11 October 2022
Hard top 2.4-litre Defender gets a seriously stylish V8 rag top makeover
It certainly feels like a divine union when you put a high performance V8 powerplant into an old Defender. Like crossing a hippo with a cheetah. Not natural, but imagine being shaped like a hippo and having the speed and guile of a cheetah. That combo might actually be heaps of fun. But would you want to risk a General Motors 5.3-litre V8 engine that produces 382 lb-ft of torque in the lake at the Billing off-road course? Probably not. Which is why this Nene Overland-built rag top 90, featuring the aforementioned 5.3-litre V8, is designed primarily for cruising quickly and in some serious style, too. That’s the beauty of old Defenders, they can be suited, booted and personalised according to the owner’s needs and desires. Everyone wants to own an iconic old Defender but not everyone wants a reliable 200Tdi in theirs.
Object of desire: this V8 soft top has alluring aesthetics
Years ago I was given a rag top yellow Defender 90 for a trip to Mozambique on Africa’s east coast. I used a pic of it on the cover: it was hurtling along a red, dusty track lined with palm trees. I took the pic and a mate and his partner were driving it, with big smiles on their faces. That magazine sold very well and I like to think it was down to the cover. It just screamed ‘happy holidays’ at you. Plus, there’s something special about hooded Landies. Especially when those hoods are off.
Nene Overland produces Defenders for every season, reason, application and budget. We featured the various aspects of its business in the September 2021 issue of LRM. This included servicing, rebuilds, paint shop, trim shop, Waxoyling, bespoke exhausts, overland builds and more. This big V8 is right at the top end of what Nene does. It is aimed at the client with a deep pocket who wants something very specific. Though if one compares this to the cost of a new Defender V8, or what some other old Defender V8 conversion specialists charge, then this V8 is a competitive offering, as the engine conversion only starts from £28,995 plus VAT.
Even the spare wheel cover gets the Grasmere Green treatment
This Defender started life in 2011 as a grey hard top 90 with a 2.4-litre Puma engine. The owner then sent it to the team at Nene Overland to perform a V8 makeover. At the time it had done less than 40,000 miles, so was a blank canvas. Nene has been doing these GM Chevrolet V8 conversions for several years now and when a friend of mine in South Africa did an LS3 conversion for a client over there, he sourced the engine from the USA but got components from Nene Overland to complete the installation.
Nene Overland currently offers five different V8 conversions and this 90 has what you might call the entry-level motor, GM’s L83 5.3-litre. But even being at the bottom of the power ladder it still delivers an impressive 355 bhp, while maximum torque is 382 lb-ft (519 Nm). Nene also provides regular and supercharged 6.3-litre V8 options.
New engine mounts were needed, but GM’s 5.3 V8 is a good fit
To install the engine the body shop guys had to fit new mounts and also had to modify the gear linkage to make it all a bit tighter when shifting. While there is an automatic gearbox option available for the 5.3-litre conversion, this 90 has a manual which is about £5k cheaper. With the substantially increased outputs from the V8, it’s little surprise that the car also features a heavy-duty clutch – with the improved performance I suspect that the owner will be doing quite a bit of gearchanging.
Incredibly the brakes and suspension are standard, although it there is a heavy-duty anti-roll bar to enhance the 90’s composure when pounding through fast corners. And let’s face it, with a 355 bhp V8 up front, you’ll likely be nipping along at a fair old pace. You’ll be enjoying the soundtrack, too. Nene has fitted an all-new stainless steel exhaust system which doesn’t sound silly like some systems do: it lets you hear and feel that there’s something a little unusual and sporty under the bonnet. Old Defenders are famously slow and cumbersome, but this 90 has been made to speed along country lanes in style.
Faster than your average 90… And check out the body-coloured hood frame
While the V8 engine impresses me during my sunny day drive, others admire the soft top, turning their heads for a second take of this Grasmere Green 90. Its body transformation took place after the engine installation: the hard top and rear door were removed – the latter replaced with a full-swing half-door – and a bulkhead reduction fitted. The soft top frame was then put in place, but before the sand-coloured mohair soft top hood go over it, Nene had to install a windscreen fitting kit.
Other exterior highlights include the smart NAS-spec tow bar and step. As for wheels, Nene has gone for deep-dish HD Wolf rims, painted Grasmere Green to match the bodywork. They’re wrapped in a set of the ever-reliable BFGoodrich All-Terrain tyres, which are some of the best in the business. Even the spare wheel cover has been given the Grassmere Green treatment, so it all matches nicely. And I think that the galvanised front bumper is one of several eye-pleasing additions that illustrate the attention to detail that has gone into this retro rebuild.
Saddle leather upholstery extends to the dash tops and the centre cubby
It is once you start to inspect the interior of this rag top that you fully appreciate the quality and detail of this retro rebuild with the raspy V8. Nene would’ve had to fully strip the interior to paint all of the cabin in the same colour as the exterior, except for the centre dash which is Alpine white. It’s the small details that make the biggest difference in a build like this; one of these is the fact that the soft top frame has also been painted Grasmere Green.Beautiful brown saddle leather covers all six seats, including the brace of two-seater benches in the back and the two retro-styled front seats. For safety’s sake those inwards-facing bench seats have lap seat belts.
The standard cubby-box sits on top of a MUD lock box so you can safely secure valuable there. The cubby-box also features a useful deep cushion arm-rest so you have somewhere useful to rest your left elbow. Great for when driving long distances. In common with the seats, the cubby-box too has been upholstered in brown saddle leather. The front two seats have two handy small storage pouches in the back for documents or the newspaper.
The thin-rimmed wooden steering wheel with shiny stainless steel spokes also helps this 90 attain that classic look it so seems to crave. In the rear Nene has crafted a teak rear floor to further tastefully transform the 90.
Strong box under the cubby handy for secure storage when travelling al fresco
While this is without a doubt a very fun and fast Defender to drive thanks to that rumbly V8, it is much more than that. For starters, since Land Rover launched its limited edition Heritage range at the end of old Defender production five years ago, we’ve been in the midst of a Grasmere Green revolution. Many Defender restorers have followed this trend. As long as the demand is there, you will see companies such as Nene Overland producing Defenders in this colour. I can’t see that ever ending.
This Nene Overland 90 is a comparatively affordable way to own an old Defender with a modern V8 engine. It is also a stylish looker, thanks the many minor, beautifully executed, modifications. And the interior is exquisite – I just love the smell of the fresh brown saddle leather in the mornings; as long as it’s not is sub-zero temperatures, as then it can get pretty cold in a soft top.
As he takes me on a tour of his latest V8, I feel the wave of pride emanating from Andrew Harrison-Smith, founder of Nene Overland. Especially when explaining all the details of Nene’s V8 range: this one starts at less than £30,000. You will need a donor vehicle, of course, and all the other bits, such as new interior and paint job, are extra.
Andrew has been doing this for nearly four decades now and I can see that he feels that he has finally cracked the V8 market. I can see why. He then goes on to tell me about how he is soon to launch Rivolve, the brand name he has given his top-end old Defender builds – we’ll reveal more about that in a future edition of LRM.
For more on Nene Overland and its bespoke V8s, please contact the company on 01733 380 687, or see neneoverland.co.uk.
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