31 May 2023
This home-built hero proves that off-grid luxury needn’t cost a fortune
LRM gets the opportunity to peruse some pretty awesome Land Rover camper conversions, some built with the proverbial ‘open chequebook’ where money is no object – and while they’re often very impressive, builds like that are out of reach to most typical Land Rover owners, including us. We much prefer an example we can all relate to: built with care and attention, and within a sensible budget. Let us introduce you to Jack Watson and his 1997 Defender 110, aka ‘Boris’.
Jack, who works in the TV and film industry, only bought his Defender in 2019, but has wasted no time making it exactly how he wants for getaways in the great outdoors. ‘‘It didn’t look like this when I got it,’’ explains Jack. ‘‘The chassis was rotten, the doors and body panels were a mess and the original 300Tdi had given up. I spent a lot of time at a mate’s garage watching and learning from him, so when the time came, I was able to help do the lion’s share of the engine swap.’’
Jack may be budget-conscious, but he didn’t mind spending money where it was needed to make the 110 safe. ‘‘The chassis needed quite a lot of work, but I had it done professionally and it’s solid everywhere now. I’d only had the 110 a year when the first lockdown hit, which was sort of the catalyst that made me decide to get stuck in and do more bits and pieces myself.’’
Boris’ heavy-duty suspension rides surprisingly well
When you look around the Defender, you start to realise that ‘bits and pieces’ is a definite understatement. Everything that’s there is there for a reason, and has to perform at least one task to earn its space in Boris. But that wasn’t always the case: ‘‘When I first got it, I wanted the big, in-your-face Spectre-style look. I did the lift and big wheels and hated driving it. Because I didn’t change the gearing, the Tdi just didn’t have the guts to pull the tyres. It felt cumbersome and miserable on the road, so I went back to standard height and the 265/75 R16 BF Goodrich All-Terrains. It’s so much better now.’’
Those All-Terrains are wrapped around 7x16-inch modular rims, which add a bit more track width to help with stability without looking over-the-top. They bolt to largely standard axles, only sporting Terrafirma heavy-duty drive members all-round, and a distinctive red ARB rear diff pan on the rear Salisbury. ‘‘The original was cracked and leaking, so there was a genuine reason to fit the ARB one,’’ justifies Jack with a wry smile.
Jack explains the mild tune on the replacement 300Tdi to LRM Editor, Martin (left)
Aside from the Britpart heavy-duty springs and uprated Terrafirma dampers, the addition of an OE rear anti-roll bar is the only other suspension upgrade.
Under the bonnet, the fresh 300Tdi engine sucks air through a Safari Snorkel, silicone hoses and a full-width Allisport intercooler before reaching a Fourby twin-entry inlet manifold, and the boost is generated by a hybrid turbo core. Spent gases are expelled through a full stainless steel Demand Engineering exhaust system, which gives a subtly sporty tone under load but stays nice and quiet at idle. The clutch pedal effort is lightened with the help of an LOF Clutches Powermaster master cylinder, which helps on long trips, while an Ore cranked front bumper houses a Warrior T1000 electric winch, should Boris ever get into a sticky situation. A matching steering guard keeps the vitals safe at the front, while tree sliders protect the Defender’s flanks.
Externally, subtle mods are the order of the day. Ore wingtop protectors and a snow cowl adorn the wings, and the original filament bulb lights have been replaced with brighter LED units all-round including the headlamps, which don’t look as space-age as some and help retain a classic look, as does the Nakatanenga grille. A row of four LTPTRZ driving lights adorn the Bearmach tubular roof rack, providing plenty of extra lumens. At the rear, a pair of scene lamps flood the area at the back of Boris with light, and an Exmoor Trim spare wheel bag provides perfect storage for his fire pit and barbeque.
Jack’s A$60 (about £30) Kings awning adds extra shelter to the side
Also mounted on the roof rack are a pair of awnings – an Adventure Kings one to the side, and a smaller ARB one over the rear door. ‘‘I bought the Kings one while in Australia with work,’’ says Jack. ‘‘I paid A$60 for it from the 4WD shop, then carried it straight to the post office and sent it home. I did get some funny looks while waiting in line. You can tell it’s not the best quality, but it does the job, hasn't fallen apart yet and I love a bargain.’’
Talking of bargains, a £100 2kW diesel heater lives in the driver’s side seat box, and kept Jack toasty warm in the -3°C temperatures the night before our photoshoot. ‘‘It sips fuel, and I can direct the heat either into the cab or through into the sleeping area at night,’’ he says. It’s this sleeping area that’s undoubtedly the jewel in Boris’ crown, and it was all built by Jack’s fair hand.
Big Jackery Explorer 1000 power pack provides the juice
Closed off from the cab by double-layer blackout curtains, a kitchen worktop runs the length of the 110’s tub, housing a small sink and plenty of storage bins that are kept firmly closed by magnetic lids. Overhead storage trays tie into a wood-lined roof, which has layers of insulation and sound deadening beneath. ‘‘The roof was a right pain to do,’’ explains Jack. ‘‘Getting the front edge fixed to the roof wasn’t too bad, but the rear edge was a challenge to say the least and needed some imaginative woodwork.’’ Not one to shy away from a problem, Jack persevered and the result is stunning – he also found that keeping progress up and the project rolling gave him a big boost during the dreaded lockdowns.
Sofa folds into a comfy bed in no time at all
When night falls and it’s time for bed, the full-length seat converts to a flat platform in seconds, with a thick mattress on top. A sliding rear window helps with ventilation, and the obligatory table folds down from the taildoor when it’s time to brew up in the morning. If Jack has guests joining him on a trip or simply wants to keep the back of the 110 in living space mode, the roof rack also holds a Vickywood Cumaru hard-shell tent, giving additional sleeping space for two more people.
Vickywood tent gives an extra two sleeping spaces
You may be surprised to hear that Boris only runs one battery, with no extra alternators or split-charge setups. Power for all the extras, except the diesel heater, is provided by a Jackery Explorer 1000 portable power station, which is kept topped up by a solar panel. Having the power pack removable makes for a much more versatile setup, and Jack can charge his phone, laptop and other electronics from it while he sits by the firepit of an evening. When strapped and plugged back in, it runs all the 110’s interior lighting with ease, and without the danger of depleting the main vehicle battery on longer trips: ‘‘The battery is the one that came in the Defender when I bought it. It looks ancient, but it’s never let me down. I’ve fitted a military Fitted For Radio hand throttle so I can keep the idle up if I ever need to keep the alternator charging that bit higher. I’m never tempted to use it as a rudimentary cruise control – honest…’’
Wooden dash top complements a custom gearknob
While the back of Boris is all Jack’s carpentry, up in the cab there’s more woodwork in the form of a Defender Wood dashboard panel with Mud UK centre switch console, along with a custom gearknob with ‘Boris’ inlayed into the top. Nice touch.
Classic Defender seats from Exmoor trim flank a matching cubby box, and the Raven steering wheel – finished in eye-catching blackened wood – is from the same company. Jack has retrimmed the headliner to cut down on noise, and built-in cargo nets and sun visor organisers keep the cab clutter-free. It’s an interior that certainly doesn’t look its age, and one you wouldn’t think twice about spending a good few hours in on a long haul to the next idyllic camping spot.
Almost home: cab and living area can be curtained off
I ask Jack what’s next on the horizon for Boris. ‘‘I’m happy with it for now, but it’s always evolving. As with every project, it’ll never be truly finished,’’ he laughs. ‘‘We’ve been all over England – Cornwall is a favourite – and done lots of trips to Wales, and one to France. I’d like to explore Scotland and Ireland next, and do a big tour around Europe. One of the most enjoyable things is camping at all the shows and just chilling out. It’s such a laugh and Boris always gets lots of attention; I think people look around the Defender and think ‘I could have a go at that, too’. And that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?’’ Couldn’t have said it better myself, Jack.
How it began: When Jack picked up the 110, it was a slightly dog-eared van with scruffy bodywork and a worn clutch, but the bare loadspace was a blank canvas ready to be transformed.
Remedial work: The original 300Tdi soon expired, so Jack swapped it for a fresh unit with help from a mate. Boris also got a new clutch, a lick of paint and a pair of less rusty front doors.
First things first: Jack soon got to work in the back of the Defender, lining the sides and roof panel in insulation and then covering it over in wooden slats for a homely, classic look.
That sink-in feeling: Elements of the build like the water supply and drain and power for the built-in lights were layered up as the handbuilt kitchen and seating areas came to life.
Getting there: Carpeted-out and with the bed and storage structures taking shape, Jack started to add details like shelving and magnetic-close cupboard doors, and cut the thick foam for the mattress.
The top table: With the back door repaired and carpeted, Jack fired up the jigsaw and employed his newfound carpentry skills to make a fold-down table.
Jack’s top 5 mods (for now...)
Anyone for a quick brew?
1. The bed
Knowing you can pitch up and get a good night’s sleep wherever you are is a real game changer on adventures. It’s well illuminated and only takes moments to set up, so it doesn’t matter if you don’t arrive at your camp area until after dark.
2. A JetBoil
I’ve yet to find another stove that boils water as quickly – it’s almost instant. And it doesn’t matter how cold it is either, it has water ready for hot drinks or cooking in no time at all, even in minus temperatures.
3. The winch
Because of the miles I can cover on a trip, I prefer to use an all-terrain tyre rather than a more aggressive pattern for handling and economy. But the ATs have their limitations off-road, so having the winch gives peace of mind.
4. Roof rack
The rack’s ideal for chucking wet or dirty camping gear on, so I don’t have to carry it inside the Defender. I’d also have nowhere to mount the tent and extra lights if it wasn’t there.
5. Steering wheel
Changing the steering wheel for a Exmoor Trim wood-rimmed one was one of the first mods I did, and it makes such a difference to the drive. It feels much nicer than the old plastic wheel, and being slightly smaller it also helps with legroom.
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