Defender Buying Guide: Search, View and Test Drive

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A good road test is essential before making an offer : credit: © Alisdair Cusick
In this part of our series, we've got tips for your search and what you should look for when you find your Defender

Start the search

Buying any vehicle in this day and age can seem like a minefield, so here’s our Top 10 Tips for avoiding pitfalls and getting the best deal.

1. Cap your price 
If you know exactly how much you want to spend, set all your search parameters to that price straight away and don’t be tempted to stretch your budget. This way you won’t end up paying over the odds and you’ll still have some cash in the pot to sort out any niggles.

2. Do your research

Thanks to the internet, you can find out all sorts about a potential buy. Head to the gov.uk website or search MoT history online, pop in the reg number and you can see exactly how much MoT is remaining, if it had any defects on the last one, and get a feel for how fastidious the previous owners have been by seeing if any advisories have been dealt with between tests. You can also do a Vehicle Enquiry Check to see when the V5 was last issued, as well as use various apps such as CarVertical, My Text Check and HPI Check to make sure it hasn’t been written off, stolen or has outstanding finance. If the seller won’t disclose the reg, question why.

3. Consider buying at auction

Auctions often include Defenders

While there’s a ton of choice online, sometimes it pays to think outside the box. Auctions such as Anglia Car Auctions, Manheim and Brightwells regularly have Defenders of all ages, and because you have to register to bid and make an appointment to view in person or via video call, you’re likely to have a smaller pool of competitors to bid against, be that if you attend in person on the day or bid over the phone.

4. Have a deal
It’s very unusual for a seller to advertise a vehicle for sale for exactly what they actually want for it – most will be open to some sort of negotiation especially after you’ve made the effort to view in person. Don’t make insulting offers, but you can often use genuine points to try to haggle a bit of money off.

5. Caveat emptor
That’s Latin for ‘buyer beware’, and it applies when buying from a private seller. You may be getting a much sweeter deal, but you won’t get any aftercare or returns policy like you would buying from an independent or main dealer. This means you have to be absolutely sure that you’re happy with what you’re getting before handing over your hard-earned cash, and will have to be willing to take any nasty surprises on the chin.

6. Go to see it 
While it may be tempting, never buy a Defender without viewing it in person. Well-taken photos can hide a multitude of sins, so it’s vital to go to see it before parting with any cash. Take a friend or relative with you who’s at least as experienced with Land Rovers as you are, and go over it with a fine-toothed comb. If the seller is hesitant about letting you look properly or isn’t forthcoming with information about the vehicle, move on.

7. Get online

The Marketplace on our website is a lways a good place to start

While you wouldn’t buy a Defender ‘sight unseen’, the internet is probably the best place to hunt down potential bargains. New listings are being uploaded constantly to landrovermonthly.co.uk’s Marketplace, and of course there’s eBay, Pistonheads, Auto Trader and plenty more. If you search the model and year you’re looking for on eBay and select ‘completed listings’, you can get a good idea of what they are actually selling for.

8. Be scam aware
Sadly, vehicle sales are littered with scammers, and Land Rovers are no exception. If something seems
too good to be true, it probably is – it’s not uncommon to see the photos and description from a genuine ad cloned and used on a scam one, with a temptingly low price. If the seller asks for a deposit to be sent via bank transfer without you viewing first, forget it and move on.

9. A numbers game
It’s important to make sure all the paperwork is in order, including the V5 registration document which should have the name and address of the private seller on it, not someone else’s. Check the numbers on the V5 match the ones on the Land Rover’s chassis (offside front outrigger) and bulkhead (under the bonnet on pre-1993 as well as on the dashboard on post-1993 examples).

10. Make a weekend of it
Once you’ve got the insurance, tax and other admin planned out, you’ll no doubt be looking forward to picking up your new purchase. Why not make the day even more exciting by booking lunch at a nearby pub, or getting your mates on board for a road trip to go to pick up the Defender? If you need to sweeten the deal with your partner, the promise of an overnight stay in a new town can go a long way…

 

What to look for

Forewarned is forearmed, and there are a few key things to look for when viewing a Defender that can save you heartache and expense down the line.

1. Chassis

Rear crossmember is a common rot spot, so inspect carefully

​​​​​​While most of the Defender’s skin is made from aluminium alloy, the chassis is good old steel – which means it rusts. Get underneath with a torch and a screwdriver, if the seller allows, and give the whole chassis a good poking from front to back. Tap it with something metal, too; a sharp ringing noise means good steel, while a dull thud can mean rot.

The rear crossmember and bulkhead outriggers are real mud traps, so pay extra attention there, and ensure any repairs have been carried out to a high standard. If the Defender has had its old chassis replaced with a corrosion-resistant galvanised one, that is a huge bonus.

2. Bulkhead

Be aware that rot like this will need attention and could be costly 

The second area to check for rust is the Land Rover’s bulkhead, which the wings, doors, bonnet, windscreen panel and sills attach to. Scabby top corners will be obvious, unless they’ve been covered over, but it’s important to lift the carpets or mats and inspect the footwells, and look underneath at the bulkhead feet where they bolt to the chassis.

Professional bulkhead repairs tend to be costly thanks to their complex shape, so be vigilant for bodges – check for filler with a magnet. Galvanised, stainless steel and E-coated bulkheads are now available, and buying a Defender with a replacement already fitted is great futureproofing.

3. Doors

Doors are easy to replace, but expensive to buy

​​​​​​Whilst far easier to replace than a chassis or bulkhead, doors aren’t cheap to buy and can quickly eat up any spare cash you had set aside after buying your Defender.

The outer skins age well, but the steel inner frames corrode. Rotten frames mean you’ll leave little rusty deposits when you slam the door, which is embarrassing, but if left to get bad enough the frame can crack halfway up the door and cause further damage. The good news is, repair sections are available if you’re handy with a welder.

4. Servicing

The age of the Defender you’re viewing will have a bearing on how much service history, if any, it has. Obviously, the more the better, especially on later models, but if an older Defender has been enthusiast-owned and serviced, don’t be put off. Ask if the seller has kept receipts for parts, and have a look at the oil and fuel filters to see if they’re nice and new-looking, or old and rusty. Same goes for the air filter – pop it out and inspect it. If it looks ancient and filthy, it doesn’t bode well for a cherished vehicle.

5. General condition

Honest wear and tear shouldn't raise alarm bells

Judging a Defender on condition can be tricky, as scruffy, hard-worked trucks can be better cared for mechanically than shiny ones. But give the Land Rover a good overall check-over. Has something that’s failing been left for ages? Are the wiper blades and lights in good condition? Don’t be put off by muddy floor mats and dusty dashboards – it pays to be far more suspicious of a freshly-pressure washed engine bay. Honest Defenders are often better buys than ones that have been tarted up for sale.

6. Tyres

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Tyres should match in size and, ideally, brand and pattern

​​​​​​Being permanent four-wheel drive, it’s vital that Defenders are fitted with the same size tyres on both axles, and ideally, the same brand. Check the tread on the tyres for uneven wear, and see if you can find the date stamp on each one – the four digit code tells you the week and year the tyre was made; the more recent, the better. Finally, are the tyres a budget brand, or premium? It all helps paint a picture of how the Land Rover has been treated.

7. Oil leaks

Yes, we all know Land Rovers weep a bit of oil here and there, but if the Defender’s parking space is positively swimming in EP90, it shows that the seller isn’t too fussed about fixing ongoing problems. Misting of oil and even a small drip is okay, but if there are litres of the stuff pouring from everything that holds it, you have to wonder if the expensive moving parts inside the axles, gearboxes and engine are properly lubricated.

8. Body, glass and seals

Some panel repairs can be tricky

The odd dent or scrape on a Defender is part and parcel of ownership, but extensive panel damage can be tricky and potentially expensive to sort out. Hopefully you’ll have picked out anything major in the photos before viewing, but take some time checking for bodywork blemishes, cracked or chipped windows, and dried out windscreen and alpine light seals. Little repairs add up, and once you start improving one part of the Land Rover, the rest will inevitably follow.

9. Mods – yes or no?

Signs of past modifications may need to be repaired

Everyone who personalises or modifies their Land Rover does it to suit their own wants or needs, but that can make things tricky when they come to sell. The most important thing, as a buyer, is to decide which of the modifications you may want to undo, and how easy they are to reverse. Swapping suspension springs and bumpers is easy, but removing things like chequerplate and light guards will leave holes in panels, which will need to be filled and painted.

10. Cold start

Look out for smoke on start-up

Before heading out for a test drive, make sure the Land Rover’s engine is stone cold. Make sure the oil pressure light extinguishes promptly, and check the mirror for excessive smoke – a quick puff from a Tdi or Td5 is normal, but no more. Heavy blue or grey smoke from cold can indicate the engine burning oil, which will need investigating. Listen carefully to the engine note at idle. It should be smooth and constant, with no misfires or metallic rattles.

Experts Views

Paul Myers: Paul is not only Managing Director of Britpart, he’s also a huge Defender fan. He currently owns a Defender 90 TDCi, and has bought plenty of these iconic Land Rovers over the years, both for himself and the company. “Buy the best you can afford, and beware of anyone who describes welding repairs as ‘not pretty but strong’ as they are rarely strong. The alarm and ABS systems on the very late TDCis can be temperamental, and the modules are expensive to replace should they pack up.”

Steve Grant: Steve heads up the workshop at Britpart, the world’s biggest supplier of Land Rover parts and accessories. He has owned his Defender 110 double cab for almost ten years, and knows them inside out. “Chassis and bulkhead are the most important parts to check over, as most of the mechanicals can be sorted fairly easily. Check the visible wiring for bodged repairs and badly-wired accessories, and make sure the engine starts up instantly on the key. If it cranks for a while, there could be problems waiting in the wings to develop.”

 

The Test Drive

Looking is one thing, but to get a proper feel for how a Defender drives, you need to head out onto the road

First of all, it’s important that you don’t drive anyone else’s pride and joy on public roads without the correct insurance, so be sure to get this sorted ahead of time.

This is a good time to mention that if this is going to be your first Defender and you haven’t driven one before, be aware that even the newest, tightest example won’t drive like a normal car. However, there’s a big difference between how a good Defender drives and a tired one, and you’ll be using all your senses to determine whether your potential purchase is the former or the latter.

Before you even set off, hold the steering wheel at the top between your thumb and forefinger and see how much side-to-side free play there is before the road wheels move. Being a steering box configuration, a small amount is okay, but if there’s more than about an inch of slack before any resistance is felt then there may be worn Panhard rod bushings, steering arm balljoints, or wear in the steering box itself to deal with.

Depress the clutch pedal, and feel where the biting point is. A high pedal could mean a clutch that’s coming to the end of its life, and a particularly low one could mean the clutch master or slave cylinder is on the way out. The biting point should be around two thirds of the way up.

Pump the brake pedal once and hold it down. It should go firm within an inch or so of the top. Any more, and there could be air in the hydraulic system, a soft flexible line, incorrect adjustment of the rear drum brakes (if fitted), worn pads or play in a wheel bearing. Keep the pedal depressed as you start the engine – it should sink slightly, indicating that the brake servo is working correctly.

Check for smoke again as you start the engine, and listen for any untoward rattles or ticks. Engage gear and let the clutch up slowly – the Defender should start moving with minimal driveline slack. If the vehicle is tuned, or used for hard work, there could be wear in the drive flanges at the ends of the axles, the differentials or propshaft joints, or something even more major.

Keep an eye on the gauges as you drive, and ensure the engine is up to correct temperature, normally indicated at just under halfway on the gauge. Test the acceleration through the gears, glancing in the mirror for excessive black smoke. The engine should pull smoothly without jolting or stumbling, and each gear should engage smoothly and easily.

Listen carefully for vibrations, whirrs and whines from the driveline. Older models with minimal insulation will inevitably sound louder than those with matting or carpets, but driveline noise should be minimal during acceleration, on overrun and when cruising.

Take a drive over some uneven ground or speed bumps, and listen for thuds and rattles, which can indicate worn suspension bushes or dampers. Not expensive to sort, but a bit of a pain.

Find a flat stretch of road and apply the brakes firmly. The Land Rover should pull up straight and true, without yanking the steering wheel out of your hands or lurching one way or the other. In a car park or junction, drive on full lock in both directions and listen for clicking noises or groans from the front axle, which suggests worn CV joints.

While out on the road, check all the controls work properly. Light switches, horn, electric windows, heater, plus any extras. It pays to find out now, rather than once you’ve got the Land Rover home.

Hopefully the test drive was a success and you are happy with the Defender. If you have picked up on any faults, discuss them with the seller – they may already be aware of them, they may not. Either way, be tactful and polite and factor in any potential rectification work to your offer, should you decide to make one.

 

In the final part of our complete Defender Buying Guide, we look at the vast array of Defender upgrades available, and provide a comprehensive list of Defender Special Editions you may want to look out.

 

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