Retro Restomod


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ARB bumper and Warn M8000 winch with Cepek Daylighters were the way to go in the 1990s : credit: © Craig Pusey
Modifying Land Rovers to suit a particular purpose or to create your own perfect vehicle is nothing new, as this Ninety shows…

Land Rover restomods are all the rage right now, whether they are created by the many aftermarket specialists or by JLR itself via its Classic business, or as DIY projects by private owners. Most of them are based on the old Defender, but a few companies are offering tweaked Range Rover classics, and at least one is playing around with early Discoverys.

The word ‘restomod’ conjures up a wide range of meanings and interpretations, but to put it as simply as possible, it is about incorporating non-standard or non-original elements in the rebuild of an older vehicle, the idea being to make it easier or safer to drive, or simpler to maintain, or more reliable or economical to run, or better at what it was originally designed and built to do. Some owners want to create a unique vehicle that reflects their taste and personality, and some want one that drives like a modern but with retro style. Others simply want to make it go faster.

90's era bumper and winch signal the clear intention for this Ninety's use

So, restomod is not a particularly easy and definitive thing to pin down, which is presumably why you won’t find the word in the Oxford English Dictionary yet, probably because the lexicographers are still arguing about precisely what restomod means!

For an insight into the Land Rover DIY restomod world, editor Martin Domoney’s article is a good place to start. Martin went along to the second UCCUK (Ultimate Callout Challenge UK) hosted by motorsport specialist Shropshire Automotive, where he watched 21 Land Rovers unleash their horses on the rolling road dyno. This particular flavour of restomod is all about performance.

To show how broad the interest is in go-faster Land Rover modifications, there were examples of Series I, II and III, Ninety, Defender 90 and 110, a 110 6x4, Discovery 1, 2 and 3, a 101, and an L322 Range Rover. Several still had their factory fitted engines that had been bored, tweaked, and tuned, but to me these aren’t restomods. Others had been rather more dramatically modified, with replacement engines such as Cummins, and transplants from other manufacturers including BMW, Lexus, and Mercedes.

Luke Dale alongside his 593bhp Series I creation! Read his story here

The vehicle that generated the highest bhp on the dyno was a 1957 Series I with a 2.5-litre Mercedes OM605 five-cylinder turbo-diesel that pumped out 593bhp and 530lb ft of torque. Yes, you read that right. A Series I with 593bhp, and all going through two-wheel drive rather than four. Owner Luke is a braver man than me.

If you’re not sure your spannering skills can stretch to such a DIY project, you can buy off-the-shelf or even specify your precise requirements to a specialist, and have it built for you. This doesn’t come cheap. For around a quarter of a million pounds, JLR Classic will provide you with a limited edition Works V8 model, based on a late-production original Defender 90 or 110 rebuilt to as-new condition but with a raft of bespoke tweaks and enhancements, including a supercharged 5.0-litre V8 delivering over 400bhp mated to a ZF eight-speed auto gearbox.

1990s cool: canvas tilt, rocksliders, swingaway spare mount, bumperettes, 33-inch tyres, and two-inch lift

These restomods also come with significant (and rather important) upgrades to brakes, wheels, tyres and drivetrains, all of which are needed to ensure the refurbished vehicles are useable and safe, although it has to be said that a brick is still a brick, no matter how powerful an engine you put in it. Such top-end restomods also come with highly bespoke interiors with more than a hint of luxury. Special paint finishes and exotic decals and wraps are also typical, and you might even get an invitation to an exclusive off-road weekend at Eastnor thrown in.

But the reality is that unlike most other automotive marques, Land Rovers have been modified since the very first ones appeared back in 1948, sometimes in a fairly modest fashion but on other occasions in pretty dramatic ways (think Roadless Traction Forest Rover, Laird Centaur half-track, Cuthbertson or the Vickers Armstrong Series II hovercraft, to name but four). And that was years before anyone came up with the word restomod. Modifying is an embedded and core part of Land Rover culture.

In the 1990s, many would have considered this to be their ideal Land Rover off-roader

The Ninety you see here represents what was considered in the early 1990s to be the ultimate, state-of-the-art, cool and capable Land Rover conversion. All the modifications were fundamentally intended to make it even more accomplished off-road than when it left the Solihull production line, and faster and more economical on the road.

“It’s based on a 1987 D-reg Ninety 2.5-litre turbo-diesel County Station Wagon that was first registered on 9 January that year,” its builder Chris Bashall tells me. Chris is the founder and owner of Surrey Off-Road Specialists Ltd, and the company has been modifying Land Rovers and other off-road vehicles, and preparing 4x4 expedition and long-range rally vehicles, since 1989.

Ready to rock and roll

“We built this vehicle in 1993 for one of our regular customers. The Ninety only had around 40,000 miles on the clock when we started the project, and it has covered just 8000 miles since the conversion was completed over 30 years ago. The original vehicle was in great shape and the chassis and bulkhead didn’t require any welding. They’re still on the vehicle today in excellent condition.

“The final specification includes basically everything that was considered desirable back then, just as there are similar lists today of all the things that owners would like to fit to their trucks. We were agents for many of the manufacturers of these aftermarket parts and modifications, and vehicles like this were not that unusual at the time.

“What’s special about this Ninety is that it has survived in time-warp condition, basically because it was part of a collection and hasn’t really been used very much, and certainly not off-road.

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Mazda 3.5 SLTI was a popular way to increase performance back in the day

“The heart transplant was to replace the pretty lethargic standard 2.5 turbo-diesel with a brand-new Mazda 3.5 SLTI diesel engine, which was supplied back in the day as a complete conversion kit by Cambridge-based Motor & Diesel Engineering Ltd. The SLTI engine was very popular at the time and was a common replacement installation in Land Rovers, and particularly in Range Rovers. It was regarded as bulletproof and was basically a Perkins built under licence by Mazda.

“Performance is roughly the same as a Rover 3.5 V8 of the period, but with much more grunt and considerably better fuel consumption. The SLTI generates 260lb-ft of torque at 2000rpm, and 125bhp at 3450rpm, although if you leave the standard LT77 manual gearbox in place it very quickly gets eaten by the phenomenal torque of the SLTI. This vehicle has a ZF four-speed auto ’box fitted, which works well with the SLTI’s torque curve. There’s also a new BorgWarner viscous transfer ’box, and it has a Webasto diesel preheater with timer.

“Both axles are 3.56:1 ratio and have ARB Airlockers installed, and an ARB compressor that also has the tyre inflater kit. The front axle is from a 3.9-litre Range Rover, and it has the vented discs and calipers on the front and the original Ninety axle with drums on the rear.

Suitably beefy treads for off-road action 

“Tyres are 33 x 12.50/15 BFGoodrich Mud Terrains in good shape, fitted to 7x15 alloy wheels. There is an Old Man Emu two-inch suspension lift, and Southdown Engineering axle and steering guards are fitted.

“It has an ARB winch bumper with a Warn M8000 winch and Dyneema rope, a quartet of Dick Cepek Daylighter 150W spotlamps, upgraded Halogen headlamp bulbs and military Bee Eye sidelights and flashers. There’s also a large Odyssey battery and an Anderson plug with jump leads.

“There’s a Safari snorkel and extended transmission breathers, Rokraider sill sliders and OEM steps, and a newish Exmoor Trim canvas tilt with roll-up side windows. It has a swing-out spare wheel carrier and OEM side-hinged tailgate, and a Dixon Bate adjustable tow hitch. It retains the original recessed door handles and sliding window aluminium doortops, and military bumperettes are fitted on the rear.

Modifications included Range Rover auto transmission, Momo steering wheel, and Mazda RX-8 seats

“Inside, it is fitted with Mazda RX-8 front seats and a Momo steering wheel. There is a Safety Devices roll cage in the rear, and NAS-spec door cards with stowage. There’s also a hidden underfloor locker in the rear. Overall, it is in very good condition, drives nicely and pulls strongly on the road. Needless to say, it tows very well indeed. It was resprayed in its original Slate Grey and a new set of hockey stick decals were fitted, although there are a few areas where the paint would benefit from some TLC.”

It’s probably been more than 25 years since I’ve driven a Land Rover like this, so when Chris tosses me the keys, I know it’s going to be a real blast from the past. Back in the 1990s, when I was driving my 3.9 Range Rover regularly off-road, the modifications you see on this Ninety were what everyone wanted when they thought about creating the perfect off-road Land Rover that also had a better turn of speed on the road, without having to resort to a thirsty V8.

It’s great fun to drive and feels firmly planted, solid and secure on the road. The combination of the higher ratio transfer case, the 3.56:1 diffs, the ZF four-speed ’box, and the 33-inch tyres together raise the gearing quite significantly, but the Mazda pulls it along effortlessly.

Removable Momo wheel was apparently required to allow the original owner to get in and out!

I find myself starting to think about what I’d do if it were mine. Definitely replace the Momo with a standard steering wheel. Replace the RX-8 seats? Maybe drop the suspension back to standard height, and experiment with wheel and tyre sizes – 7.50s perhaps? Rejuvenate the Slate Grey paintwork? Some detailing and tidying here and there? But definitely nothing that dilutes its character and presence. It’s always a bit worrying when this happens to me because it often ends with me buying another Land Rover…

I doubt you’d find another period conversion like this in such unmolested condition. After all, most people who coughed up for one of these back in the day did so with a purpose in mind, which was to do some serious off-roading. As Chris says, this one hasn’t been used for much more than driving to the testing station to pick up a new MoT every year.

If there is such a thing as retro restomod in the Land Rover world, this Ninety certainly qualifies as one. Chris describes it as an early-1990s time capsule, which is a fair description. On the button and ready to go, and considerably better value for money than a few contemporary conversions I could mention.

See more of this time-warp Ninety on our YouTube channel. It was also for sale in Nov 2023 by the man who built it for its first owner. If you’re interested, contact Chris on [email protected]


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