Pre-production perfection


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12 August 2020
Defender_Pre-pro_50th_V8 : credit: © Alisdair Cusick
The engineers at Land Rover are continually developing prototypes, many of which get crushed. Alisdair Cusick looks at a pre-pro 50th that slipped the net

Though we all love different models of Land Rovers, I wonder how often we think about how they each came about? We often forget that to reach the point of creating our beloved Land Rovers, there’s a constant striving at Solihull, Gaydon and Whitley by some of the best in their field, to push the boundaries of what can be done with existing products. Production lines are churning out orders, but the backroom boys are thinking, trying and pushing all the time with prototypes.

These experts were once on drawing boards, wearing brown coats and suits. Today, the vibrant teams at JLR will be in corporate polo shirts, looking at CAD screens, or in electronic screened planning meetings, but their aim is always the same – to do more, to think differently, and to offer more to us, the customer. In early 1998, Land Rover wanted to do something to celebrate their 50th anniversary, and behind the production lines, work was afoot.

Hanging on the coat tails of the North American spec (NAS) 110s and 90s, the team had an idea. The NAS cars were just that, a product for the US only. They created the Defender 90 50th Anniversary V8, and it was to be a genuine first, offering a line-built Defender mating V8 and automatic gearbox to outside the US. Never before had it been an option, and it was loved from the off.


Blueprinted 3.9 engine sounds as well as it goes

A limited production run of 1071 worldwide, the UK got just 385, each individually identified by a numbered plaque on the rear of the car. Offered in unique Atlantis Blue paintwork and Gunmetal alloys, an external roll cage, tasteful chequer plate, and a 4.0 Rover V8 mated to ZF auto ’box, it has been a Defender to own or tuck away for years.

The Defender proudly wearing the plaque GB 001 is still around in 2020, but that isn’t strictly the first Defender 50th Anniversary. First of production, yes, but you see, to arrive at a production specification, numerous prototypes are built, then a batch of pre-production cars, each exploring options, refining specifications, or used for legislation based testing. When LRM got the tip off that one of the pre-production Defender 50ths had just been restored, we were there in a flash. For not only does it predate the 1998 launch, still sport a number of prototype features, it is powered by engine no 0001.

The owner is John Ranson, a businessman from Worcestershire. The moniker ‘petrolhead’ cheapens the depth of Ranson’s interest in cars across the whole motoring gamut. In 1989, working with car designer William Towns, the pair tried to reintroduce the Railton Motor Company by sleekly re-bodying Jaguar XJS models in aluminium (a fascinating story in itself). They never got past two cars, but their  basic idea was solid enough for Aston Martin to borrow in their DB7.  

John tells me how the 50th came about. “One of my tenants, Astwood 4x4 called saying they’d had a car in storage for years, now for sale, had looked in to the car and seen the engine number was 001,” says John.  Puzzled as to what that was, he made some enquires to the Defender 50th forum, and was contacted by ex-JLR employee, and 50th owner, Greg King.

Together again. Greg (left) reunited with the car he’d worked on as an apprentice

Greg was a Land Rover apprentice in 1998, who’s first project was the Defender 50th, so he was the man to know. “I got this long email telling me the car was a pre-production car; one of four, two having been crushed, but this was the first in factory colour, and the first with the UK 4.0 engine,” says John.

50th foam roll cage protectors thankfully survived

Decision made to buy and restore it, the two-owner, 44,000 mile car was in typical, unrestored condition for a car of its age. Obviously having stood for a long period, it was growing rot in all the usual Defender places. Fortunately, many of the unique 50th parts survived well. The interior foam protection to the roll bar hoops, in particular, along with the seats, trim and carpets were all present, and in good order. As much as possible was kept during Astwood’s meticulous work, fitting only a new rear crossmember, and restoring the chassis, axles and running gear as needed. The engine was also blueprinted “to give it the best chance” says Ranson. Blueprinting isn’t just rebuilding an engine, it is painstakingly ensuring every component is to manufacturer tolerance. Every piston is identical in weight, every con rod; everything to a specified, tight tolerance across the board.

But this car isn’t so much about the restoration, it is about what it is. Expert Greg fills in some background to how John’s car came to be. “There were two batches of prototypes, built three months before the first ‘production’ spec VIN car, and 6000 cars earlier than production 50ths,” says King. “The first batch were British Racing Green, with one yellow, as the Atlantis Blue colour hadn’t been mastered by Design at the time.” All these were scrapped as unsaleable, and had Japan engine numbers with a 30G prefix, not 31G as production later had.

Underbonnet VIN lacks type approval code

Windscreen VIN plate is on wrong side for UK

John’s car is the first from the second batch of four, and the first to be finished in the distinctive Atlantis Blue. Two cars were UK, one German and one Japan spec. They weren’t numbered as production cars, though plaques were made, but never fitted to the interior and exterior. 

These cars were used for regulatory testing approvals, and for brochure photography, which all evidence seems to suggest was this vehicle in the shots. “Interestingly, it wasn’t released to sales until May 1998 – around three or four months after it was built, and wasn’t registered by Land Rover until two years later on a V Prefix,” claims King.

“It sat on the fleet with Marketing for ages, eventually ending on the Management fleet for around 12 months, finalising in the Dealer Network – crucially, not identified as a 50th.”

Interior is a mix of UK and Japan 50th spec

The Japan 50ths didn’t need the same European legal compliances, so their cars were basically right-hand drive NAS spec, unlike the UK cars. Interestingly, Japan didn’t get their full quota of 50ths in the end, reputed to be a shipping incident where a ship took on water, writing those cars off.  Last minute dithering on UK spec meant not all prototypes had final production spec, so John’s car has some, but not all special bits; a half and half of UK and Japan spec. It has the leather trimmed steering wheel and air conditioning, but not the leather trim to gear levers, nor chrome door furniture and transfer gear knob, nor interior numbered plaque – all UK 50th spec. “The plaque design was still being finalised at the time of John’s car, so even the brochure photography doesn’t show the plaques,” says King.

UK cars were built on a NAS bulkhead, but as a right-hand drive without the clutch aperture, so the VIN plate is on the UK’s driver side, “the footrest bracket was hand-modified, probably by myself,” adds Greg. “I also remember driving a German spec car [with different transfer box ratio] at Gaydon, with a kph speedo. These prototypes don’t have the 100 mph speed limiter on dictated by the tyre rating, and I remember realising I was showing 180 kph at one point!”

First 50th engine built to UK spec – 31G prefix, number 001

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The previous, non-saleable cars all built with Japan-spec 30G engines, modified to European spec were crushed (apart from Nick Stephenson’s yellow one, reputedly). John’s ‘31G 001’ engine was thus the first one built to full European intent engine spec. Prototypes, being non-standard, were slotted around simpler production cars on the line, to allow time for accurate assembly, then moved through Special Vehicles for fitting of air con, the chequer plating and alloy trim – as production later did, too.

Original square mudflap a Td5 part, predating Td5 production

Fuse box bracket hand fabricated

Prototype ECU heat shield black here, production was changed to white for heat reflection reasons

Pre-dating the imminent Td5 launch, many of those parts found their way onto 50th prototypes, so this car has the square aperture Td5 mudflap, a Tempest (SII Discovery) centre box, and Td5 tailpipe. The roll cage, assumed to be a NAS spec, is in fact a different, more closer fitting one, to comply with EU exterior projection regulations. Underbonnet, cabling routing is different here and there
to production and the fusebox bracket is fabricated. The ECU cover is still a prototype, in black rather than white (changed for heat reflection reasons) and untextured, signifying early tooling.

Chequer plate shows clear file scoring, likely hand-finished as it was made from off-the-shelf material

Interestingly, the chequer plate on this car is thicker, not the 3 mm as production, and bears evidence of filing marks on the edges. I’d bet it was fabricated from off-the shelf truck chequer plate stock, as you can clearly see filing marks on the edges where it was trimmed and finished by hand tools.

Production cars were compounded after final fitting, meaning they then got whatever numbered plaque they got, not, necessarily in numerical chassis order. “Generally they are, but not necessarily,” says Greg. This one doesn’t sport a rear plaque, nor interior one, and all brochure photography carefully avoided the rear. At the time, they simply hadn’t settled on the design.

Chassis and running gear restored to equal exterior finish

The car drives beautifully as I tootle about for photography, the engine noticeably smoother than usual. Owner Ranson is happy, particularly with the attention to detail from Astwood 4x4 in the build. “It is spot on. I’ve driven modern Defenders, but this is better; it sits nicer, there’s no bulkhead so the seats are back further.” Greg admits that even when compared to one of the final edition Defenders of 2016, “these 50ths drive better.” 

So remember the backroom teams next time you get in your favourite Land Rover. Granted, the brief for the 50th anniversary cars was simply to be a budget-limited production highlight, slotted in ahead of the summer plant change for the Td5 era tooling. But the car they put together to get to the final one, isn’t half great. If only we could see and experience more of their work. If you have a 70th Anniversary prototype, the V12 Range Rover, or the fabled centre-steer, you know where we are…


The story from the inside: Greg King and the Defender 50th Anniversary

Greg (right) talks John through some of his involvement with the bulkhead whilst an apprentice

IN 1997, the Defender 90 was withdrawn from sale in North America, due to changes in US legislation. This was around the time that the 50th celebratory editions we were being discussed within Land Rover. It was quickly decided on that the North American Spec (NAS) 90 would be the basis for the Defender special edition, as Europe or the UK had never before had a Defender with the 4.0 litre V8 or automatic transmission.

The NAS 90 had only ever been homologated (approved for sale) to meet North American legal requirements. For the specification a vehicle to be sold in Europe, it had to meet a number of EU approvals, Including emissions, drive-by noise and exterior projections. Also Land Rover had never built a production right-hand drive version of a V8 automatic! Under the guidance of programme manager Pete Armel (who sadly passed away a few years ago, but the whole engineering team remember him with great fondness), a RHD under bonnet layout was developed, including new bracketery for the ECU, under bonnet fuse box, looms, pipes and so on.

Initially 5 Prototypes were built, 3 RHD and 2 LHD in British Racing Green. These vehicles were used for test and development, including high input durability and endurance testing, exhaust development, ECU and powertrain development, EU drive-by noise and EU exterior projects. One further RHD car was built in AA Yellow for use and assessment by the then engineering director, Nick Stephenson.

Although to the untrained eye, they look the same as NAS, there are important but subtle differences. RHD Japanese variants were also developed at the same time. Although not widely known, a limited number of LHD vehicles – effectively identical to NAS 90s, went to Japan in 1997. These sold well, so Rover Japan jumped at the chance to get RHD models for the 50th Anniversary. These were closer to the NAS 90 spec – for example, they retained the NAS exhaust system and had no sound deadening wheel liners like the European 50ths.

Following on from this, a smaller batch of production representative vehicles were built for the 50th launch events and brochure photography. For the first time, these carried the correct ‘31G’ engine prefix number for 50th, and the correct colour. However, they weren’t quite ‘production intent’, as John’s example shows, retaining some prototype elements. In total 1071 vehicles were built between April 1998 and July 1998 and sold across Europe and Japan, with the UK and Japan taking the largest share. Production ceased before the factory Summer shutdown, when the production line was modified for the introduction of the new Storm engine variants – the Td5.

V151 ODA is for sale, contact John on [email protected] 07831 370000

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