Since its demise at the start of this year, the Land Rover Defender has become seriously hot property. But few owners seem keen to keep things original, and if you want to invest in upgrades, the sky is the limit…
It’s funny how things evolve. When Land Rover launched the Series 1
soon after World War II, it was very much a no-frills, go-anywhere workhorse. There was no hint of luxury, and some would argue it didnít exactly exude style, even if in the 21st century itís now seen as one of the coolest cars ever made.
The Series 1 would morph into the Series 2, Series 3 then ultimately the Defender, which arrived in 1990 and was killed off at the beginning of this year. What Maurice Wilks, designer of the original Land Rover, would make of the numerous Defender upgrades now offered is anybodyís guess. Weíd like to think heíd love them, even if many of the modifications are hardly in the spirit of why the Land Rover was created all those years ago.
Thatís not the case for the magnificent Defender Td5 you see here though ñ if anything, its creator has gone the other way by making it even more capable. Designed and built by Independent Land Rover specialist MM 4×4, the black and yellow Defender came out of a request to create a Range Rover for Top Gear television, with even more off-roading abilities than standard. Richard Eacock runs MM 4×4. He comments: ìBack in 2009, Top Gear approached us and asked us to help upgrade the Range Rover that Jeremy Clarkson drove in the Bolivia special. They wanted as much ground clearance as possible, partly for practical reasons, and also because they wanted something that looked more eye-catching than usual. We created a five-inch lift kit, specifically for that carî.
Even now, few companies will build you a Land Rover thatís raised by more than a couple of inches. But having developed the kit for that Range Rover, it made sense to offer it to MMís customers, alongside a whole raft of other upgrades. The Defender here is a showcase for what the firm can do.
Worcestershire-based MM 4×4 was started in 1950 by Richardís grandfather, and has specialised in Land Rovers for over 30 years. So the company knows a thing or two about whatís possible, whatís worthwhile and whatís desirable. Says Richard: ìWeíve developed all sorts of modifications for the Defender, taking in all points on the spectrum. The thing is, many owners think they want the most extreme upgrades available, when actually some of them make the car less usable rather than moreî. The lift kit is potentially a case in point. If youíre the kind of person who tackles deep bogs or fords, or seriously rocky terrain, the extra ground clearance will be particularly welcome.
By fitting one of these kits youíll have a lot of extra ground clearance, you can fit much bigger tyres and youíve also got that monster truck look which makes the car look impossibly cool. However, you have to temper this with the fact that if you go green laning where thereís a lot of overhanging trees, youíll be dodging foliage most of the time. Not only that, but the Defenderís already vague on-road handling isnít improved by lifting the car even further from the Tarmac. There can also be reliability problems, because the lift kits affect the suspension geometry and put a strain on the transmission and suspension. The bump stops, brake lines and radius arms also have to be replaced, the latter so the differential retains its original position. The first kits MM put together could suffer from failures ñ it was definitely a learning curve. The company has now got a reliable system, but itís still only worth fitting in certain conditions. Eacock adds: ìPeople like the monster truck look, but itís not really very practical for off-roading. Despite the typical £2,000 cost, these kits are still reasonably popular ñ but then a lot of our customers are hard-core off-roaders. Of more use most of the time is a drop kit, which helps to keep the wheels in contact with the ground when itís seriously uneven. Again, there are five-inch drop kits which will allow the wheels to drop, so you can maintain traction as much as possibleî.
What tends to make the biggest difference to traction though, isnít fancy suspension kits ñ itís a decent set of tyres. The best tyre for the job will depend on how the car is being used; most of those who go off-roading also drive their cars on the road a fair bit, perhaps even as daily drivers. Too many people sacrifice their carís on-road abilities too quickly; theyíll fit mud-plugging tyres which increase noise levels and fuel consumption on Tarmac. All-terrain tyres are popular, but these arenít really aggressive enough for serious off-roading, while mud-pluggers are too aggressive for significant road use. The best solution is to fit some Traction Track tyres, which feature an off-road sidewall, but with an all-terrain centre section; the result is something that offers grip with reasonable comfort.
Wheels are important too, because thereís such a huge variety available. Steel rims are favoured as theyíre cheaper and easier to knock back into shape if they get bashed, but alloys are lighter and look smarter. Budget to spend £30 to £50 per steel wheel, while alloys are more like £100 to £200. The steel wheels on MMís car look smart in black, but theyíre tough too.
One item thatís become increasingly popular in recent years is a good winch, not least of all because some enthusiasts now prefer to winch themselves over tricky terrain, rather than drive it. The key with these competitions is to have the fastest, strongest winch possible, to haul the car up a steep slope ñ but before you get too involved in these, make sure itís safe. As you can imagine, thereís plenty to go wrong in such a scenario! The Tiger Winch fitted to this car offers a good compromise between cost and performance as itís priced at £390, but itís possible to spend over £600 on something with more power.
Another pastime thatís becoming more and more popular is off-roading at night, which is why the MM Defender sports an impressive array of driving lights ñ you want as much illumination as possible when tackling treacherous terrain after dark. Compact but powerful LED lights are where itís at now, as theyíre durable, very bright, but donít sap too much power.
The final upgrade worth mentioning is the chequerboard fitted to each of the Defenderís front wings. Itís there for a couple of reasons; firstly, because it adds vital strength to the aluminium wings and helps to prevent them getting dented, either when off-roading or when the engine bay is being worked on. Also, if the car is stranded in water or among thick undergrowth, itís easier to just clamber onto the wing to access the winch; the chequerboard adds much-needed grip and it helps to keep the wings intact.
Similarly, some underbody protection is essential if youíre set to tackle some really challenging terrain. Plates are available to protect the steering gear, engine sump, gearbox and differentials. Available in aluminium or steel, prices start at just £20 for something thatíll stop your diff from being split open by a rock.
So far weíve looked at all those bolt-on goodies that you can fit, but what about improving whatís already there ñ and specifically, tweaking the engine? According to Eacock, engine upgrades are becoming increasingly popular, with bigger intercoolers and an ECU remap the most popular options for the Td5 unit. The later Ford-sourced 2.2-litre TDCi engine usually just gets a remap, to liberate up to 50 per cent more power. However, few 2.2-litre owners take their cars off-roading, as theyíre still too valuable ñ itís the older 200 Tdi, 300 Tdi and Td5 editions that are most likely to be seen on the green lanes. But Eacock recommends not diving into an engine upgrade too readily. He comments: ìIn standard tune the engine is set up for durability and it offers a decent spread of power and torque. Boosting these significantly tends to have an impact on reliability, so be careful before making changes because you might not need them, and they could cause more problems than they solveî.
Donít forget security either ñ for years the Defender has been the most-stolen car in the UK thanks to a combination of its desirability in overseas markets, low-tech standard-fit security and the ease with which it can be dismantled and the parts sold on. Thatís why you need to budget for some sort of security, whether itís electronic or mechanical ñ or a combination of both. Some owners really go to town and fit lockable pedal boxes ñ a hinged lid over the pedals so they canít be accessed. Others will fit some sort of disc lock over the steering wheel, while those with deeper pockets will invest in a tracking system, or at least an alarm and immobiliser. Any of these is worthwhile, but if you can afford a combination of them, spend freely for peace of mind.
While many of the modifications discussed are essential if you plan to take your Defender off-roading, some owners fit the same parts just for show ñ although thatís rare. Theyíll fit light bars, a snorkel, wider wheel arches, a winch, roof rack and underbody protection because they think it looks cool. However, MM has found that the tide is turning away from this, towards an urban look. That means tinted windows, black paint, chequer plates and LED daytime running lights. Increasingly, Defenders are being snapped up by middle-aged men who repaint or wrap them ñ it helps that you can buy an old car and update the look with a raft of readily available parts that just bolt on.
The key point is that the Defender is already one of the most capable off-roaders, even in standard form. Thanks to the plethora of readily available parts itís possible to revive or upgrade any example you like, and to make it as extreme or as mild as you want. What you donít want to do is fit masses of upgrades, then find that the green lane youíve previously found a challenge becomes no harder to tackle than the local supermarket car park. Conversely, you donít want to upgrade your Defender then find you still keep getting stuck because you donít really know what youíre doing. A session with a decent instructor can transform a mediocre driver into one who can tackle anything with confidence, which is why learning the right off-roading techniques will make all the difference. Successful green laning relies on a combination of having the right equipment and using the best knowledge.
Says Richard: ìIf youíre planning to upgrade your Defender to take it off-roading, you need to set a budget of at least £3,000. Thereís an order in which you need to spend that money, with safety being the first on the list. This would include a life hammer, recovery ropes, a hand winch and a full check of the vehicle to ensure everything is working properly. Next would come tyres; these could fill an article on their own, but depending on what you want to do with your 4×4, you need to fit the best tyres for the job. After this comes underbody protection, a snorkel and a lift kit ñ all of which need proper investment rather than cheap parts, or youíll be left strandedî.
Eacock concludes: ìLand Rover buyers will spend a lot of money on modifying their cars, but everybody loves a bargain and sometimes cheap parts are fitted. The problem is that the quality is very variable and when youíre off-roading, those cheap parts wonít last long. A few years ago there was an influx of poorly made components; even some respected brands outsourced manufacturing and took their eye off the ball. When this happens everyone loses out ñ traders, customers, manufacturers ñ but thankfully things seem to have improved over the last couple of years. More companies are developing their own products in-house ñ as we do ñ and because thereís more competition now, thanks to a fragmented market, thereís more really good stuff out there than ever. We sell our own parts under the Pro-Track brand and obviously we have confidence in them. But whatever you buy, make sure itís not being bought on price alone, because when it comes to off-roading, that cheap part could soon become very expensiveî.
The Defender may be very capable in the rough, but its cult status means values have just kept climbing over the past few years, and the modelís demise is only pushing things up even further. Meanwhile, the Discovery 1 and 2 have hit rock bottom, with worthwhile cars starting at little more than £1,000 ñ an equivalent Defender would cost at least four times this. For a machine that can tackle some pretty treacherous terrain ñ in comfort ñ thatís pretty good going.
Richard Eacock comments: ìSome people wonít drive a Defender as theyíre cramped, noisy and slow. But the Discovery is a luxury car with seating for up to seven, yet it can still cope with some pretty serious off-roading. Itís not as capable as a Defender because of the longer overhangs, but a Discovery can still cope with much more rugged terrain than most 4x4s. The key thing is that with the Discovery you get a lot more for your money, and values are still going down for anything that isnít mint ñ while the Defender is getting ever further out of reachî.
For many Land Rover enthusiasts, itís budgetary constraints that push them towards a certain model, and with the Discovery so affordable itís no wonder itís becoming the off-roader of choice. Predictably, itís always cheaper to buy a car thatís already been modified, but most owners prefer to buy something thatís still original (but probably tatty) and treat it as a blank canvas. After all, half of the fun with these cars is building exactly the machine that you want ñ not taking on someone elseís cast-off.
The Discovery pictured is a daily driver, so any modifications have been kept sensible. However, as with the Defender, the Discovery is used as a development car for trying out new products before theyíre offered to MMís customers. If it was reserved for off-road use it may have been turned into a bob-tail, with its rear end cut away to reduce overhangs to cope with more severe approach and departure angles. Most Discoverys also come fitted with a tow bar which reduces ground clearance, and so removing this increases clearance and improves the departure angle too.
As it is, the MM Discovery features a two-inch lift kit, extended brake lines to accommodate this, heavy duty front and rear bumpers, plus an electric winch. Also on the menu are side steps, rock and tree sliders, a light pod for the bonnet, and a light bar for the roof. As such, costs have been controlled, it really looks the part, plus it can be used on- or off-road with confidence.