Land Rover Defender. The off-roader that the Land Rover 90 and 110 turned into in 1990, that officially ceased to be in January 2016 - and that could very well be the world's most recognisable vehicle.
Just about everyone reading this buying guide will have an opinion on where it all went wrong for the Defender, why they're the greatest thing since sliced bread, why they're not worth the money, how you can make them worth the money etc etc. PH isn't going to get into all that. Nor are we going to go back 36 years to the 200/300TDis, or even to the Td5 of 1998. We're going to do this a bit weirdly. From a mechanical perspective we're going to concentrate on the two most recent Ford Duratorq-engined 'Puma' models, the 2.4 of 2007 and the 2011/12 2.2 that saw the Defender out - but we're also going to talk about the sort of non-mechanical issues for which older Defenders are infamous.
Why? Because even the youngest Puma Defender has the same design as the older ones, so there's every reason to expect that they'll experience the same problems later on down the line. PH's approach of making potential buyers aware of what those issues might be now will result in a hybrid buying guide rather than an exhaustive one, but hopefully it won't be too exhausting either.
Once you're in the driving seat of a good 'un, Defender ownership can be gratifyingly cheap, especially when you factor in depreciation that's almost as slow as the Landy's steering response. Some of this is down to the fact that Defenders, like Lego models, are made up of many replaceable bits, quite a few of them still low-tech, so the circle of doom when things go wrong can be more localised and less financially painful than it might otherwise be in vehicles of a more modern design.
If you do take the plunge, you'll find lots of support in both advice and hardware. The pool of Defender knowledge is immense and scads of folk sell Defender gear, from big-ticket items like recon 2.2 engines from £1400, walk-through rear body tubs from £1500 and replacement galvanised chassis supplied and fitted for under £5k, to (at the cheaper end of things) 3-part decat exhaust systems for £120 and new pairs of pukka-brand rear brake discs for £40.
As noted though, you do need to keep your wits about you. Let's get into it.
Bodywork & Interior
Bodywork is the biggest bugbear of Defender ownership. Or, to be accurate, the combination of the bodywork and the separate ladder chassis. Let's start with the bodywork. From the first Series 1 Land Rovers of 1948 to 1980, Land Rover body panels were made of 'Birmabright' alloy, a mix of aluminium (which was actually cheaper than steel in the years immediately after the war) and magnesium.
Birmabright was pretty good stuff, but the first thing to note about aluminium alloy is that although it doesn't rust in the usual sense, it does oxidise. When the Birmabright company closed down in 1980, Land Rover switched to a cheaper aluminium alloy that was both slightly weaker and less resistant to oxidisation than Birmabright. This is an issue because, if someone told you to design a car that had as many ways to degrade as possible, you'd probably come up with the Defender.
It's a metallurgist's nightmare really, but because we love it we forgive it. The design of the doors allows water to get in at the bottom corners of the window aperture. The door frame is flash painted with pretty cheap primer and there's no rust proofing in the cavity between the frame and the door skin. Hinges get loose and the door closing mech generally is unlikely to put you in mind of great German saloons of old, so if you accepted that as fact and just wanted to do away with door rot problems, you could get GRP items for about £250 each. Or at least you used to be able to.
Water trapped between mud and the back of any of the Defender's faux-Birmabright body panels will cause the aforementioned oxidisation. This will force the paint off or, in extreme cases, create perforations. Rubbing down and treating paint panels will work, but using filler on holes is not recommended. Your best bet is aluminium epoxy or an aluminium patch plate.
The presence of large amounts of checker plate rising up from the sill area may look cool, but it may also indicate that the previous owner is attempting to hide the effects of heavy offroad use. Checker plate is often bunged on the wing tops for equally nefarious concealment purposes.
The really big issue with the Defender though is that the chassis on which these body parts sit is made of mild steel. Steel is a combination of iron, carbon and a few other alloying elements, with iron being by far the biggest component - and iron's natural inclination is to go rusty. Most car manufacturers have come up with ways of keeping rust at bay for a decent amount of time, but Defender chassis rustproofing is more rudimentary. Or to put it another way, rubbish.
In the best old-school off-roading tradition, the Defender uses a very traditional two-rail chassis to which an assortment of crossmembers and outriggers are attached. The rear crossmember is the one that takes all the strain from towing and winching. Mud collects in the back so they crumble from the inside out. That's an MOT fail. Knowing that, and knowing the cost of replacing the part properly (up to £1000), unscrupulous vendors will conceal the rot with a layer of fibreglass. They'll even give the 'glass a lick of rust treatment for extra credibility. That will get it past testers, who these days are only allowed to give structural metalwork a light tap rather than the mighty hammer swipe that seasoned Defender types favour.
Up at the slightly less blunt end of the vehicle, behind the front wheel arch, the outrigger that supports the bulkhead is another classic rust generator. These outriggers can be cut off and replaced, or patched. The bulkhead is a key, safety-critical component to which the windscreen, dashboard, steering column, doors, bonnet and front wings are bolted. The floor pans and transmission tunnel also bolt up to the bulkhead and seatbox (where the seat pads go). The seatbox then bolts to the rear tub, as do the rear side and end panels.
Again, the bulkhead is made of mild steel and offers only the skimpiest of resistance to atmospheric or liquid attack. The sides, bottom corners and top of the upper section are notoriously vulnerable. The march of corrosion in the bulkhead top is generously assisted by a foam strip that traps water between it and the windscreen. Lift the vent flaps to have a gander at what lies behind. Problems in this area are fixable, but won't be cheap.
Galvanised repair panels are commonly fitted to the bottom corners of the upper bulkhead section, but sometimes these are simply stuck on over the top of the existing corroded panel, which is no better than lobbing fibreglass onto the rear crossmember. Look at the back (ie the cabin-facing) section of the bulkhead for any traces of brown.
The bottom of the bulkhead underneath the door hinge is another collection point for moisture, so this area commonly gets perforated and filled. The upper footwell under the dash likes to collect water too, and the main wells behind the pedals need to be solid or it's an MOT fail. Cereal boxes or Tupperware box sections are not acceptable replacements. Battery boxes go as well.
If you need a replacement bulkhead, secondhand undamaged ones start from around £650. New ones are around £1600, and remanufactured ones are somewhere between the two. Outriggers are about £30 each, inner sills are between £90 and £130 a pop, outers around £170 each.
Supplying and fitting entire galvanised chassis replacements has been keeping specialists in tea and biscuits for a good while. These frames are dipped into a vat of molten zinc which fills up all the vulnerable cavities inside and outside. Waxoyling or even better powder-coating will give it the sort of protection that should allow you to pass your Defender on to your kids. A replacement galv chassis on its own will cost around £2k but, as hinted at earlier, you can double that and more if you don't want the faff of fitting it yourself.
Having said all that, if you own a set of spanners and have access to simple hoisting equipment you might want to take a squint at this 7-minute vid of a chap bolting together a Landie from scratch, on his own would you believe. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nEzRPXZt-uk This is a 300TDi he's doing, but on the non-mechanical side the Defender is no different. It took him just eight hours in real, non-speeded-up time to produce something recognisable. That's because the build-up process requires no specialist tools, and the body-to-chassis fixing kit contains just 72 bolts.
Inside, the 2007-on 2.4 Defenders got a new dash with Freelander-style instrumentation and vents, and a much better centralised grouping of the heating controls. If you looked not that closely however you might recognise the continuing presence of the Mk 1 Metro indicator stalk and the Marina ignition switch. A recall was carried out on poorly-latching front seats and potentially weak front seatbelt mountings.
Engine & Transmission
Given their public image in military and agriculture, you might think that Landies must be mechanically simple. In fact the older ones in particular were quite demanding in terms of servicing.
That's one reason why we're sticking here to the common-rail Ford Duratorq-engined Defenders which came along first with the 122hp/221lb ft 2.4-litre diesel Transit lump of 2007 and then in 2011/12 with the Euro V-compliant 122hp/265lb ft 2.2-litre version of the same engine, which although smoother, quieter and punchier at low rpm thanks to its variable-geometry turbocharger brought with it the less obvious benefits of the diesel particulate filter.
The 2.2's intercooler/turbo pipe has a reputation for blowing off: this was the subject of more than one recall by LR. Some 2.2s also had a 'kangarooing' fuelling issue, and oil pump failure was not unheard of.
Quite a few 2.4s seemed to run hot, and early 2007-09 examples suffered from a blocked oil channel that caused knocking and (if not addressed) engine failure. Cats could also clog up and wonky EGR valves would cause black exhaust smoke and power loss. Timing on both engines is by chain so no real worries there.
Diffs on pre-2011 models have been known to give problems. You don't want any untoward noises from the transfer box when you're running in low range. The transfer case itself can leak oil, potentially coating the parking brake shoes. and the splines on the driveshaft between the case and the gearbox can fail, causing excessive driveline clunk. Clutch springs rattle and the whole unit can give up with as few as 35,000 miles on the clock. If you grease the propshafts regularly you'll usefully extend their life.
A battery protection system brought in by LR in 2011 can disable certain features like the fuel-burning heater which was designed to pre-warm the cabin before you got in. Immobilisers have been known to conk out.
Suspension & Steering
Landies haven't been leaf-sprung since 1983 when coil springing was brought in on the 90 and 110s. Front suspension turrets and rear spring mounts corrode, so scrape any mud off so that you can see what's going on there.
Unless you're turning your Defender into a camper, putting extra weight onto the chassis, think carefully before installing 'heavy-duty' suspension as you'll be running the risk of making the Defender's already challenging ride quality next to unbearable, plus you'll be subjecting the vehicle to more vibration. For the long term health of your Defender and your teeth, if you've got any, that's not a good road to be going down, especially if your chassis is less than perfect.
Steering swivel balls can corrode with age, damaging the oil seal and ultimately wearing the swivel pins. If the car you're interested in has vague/wobbly steering and excess play, chances are this is your problem. Power steering systems leak. Expect plenty of self-centering from a Defender's steering and you'll be disappointed.
Wheels, Tyres & Brakes
Big knobbly tyres look the bizzo, right? Well, yes, but unless you plan on spending the majority of your time off road they might not be the best choice for everyday motoring, unless you actually like conversation-stopping levels of road noise.
Get the Defender you're interested in on a flat road, run it up to 15mph or so and stand on the brake pedal with your hands off the steering wheel. If it dives off to one side you've got brake imbalance. A garage should be able to do a Tapley meter test for a more accurate guide. Handbrake operation can become sticky.
Still want that Defender? A real one, as opposed to the new aluminium unibodied one, or the Ineos Grenadier that won't be here before 2021 and that will very likely have a long waiting list?
Good! Watch out though. Laying out the right cash for the right Defender can be a testing process at the best of times, with many potential bear traps for the unwary. It's so easy to be seduced by tempting examples that have all the flashy bits on them - roof racks, spotlights, checker plate aplenty - but that turn out to be money pits because the basics aren't sound, the chassis has had more welding done on it than the Titanic and the bulkhead looks like a piece of Gruyere cheese. If a Defender is muddy underneath and the vendor doesn't seem inclined to get his Karcher out, you're well advised to give it a miss as caked-on muck can hide all manner of nastiness.
The chassis number appears on the VIN plate which is on the brake servo unit in the rear offside of the engine bay. That needs to match up to the chassis number on the offside front chassis rail. If it's covered up, you need to know why. There might be some more identity-confirming evidence if the plate on the lower piece of the windscreen frame is still present, but they genuinely do fall off, so if somebody tells you that, don't assume that they're telling you porkies. There are numbers on the gearbox and transfer box too. Digging all this stuff up, and matching the mileage to the MOT history, will tell you a lot.
If you're looking for a sweet spot in the Puma Defender range, something offering the best mix of 'sortedness', PH would point you in the direction of a 2011 model of either capacity. Many cars answering to that description will be well over £20k, and some 'special editions' will be crazy money (Spectre model for £245,000, anyone?) but there are Defenders around at sensible cash.
When even 'barn finds' (read complete wrecks) are at least £1000, and restoration costs start at £5000 just to get a solid chassis to build on, you might come to the conclusion that a bigger initial investment followed by careful maintenance is the best way forward.
Always remember what the experts say: your first Defender is often your worst Defender. So buy two and sell the first one.
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