Defender: Rebirth of an Icon, part 2


Latest Posts
An evening with Alex Bescoby
03 December 2023
02 December 2023
Fit a fold down table
01 December 2023
Discovery Td5 Series II
01 December 2023
JLR still in the red
01 December 2023
03 August 2021
Defender_Icon_part_2 Author Greg behind the wheel of his own early Defender 90Tdi : credit: © Alisdair Cusick
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 2, he takes us from 1990 to 2007...

In 1983 the all-new Land Rover One Ten was launched, followed a year later by the Ninety. These days both models are often called Defenders by both enthusiasts and the general public, but it wasn’t always that way.

At the end of 1989 the Discovery was launched, along with the new Gemini turbo diesel engine, better known as the 200Tdi. With the engineering teams so focused on the launch of Discovery, the traditional Land Rover models – the Ninety, One Ten and the Special Vehicles-converted 127 – were left largely untouched for the 1990 Model Year and had not yet adopted the new Gemini engine. They were however subtly rebranded from Ninety and One Ten to numeric 90 and 110 on the front badging. That hadn’t been Land Rovers initial plan: a non-turbo version of Gemini had originally been envisaged for the 90 and 110.

Work on adapting the turbo-version (200Tdi) for the utility models continued through most of 1990, with a unique turbo package and slight detuning of the unit for both power and torque, to ensure that this variant met the higher duty cycle in these workhorses, as well as forthcoming emissions legislation.

1992 Model Year 90 and 110

It was in the autumn of 1990 that the Defender 90, 110 and 130 (renamed despite no dimensional differences from the outgoing 127) were revealed to the world. Now, with Defender sitting alongside the Discovery, it removed any ambiguity as to which Land Rover model you were talking about.

The 200Tdi was the most advanced power unit to be introduced onto the traditional Land Rover platform. With 107 bhp and almost the same torque as the V8 petrol engine, the driving experience was transformed over the previous Turbo Diesel (19J) engine.

It also had a significant increase in efficiency, with quoted constant-speed fuel consumption improved from 26.7 mpg on the outgoing 19J engine to over 32 mpg on the new Defender 90 Tdi, along with a marked improvement in acceleration and top speed. Key to this was the move to more efficient direct injection, with much work done (through the Discovery programme) to reduce the inherently noisier combustion that direct injection creates.

Although the turbo diesel was no longer available, the 2.5 petrol, 2.5 naturally-aspirated diesel and 3.5 V8 petrol remained, along with the LT77 transmission on
four-cylinder models and the LT85 on the V8. The transfer box and axle specifications remained unchanged from the outgoing model.

Trim and specification-wise, a new body colour was added – Pennine Grey – to the existing palette of solid red, white, beige, blue and green. The decals were modified to include the Defender name, whilst the interior gained an intermittent setting for the wipers, a door-operated interior lamp (front doors only), and new Moorland cloth inside.

At around the same time, production of the variant now known as the Defender 130, was transferred from Special Vehicles to main production, such was the demand of the extra-long wheelbase model. The engine was the main story of Defender introduction, and it would be the following year that vehicle would see a suite of improvements that would stay with the vehicle for many years.

The market had quickly adjusted to the Defender name. The 1992 model year saw another refresh for Defender, with process and part changes made to improve the build quality of the vehicles. These included revised foam seals on the windscreen vent flaps and bulkhead. The LT77 gearbox became the LT77S. It boasted improved shift quality, was more robust and now became the standard gearbox on all models, including V8s.

The dated four-spoke steering wheel, introduced on One Ten in 1983, and Range Rover before that, got replaced by a soft moulded two-spoke wheel, of a similar but more robust style to that of Discovery at the time, along with refreshed Defender graphics on the sides of the vehicle, which would live on until 1998.

Meanwhile, all engines except 200Tdi became special order only.

1992 NAS 110 featuring a 3.9i V8 for the first time

Whilst this was going on, Special Vehicles lead the development of a model which would reintroduce the traditional Land Rover back into the US, after a 20-year absence. Although, it was far from traditional – loosely based on a LHD euro-spec 110 V8 station wagon with air con – it gained the 3.9 V8 engine from the Range Rover (capable of meeting US emissions legislation), complete with a unique catalyst exhaust installation, a full external Safety Devices roll cage, US-compliant steering wheel and wider 130 steel wheels. It was a limited edition of 500 units, all white, with a matching roll cage.

The engineering and work involved in certifying this vehicle for the US market cannot be understated. Although engineered largely by Special Vehicles, it was a line-built vehicle and continued in production through 1993.

The success of the NAS 110 resulted in two significant launches. For the UK, a 200Tdi-based limited edition full soft top 90 leisure vehicle featured a new roll cage, bespoke hood, side-swing tailgate, alloy wheels from Range Rover, and a Land Rover-branded load liner. It was finished in a distinctive Caprice Teal.

Meanwhile, the US got what they so desperately wanted: a leisure V8 90. Using the powertrain from the NAS 110, the NAS 90 shared the same basic hood and roll cage design as the 90 SV, but the bigger story was the core vehicle. The chassis was a significant redesign, incorporating a rear-mounted plastic fuel tank with an increased capacity, anti-roll bars, 265 section tyres and the Freestyle wheels borrowed from Discovery. A new under-dash air con system developed by Elite was fitted, along with interior trim changes.

To allow the fitment of alloy wheels for the first time, all Defenders got a revised hub arrangement and rear disc brakes from mid-1993.

This period also marked the 1.5 millionth milestone. Bryan Adams, rock star and Land Rover enthusiast, celebrated the event at the end of line. Interestingly it was referred to as the 1.5 millionth Defender – which showed how successful the rebranding three years earlier had been.

It was a busy time at Land Rover, with Discovery and Range Rover facelifts coming plus Project Romulus and Remus, which included a new engine, gearbox and air
bags for the first time. BMW had purchased the whole of Rover Group, including Rover Cars and Land Rover, so another wave of much-needed investment was coming into the business.

1994 300Tdi engine: Rated best Defender engine in the LRM Diesel Shootout

The Defender 300Tdi was launched in March 1994. The new engine, now mounted further forwards in the chassis, allowed a common turbo position between Discovery and Defender and was compliant with the latest emission standards, with Station Wagon models (classed as cars rather than commercial vehicles) featuring exhaust gas recirculation and an oxidising catalyst. The cylinder head had much development time spent on it, and the new timing belt arrangement extended the quoted renewal interval from 60,000 miles to 72,000 miles. The engine air intake also moved over to the right wing, allowing a neater air cleaner package and routing.

The new R380 gearbox was the first significant transmission redesign since the LT77 introduction over a decade before. Able to handle a higher torque load (380 Nm supposedly, hence the name), it also brought a revised smoother shift pattern. Early examples did have premature wear issues, quickly resolved with a cross-drilling operation to improve lubrication.

1996 Model Year saw the introduction of a factory-fitted alarm for the first time, via the immobilisation ‘spider’ as it was known within the factory. It also saw new Rayleigh cloth trim. Alloy wheels and NAS-type anti-roll bars were now available, too.

The NAS 90 had also evolved over this time, with the introduction of automatic ZF transmission, the 4.0 litre ‘GEMS’ V8 and introduction of the 90 Station Wagon into the market.

Wolf was also introduced: a military project of heavy-duty 90, 110 and the 130 Ambulances (known as Pulse), loosely based on 300Tdi models. These vehicles were heavily re-engineered, and there were radical body, chassis and axle differences over the civilian models.

With the now-established BMW tie-in, the M52-engined Defender was devleoped for assembly at the South African plant. It used BMW's 2.8-litre straight-six petrol engine, as used in the 328i, 528i and 728i cars of the period. It was paired with Land Rover's R380 gearbox and powertrain. The development was done independently of Solihull's core engineering team.

EU ‘whole vehicle type approval’ in 1997 meant another suite of revisions on to the vehicle. New hinges, roof gutters, bumper edge caps and a number of other minor changes ensured that exterior projection regulations were met. This year also marked the end of the Defender in the US, due to regulation changes.

Content continues after advertisements

Greg stands proudly beside his own 1998 90 V8 automatic 50th Anniversary

The final year of 300Tdi models came in 1998, with Project Storm – the all-new Td5 – on the horizon. It also marked the 50th anniversary of Land Rover, celebrated by an EU-compliant version of the NAS 90 as a limited edition for the UK, Japan and some European markets. It was known as the 90 V8 automatic '50th Anniversary' and remains coveted among enthusiasts and collectors.

The 1999 Model Year was a truly radical change for Defender. The new Td5 was the lead engine for the Discovery 2 Tempest programme, and marked the end of the Tdi
engine in all Land Rovers except for a small number of Defender Rest of World export models (where poor-quality fuel was commonplace).

1999 Td5 turbo diesel engine sees radical new electronic integration

With five cylinders, electronic injectors and management, the Td5 engine was unlike any other Land Rover diesel before it. The engine management unit and key electronics were located under the right-hand front seat, and the throttle was drive by wire for the first time, with a potentiometer integrated into the pedal assembly. This electronic integration also enabled electronic traction control, along with ABS to be available on Defender for the first time.

Just as the move from leaf springs to coils was seen as contentious in 1983, the introduction of electronics on the Defender was seen as a retrograde step by the traditionalists. In fact, almost 22 years on, the Td5 has proven itself as a robust and unstressed power unit, with oil contamination of injector harness causing poor running being the most common issue (but also easy to resolve) and rarer issues with the oil pump gear.

Chassis modifications included the use of the rear-mounted plastic fuel tank on 90 models, using a similar rear cradle arrangement to that of NAS 90, increasing range and allowing package space for the high-pressure fuel system. The 110 and 130 also gained a plastic fuel tank for the first time.

The interior gained an electronic speedo and updated instruments, based around items that had been introduced on the NAS 90 a couple of years before, with a new warning lamp pack. Interior trim again changed, with the use of Techno cloth, a chequerplate pattern. Under-dash air con, similar but unique from NAS 90, was also available as an option, freeing the dash tray up that had been utilised on Tdi air con vehicles.

1999 Defender featuring the Td5

The overall Td5 package for the Defender gave another marked lift in refinement and drivability, although there were a couple of updates done to the engine ECU to improve low throttle characteristics, soon after launch.

Often forgotten, in 1999 Special Vehicles launched the Heritage special editions. This was a nod to Land Rover’s Heritage, with two green colours and a silver mesh effect grille. The vehicle featured full leather seats for the first time, again in green, reminiscent of items used on Series I models. Both 90 and 110 station wagons were available.

The year 2000 marked the split of Land Rover and Rover Cars, with Land Rover becoming part of Ford’s Premier Automotive Group, which also included Jaguar, Aston Martin and Volvo, amongst others. It also marked the introduction of a new 110 derivative – the double cab, which was Land Rover’s response to the growing demand for double cab pick-ups. It was based on a 110 station wagon, with a revised rear body unit, enabling the maximum use of existing components from the 110 and 130 ranges.

2000 Model Year 90 Tomb Raider special

With the Tomb Raider computer game being popular at the time, and the release of the film, including the grey 110 HICAP, Special Vehicles released the Tomb Raider special edition. Based on the Td5 spec, this was available in 90 station wagon and 110 double cab variants. Updates includied Boost alloy wheels, unique chequerplate, roll cage and a roof rack.

By now, 4x4 utility vehicles were a growing market worldwide, with convenience features such as electric windows, central locking, and air conditioning often being standard. The 2002 Model Year saw Land Rover’s response, with feature and quality upgrades driven by Ford’s quality Plant Vehicle Teams. The wipers were revised to reduce noise and improve reliability in snow and ice, the rear tail door was replaced by a new one-piece steel affair, while the windscreen vent flap mechanisms were revised to reduce the previous high loads required on the handles. Meanwhile, taller drivers of 90 station wagons benefited from a deleted load bulkhead, allowing more seat movement.

A convenience pack was introduced, including electric windows for the front, remote central locking and a cold climate pack that included heated seats and a front heated windscreen. The fascia was revised, mainly to package the new electric window and heated seat switches.

Special Vehicles launched the 2002 Black edition 90 station wagon and 110 double cab. It standardised a number of core features, with the addition of leather black trim and a large diameter windscreen protection bar in silver, reminiscent of the SVX concept vehicle that had been recently revealed.

By 2003, the XS trim level had been introduced, standardising the fit of ABS/traction control, air-conditioning, the convenience and cold climate packs, along with new part-leather seats. The vehicle was distinguishable by its new Brunel Silver grille and headlight surrounds, with clear indicators.

2003 Model Year G4 Challenge Defender

Following the success of the Land Rover G4 Challenge events, the G4 editions were launched, These were available in G4 orange, yellow, black and silver, with G4 decals, a soft front nudge bar, windscreen protection frame, black chequerplate and unique rubberised effect seat trim.

Behind the scenes, there were significant but small detail changes performed through 2003 and 2004, to reduce warranty issues and improve customer satisfaction. This included the introduction of new one-piece side doors, reducing the variability in door build, reducing noise, leaks and corrosion.

The years 2005 and 2006 continued this trend, with the company focusing on built efficiencies and quality issues. Some minor specification changes were made, including
the contentious deletion of the rear quarter windows on hardtop models. The biggest change was the introduction of another new variant – the 110 Utility Wagon. This was based on the 110 station wagon, but with no rear windows, and had the benefit of being classed as a commercial vehicle for business purposes.

The Defender engineering team were now facing an issue: Td5 engine production had ceased on Discovery in 2004, with the introduction of Discovery 3. And the ever-tighter emission restrictions meant that a new power unit required development. Would this finally be the end of Defender after 58 years? Find out in part three...


About the author

Greg King is Mr Defender. He started at Solihull in 1993 as a 16-year-old Land Rover-mad apprentice and went on to work 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.

Many thanks to Phil Bashall for help with this feature

Did you know that you can now get access to the entire archive of Land Rover magazine content with our brand new digital archive? You can enjoy all the issues since the launch of the magazine – use the search bar below to find features, reviews and other great content: