06 July 2023
Meet the retro-inspired Defender 90 built to dominate the desert
You know when something just looks right? It’s a phenomenon that doesn’t happen often, but when two styles collide and the result ends up being even better than either of the separate things were when they were on their own, you stop and take notice. And that’s exactly what everyone does the first time they lay eyes on this particular Defender.
‘‘We first met the owner on the Scram Africa rally last year,’’ explains Dave Lea, owner of Mahker, a name synonymous with building some of the most distinctive Defenders in the game. You may remember Dave from his Dirty 130 project, which graced the cover of LRM back in May 2022 – he hasn’t taken his foot off the pedal since.
Baja-style graphics, widened steels, pumped wheelarches and perfect stance – this is one cool-looking 90
To give some background, the Scram Africa rally winds entrants on a 1500-mile voyage of the Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara Desert, following the off-road routes used by pioneers in days gone by. It initially started off as an event purely for scrambler and custom motorbikes, and is now in its 11th year – 2022 was the first time it opened a class for 4x4 vehicles over 30-years old, and it was on this rally that Dave Lea first met Mauro, the crazy Italian owner and driver of this little white 90.
Iconic ‘smiley face’ KC Daylighter driving lamps sit on a custom-fabricated curved mounting bar
‘‘I honestly have no idea how it made it through the rally last year,’’ laughs Dave. ‘‘The chassis was absolutely hanging – the rear crossmember was held on with bubblegum and pigeon poo, and the suspension was awful. But Mauro was loving it. Every time he’d turn up to camp, he’d blast his Dixie air horns, grinning like a nutter.’’
Careful decal choice adds to the look without being over-the-top
It’s that sense of camaraderie, adventure and lightheartedness that’s a big part of the appeal of the rally, and the team at Mahker have strived to retain the character of the original 90 while giving it a total mechanical overhaul and freshen-up for this year’s event.
So, how did it start?
‘‘Well, unlike most Defenders that we see from the UK, this one was almost completely rust-free,’’ says Dave. “It was just the rear crossmember that needed sorting, so we welded a new one on then blasted the whole chassis, primed it and finished it in black Tough Coat.’’
There’s no mistaking this Defender’s identity
He reports that the bodywork was incredibly straight for a vehicle in its 32nd year, which meant there wasn’t too much to do before giving the shell and a pair of new doors a full respray in Arctic White paint, creating the perfect background for the Baja-inspired graphics to pop from. And the retro desert styling doesn’t stop there – one of the most distinctive elements of the 90 are the row of iconic ‘smiley face’ KC Daylighter driving lamps that span the front of the eight-point Safety Devices roll cage on custom brackets.
Iconic ‘smiley face’ KC Daylighter driving lamps sit on a custom-fabricated curved mounting bar
Also providing the lumens are Trucklite headlamps and Wipac LED sidelights and indicators all-round, with Rigid Industries floodlamps out back to light up the darkness of the desert when it’s time to set up camp.
Providing the electricity is a pair of batteries mounted under the driver’s seat, held in tight by a Gwyn Lewis mount kit. These are kept topped up by twin alternators, again using Gwyn Lewis brackets, and promise to deliver all the grunt needed to run the fridge and 12v inverter in the loadspace, as well as running the Goodwinch TDS winch should the Defender become bogged down in soft Saharan sand.
Winch will be a must in the desert sands
The winch itself nestles in a high-mount bumper from Equipe, adding some Italian flair, and recovery points are built in either side to allow for easy recovery. Also providing some extra strength are a pair of 6mm rock sliders that warn obstacles off the 90’s flanks, as well as giving some much-needed side impact protection should the worst happen. Billet aluminium door handles and hinges add a premium feel and take all the slop out of the fittings, helping to keep the body rigid when hammering over corrugations and up dunes, and an Ore spare wheel carrier takes the load off the tail door. The original sliding side windows have also been removed and replaced with single sheets of glass, improving visibility and getting rid of another potential rattle point.
Dashboard gets the custom stripe treatment...
... and continues on the cubby box lid
The desert-racer style striping is continued inside, running down the gorgeous Alcantara-trimmed dashboard which Mahker trimmed in-house, along with the headlining and front and rear seats. The brittle OE dashboard binnacle is gone in favour of a tougher all-steel version, which houses a full complement of Stack gauges. ‘‘The speedometer is really clever, it picks up GPS signals and uses them to calculate speed, distance and loads of other useful things wherever you are. It’s perfect for desert driving,’’ explains Dave.
90’s loadspace is soon to house an Italian coffee machine to keep its crew caffeinated on the Scram rally
Between the seats sits an all-steel lockable cubby box to keep valuables safe on trips, and ahead of that a CB radio keeps the crew safely in touch with fellow Scrammers. In the base of the dash, twin charging ports give power in both 12v socket and USB forms, and a voltmeter lets driver and passenger keep an eye on the batteries when running various accessories – including the coffee machine in the back. Yep, you read that right. ‘‘It’s not just any coffee machine either!’’ laughs Dave. ‘‘One that makes drinks from pods wouldn’t do, so this one grinds its own beans from fresh. I knew there was a bit of a bit of a language barrier as Mauro is Italian and most of our communication has been over text and by sending photos, so I had to double-check. But yep, that’s what he wanted… It’s on its way over from Italy.’’
The oily bits
Mahker fitted a 200Tdi with high-mount turbo, correct for the 90’s original powerplant
With the important elements like the coffee machine and styling taken care of, the team got stuck into giving the Defender all the things it needed to take on the desert for a second time, starting with the engine. At some point in the 90’s life, its original lump had been changed for a 200Tdi from a Discovery, which Dave describes as an ‘attempted installation’. Needless to say, this was plucked out, and the 90 got a proper Defender-spec 200Tdi with high-mount turbo, correct for its 1991 vintage. The bottom end has been fully rebuilt with a polished and balanced crankshaft and new pistons and conrods, with new bearings and seals throughout.
200Tdi also received a rebuilt bottom end
To give Mauro some extra grunt under his right foot, the new Tdi has been assembled to ‘stage 2’ spec, consisting of a ported cylinder head to aid the flow of gases into and out of the combustion chamber, a variable-geometry turbocharger and full stainless exhaust system. To keep things cool in the desert heat, an Allisport XL cooling pack sits up front, boosted by a big Revotec electric fan. Thermostatically controlled in normal operation, the driver can also manually flick the fan on before a long climb or in especially hot weather, to ensure inlet and coolant temperatures are kept in check.
‘‘All the standard rubber hoses are gone,’’ explains Dave. ‘‘When you’re in the middle of the desert, you don’t want a small part to fail and cause damage or hold-ups, so everything is silicone or braided for reliability.’’
Rebuilt LT77 five-speed gearbox mates to a Stage 2 LT230 transfer ’box
Moving down the driveline, a rebuilt LT77 five-speed gearbox mates with a Stage 2 LT230 transfer ’box by Winchester Gears. Sporting a sleeved housing, larger capacity sump, Ashcroft automatic torque-biasing centre diff and heavy-duty intermediate and output shafts, the hopped-up Tdi’s power is transferred smoothly and reliably through two new propshafts to the axles.
Each axle houses another Ashcroft ATB diff, which helps keep the Defender moving even in soft sand by distributing torque to the wheel with the most grip at all times. HD halfshafts and CVs spin inside the blasted and re-coated axle casings, through bigger drilled and grooved brake discs which are clamped by performance pads. Standard flimsy steering arms have been binned in favour of Gwyn Lewis Sumo bars fitted with beefier ball joints to keep the handling crisp and take any knocks the Defender may suffer in the dunes.
Wolf rims banded to 9in-wide then shod in BF Goodrich ATs
The rolling stock is taken care of via a set of black Wolf wheels which have been banded to 9-inch wide, and fitted with the ubiquitous BF Goodrich All-Terrain KO2s in 285/75 R16 flavour. The jewels in the centres of the wheels are billet heavy-duty drive flanges, surrounded by bright silver stainless steel wheel nuts to prevent those annoying rust streaks that standard nuts can suffer from.
To deal with the extra width of the chunky wheels and tyres, 30mm extended arches sit at each corner – they’re effective but not in-your-face, and suit the style and stance of the Defender beautifully.
That stance is thanks to a set of +40mm Old Man Emu springs, chosen carefully to perform best for the 90’s weight, which are controlled by a set of Fox remote reservoir dampers, which sort of fit in with the desert-basher style without even trying and can take the constant punishment that running fully-laden in the dunes will serve up.
Remote-reservoir Fox dampers keep the chassis composed over rough ground
The finished 90
The right stance
Well, it’s easy to see that the Mahker team have done an incredible job on Mauro’s Defender, not just by improving the performance and reliability to make his next jaunt to the desert even more enjoyable, but by giving it such a recognisable aesthetic and keeping the character the 90 developed during its first Rally.
The graphics are the cherry on the cake – they’re not over the top, but you instantly recognise their Baja heritage, and the background of the bright white paint with black fixtures just ties together so well. It’s a stunning machine to behold, and the combo of widened steel wheels, perfect ride height and slightly pumped arches mean the stance is just spot-on.
Anyway, that’s enough fawning. Espresso anyone?
Fancy doing the Scram?
Pre-registration is still open for the 2023 Scram Africa Rally, which takes place September 11-22 and runs from Barcelona to Nador, mostly off-road. It’s open to customised and scrambler bikes, as well as 4x4s over 30-years old. Entry for 4x4s is €3500 and places are limited – head to fuelmotorcycles.eu/pages/scram-africa-2023 for more information and to book.
1991 Defender 90
Engine and transmission
• Stage 2 200Tdi engine
• Stainless exhaust system
• Allisport XL cooling pack
• Revotec electric fan
• Rebuilt LT77 five-speed gearbox
• Stage 2 Winchester Gears T-box
Wheels and suspension
• Banded Wolf wheels
• BF Goodrich KO2s (285/75 R16)
• Old Man Emu springs
• Fox remote reservoir shocks chassis and brakes
Chassis and brakes
• Chassis three-stage coated
• Ashcroft ATB differentials
• Heavy-duty shafts
• HD drive flanges
• Stainless brake pistons
• Drilled and grooved discs
• Sumo steering arms
• Arctic White paint
• Baja-style graphics
• Billet door handles
• Billet hinges
• Billet number plate light
• Classic grille and lamp surrounds
• Fixed side windows
• Trucklite headlamps
• Wipac LED lights
• KC Daylighter driving lights
• LED rear worklamps
• Safety Devices eight-point cage
• Safety Devices roof rack
• 6mm rock sliders
• Ore wheel carrier
• Equipe front bumper
• Goodwinch TDS winch
• +30mm arch spats
• On-board fridge
• Lockable cubby box
• CB radio
• 240v inverter
• Twin batteries
• Twin alternators
• Coffee machine(!)
• Mahker trim dashboard
• Mahker Trim seats
• Mahker steering wheel
• Stack gauges
• Metal gauge cluster
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