spec,” reveals Miles. “It had grey vinyl front seats and twin vinyl-covered rear benches, rather than the Techno cloth that most station wagons have, and wind-up windows, and no radio.”

Terracotta leather is gorgeous, as is the walnut flooring

Those drab vinyl seats that the 90 left Solihull with are a distant memory, and their replacements make up one of the most striking elements of the Defender’s overhaul. “We were very particular about where the materials came from and wanted to do what we could to support British companies. We visited Boyriven in Andover, who supply trim to some OEMs, to see what they could do for us. They’ve been around since 1913, so we thought they’d know their onions.”

​​​​​​Know their onions they did, and after showing them the ins and outs of how the hides are selected, treated and coloured, Boyriven supplied the brothers with the sumptuous Terracotta leather that adorns the inside of the Defender. Getting the leather was only one part of the task, though – with such high-quality materials at stake, finding the right trimmer for the job was vital.

“We ended up going to Mike at MT Trimmers in Poole, who’s well-versed in upholstering really nice high-end classics. And if it’s good enough for them…” smiles Miles. Mike worked his magic on the original seat frames, crafting the beautiful leather into the fluted pattern on the front seats. “The Defender had a cubby box when we bought it, but we really wanted to go for the third middle seat instead, as it just suits the character of the Defender so well. We found a second-hand one and gave it to Mike to trim to match.”

Britpart billet aluminium knobs contrast nicely against the leather

The front and rear seats aren’t the only things to be given a coating of cowhide, either – the centre bulkhead, tub sides, dashboard top, gearlever gaiters and sun visors now also wear the Terracotta hue. “A lot of the pieces had to be hand-stitched, and Mike is a perfectionist. I think he said he had a few attempts at doing the sun visors until he was happy, and they took around eight hours.”

Genuine Harris Tweed headlining gives the Defender a huge amount of class

Those visors pop against the tweed headliner, which is more of MT Trimmers’ handiwork. “There’s a bit of a story behind the material,” says Miles, wryly. “We knew we wanted tweed, and we knew what pattern we wanted, but had to go to the supplier, Holland and Sherry, to ask in person to buy some. It was quite an experience.” The true Harris tweed extends to the bases of the rear seats, and the contrast against the vibrant leather is fantastic when they’re all folded up.

MGB owners might recognise these alloy window winders…

Elsewhere in the luxurious cabin, a smattering of Optimill brightwork lines the door cards, and elegant window winders match perfectly. “It took a while to find the right ones. Those are actually from an MG parts supplier. We knew the style we wanted, but no one does them for Land Rovers. We counted the splines on the regulator and bought the closest we could find, then had to fettle them to fit nicely.” The loadspace is decked out with American walnut, the wood sourced through one of Miles’ contacts in the historic buildings industry and then finished, joined and treated by the two at home.

Even the underside of the rear seats are tweed upholstered

The brothers’ eye for interior design involved tying cues from the Defender’s exterior and interior together, and the more you look, the more you see. Without paying much mind to the outside of the 90, there are Limestone accents here and there – including the metal rails of those beautifully retrimmed seats, which took three attempts at powder coating to get right and pass the boys’ stringent quality control.

More billet details on the door furniture

While the pair outsourced the upholstery, the Defender was stripped down for the overhaul and then lovingly reassembled in a Clarke temporary garage on the brothers’ driveway. “We were lucky in that mechanically it was in such excellent condition, but it had never been apart until we got hold of it. There were many miserable dark evenings spent out in the pop-up garage with the wind and rain battering it, swearing at rounded-off bolts,” laughs Miles, with more than a hint of pain in his eyes.

Most base-spec Defenders don’t survive many years without having a radio head unit fitted after leaving the factory, and this 90 was a bit of an exception – the centre dash remained bare until it came down country to Dorset. But the boys weren’t going to be content with some flashing neon-blue motor factors monstrosity, so they opted for a classy Pioneer flip-out unit which boasts all the modern goodies you could ever want, like Apple CarPlay, sat nav and reversing camera, but retracts back to a discreet fascia when not in use. Much nicer to look at both when driving and parked, letting the eye wander to more aesthetically pleasing areas of the cabin, like the Evander wood-rimmed wheel and subtly-brightened instruments.

Classy Evander wooden steering wheel was sourced from Exmoor Trim

The prospect of taking a Defender right down to the bare bones and then building it back up without having a handful of bolts left over and suffering even more squeaks and rattles than before it was dismantled might sound a daunting task even to experienced mechanics, but remember, Miles and James have never claimed to be professionals. They did make an executive decision to leave the paintwork to the pros, as a poorly-executed job can mean the difference between a stunning end result and a ‘just okay’ one. We’re delighted to report that this 90 sits firmly in the former camp, with a glass-like finish so deep and lustrous that you feel like you could dive into it.

Optimill handles look great against the luscious Porsche Oak Green paintwork

​​​​​​Now, you’d be forgiven for thinking this beauty is sporting Tonga Green, arguably one of the best and most sought-after colours ever sprayed over a Land Rover of this vintage – but it isn’t. “It’s actually Porsche Oak Green,” discloses Miles, “from its ‘paint-to-sample’ range. It’s been around since the ’70s, and Porsche still offers its new cars in it now. It was similar enough to a factory colour for it to look right, but it’s still different enough to make you look twice.” And look twice you will – the green’s metallic fleck zings in the sunlight, and the whole colour turns a dark, almost stormy hue when the clouds come over, making it look more grey than green. “Once all the panels, tub and bulkhead were off, we took them separately to Colin Pritchard in the New Forest to paint; he’s an absolute wizard and the finish is unreal. He did the roof and banded steel wheels in Limestone to contrast at the same time.”While Colin had Oak Green in the gun, he colour-coded the original chassis’ rear crossmember to the body, before spraying the NAS step and side tubes in Limestone to continue the contrasting elements.

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Heritage side steps are protected by Masai step-toppers

The flaky front bumper found its way to the scrap bin and a galvanised one takes its place, breaking up the colours nicely and hinting further at the Heritage style that the brothers have based the build on.

Quality, long-lasting Optimill fittings

As the Defender was carefully bolted back together, the decision was made to increase the quality of the fixtures and fittings to make the body more solid. To achieve this, Optimill hinges have been fitted all-round, and all the original brittle plastic vents, grilles and the number plate lamp housing have been replaced with high-quality billet aluminium versions for longevity, and to further highlight that gorgeous Porsche paint.

Heritage mudflaps and non-slip pads on tubular bumper

The eagle-eyed among you will notice the genuine dealer-bought Heritage mudflaps and side running tubes, the latter being topped with Masai non-slip pads for easy ingress and egress from the cabin, and a classy Heritage grille leads the way at the front of the 90, complete with metal badge. “I have a few Series I ‘Land Rover’ badges, and thought about incorporating one of those into the bodywork, but I’m not sure if it would be too much. I may find a way of blending it into the interior somehow, but it’s important to know when to stop,” reasons Miles.

It was also on to the Optimill website for the upgraded mirror arms

Now, when the guys first bought the Defender, even before its brief stint as Miles’ daily driver, it was thoroughly checked over and serviced by local specialist Terry Johnson, who confirmed the mechanicals were in as tip-top shape as they suspected. Because of this, the oily bits have been left largely alone. “I’ve yet to drive a 90 that rides and drives as well as this one on its standard suspension,” reports Miles. “Even compared to my 2007 90, it’s just so compliant and precise. To change anything would be counterproductive.”

So, while the springs, dampers and brakes have been left standard, the characterful Td5 engine has received some subtle upgrades in the form of an electric fan to replace the noisy viscous unit, and the old, standard exhaust has been replaced with a stainless steel sports system to slightly amplify the five-cylinder’s distinctive bark. The rest of the driveline has been left just as Solihull intended, with the exception of the billet aluminium gear and transfer box knobs that adorn the tops of the levers.

All-Terrain treads on deep rims for purposeful stance 

Changing tyres makes a far bigger difference to a Land Rover’s overall look than most people realise, so the rubber that the 90 would roll on was a very conscious decision; it’s a fine line between a chunky look and overly-aggressive tread that compromises the ride and handling. BF Goodrich All-Terrain KO2s fit the bill perfectly in 285/75R16 flavour – white lettering proudly facing outwards – and look cracking wrapped around the deep-dish Lucari tubeless rims.

A treat to drive

So, now that they’ve put together a Defender to be proud of, what are the brothers’ plans for it? “We keep it tucked away for high days and holidays,” the guys explain. “Even compared with the TDCi, this one just feels so special, a real treat to drive. There’s not a lot we’d change if we did it again, I don’t think. Little things like the centre seat, the colour Limestone touches and the era of Defender it is – one of the last Td5s – just make it feel so pure and ‘right’. Yes, it’s different to a standard one, but what we’ve done hopefully takes it closer to what a Land Rover Defender should feel like, not further away.”

It’s likely that rebuilds like this will become more commonplace. Don’t forget, once upon a time we all thought the Defender would live forever. Now almost ten years after production ceased, it’s really sinking in that there’ll never be any more built, and what we have now is all we’ll ever have. So it’s only natural that owners and enthusiasts like Miles and James are preserving, improving and extending their lives, so that they can continue to be enjoyed by the next generations. And we’re all for it.

Want to see more? Watch the video here.

 

Spec List

2006 Defender 90 Station Wagon

Body and chassis
• Original chassis
• Rustproofed throughout
• Optimill hinges and handles
• Optimill wing top and side vents
• Optimill billet mirror arms
• Optimill number plate lamp housing
• Billet fuel cap
• Heritage grille and badge
• Heritage side steps
• Heritage mud flaps
• Masai non-slip step toppers
• Colour-coded lamp surrounds
• Colour-coded mirrors
• Colour-coded rear crossmember
• NAS-style step
• Galvanised front bumper
• Body resprayed Porsche ‘PTS’ Oak Green

Engine
• Td5 2.5-litre turbodiesel
• Electric cooling fan
• Stainless steel sports exhaust

Driveline
• R380 5-speed gearbox
• LT230 2-speed transfer box

Suspension and brakes
• OEM springs and dampers
• OEM brakes all-round

Electrics
•Pioneer single-DIN flip-out head unit

Interior
• Boyriven Terracotta leather
• Harris Tweed headlining
• Third centre seat added
• Seats, dash and tub trimmed
• Bespoke gearlever gaiters
• Limestone accents
• Evander wood-rimmed steering wheel
• Lode Lane boss and centre cap
• Britpart billet gearknobs
• Aluminium vent flap knobs
• Aluminium coin tray
• Billet door furniture
• MGB window winders
• Custom door cards
• American walnut timber in the tub
• Seat box corner protectors

Wheels and tyres
• Lucari banded steel wheels (16x8in)
• 285/75 R16 BF Goodrich All-Terrain KO2
• Stainless steel wheel nuts

 

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