Defender: Rebirth of an Icon, part 1


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Early Ninety from the Dunsfold Collection and the Defender Works V8 : credit: © Nick Dimbleby
In this series, former JLR engineer Greg King gives us the inside story on how Defender was transformed from utility vehicle to 4x4 legend. In part 1, he takes us from 1983 to 1990...

Some brands have been adopted into our everyday language and are so commonplace we hardly notice. “I’ll just Hoover up,” we’ll say, or “I’ll Google it…” And how many times have you heard another 4x4 referred to as a Land Rover, even when it isn’t?

Land Rover has long been aware of the importance of its brand, but back in the late 1980s it faced an issue. Project Jay was being readied for production and a clear naming strategy was needed for the new Land Rover model. In autumn 1989, the Land Rover Discovery was born, but where did that leave the original Land Rover? 

This is how the Defender was born. The new name soon became a success and was quickly adopted as a term for any traditional Land Rover. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We need to go back 42 years…

Pre-production Stage 1 V8

Defender’s story begins in 1978. Land Rover Ltd had just been unpicked from British Leyland and set up as an independent company, grouped with Jaguar, Rover and Triumph. It was seen as a fresh era for Land Rover and unlocked some much-needed investment into the business. A development plan known as Stage 1 combined an uplift in production volumes, revised features (such as County trim level), development of the High Capacity 109in pick-up and a V8 replacement for the ageing six-cylinder Series III model. 

The legendary 3.5-litre eight-pot had already seen service in Range Rover and the military 101 Forward Control, as well as Rover saloon cars, so it was only natural that it should find its way into the mainstream Land Rover. This also had the benefit of reducing the number of engines requiring manufacture for the Solihull-built vehicles. 

First launched in 1979, the 109in V8 marked two important changes for the Land Rover:
1. Permanent four-wheel-drive was made available for the first time on the traditional Land Rover (between 1948-1950 the original 80in Series I had permanent 4WD, but with a front freewheel for road use);
2. The loss of the inset front grille, which had been a trademark of the Land Rover since 1948. The latter was necessary to accommodate the engine, along with a longer bonnet with distinctive castellations on its edges. 

As far as V8 performance goes, the engine was tuned to be only fractionally more powerful than the outgoing six-cylinder, with a gain of just 5 bhp to 91 bhp.

However, it soon became common knowledge that the restrictors in the inlet manifold could be removed for an instant large power increase! The engine was paired with the extremely strong and robust LT95 gearbox, as used on the Range Rover and 101 Forward Control.

Stage 2 line-up at Legends 2019  

With the Stage 1 V8 on the market, Land Rover could now focus on Stage 2 of the development plan. In truth, the main content of Stage 2 – a coil-sprung chassis – had been in the company’s plan for many years. In fact, the Dunsfold Collection holds one of the four prototype coil hybrids (which has a 110 inch wheelbase), made back in 1976. Other coil-sprung development 100in prototypes were built in 1977, in small numbers. 

Under British Leyland stewardship, the product teams had been starved of the investment they needed, but now Solihull finally had the investment it needed to launch an all-new Land Rover. In truth though, Stage 2 development had already started in earnest two years before the V8 Stage 1 hit the market.

Early One Ten launch photo

The Land Rover One Ten was launched in the UK in February 1983 at Eastnor Castle, but made its formal worldwide debut a month later, at the Geneva Motor Show, where it was big news. It was the first departure from leaf springs on a Land Rover since its introduction in 1948. It also boasted a five-speed gearbox, (optional) power steering, restyled interior (carpets on County models), increased payload, improved heater and a reduced turning circle. The One Ten offered integrated air conditioning as an option for the first time, with the pronounced grille surround and screen vent blanks distinguishing air con models externally.

Even though these were features we take for granted now, it really was a true evolutionary jump from the Series III. The initial UK list price was from £6948 plus VAT, which wouldn’t buy much of a One Ten today!  

The body looked largely unchanged from the 109 SIII, but this was a thorough re-engineering of the whole vehicle, including wings, bulkhead, one-piece windscreen, roof and rear body. Initially, the One Ten was launched with two-piece doors, retaining a separate lower door and sliding side windows (of a new design in aluminium to prevent corrosion). The upper body was always painted Limestone White, and County models retained the decal style from late SIII County models.

The most contentious part was the new plastic wheel arch eyebrows, used to accommodate the wider axle track. There was much speculation these parts would not survive aggressive off-road use – a concern that proved largely unfounded. 

The chassis was an all-new design, with much work done on safety performance. Through the development period, a number of changes were made to the front chassis area in particular. The rear axle was a heavy-duty Salisbury affair, with the Boge self-levelling unit that Range Rover owners were familiar with. Moving from drum to front disc brakes, leaf springs to coil and the availability of power steering, it was a massive handling leap for the Land Rover, which enhanced its off-road capability. It’s hard to believe now that some traditionalists were against these “new fangled” features! 

Part time 4-wheel drive option on early One Ten

Powertrain-wise, the four-cylinder and V8 engines were carried over from Series III and Stage 1 V8 (the four-pots with the five-bearing crankshaft, for smoothness, and the V8 (with another 24 bhp released). It was the gearbox that was a big change; for four-cylinder models, a five-speed unit – the LT77 that had already seen service in other Rover and Jaguar products – and a new transfer box, the LT230, which had been launched the year before on the Range Rover three-speed Automatic. The One Ten was initially offered with the option of part-time four-wheel drive, like the Series III, or the permanent 4WD that most of us will recognise as a key feature of the One Ten. The part-time option got a very low take rate, so these vehicles are now very rare. 

Dealer drives a new One Ten Hi-Cap. Note the silver windscreen surrounds on early cars

In the summer of 1983, Special Vehicles released the 127in conversion as a special order, firstly to support a large utility contract, using many One Ten station wagon and High Capacity pick-up components. At the start of 1984, the rather uncompetitive 2.25-litre diesel, was finally replaced with the updated 2.5-litre 12J version, with a timing belt (replacing chain drive) for the first time, and a new, more efficient injection system. At 67 bhp, this was still by no means a rapid machine – I have memories of our One Ten High Capacity pick-up fully laden, holding up the traffic on the steep Devon hills! 

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Press photo from Ninety launch in 1984​​​​​​

The Land Rover Ninety followed in the summer of 1984. At this stage one-piece doors were introduced with wind-up windows for the first time on both Ninety and One Ten. A dummy capping on the doors was added, retaining the appearance of the earlier split doors. The traditional lift-up exterior door handles stayed, albeit with new interior door casings, interior release and a door locking sill button designed to poke you in the elbow every time, so this design would be short-lived! New body graphics on County were gained, as well as new sliding windows with improved operation and sealing on the rear of station wagon models.   

At launch, the new Ninety and updated One Ten petrol retained the 2.25-litre petrol, now branded the 2.3 litre, with the V8 not yet available on the SWB, to many people’s disappointment. Because the rear axle weight was considerably lower than the One Ten’s, a standard Rover rear axle was used, rather than the heavy-duty Salisbury type. At this point, the part-time 4WD option was dropped from One Ten. 

In 1985, the V8 was finally made available on a Ninety, along with a new five-speed LT85 gearbox for these large-engined models, built in Spain by Santana, but essentially a heavy-duty version of the LT77 that saw light of day at the One Ten’s original launch. 

Largely unnoticed, the 2.3 petrol was also upgraded to 2.5-litre capacity, giving a power boost to 83 bhp, and allowing a number of common manufacturing processes between the petrol and existing 2.5 diesel model. Towards 1986, other changes crept in, such as the deletion of the dummy galvanised cappings on the front door, perhaps in readiness for the significant update that was coming. 

It was in late 1986 that the next big round of changes happened. Project Falcon had been bubbling away in the background since before the 2.5 diesel was introduced. This was a programme to turbocharge the 2.5 variant. By 1986, both Mitsubishi and Daihatsu were offering turbo diesel variants of their Shogun and Fourtrak, and Land Rover was increasingly aware that it’s four-cylinder engines were seen as underpowered and uncompetitive. It was also considered that the range needed a modern lift, styling-wise, as colours and body graphics were seen to be dating quickly. 

1987 model year had new decals for County models – this one with factory air con

At the NEC Motorshow of 1986, the new facelift Turbo Ninety and One Ten models were introduced. Externally, new side doors were introduced, replacing the lift up door handles that had been a Land Rover staple since 1954, with push-button plastic moulded items. This also gave Land Rover an opportunity to pull door production in-house at Solihull, as the previous generation of doors had had the frames made off-site, and were skinned at Solihull. The galvanised body cappings were replaced with painted, colour-coded, mild steel items, with only the galvanised front bumper remaining. New body graphics were again introduced, along with a styled wheel option on the 90 – the Rostyle wheels from Range Rover. A standard fascia-mounted Philips radio cassette was also introduced on County models. 

The new Garrett turbo diesel engine had been reworked substantially from its naturally-aspirated donor. With a new piston design, improved crankshaft lubrication, exhaust valves manufactured from a high nickel alloy and oil cooler, it was designed to cope with the higher temperatures this engine produced. In service, some early engines were fantastic and some weren’t. I remember seeing a four-year-old Turbo D with 144,000 miles on it which had no issues. Then again, the local agricultural merchant had one that would blow oil into the air cleaner at a disturbing rate! Ironically, the teething reliability issues were quickly resolved, but perhaps unfairly, the reputation of the 19J engine never quite recovered.  

1988 saw substantial updates. The ribbing that had always been a feature of hard top roofs was removed. It also gained the option of a sunroof and rear plastic vents to aid ventilation – the latter short-lived as parking on a steep downhill slope in the rain created a significant leak! 

The upper body sides became of simpler design, the bumper black-coated instead of galvanised, and new  decals were added. Any hint of early 1980s brown was removed from the interior, with new, one-piece upper body side mouldings, headlinings and, on County models, grey carpets and a new-style cloth trim known as Neptune. A Range Rover-style clock and updated Philips radio cassette were also fitted, along with a smoother steering wheel centre boss, which was updated in 1989 with the revised Land Rover logo. 

Final Land Rover 90 badging for 1990 Model Year

Discovery launch was now approaching, so much of Land Rover’s engineering team focused on this new model. Many among the engineering team doubted if the new Project Gemini engine – the 200Tdi – would be ready in time, so much so that work was done to check if the VM unit from Range Rover could be substituted if necessary. In late 1989, the Rover Ninety, One Ten and 127 models still retained the Falcon Turbo diesel unit due to the engineering team being tied up on Discovery. However, a subtle rebranding did happen – the Ninety was now the 90 and the One Ten became the 110, to help clear up the confusion of the new Discovery also being a Land Rover model. 

It would be in autumn 1990 that the biggest change since Ninety and One Ten introduction would occur and create a true landmark in Land Rover’s history. I’ll tell you all about that in part 2...


About the author

Greg behind the wheel of his own 50th anniversary Defender V8

Nobody knows more about Defenders than Greg King. He started at Solihull in 1993 as a 16-year-old Land Rover-mad apprentice, having moved up from the family farm in Devon where he had been driving Land Rovers since childhood.

During his time at Land Rover Greg worked on the 50th anniversary 90, Storm Defender, Tempest (Disco 2), second-gen RR Sport, the Paul Smith Defender, 2 millionth Defender and Defender Autobiography. He then moved to start with JLR Classic on Land Rover Reborn and Defender Works V8.

“I had a Series IIA on the farm as a boy and, over the years, I’ve had at least 14 Series, Ninetys, a One Ten and Defenders (excluding company ones). I loved my job with a passion!” says Greg, who left Jaguar Land Rover in 2018.

Many thanks to Paul Butterworth for help with this feature

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