Identity Crisis

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Owner Matt Fisher couldn’t wait to take us out on some Aussie bush trails : credit: © Brett Fraser
When Matt Fisher set about building his ideal Defender, his must-haves were comfort, refinement and safety. So, naturally, he started with a Discovery…

DisEnder decals made in Defender County-style stripes

​​​​​​I’ve had this vision in my head for years, so I’m really pleased my family persuaded me to go ahead and do something about it,” laughs Matt Fisher, creator of this unique hybrid. “I’ve had a few Land Rovers in my time; three Series IIIs and a One Ten County back in the 1990s, before I went over to Discoverys for a bit more comfort and safety for the family – a Disco 1, then an early 2 and finally a later facelift. One day, one of my sons bought a 1996 Defender 110 (knowing I had a soft spot for the older Land Rovers) and after a short drive, I remembered the reason why I changed to a Discovery! The rattles, the noise, the water leaks when it rains – but you just can’t get past how good they look. Everywhere he went people would look at and check out his Defender. I’d had this idea of combining all the best bits of the Discovery with the look of a Defender for years, so when Covid locked everything down, I decided to go for it.”

Matt is rightly proud of how the DisEnder has turned out

Matt, a 50-year old electrician living in Victoria, Australia, is far from a professional mechanic or body worker by his own admission, so starting such an ambitious project was daunting to begin with. But, armed with a tape measure, welder, angle grinder, a big shed and some spare time, he cracked on regardless.

From this angle it’s very hard to see that all the running gear is that of a Discovery 2

The first job was to strip down the Land Rover that would form the base of the Defender look-a-like, a 2003 Discovery 2 V8. “I’d already taken out the original 4.0-litre V8 and replaced it with a 4.6 from a Range Rover P38, which is standard apart from a Stage 1 camshaft and ECU chip by Mark Adams. Other than the bigger engine, the Discovery 2 is completely standard mechanically, which crucially means I didn’t have to take the car for re-engineering – things are a lot tighter when it comes to modifications in Aus than elsewhere in the world.” This stringent attitude to mods meant that the Discovery’s body would have to remain structurally unchanged; a big challenge in itself considering how drastically the looks were to change.

Disco front end with headlights, bumper and grille removed

“I started by unbolting the bumpers, wings, doors, grille and headlights, then took out the seats, carpet and headlining from the interior,” says Matt. “I’d already found some secondhand Defender parts ahead of time, like front guards, a back door, wheelarch flares and a pair of alpine windows for the roof. I held up one of the front wing panels beside the stripped Disco to see if what I had in my mind would even work before I started to cut. Then I calculated what needed to be trimmed from the front of the Disco to accommodate the Defender headlights and front panel, and for the wheel to be central in the arch. It became clear that there would be a gap between the back of the front wing and the door.”

Unperturbed, Matt carried on. “Just holding or propping the bits in place only got me so far. Everything had to revolve around the doors – they set the waistline height and the overall width of the body. If I couldn’t get the skins to fit well, the project would be dead in the water at this point.”

Although all the  body panels  were removed, core structure had to remain untouched

Matt carefully cut away the Discovery door skins, then added 25x25mm, 3mm-thick steel channel to the frames to give the new ones a solid mounting surface, taking care not to affect the side impact protection element of the originals. He then cut cardboard mock-up skins, fine-tuned them and sketched the dimensions onto paper which was sent off to his local metal fabrication shop to be replicated in steel. Once they were back, the new skins were temporarily pop-riveted in place to set the barrel side height and overall width which the rest of the body would be built around.

“With the door skins set, I could make the brackets to secure the front panels to the same width and height, and also get the measurements for the infills to take up the gap between the front door’s edge and the back of the Defender wing panel,” explains Matt.

Range Rover 4.6 V8 retained from previous transplant treatment to the Disco

Removable ‘winglets’ give full access to the Discovery’s broader engine bay

The Discovery 2’s full-width engine bay has been retained, which makes maintenance very easy, and the Defender front wing tops (which Matt calls ‘winglets’) sit inside U-channels to make them easily removable with three flush-mounted screws. Because the new body is 160mm wider than a Defender, chequerplate covers on top of the winglets discreetly make up the gap between the wing edge and the bonnet, and add further strength.

Standard headlights wouldn’t fit; luckily LEDs are slimmer and give better light

“When it came to fitting the lights, there wasn’t enough of a gap between the back of the front wing and the D2’s slam panel for the standard headlights to fit. Luckily, the LED lamps are a lot slimmer and fitted easily, and are also much better than the H4s. I used standard Defender side and indicator lamps, and wired them into the Disco’s loom, and mounted the D2 side repeaters further forward to match the position of a Defender.”

Disco is 160mm wider than a Defender, requiring lots of fabrication

To make the grille fit, Matt trimmed back the D2’s radiator surround panels as much as possible to match the Defender’s flat-fronted profile, then made a new grille and surround from aluminium strips, formed to shape. Now, a Defender has a flat windscreen and a Discovery has a curved one, which caused a problem when it came to fitting the bonnet. “I fitted new hinges, and when it was measured up, I was pleased to be able to use the D2’s bonnet latch. To get the bonnet to close, I had to carefully cut the curved profile of the screen into the back edge. It was nerve-wracking to do but has worked well,” says Matt.

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Rear panels simple to fabricate. Spare wheel is coming soon

If you thought the DisEnder’s front end was a challenge, Matt really had his work cut out for the back of the vehicle – each side of a Disco 2 tapers inwards by 10mm at the top, and the rear of the vehicle slopes forwards by around 250mm, not much good to emulate the boxy shape of a Defender. “I built a steel frame out of 40x20mm tube that matched the width and height to square it up at the rear. I reused the Discovery’s bottom door sill and built the frame off this, calculating the right curve of the roof sides and adding this to each side of the frame. Then I could use the Defender rear door as a template to build up the door frame and hinge points.”

Getting the doors to sit correctly was the most important part of the build

Once the structure was built, Matt could start cladding it out, using his son’s 110 as a reference to shape the roof. “I measured the rivet points from the front window on my son’s Defender to get the right slope angle. Then I built a frame over the roof, and was pleased to find that it matched up with the step in the Discovery’s roof. My plan was to always keep the original roof underneath, as I didn’t want to change any structural parts of the car – it’ll also mean it stays a lot drier!” he laughs. “I fitted steel tubing to join the rear body frame with the front part of my fabricated roof frame, which gave me a joining point for my roof skins made up of six separate sections. Again, I took measurements and sketched onto paper what I needed, which went off to the fabrication shop to be made up.”

Defender fuel filler section was used

Matt reports that the rear side panels were quite easy to fit, once cut to match the wheelarch spats, and he finished off the offside with a Defender fuel filler section that he obtained from an old, damaged panel. “The rear was done with plain flat sheets across the whole back. To make the rear gutter, I used steel tube cut along its length to create a small ‘L’ shape, which I tack-welded onto the flat sheet. I had my doubts at first, but it came up looking good. I did have to install an extra side section of Discovery roof and gutter at the rear to square up the back of the car, though.”

With all his panels back from the fabricators and test fitted in place, Matt was very pleased with his progress. “DisEnder was looking better than I had imagined, so I chose to send it to a professional paintshop, to give it a modern paint colour – Toyota Lunar Rock grey, with satin black accents.

The outside might look like a Defender, but the cabin is pure Disco 2

Once the car and panels were back from the sprayers, Matt wasted no time getting the DisEnder assembled for the final time, and the luxurious Discovery interior could go back in – which posed a problem. “The Discovery 2 headlining hadn’t got any smaller, but the back door which it needed to fit through had…” exclaims Matt. “I managed it with a lot of care, but it’s not a job I want to repeat. Then I could start running and concealing all the wiring for the new reversing camera and Defender tail lights, and refit the carpet and leather seats.”

Making the exterior door handles work was also a challenge, as the frames and internals were still Discovery 2, but the outer skins were totally new and a different shape. “I ended up sticking with the D2 handles, but mounted them to the outer skins and modified the linkages to suit,” explains Matt. As you’ll see from the photos, you have to really look hard to see they’re not Defender units, which would have been an engineering nightmare to make work with Disco latches.

Extra panel added to ‘square-off’ the rear doors

The Discovery’s door tops and window glasses went back into the doors, with an infill panel mounted to the back edge of the rear door tops to meet up with the slab-sided rear body and aid the squared-off look. Taking this route eliminated the need to modify the C-pillar, which would have counted as a structural change to the shell, and the associated paperwork headache.

Unique decals and badge complete the look

Gloss black side vents are from a Discovery 4

Six months after starting the project, and with the bespoke, freshly-painted panel work in place, Matt still had a few more tricks up his sleeve to make the Land Rover look more Defender and less Discovery. “I re-used the ARB bull bar that was on the D2 before, but trimmed and straightened the curved edges to match the flatter front. I also had some special DisEnder decals made up, so put those on – Defender County-style stripes for the side and a 100 number badge for the back, to reference the D2’s wheelbase. They definitely get some confused looks,” he grins. To further distance the vehicle’s aesthetics from the Disco 2, he bought and fitted a set of Discovery 3 alloys, wrapped in Comforser CF3000 mud terrain tyres. Despite the Defenderication, there’s a subtle nod to the original model family in the Defender front wings; Discovery 4 gloss black vents are recessed in either side. Finally, Matt’s dream had become a reality.

But was it legal...

Having been so careful with keeping the Disco’s body and chassis structurally unmodified, has Matt had any run-ins with the legal side of making one Land Rover look like another? “No, thankfully not. I took the DisEnder to VicRoads, our government department that deals with vehicle registration to amend the engine number when I changed the V8, and they were happy that the body was fine. I did get pulled over by traffic police though, as the rego comes up as a Discovery and the officer thought I had stolen the plates. After checking all the numbers matched the records, he spent 10 minutes going over the truck, and loved it!”

Would he do it again? “The short answer is yes. I’m already thinking about the next project. I’d like to do another one, this time a two-door but still on a 100in chassis, with a shorter overhang like a Defender 90. Or maybe a longer one with a 120in wheelbase and a ute tub, but matching the style of the Defender front panels, rather than a separate bolt-on steel tray.” Whatever Matt decides to get stuck into next, you can guarantee it’ll turn as many heads as the mighty DisEnder – and you’ll see it here first in LRM.

 

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