07 February 2018
Who needs a £150,000 new Defender when you can be the proud owner of a stunning Ninety like this for a fraction of the price? Owner of Shire Fabrication, Carl Conroy, explains how it was done…
Deep in the middle of a very muddy wood there’s the muted roar of a furious diesel engine as a startling orange Land Rover guns up the rutted slope, its big knobbly tyres sending mud and twigs in all directions. In the driver’s seat, Carl Conroy is grinning wildly as he hangs on tight to the steering wheel.
Big knobbly tyres, check; electric winch, check; snorkel, chec, roll cage, check body sliders, check...
We’ve come here, to Nottinghamshire, to meet this man and his very special creation. As rendezvous go, this is pretty impressive. Carl is still grinning as he slides to a halt and climbs down from the cab of his Ninety pick-up. His grin gets even wider as we tell him the latest news: Solihull has just announced the (brief) resurrection of the Defender.
The vehicle we all thought had been laid to rest more than a year ago has risen from the grave with a special edition powered by a 5.0-litre petrol engine and carrying a whopping £150,000 price tag.
“You’ve got to be joking!” he laughs. And Carl, 37, has every right to split his sides. After all, he is the man who built the gleaming orange apparition before us, for a fraction of the price of Land Rover’s latest extravagant bling-fest.
But Carl’s creation did cost two weeks of his life, because that’s how long it took him and his best mate, Mike Reid, to turn a rotten farm truck into the stunning head-turner that’s parked before us now, with its 200Tdi turbodiesel gently ticking over, yet hinting of off-challenges yet to come.
Make no mistake about it: this 1989 Land Rover doesn’t just look the part, it will play the leading role in any and every adventure you care to share it with. This all-action hero has been purpose-built to overcome any off-road obstacle you point it at. We’d dearly love to see it pitted head-to-head against the ostentatious and expensive newcomer, because we reckon it would make it eat dirt, despite being nearly three decades older.
Having said that, it isn’t fair to call Carl’s creation a child of the 1980s. Although the logbook describes it as a 1989 Land Rover, there isn’t much that remains from the days of shoulder pads and mullets. The chassis and all body panels are all new and the 200Tdi engine and LT77 gearbox had already replaced the original naturally-aspirated 12J diesel engine by the time Carl bought it.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. To tell you the full story of this very special vehicle, I need to tell you a bit about Carl himself. Actually, on second thoughts, I’ll let Carl tell his own story…
“I first got into Land Rovers about 2006,” he recalls. “My circle of friends all drove Land Rovers and went greenlaning and off-roading. They took me along to a few events, so I soon got into the Defender scene myself. I was an engineer by trade – I built trailers for articulated lorries – so it wasn’t long before I was building my own off-roader.
“Everybody who owns a Defender knows that there are plenty of rogues out there who would dearly like to steal it. I was amazed that there weren’t any effective security devices out there to stop thieves from stealing my 90, so I decided to design something myself. Eventually I came up with the Safe T-Pedal, which incorporates a padlock and a sheet of heavy-duty steel that fits over the foot pedals. It worked and all my mates loved it, so in 2009 I decided to manufacture and sell them. Since then I have sold 47,000.
“Does it work? Well, only three Land Rovers fitted with Safe T-Pedals have ever been stolen – and two of those were recovered. Because of its success, I toyed with the idea of going full-time designing and building more new products for Defender owners. In late in 2013 my partner, Clare, had our second child and I decided it was now or never and took the plunge and called the business Shire Fabrications.
A company is born
“I opened my own workshop in my home town of Shirebrook and got busy designing and building new products. It was not long before I had a range of accessories and parts, but I needed a good way of marketing them. Several other companies also made stuff for the off-road market. How was I to make mine stand out from the crowd?
“Then in late May 2015 I came up with the answer. I decided to build a Defender 90 fitted with all our products, which I could take to the Land Rover shows so that potential customers could see what we did and how they were used first hand. With the Billing Show less than two months
away, I realised I would have to get cracking, but I reckoned I could do it with help from my mate Mike, if we pulled our fingers out!
“I bought the donor vehicle in June that year, from a bloke in Hampshire. It was a 1989 F-registration Ninety with about 130,000 miles on the clock, and already had a 200Tdi engine conversion. It didn’t come with much history, but it did have a very thick coating of military green paint, which had been applied with a brush. Now brush painting can cover a multitude of sins, as this proved. As we stripped down the vehicle we soon realised that whoever had owned it hadn’t looked after it very well. From the amount of mud and general abuse, and the Ifor Williams back, I’d guess that it had spent much of its life in a farming environment.
“The original intention had been to clean it up, fit our parts and give it a respray, but as we got to work we realised that there wasn’t much of the original vehicle that could be salvaged apart from the rear tub, wiring loom and axles. It really was that bad.
“The chassis was in a terrible state. Older Defender chassis are prone to rust around the rear crossmember, and perhaps the outriggers, but on this one both front and rear were in a terrible state and the outriggers had rusted away. Then, when we lifted the rear tub, we found serious corrosion on the top of the chassis rails, too. In fact, there was a huge crack and it was clear the chassis was close to breaking in half.
“It was obvious it couldn’t be repaired, so I got straight on the phone to Richards Chassis and ordered a galvanised frame. Normally the lead time on a chassis is four weeks, but I stressed how urgently I needed it and the guys there somehow managed to sort us a chassis in three days, which was really impressive. If they hadn’t, we couldn’t have finished the build in time.
“Meanwhile, I started sourcing all the panels and bits we needed and finally, on July 1 2015, I had a workshop full of parts. Mike and I gave ourselves a completion date of July 16. We knew that was a bit ambitious, but we gave it our all. We didn’t take a day off and we started early and finished late for the next 16 days.
“Anybody who has ever attempted any total rebuild will know that we suffered a lot of setbacks along the way. At times it felt like problem after problem and I really worried about whether we could finish it in time. The biggest challenge was aligning the body on the new chassis. Lining up the doors was particularly troublesome, but with a lot of patience and quite a bit of cursing we got there eventually.
“A highlight of the build had come early on. Once we had a rolling chassis sitting there, it was a great incentive to work harder. There was never any doubt that we would do it, but the issue was always whether we could do it on time. That was nagging in the back of our minds all the time, but I tried to be confident and just make it happen. There were a few blackened fingernails along the way, but we got there.
“By the afternoon of the thirteenth we had the vehicle in the paint shop – a local one that’s run by a friend. He sprayed it in luminous bright orange (colour code: RAL 2007 Orange), which created exactly the look I wanted. It was always intended to be a showstopper, a real head-turner.
“We then spent a further two days fitting all the external parts, like roll cages and body sliders, and so on. We actually finished it on the seventeenth day – just a day over our target, so we were well pleased with the outcome. The reaction when we took it to the Billing Show made it all worthwhile. It achieved everything we wanted and then some! Having it on our stand at the show pulled in visitors like a magnet and we were so busy we didn’t even have time to show it off in the arena. It was amazing.”
Carl’s car is a great showcase for his range of products
Carl’s creation has, of course, been the star of several Land Rover shows since then – invariably pulling in crowds and drawing attention to the brilliantly-engineered products that Carl’s company produces. In fact, Shire Fabrications products have become so popular that Carl now employs six staff members and has opened a powder-coating plant where both his own products and steel items from other local companies get covered.
Accessories for Defenders are still the mainstay of the business, despite the (official) end of Defender production in January 2016, but the company also produces products for the Discovery 1, 2, 3 and 4. Carl says the company will continue to design and build items for other Land Rover models, but he expects Defenders to remain the most popular models for off-road enthusiasts for at least another 15 years.
“At the beginning of 2017 we saw a bit of a downturn in sales of Defender products and Discovery items seemed to move faster, but within a month or two Defender came right back and now we’re selling more than ever.
“Defenders will be with us for many years to come. At the moment, most enthusiasts are driving Tdi and Td5 models; the TDCi models haven’t yet trickled down to the enthusiasts, but they will do.”
Carl has great confidence in the future of the Defender, but he isn’t so sure about the new £150,000 special edition we’ve just told him about. Asked to choose between one of them or his own creation, it’s clear that the future, for Carl, is definitely orange. It is certainly much better value for money in anyone’s book.
Although built to showcase Shire Fabrications products, this is no show pony. It is designed to get through the toughest off-road terrain without breaking its stride, while the off-road protection makes sure it will stay looking good. I have to agree that the future is orange for me, too.
Carl's creation: Full spec
The vehicle was built to showcase the following Shire Fabrication products:
• Rear Shock Mounts (+5 inch)
• Challenge Dislocation Cones
• Fuel Tank Guard
• Diff Guards (front and rear)
• Winch Bumper
• Tub Sliders
• Rock Sliders
• Tree Sliders
• Steering Guard
• Truck Cab Roll Cage (close fitting version)
• NAS Rear Step
• Shock Turrets (+5 inch)
• Other modifications include +2-inch soft compound springs and +5 inch shock absorbers, all round. Bailey Morris extended HD propshafts were fitted and both the gearbox and transfer box were fully reconditioned by Synchro Gearboxes.
• Heavy-duty steering bars, front castor correction arms (3 degrees) and double-cranked rear arms were fitted to a heavy-duty A-frame, from Adrenalin 4x4.
• The exhaust was modified for a side exit. A Superwinch 9.5 electric winch was fitted, along with a snorkel from South Down Engineering.
• The wheels (16-inch deep dish steel modular, painted black) and 37-inch Trepador mud tyres were from Bardills Tyres, of Stapleford. Four 40 mm wheel spacers were used, and extra-wide spats were fitted to the wings to accommodate the extra width.
• All bushes were replaced with a set of orange Polybushes (“to match the paintwork!” laughs Carl)
• The rear tub – the only original body part – was lined with black-painted checquer plate, as were the wing tops and bonnet.
• Extra LED lights, a waffle board and Hi-Lift jack complete the external spec.
• Inside the vehicle, Carl and Mike fitted a Paddocks cubby box and new upgraded seats were also fitted, with orange stitching to match the bodywork by Sam’s 4x4 Trim of Birmingham.
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