Buying Guide: Ninety/One Ten

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Ninety: every bit as handsome as the Defender 90s that followed : credit: © Alisdair Cusick
Ninetys and One Tens were a quantum leap forward for Land Rover – and they’re Defenders in all but name

At a glance...

Versatility: 3 out of 5 stars   
Economy:
5 stars
Depreciation: 3 stars
On-road: 5 stars
Off-road: 5 stars
Towing: 5 stars  
Ease of servicing: 
5 stars

Part of the human condition is that we often want what we can’t have. No-nonsense utility Land Rovers – that’s Series and Defender motors – had plodded along nicely but unfashionably for over 60 years… until word got out that Defender was ending production. Suddenly, what had once been the workhorse of the few became the aspirational pin-up vehicle for the trendy. Prices shot up accordingly – and are still rising.

Some traditionalists may moan into their beards about the inflationary rise of Defender values, but in truth it’s a reflection of just how good these no-frills vehicles are. Put simply, the secret is out and that means ever-increasing demand for a finite supply of Defenders. Meanwhile, depreciation varies from extremely low  to non-existent (most models are actually appreciating in value) which means that once you own one it shouldn’t lose value.

So it’s worth biting the bullet. But which Defender is the best value? The answer is the Defender that isn’t a Defender. Puzzled? Read on and all will be explained…

Some traditionalists may moan into their beards about the inflationary rise of Defender values, but in truth it’s a reflection of just how good these no-frills vehicles are. Put simply, the secret is out and that means ever-increasing demand for a finite supply of Defenders. Meanwhile, depreciation varies from extremely low  to non-existent (most models are actually appreciating in value) which means that once you own one it shouldn’t lose value.

So it’s worth biting the bullet. But which Defender is the best value? The answer is the Defender that isn’t a Defender. Puzzled? Read on and all will be explained…

UK's Ives brothers won the 1989 Camel Trophy in a late One Ten​​​​​​

One of the quirks of Land Rover history is that the original Defenders aren’t actually Defenders. The first coil-sprung Land Rovers, the One Ten and Ninety, were introduced in the early 1980s, over six years before the name “Defender” was coined. That’s because in those days there were only two 4x4 models built at Solihull – the Land Rover and the Range Rover. It wasn’t until late 1989 and the arrival of a third model, the Discovery, that Land Rover coined the name Defender for the original models, to avoid confusion with the newcomer.

The very first models shared engines and some body panels with the previous Series III models, but there the similarity with their leaf-sprung predecessors ended. The new coil-sprung Land Rovers were a big leap forward for Solihull, although they would never have been introduced if some diehards at Lode Lane had had their way. Old-school engineers advocated leaf springs because the discomfort they caused when driven fast encouraged owners to drive slower – and hence prevent breakages. Seriously. I'm pleased to report that they were unable to halt automotive progress on this occasion.

The Ninety and One Ten (and the rarer, extra-long wheelbase 127) are Defenders in all but name. And there has never been a better time to buy one, because they are still cheaper than later Defenders. But that happy situation isn’t likely to last, because as Gary Pusey has noted recently in LRM, they are fast attaining classic status – and we all know what happens to values when classic collectors take an interest.

Ninety with 1980s fashion 'go-fast' decals

Whether you’re looking for an affordable workhorse or a 1980s classic, you can expect a solidly-built vehicle that has stood the test of time and, in some cases, is better than its modern equivalents. For example, the chassis on a Ninety or One Ten is likely to be as good as, if not better than, say, the much more recent Defender Td5. Professional Land Rover restorers who deal with corroded metal on a daily basis will tell you that the British steel used on the chassis of the 1980s was of a better quality than that of the late 1990s onwards.

But the best thing about these vehicles is their simplicity: a great mix of old-school mechanicals and electrics, strictly no electronics and simple, Meccano-like construction. They are perfect vehicles for the DIY motorist.

Ninetys and One Tens may not be Defenders in name, but they are every bit as versatile.

 

Owning and driving

Which model should you choose – Ninety or One Ten? It depends on what you’re looking for from your vehicle. The Ninety is the best off-road, thanks to its absence of rear overhang. It is also a lot easier to park, although the turning circle in either vehicle is akin to a battleship’s.

The Ninety is a bit cramped for a family vehicle, and its load space is surprisingly poor. If you’re an angler, for example, most fishing rods will only just fit inside, taking up the full length of the interior, and touching the front windscreen. Even a station wagon will only carry two people in comfort – the driver and front seat passenger. The centre seat is awkward and has usually been replaced by a much more useful cubby box. The inward-facing rear seats are small and uncomfortable for anything but short local journeys.

One Tens are hugely versatile, on- and off-road

The roomier One Ten, on the other hand, will practically accommodate Old Mother Hubbard’s brood, thanks to the second row of seats that can take three adults (at a push). With that row of seats folded flat, you have a huge space, whether it’s for a tip run or conversion into a kitchen or sleeping area if you’re thinking of going down the overland route.

The One Ten is the most versatile of the two models, and the extra wheelbase makes for a more comfortable ride on bumpy tracks, as well as making it a very stable towing truck, but it is a bit of a behemoth if you’ve got limited parking space. And that rear overhang makes steep ascents and descents difficult on the off-road course.

If you’re really looking for maximum space, you could also consider the Ninety and One Ten’s big brother, the Land Rover 127, with its extra-long wheelbase, but it isn’t a vehicle for the faint-hearted and can be a bugger to park at the supermarket.

Early One Ten interior: spartan but functional​​​​​​

Driving a Ninety or One Ten may look daunting to someone whose driving career to date has been confined to a hatchback, but it shouldn’t be. Once you’re inside, it’s just like driving a car, but with the added benefit of an elevated driving position, which means you get a much better view of what’s going on around you. These vehicles may be big and heavy, but power steering (optional on very early models) makes them a doddle to handle.

These vehicle have disc brakes on the front axle, drums at the rear. Some owners have opted for conversion to discs all round, but the original set-up stops perfectly well. Farmers and anyone else doing a lot of driving in an off-road environment know that drum brake shoes last longer than disc pads, which wear down quickly due to being more exposed to the abrasive action of mud.

300Tdi engine is bulletproof if properly serviced

Of course, everything wears in time, but Land Rover engines – whether originals or the later Tdi transplants found in so many Ninetys and One Tens – are justly famous for their longevity. A 12J, 200Tdi or 300Tdi engine should be good for 300,000 miles, so long as it is serviced regularly.​​​​​​

 

What to look for

Ninety and One Ten owners broadly fit into two categories: enthusiasts seeking an affordable entry point to Defender ownership and classic car fans looking for originality. Both are amply catered for, although originality is a finite resource and unmolested examples get fewer every year. This is partly because the original naturally-aspirated diesel engines are very sluggish and many owners have swapped them for Tdi conversions, which are much better at keeping up with modern traffic.

It is these conversions that ordinary enthusiasts usually opt for. If you’re keeping the original LT77 gearbox, both the 200Tdi and 300Tdi ex-Disco 1 engines are fairly straightforward swaps. But if you’re swapping the LT77 box for the longer R380 from a 300-series Disco, you will end up with the gear lever between the front seats, unless you fit a special (and relatively inexpensive) conversion from Ashcroft.

If originality is your priority, there’s quite a choice. When the One Ten was launched in March 1984 it shared the same engines as the outgoing Series III: four-cylinder 2.25-litre petrol and diesel units, plus the more powerful (but very thirsty) 3.5-litre Rover V8. But most UK owners opted for the relatively economical diesels.

Naturally aspirated 12J engine in a One Ten

Three months later, when the Ninety was launched, the four-cylinder diesel was uprated to 2.5 litres. Known as the 12J, this engine was created by lengthening the stroke of the old 2.25 diesel. It produced 67bhp at 4000rpm and 114 lb-ft maximum torque at 1800rpm, which is puny by today’s standards but par for the course for an early 1980s off-road workhorse. On-road, it would cruise all day at 60 mph, although steep uphill sections would slow it down.

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But by the mid 1980s, motoring fashions had changed. Japanese manufacturers had been flooding the market with cheaper 4x4s that happened to perform better on-road. Land Rover were losing sales, so they responded by bolting a turbo on to the 12J. It was faster, but the venerable engine, which could date its ancestry back to the 1950s, wasn’t designed for the extra stress imposed by that turbo. Hence the 19J Turbo Diesel was prone to premature failure and tarnished Solihull’s reputation for building bulletproof engines.

That unreliability means that original 19J engines are now rare, which in turn makes them more valuable to collectors. Welcome to the fickle, paradoxical world of collectable classics!

Corrosion, as always, is the biggest enemy. Despite being built from the high-quality steel available in the 1980s, time is likely to have taken its toll on these vehicles – the oldest of which are now 37 years old. For example, outriggers will either have been replaced or need replacing, and the rear crossmember is particularly vulnerable to rust, but these are relatively cheap and easy to replace.

Early turbo diesels had a reputation for unreliability

It’s the same story with bulkheads. They last well, but they are made of thinner steel than the chassis and can rust badly, especially in the upper bulkhead around the vents. The only way to deal with rust in the bulkhead is to cut it out and have new metal welded in, or go the whole hog and invest in a new bulkhead, but this is a major job.

When inspecting your potential purchase, check all vulnerable areas of bodywork for bodging – especially areas patched with filler, which seals in the rust, which will continue to spread silently under the filler. If you’re uncertain whether suspect areas like the upper bulkhead are packed with filler, try the magnet test. If the magnet isn’t attracted to the bodywork in this area, it means there’s plastic hidden under the paint rather than metal.

Doors on Ninetys and One Tens are made from aluminium alloy skins fixed to steel frames. The reaction between the two different metals accelerates the rate of corrosion, with the result that most Ninetys and One Tens have had their original doors replaced by later Defender ones, although you can go in the other direction and fit earlier two-piece Series III doors, with their sliding windows. Some owners – this writer included – love the simplicity of sliding windows, working on the principle that anything with fewer moving parts is less likely to go wrong.

To keep corrosion at bay, be generous with the pressure washer and blast away the mud and winter road salt trapped in the crevices beneath your Land Rover. It’s also a good idea to get it Waxoyled regularly.

 

Buying and values

Values of all utility Land Rovers are high and holding, which means prices are correspondingly high. If you’re really lucky you might find a decrepit project vehicle requiring total restoration for less than £2000, but everybody seems to know that values are rising – along with unrealistic expectations from ill-informed optimists who have been led to believe that even barn-find wrecks are worth £5000 or more!

In fact £5000 should buy you a good, solid Ninety or One Ten. Expect to pay more for something totally original – and perhaps even £10,000-plus if it’s early, rare, unmolested and in very good order.

If you’re not fussy about originality, a decent Tdi conversion is both better for modern driving and kinder on the pocket. If it’s sitting on a galvanised chassis, expect to pay at least £1000 more.

The good news is that Ninetys and One Tens are slowly appreciating in value and spares – particularly aftermarket ones – are very reasonably-priced. Let’s not beat about the bush here: the ready availability of budget-priced pattern parts are largely responsible for keeping many elderly Land Rovers on the road.

 

Servicing and mods

LRM's Ed Evans takes a tea break while fettling his Ninety

Like the Series Land Rovers that preceded them and the Tdi models that followed, the Ninety and One Ten are much simpler to service than modern cars. You don’t have to be a mechanical expert to service your own – just a modest set of tools and a modicum of common sense. All the information you need is contained in the usual Haynes manual, or can be found online.

Modifications are where these vehicles come into their own. The Meccano-like simplicity of construction and ready availability of bolt-on bits means you can tweak your Land Rover however you feel fit.

I hesitate to call it customisation, because that conjures up mental images of overblown 1970s American muscle cars with metal-flake, candy-coloured paint jobs. Land Rover customisation is (usually!) much more restrained – a matter of tailoring your vehicle to your own taste. Let’s call it individuality.

It would be impossible to list all the mind-boggling array of accessories you can buy to personalise your Ninety or One Ten. Top choices include alloy wheels, lights upgrades (original headlamps are dull compared to modern LEDs) and off-road extras, including snorkels, underbody protection and sill guards. Soundproofing is a popular choice for those unaccustomed to the din of a traditional Land Rover and a swingaway spare wheel carrier will take the strain on your rear door hinges.

If your chassis is rusted beyond economic repair, a galvanised replacement is a sound investment, from £2000 upwards.

You may wish to tailor your Ninety or One Ten’s suspension set-up, according to what you’ll be using it for. Lower it an inch or so for better on-road performance (especially for cornering) or raise it a couple of inches for better clearance when off-roading. But remember the standard ride height is a good compromise.

Quick tips

• Rocker cover gaskets on 12J and 19J diesel engines are prone to failure. It’s not that serious, but the leaking oil will make a mess. They’re easy to replace: just remove the rocker cover, scrape off the old one and renew.
• The starter motor is huge and a bit sluggish on very cold mornings. Consider replacing it with a smaller and more powerful one from a Tdi.
• The standard alternator is plenty powerful enough to keep your battery fully charged, but consider uprating to a modern, heavy-duty gel battery.
• It is essential to change oil and filter at the recommended intervals to enjoy long, trouble-free service.
• No need for fancy synthetic or diesel oils on these models. Ordinary mineral oils are fine for these workhorse mills.

Very early Ninety: Not the most watertight

• Like all Defenders, Ninetys and One Tens are notorious for water ingress, usually caused by deteriorated seals – especially around the doors, windows and ventilation flaps.
•Original seats (vinyl or cloth) are likely to be worn and can be replaced with those from later Defender models.
• The 16-inch wheels fitted as standard keep the gearing down and provide better acceleration than big alloys.
• If the steering is vague or sloppy, it probably means there’s wear in the universal joints.
• Power steering was only an option on very early models. It’s easy to retro-fit.

 

Security

Like all Land Rovers in general – and Defenders in particular – your Ninety or OneTen is likely to be a prime target for thieving scumbags. The Meccano-like build simplicity that we all love so much is also beloved by the crooks, who will often strip them down and sell the parts. Happily, the choice of deterrents available is reassuringly vast and ranges from trackers and immobilisers to alarms and simple alternatives like pedal and steering wheel locks – usually painted bright yellow to act as a visual deterrent.

A hidden isolating switch makes it difficult for thieves to drive off in a hurry, while upgraded hinges will prevent doors and bonnets from being stolen.

 

Timeline

1983: One Ten introduced
1984: Ninety introduced
1986: Turbo diesel (19J) engine
1990: End of production

 

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