Perfect Ninety

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19 September 2018
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Land Rover Defender Ninety front-three quarter : credit: © Alisdair Cusick
You don’t have to spend a fortune to drive the Defender of your dreams, as the owner of this 1986 Ninety has proven
Perfect Ninety Images

The world has gone mad – at least so far as Defenders are concerned. Since production ended in 2016, demand has outstripped supply, with bizarre results that range from deluded owners expecting ridiculous sums for their battered old farm hacks, through to equally-deluded chancers with no discernible design talent bolting on expensive bling and attempting to sell secondhand Defenders for eye-watering sums.

The fact that both succeed in finding buyers with more money than sense shows just how mad that Defender world has become. 

It therefore comes as a refreshing reality check to encounter a genuinely beautiful Defender that puts these expensive pretenders in the shade. You suddenly realise the world isn’t such a bad place when you learn that the example of automotive excellence you can see on these pages cost its owner and creator just £12,000.

Make no mistake about it: Simon Wise’s Ninety is one of the best Defenders I have ever seen, bar none – even though its 1986 year of manufacture pre-dates the Defender badge by four years. Land Rover didn’t coin the Defender name until 1990, to avoid confusion with its newly-launched Discovery model, but for the purpose of this feature, we’ll call it a Defender anyway – because nothing produced by the Solihull factory could be regarded as an improvement on what is before me now, roaring across a riverside meadow in Bedfordshire.

It roars because there’s a lusty Rover V8 petrol engine under the bonnet. And it’s as good as it is because it has been owned, maintained and restored by a professional Land Rover mechanic for the last 30 years.

Simon is about to celebrate his 50th birthday, but he was still a teenager when he bought this Ninety, in 1998. If you think three decades is a long time for anyone to own a Land Rover, you obviously don’t know Simon, who is the kind of guy who is always in it for the long haul. He has worked as a mechanic at the same garage – Rogers of Bedford – since 1994. Perhaps it’s in his blood, since his dad still owns the first Land Rover he ever bought (an 80-inch Series I) in 1971.

Simon’s first-ever Land Rover was a Series III, which like every Land Rover he has owned ever since, had a petrol engine under the bonnet. But the SIII was different to all the rest, because it had a 2.25-litre straight-four engine. All the rest, which have included Discoverys and Range Rovers, have been V8s.

“I’ve never owned a diesel because I love the power of petrol engines,” says Simon. “I first bought my Ninety because it had a V8...”

First bought it? “Yes, I later bought a Discovery and, as I was young, I couldn’t afford both, so I sold the Ninety. But I bitterly regretted it and I bought it back after about eight months. My friend Robert Edwards got a phone call from a dealer at Milton Keynes who was offering it for sale. I knew I had to buy it but I couldn’t afford it. Luckily my dad helped me out and went fifty-fifty with me.

“It had been briefly owned by a roofing company in Leighton Buzzard and hadn’t been very well looked after. It had done a lot of miles, but it hadn’t been serviced and had a few scratches along the driver’s side. But the important thing was it was mine and I knew I wouldn’t be selling it again.”

Simon sounds like the sort of owner who would cosset his beloved Land Rover, but that certainly wasn’t the case. Just a few months later, in 1990, the original 3.5-litre V8 engine blew up, with a broken crankshaft. Whether that was because of the previous owner’s neglect or Simon’s abuse is open to question.

“I think it was my fault,” he admits. “I probably did a bit too much racing away from traffic lights in Milton Keynes. My only excuse was that I was very young at the time!”

Simon may have been young, but he was obviously already addicted to V8 performance. The wrecked engine was an excuse to rebuild to a higher spec, using a 3.9-litre short engine from tuners TVR Power, in Coventry, who specialised (and still do) in building racing engines for TVR sports cars.

Simon fitted the original head from the 3.5, but dispensed with the original Stromberg carburettors and instead fitted the unwanted SUs from a 3.9 Discovery that a friend had converted to fuel injection. With the extra fuel delivery catered for, it was a case of getting rid of the exhaust gases as quickly as possible, and to achieve that Simon fitted a Rimmer Bros stainless steel exhaust system, complete with tubular manifolds. The end result was a 150 bhp machine capable of 110 mph. 

The 3.9 fettled engine now kicks out 150 bhp

“I did try fitting a flapper-type fuel injection system, but it didn’t work very well and I went back to carbs,” says Simon. “If you get them set up properly, carburettors are as good anyway. For normal driving, I get 20 mpg, which is better than you’d get from the same set-up in a Range Rover.”

The Ninety was Simon’s daily driver until 2006. During that period he covered a lot of miles on the daily commute from his home in Bletchley to his workplace in Bedford, but he was meticulous about maintenance and kept it running beautifully. However, like all Defenders it was suffering from corrosion of all the ferrous bits and needed a new rear crossmember, doors and bulkhead, among other items. 

When its MoT ran out he bought a Range Rover Classic (V8, of course) and took the Ninety off the road for a full restoration. Although Simon insists he is not a perfectionist, he admits that he was determined to achieve what Land Rover hadn’t managed in the factory, by rebuilding it to last a lifetime.

He started by buying a galvanised chassis from Marsland and stripping down the Ninety. He got as far as creating a rolling chassis, with the original axles from the Ninety, but personal circumstances intervened and the project was temporarily abandoned.

To cut a long story short, the rebuild was shelved until nearly ten years later, as Simon explains: “I had lost interest in it, to be honest, and it just sat in pieces in two or three garages. I’d stripped it down and there were bits everywhere. The rolling chassis was in my garage and I used to see it every day. Eventually, one day, I said to my dad: ‘It’s no good, I’ve got to get this Land Rover finished.’

“It wasn’t as simple as that, of course. Over the years a lot of the bits had gone missing, but at least now I’d got my enthusiasm back and I was determined not just to rebuild it but to improve it and add my own little touches, too.”

These included forward-facing seats in the rear for his young sons, Sam and Adam. To achieve that, he had to fit the rear tub from a Td5 Defender Station Wagon. Then he found that the position of the side window of the later tub was different to the early Ninety, so he had to fit Td5 sides, as well. “Luckily I noticed before I sent off the parts for painting,” laughs Simon.

In fact it was the painting that caused him the most sleepless nights. “I didn’t want to go to any old paint shop who might rush the job,” he admits. “I wasn’t looking for a finished car to be painted. I wanted it done perfectly, each panel separately, inside and out, before I assembled them. Eventually my dad heard about a place at Leighton Buzzard. He went there to have a chat with them and came away happy that they would take their time and do it properly. They agreed to do it between other jobs – and it eventually took them a year – but the end result was well worth it.”

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Looking at the unblemished Stratos Blue paintwork – the same colour as the original – it is easy to concur. The finish is stunning, but this Ninety isn’t just a good-looker, it’s a performer, too. The 3.9 engine has now done 100,000 miles and Simon readily concedes that his favoured Rover V8 family of engines doesn’t enjoy the same longevity as, for example, the Tdi diesels.

“I’m sure it’s past its best now,” he says. “To be honest I’ve been thinking of swapping it for a while now and I have a 4.6 engine from a Range Rover sitting on my garage floor for when I’ve got the time and energy to fit it. It should certainly satisfy my thirst for power, as I reckon it ought to push the Ninety to 200 bhp. That would be something.”

Yet despite Simon’s constant quest for more power, he has not allowed his love of extra horses to influence the looks of this exquisite vehicle. It harks back to the days when proper Land Rovers were created by engineers instead of fancy-dan designers – and they achieved a look that was always understated. Simon has captured that subtle beauty.

The touches he has added are unobtrusive. For example, the indicator lenses are clear with orange bulbs, which give it a modern look, but he has painted the De Carbon shock absorbers black to tone down the loud bright orange of the originals. Talking of suspension, he wanted his Ninety to sit an inch lower than standard, so he fitted Range Rover front springs on the front and 110 front springs on the rear – painted blue to match the body colour. Get underneath and you can see that the heavy-duty steering arms and other ironmongery have been treated to the same blue paint job. In fact the underside is almost as spotless as the exterior.

Range Rover front springs and 110 rears lower the ride 

The axles and gearbox are the originals, but Simon has replaced the Rover transfer box with a Borg Warner upgrade. “It’s better because it stops the wheel spin you get when you turn left out of a junction,” says Simon. He has kept the drum brakes on the rear, but enhanced stopping power by fitting uprated and drilled front discs. Meanwhile, the cooling system is improved with the addition of an Allisport radiator. “It was expensive, but worth it,” says Simon.

Axles and gearbox original but transfer box upgraded to a Borg Warner item 

The steel wheels are from a Defender 130 and they are shod with BF Goodrich all-terrain tyres, which will cope with any weather conditions, although Simon admits that his creation seldom ventures out in bad weather. His daily driver these days is a 3.9 Range Rover Classic. He also owns two more Range Rovers awaiting restoration, including a 1993 long-wheelbase LSE model that is completely rust-free. That’s one very special vehicle we hope we will be able to feature in LRM in the future – and hopefully sooner than the ten years it took Simon to restore his Ninety!

He also owns a Series I trialler and is a member of three Land Rover clubs, and most weekends takes part in off-road competitions. Eldest son Sam, 14, has also recently taken part in his first trial and sibling Adam, 12, is similarly smitten with Land Rovers. It’s clearly a family affair.

But there’s no way Simon will be taking his Ninety anywhere near mud. “It’s not my everyday car any more,” he explains. “Basically, I take it out on sunny weekends for runs with the kids.” But if he is caught out in the rain by the fickle British weather, at least he can be reassured that the three-wiper system he has fitted on the front screen gives him much better visibility than the average Defender owner.

If you look closely, Simon’s little finishing touches abound. For example, all the external fixings are stainless steel – including all the self-tappers and the suspension bolts underneath. The vent pins are stainless, too. The body cappings are ex-Td5, which had the paint removed by sandblasting before being treated to a galvanised bath. The stainless steel brackets on the bulkhead and mud flaps were custom-made by Simon’s mate, Richard.

Stainless fixings ensure longevity 

Simon admits that few of the panels are original. “The bonnet and wings and that’s about it,” he says. “Most of the panels were easy to get, but the doors were a headache to find – and to fit. I got the passenger-side door from Dunsfold and the driver’s side came from Marshalls, who searched the whole country to find one from Genuine Parts. The correct doors for the model – one-piece with recessed handles – are probably now impossible to find. Fitting them was the most difficult job of the rebuild. It took me ages to get everything to line up, especially on the passenger side. Eventually I had to enlarge the holes in the bulkhead to give me some leeway.”

The doors were a challenge to find and fit 

Inside the car, Cobra seats offer support and comfort, while the Moto-Lita leather steering wheel (from Mud UK) is an improvement on the four-spoke plastic original. The pool ball knobs for gear stick and transfer box stick are Simon’s own idea. “My mum bought me a pool table when I was a kid and they are from that,” he explains. “I just drilled and tapped them to fit. I did the same thing on a Range Rover I used to own. It got stolen one night and the police found it a day or two later in a quarry. Nothing had been stolen apart from the radio and the gearknob I had made from the black No8 ball from that same pool set!”

The rear floor is lined with new Land Rover-branded rubber, but Simon has kept the original carpet from the 1988 CSW – to protect that pristine rubber flooring!

Cobra seats offer support and comfort 

Despite owning his Land Rover for three decades, there are aspects of its life he doesn’t know about. For example, it is an ex-factory car, but he doesn’t know anything about its early history. However, he did realise the value of the original factory number plates, which were getting tatty and delaminated. He breathed a huge sigh of relief when he found a small company in Rushden that managed to replicate the originals.

The end result is a truly outstanding vehicle that puts to shame many of the expensive and brash Defenders offered for sale at five times the £12,000 he has spent on his treasured Ninety, which included £3000 for paint. But he insists it definitely isn’t for sale.

“I’ve taken it to a few shows and it has created a lot of interest,” says Simon. “I’ve had lots of offers for it, but I’d never sell it. I’ve let it go once and I vowed I’d never do it again.”

With its galvanised chassis, stainless fixings and Simon’s loving care it’s clear that this is a vehicle built to last a lifetime or two. But the best thing about it is that it shows it is possible for anyone to own the very best Defender imaginable on a sensible budget – particularly if you’re prepared to do the work yourself.

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