Land Rovers unreliable? The owner of this trip-tricked Defender reckons it’s more a matter of attitude than mechanicals.
With a big grin, Doug Bickhoff utters the words that would send many people – especially owners of other brands of 4X4s – into sniggers of laughter.
“I like the idiosyncrasies of them,” he says of Land Rover’s ubiquitous, legendary, box-like, long-running, unique – and possibly all matter of other not-quite-so-nice words – Defender 110. “It’s intangible, but something that I really enjoy. They have plenty of character!”
Yep, uttering sentences such as these is enough to cause your mates to stare suspiciously over the froth on their schooners, or your wife to quietly retreat to the spare room. But as Doug, a retired engineer and manufacturing supervisor, explains what he’s done to his Defender, how he’s done it – and, most importantly, why, you can’t help but agree with him.
Doug’s no stranger to 4X4s, having owned a Land Rover County back in the 1980s (when Land Rover adopted the Range Rover’s coil spring suspension).
He’s also had a Discovery II as a daily driver, racking up more than 1000km a week as a freeway flier and weekend fun machine. Significantly, he’s also owned a Mitsubishi Pajero and a couple of LandCruisers, too. All racked up serious kays with 100 percent reliability, but didn’t inspire Doug. No, as bush-ready vehicles, it’s the traditional Land Rovers he enjoys the most.
“The Defender’s engine drowns out the radio, but in the Pajero it was the other way around!” Doug quips. “Look, I know they’re not a happy commuter, but I don’t commute as much these days.”
He bought the banana-yellow Defender from the original owner in Canberra. “I considered buying a new one, but buying second-hand meant lots of money saved for modifications and upgrades,” reckons Doug. “I’ve put a lot more stuff on than the average bloke, but I enjoy it. And I get to know the vehicle better as I’m doing it.”
When purchased, the wagon was due for its 120,000km service. “That’s the expensive one,” Doug says. “But because I had it done, I knew everything had been done properly – no short cuts. And yes,” he says with another grin, “there were a few oil leaks – the sump and transfer case.”
So, with all the boxes ticked on the service schedule from Land Rover specialists Graeme Cooper Automotive, in Sydney, Doug had a great platform from which to begin modifying and equipping his Defender for intended regular travels with partner Jean.
The Land Rover’s TD5 engine is internally standard, but has a few enhancements. It breathes through a Safari snorkel and has silicon intake hoses. “I spend a bit of time on Land Rover owners’ sites, and you often read about an almost total loss of power on these TD5s,” Doug explains.
“It’s almost always failure of the pressured intake hoses. They delaminate and split, which means no air to the engine. Before I had any of those problems, I had Graeme Cooper replace mine with silicon that should be there just about forever.”
He’s also upgraded the engine’s management system for a little more output. “The difference in performance is remarkable,” reckons Doug. “It makes it far easier to drive. And there’s less soot from the exhaust, too.”
The engine’s electronics have been relocated from their usual hidey-hole under the driver’s seat to a purpose-built box under the Land Rover’s standard centre console. That provides two benefits, according to Doug: Firstly, the important bits are around 300mm higher in the vehicle – so that’s how much deeper a creek can be before everything gets a dunking; secondly, the higher console lid is now a handy armrest for Doug and Jean.
Out front, Doug has specified an ARB winch bar and a Warn XP5 winch, loaded with synthetic string. ARB also provided the tow bar. The spare wheel has been relocated – sort of. Rather than hanging from the door, it’s been moved to a Graeme Cooper Automotive spare-wheel carrier that takes the wheel weight from the door. Instead, the separate frame puts the weight down into the chassis. The carrier follows the door when it’s opened, rather than having to be swung away separately.
The Defender carries two Long Ranger tanks under its bum; one is a direct replacement for the original and the second an auxiliary. Combined, there’s almost 200 litres of fuel, which greatly extends the touring range. There’s an accessory fuel filler blanking plate that keeps dust away from the fuel filler neck. Doug has installed the filler valves for the rear suspension’s assist airbags there, too: He upgraded to a quartet of Bilstein dampers, softened the rear springs and added poly airbags to compensate.
“The later model Defenders are quite firm,” Doug reckons, something borne out by 4X4 staffers’ time with Defenders in the past few years. “They’re not as supple as the Land Rovers of old, like the County.”
Four 235/85/16 BFG Mud Terrains hold the bright yellow box upright. “They are remarkably quiet for such an aggressive tread,” reckons Doug. “There’s only a slight amount of rumble below about 10km/h.” With the BFGs, supple suspension, and both diffs fitted with ARB Air Lockers (this Defender predates Land Rover’s fitment of a traction control system), the Defender is just about unstoppable in arduous terrain. There are guards on the steering and both diffs, too.
Inside, Doug has fitted a Dept of the Interior (DoI) overhead console. DoI also provided the rear storage layout. It’s built from timber and runs on no-nonsense roller bearings and steel rails. When he needs to, Doug carries extra stuff on the full-length Rhino roof racks. Making life more comfortable at camp is an Oztent Foxwing awning and Narva camp lights mounted on the underside of the Rhino.
At the time of our photo shoot, the Defender’s dual battery system, using yellow Optima batteries, was a work in progress. Bits of timber were holding the batteries in place against the Milford cargo barrier with a rat’s nest of wiring between and around them. It’s Doug’s rough working prototype for his system, wired with a Traxide battery management system and a National Luna dual battery monitor. He promises it will look better, soon…
The Defender has a gaggle of electrical upgrades and accessories; Doug wired his own headlight upgrade harness and driving lights loom – it powers a pair of Narva Extremes – and has installed extra VDO instruments for oil temp and boost, an ARB compressor, Exploroz cruise control, Icom communications gear and a Precision reversing camera.
In fact, there are three reversing cameras: one above the rear window, one just above the drawbar and another on the camper trailer Doug often tows. So there are no excuses for any dents!
The aerial on the bullbar is a replacement for the original’s A pillar mounted one. “It gets good reception,” says Doug. “I love listening to the cricket, and this one picks up ABC Radio further away from town!”
So far the Defender has been a magnificent adventure machine on the trips it’s taken, and there are longer ones in its future. Although a reasonably competent traveller, Doug has chosen to up-skill by participating in a few tagalong treks with Great Divide Tours. It was during one such trek, to the Victorian High Country in January 2010, that Doug – and his fellow tagalongs – learned a valuable lesson.
Doug relates it with borderline horror: “It was 42 degrees two days in a row. It was surreal,” he recalls. “But what was more incredible was people’s stupidity. We found people [in 4X4s] who were lost; no maps, no-one knew where they were. To make things worse they were low on fuel and had to ask us for help. We also met a pair of trail bike riders. We’d been informed by satellite phone of a catastrophic fire warning and were evacuating as fast as we could. Despite being high summer with temps in the 40s less than one year since Black Saturday, these people had no clue.”
The Defender’s first bigger trip will be to the Corner Country in July this year, then the Kimberley next year No matter where they go, Doug will be ready for anything. His experience with and knowledge of his own vehicle, plus his philosophy of preventive maintenance is one that he holds dear. With his engineering background he knows that components have a certain service life and that they will eventually break down or fail. And the sharing of others’ experiences with similar vehicles through net forums gives a good indication of just when those components will be approaching the danger zone.
“There are items on any vehicle that will always, always fail,” he explains. “So it’s good practice to replace them before they let go. If you’re going to own a car from say 120,000km to 300,000km, there’s a whole stack of things you’re going to need to replace once. So, do it now. It saves you money and distress; you know you must replace them anyway, so it’s better to get to them before they get to you and leave you stranded somewhere.”
When Doug explains it like that, it’s very logical, really!