05 August 2023
Continuing our celebration of 75 years of Land Rover, we're looking at how you make an old Land Rover as reliable, driveable and enjoyable as a new one – while keeping all its history and character intact. Martin visits JLR Classic to find out they do it
"I’ve got a serious thing for these early coilers. My dad used to take me to school in a Trident Green Ninety, so I’ve been around them a long time and I absolutely love them. In fact, since taking on this Ninety, I’ve gone and bought my own C-reg station wagon in the same colour as a project,’’ laughs Ed Harvey, Service Manager at Jaguar Land Rover Classic, his enthusiasm infectious.
JLR Classics don't just do massive budget restos
Walking around Jaguar Land Rover Classic’s immaculate Ryton showroom, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the workshop side of the business only deals with massive budget full restorations of 80in Series Is and Jaguar E-Types. But that’s not the case, as Ed is keen to explain.
He leads me into a room with a single four-post ramp in it. The walls are decorated with technical drawings and prints of projects from years gone by, and in the centre sits the Arizona Tan Ninety you see here.
Ed, left, talks Martin through the details. 3.5-litre V8 was an unusual option box to tick on a hard top
‘‘This one has gone through the Classic service department as a recommission rather than the Reborn restoration programme,’’ Ed explains. ‘‘Our client bought it from Manor Park Classics as an original, low-mileage Ninety hard top that needed work, and it definitely needed work,’’ smiles Ed. ‘‘But the bones of the vehicle were there, and it was well worth saving. In fairness, all Land Rovers from this vintage are worth the time and money investing now, as so many have been fitted with different engines or cut about for off-roading. The owner of this one wanted a Land Rover he can jump in and drive at any time, but keeping the originality was key. He wanted it to run and perform like new, but not look like it.’’
This particular Ninety has only had one owner from new, and has covered a mere 34,000 miles since it rolled out of Solihull and onto the public roads in 1986. That’s not to say it’s enjoyed a life of leisure wrapped up in a heated garage, though. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Surface rust has been kept, but treated so it doesn’t get worse
‘‘It was bought by a caravan site and used by them all its life, shunting caravans around the property, which explains the engine choice,’’ explains Ed. Yep, this commercial Ninety doesn’t have the most obvious choice of powerplant nestled between its chassis rails – where you might expect to find a basic four-cylinder diesel or petrol engine sits a lusty 3.5-litre low compression V8. Normally an engine more commonly found in passenger-carrying variants, eight-cylinder power would have been just the job for pushing and pulling caravans around, with plenty of torque available. ‘‘You could tell it had been maintained on-site by mechanics who were doing their best with what they had. All the original air intake pipework and filter box were gone, replaced with cheap universal pancake filters, and there were broken studs and stripped threads all over the place. Because the V8 had spent almost all its time running at low RPM, it had been repeatedly bore washed and had next to no compression left, and all the bearings were knocked out.’’ One of the first jobs was to whip the tired engine out and send it off to Vitesse Global for a total rebuild.
As-used, rather than as-new
This is where the level of detail that goes into it starts to creep in. As soon as the engine came back from being rebuilt, the team at JLR Classic took the highly-polished caps off the SU carburettors and knocked the shine back to dull it down and make the carbs look more in-keeping with the rest of the vehicle.
Touches like this pop up throughout the project, like the small under-bonnet stickers that have been painstakingly cleaned and treated with silicone to preserve them rather than just replacing them with reproduction ones. One big obstacle to overcome was the chassis – it needed replacing, but also needed to be right for the Ninety’s build year, down to the tiniest detail.
V8-specific mudflap hints at the Ninety’s 8-cylinder power
‘‘The original was a sieve,’’ explains Ed as we peer underneath the Land Rover’s smart underside. ‘‘It was just patches on patches. Going for a galvanised one wasn’t an option as the surface finish would have been wrong, so we got a new GKN chassis from stock. The problem then was that the rear crossmember was wrong; we had to cut out and flush in the towing electrics hole that comes standard on the later Defenders, and add external welds around the jacking tubes, as that’s how they left the factory in ’86. They weren’t frenched in like on later Defenders.’’ Once looking period-correct, Vitesse cleaned and E-coated the chassis before further coating it in Buzzweld chassis paint, to make it look as close as possible to how it did when the Ninety was new.
The fixtures and fittings on the chassis have also been carefully retained or replaced like-for-like to keep the van’s original look, like the rear mudflaps with cut-out for the exhaust in the centre of the nearside one, a part that’s specific to V8 variants of this vintage.
Rear door houses the washer bottle and locking check strap
As you might imagine, the bodywork is one of the most important elements of a project like this – it needs to be made sound, but as Ed explains, it can be a difficult thing to get right. ‘‘You risk losing so much patina by overdoing it on the body. It’s like walking a tightrope between scruffiness and undoing the originality and history.’’ Happily, the bulkhead’s previous repairs had been done to a high standard and only needed minor fettling to be made good. The same couldn’t be said for the doors, though. ‘‘They were a real mess. The guys in the workshop wanted to replace them for new, but it wouldn’t have been right. We ended up spending hours stripping the skins off, re-making the steel frames and adding in slightly more metal so that they won’t fatigue again.’’ In the spirit of re-using parts that have survived the Ninety’s 37 years, even the door hinge screws have been retained, along with the check straps, door threshers and even the aperture seals, where still in workable condition. The doors don’t close like they did back in 1986, though; thanks to the slightly heavier repaired frames and many hours spent on the hinge and striker alignment, they click shut beautifully.
Care was taken not to over-restore the Arizona Tan paint
But it’s the paintwork that has been the most delicate balancing act of all. Blemishes and areas of corrosion that would have been sanded back, treated, filled and resprayed on a full, back-to-new restoration are still proudly on show. Even though the imperfections are still present, the Arizona Tan hue looks very different now to how it did a few months ago. ‘‘The aim was to keep all the marks and age intact, but bring the paint back to its proper shade and seal in the history,’’ says Ed, gesturing at a collection of rings on the offside front wing top – a result of the same mug of tea being placed on the surface for 30-plus years. ‘‘Our detailing man, Adam, understood what we were after and spent around four days on the job, carefully removing years of contaminants and ground-in dirt to bring the true colour back up without disturbing the imperfections, and then sealing it all in with a special Sonax ceramic coating.’’
Old repairs still visible, but doors have been fully rebuilt
The wheelarch spats have survived, and have also been revived from their chalky, light grey faded state with careful application of the ceramic coating. Further down the body, dents and marks along the bases of the wings and sill panels have been retained, nodding at the V8 hard top’s previous life grafting hard on the caravan site.
Axles are original to the Ninety, but have been overhauled
As we raise the Ninety on the four-post ramp and head underneath, it’s much easier to see where the hard work has taken place. Finished in satin black in the same paint as the GKN chassis, the axles have been fully stripped and rebuilt with new bearings and seals all-round, with the leaky, pitted old swivels binned and replaced with fresh. It’s a welcome sight to see a drum-braked rear axle still in place – most have long been scrapped in favour of one from a Discovery 1 or Range Rover Classic with discs.
LT95 gearbox got new bearings and seals; props rebuilt
While it would have been easier to just throw the propshafts away and bolt new ones on, keeping the old ones just adds that little bit extra to the originality. They have both been stripped and reassembled with new universal joints and boots, and refitted between the fresh axles and LT95 gearbox. ‘‘The gearbox didn’t need much at all. We still stripped it and replaced the bearings, gave it a good scrub and re-sealed it, but it was still sweet even after all the low-speed shunting the vehicle was used for. Everyone says the LT95 is tough, and they’re right.’’
Suspension needed replaced. The old 90 still looks right at home on rural B-roads
As you’d expect, the Ninety’s old suspension was on the verge of giving up, so was changed out for new OE springs fitted to match the Land Rover’s standard ratings, along with new dampers and Metalastic bushes throughout – good for another few decades at least. I spot the wiring poking from the chassis rail; I expected to see a shiny new bunch of brightly-coloured wires, but the standard harness remains. ‘‘We took the harnesses out and laid them on a board, then checked it over for chafing and degradation, and it looked fine. Once we checked every wire for high resistance and cleaned up some of the insulation, it was deemed good enough to reuse.’’
JLR Classic isn’t afraid to use aftermarket parts where needed, as long as they’re up to scratch. ‘‘The simple fact is a lot of the more unusual or slower-moving parts just aren’t made any more by Land Rover, so we use OE equivalent bits from other suppliers, just as a home restorer would. It has to fit correctly and look proper, though. Generally, we’ve had good luck.’’
Factory wheels and tyres were replaced
One area Classic has deviated slightly from the Ninety’s factory finish is the wheels and tyres. Gone are the flaky old tube-type wheels and 205/80 16 tyres, removed in favour of slightly wider tubeless wheels with 235/85 R16 Continental Cross Contact radial tyres. ‘‘We haven’t found any other tyre that works so well for so much of the time on a Land Rover. There’s a reason they left the factory on Contis,’’ winks Ed. It’s one of the more obvious cues that this job has been a case of blending patina with a full overhaul, but the extra safety and hugely improved handling of modern tyres is forgiveable by all but the most diehard purist.
Original interior had survived pretty well
We drop the Ninety back down and I jump into the cab, and my senses transport me back a couple of decades. The original half-headliner has survived, and just needed a good wash and buff up to look new again – but it smells like an old Land Rover. ‘‘We worked on a simple philosophy. If it’s brown or trim, it’s been restored.” The seats have been re-covered and have new foams, but they kept the frames. The dashboard and door cards were also in remarkably good shape, with the separate rear wash-wipe reservoir still present and correct in the back door. I smile as I clock the short piece of hosepipe used to pack out the gearknob on the long stick, to stop it twisting – I wonder how long it’s been there.
Sparking up the V8 and snicking the LT95 gearbox crisply into gear, I feel exactly how I’d imagine the new owner felt when they picked this Land Rover up from their local dealer – White Horse Motors near Exeter, if the still-present stickers are anything to go by – for the first time. I back the choke off, and the revs smoothen.
Evidence of the Ninety’s life of hard graft shows proudly
Working up through the ’box, that familiar faint whine from the rear axle emanates through the floor. No sound deadening or rubber mats here; the all-Birmabright loadspace and bare roof do little to dampen the driveline noise and I instinctively duck as a big stone becomes dislodged from a rear tyre’s tread and hammers into the underside of the tub. The fresh suspension, pin-sharp brakes and beautifully light steering inspire confidence to work the rebuilt V8 harder, and as rain starts to splat on the windscreen, I’m grateful for the modern rubber beneath me keeping the Land Rover stuck to the road.
This gorgeous Ninety might have been recommissioned to keep as much of its past alive as possible, but its fully overhauled driveline and new chassis ensure it’s destined to be driven and enjoyed for many years in the future, too.
Ed’s top 5 tips for restoration perfection
1. Don’t throw anything away until the job is done: You never know what you might not be able to source a replacement for, and having the old part on hand to have re-made or try to repair yourself is much easier and more cost-effective than chucking it on the scrap pile and then realising you actually need it after all.
2. Take loads of pictures: Snap away on your phone or digital camera to record what things look like before you take them apart; even if you think you’ll remember how something goes, having a breadcrumb trail of photographs might trigger a memory or prevent you from doing the same job twice because you fitted bits back in the wrong order.
3. They’re only original once: If you’re aiming for a recommission like this Ninety, be absolutely sure when something can’t be saved or repaired before writing it off and replacing it. Similarly, know what you want from the finished article; if it’s going to be a regular driver, consider investing in modern safety touches.
4. Be organised: As well as taking photos where you think you might need an aide memoir, store all the fixings and clips from each area in separate boxes or bags and label them. As parts come off, lay them out in an orderly manner, and don’t underestimate how much space a fully stripped-down Land Rover can take up!
5. Enjoy it: After all, you’re rebuilding the Land Rover to drive and enjoy, so make the most of the process – get your mates to muck in, dedicate a certain amount of time per week or month to keep momentum up and don’t worry if you get bogged down – just tackle each small job at a time and keep the project moving forward.
Like to have your own Land Rover library?
Try our Budget Digital Subscription. You'll get access to over 7 years of Land Rover Monthly – that’s more than 100 issues plus the latest digital issue. All issues are fully searchable so you can easily find what you are looking for and what’s more it’s less than 10p a day to subscribe. Click here to find out more details and start enjoying all the benefits now.