Custom Land Rover Defender 90 review

IT’S NOT hard to catch the Landy bug. A glance in the wrong direction is all it takes, but be warned, once you’ve been infected by this all-consuming addiction it can be bloody hard to shake it off!

“I had no idea about Land Rovers,” recalls the owner of this spectacular Defender 90, Damian Lucev, thinking about his carefree pre-Landy days. “I knew the Defender was capable, but I really didn’t know that much about it. I liked G-Wagens, I liked the shape of them, and I just saw Land Rovers as an affordable version of that.

“But now I’ve become a part of this Land Rover world that I’ve fallen in to. I had no idea about it, but I’ve become a bit obsessed with them.”

Custom Land Rover Defender 90 rear offroadA bit obsessed? What an understatement! “Basically all of my free thinking time involves thinking about what I am going to be doing to my Defender,” admits a seriously hooked Damian. 

THE MIGHTY 90
Damian purchased this once-stock Defender 90 new in 2013, and in just a few years he has turned it into a vehicle perfect for performing the dual tasks of weekend escape machine and hardcore off-roader.

“I didn’t plan to do anything with it like it is now; it was just a driving-around-town car,” Damian says. “When I bought it brand new, it was stock standard. It’s a 2013 Limited Edition model and I basically wanted this Orkney Grey colour. There was one in Melbourne but it sold before I could get my hands on it, and I specifically wanted this colour. There was another one in Newcastle, so I just bought it over the phone without looking at it.”

Damian Lucev“I wasn’t really a Landy person prior to this but now I have just become part of the cult,” admits Damian.

While relatively new to Land Rovers, Damian was certainly not new to four-wheel driving. “I’ve been in to 4WDing for quite a few years,” he explains. “My dad used to go hunting in the High Country when we were young, and he used to take us camping up there.”

While Damian says the Defender was originally slated as nothing more than a daily driver, he soon enlisted it to perform High Country duties. “A few years into owning it, my girlfriend and I planned a camping trip up to the High Country, so I bought a snorkel for that trip, and that was as far as I was going to go with it, and I sort of, yeah, ended up doing everything to it,” laughs Damian.

POWER UPGRADE
This trick-looking Defender 90 Limited Edition is powered by the last-of-the-line Ford-sourced 2.2-litre four-cylinder turbo-diesel engines. Called the Puma 2.2 TDCi, claimed standard output is a modest 90kW at 3500rpm and 360Nm at 2000rpm. But Damian knew he’d need more grunt than that, especially when fitted with 35-inch rubber, so he started searching for power-upgrade options.

custom land rover defender 90 engine“There’s a place in the UK called Bell Auto Services – he does all the tuning and engine work to the Bowler Defender rally vehicles – and he has ECU kits that tune the engine to either 150hp (110kW) or 170hp (130kW); so I have got the 170hp ECU tune,” Damian says.

As well as a significant power increase, the Bell Auto Services (BAS) ECU upgrade also results in a healthy boost to peak the torque output to a claimed 440-450Nm. To keep air intake and exhaust gas temperatures in check, BAS advises that the ECU upgrade be accompanied by one of the company’s uprated performance intercoolers, which is precisely what Damian has fitted to his Defender.

On the intake side the Defender sources fresh air via a Safari snorkel, but on the exit side it’s an OE affair; on the advice of several Landy experts Damian has left the standard exhaust in place. “Apparently if you go any bigger it can fry the turbo,” says Damian. “I’ve been told the best thing is to leave the exhaust as it is out of the factory.”

BULLETPROOF DRIVELINE
While the six-speed gearbox and the transfer case remain stock, the rest of the driveline has been modified for strength, durability and, of course, off-road performance.

“I’ve got front and rear Ashcroft diff lockers, with an ARB twin compressor in the cabin,” explains Damian. “I’ve upgraded the axles to Hi-Tough, and the CVs are Ashcroft units as well.”

arb compressorsThe Ashcroft differentials have an air-operated selectable locking mechanism. Fitted in the standard diff housings, Ashcroft says one of the key design requirements for its locker was zero air loss, so it uses a static piston instead of a rotating seal as used in some air locker designs. Ashcroft says its locker also offers a full 6mm engagement, so it won’t slip out of lock when loaded.

The Hi-Tough Engineering axles Damian has fitted to the Defender are claimed to be around 50 per cent stronger than standard Land Rover axles – they’re manufactured from high quality aircraft material called HY-TUF nickel chro-moly steel. Combined with the Ashcroft CV joints, this Defender now has an almost bulletproof driveline, easily capable of handling the 35-inch rubber. As Ashcroft says of its CV joints, “These units have been subject to some very thorough testing in the UK and Europe and allow the driver to confidently use the front locker when on full steering lock, even with the vehicle on its nose.”

custom land rover defender 90 drivingThose 35s fitted to the Defender 90 are proven BF Goodrich Mud Terrain KM2s, mounted to 16x8in Dynamic steel rims with a negative 25 offset. Ensuring that the larger rubber doesn’t extend beyond the guards, Damian has fitted Terra Firma flares to the Defender, and had them finished in a two-pack gloss black to maintain the factory look. These flares are two inches wider than the standard ones and are shaped perfectly for a neat fit.

The Defender is running a two-inch lift, although with the 35s, such a short wheelbase, and excellent approach and departure angles, it’s certainly not wanting for ground clearance. Damian says he’s about to upgrade the current suspension set-up after having broken a couple of rear shock absorbers. “I’m going to put Koni long-travel shocks in it,” says Damian. “All the main mechanical stuff has been done by Les Richmond Automotive in Thomastown, Victoria, and they do their own custom Koni kit that has matched coils and dampers.”

EXTERIOR MODS
Wanting to ensure the unique front-end appearance of his Defender Limited Edition wasn’t obscured, Damian sourced a tubular bar from Rovacraft that didn’t interfere with the exaggerated headlight surrounds specific to this model. Cradled in the bar is a Runva 11,000lb 11XP winch, which is operated via an in-cabin controller and isolator. The bar is also home to a 17-inch Stedi Version 2 80W Cree LED Light Bar.

custom land rover defender 90 bullbarAdditional lighting power comes courtesy of a big Stedi ST3300 48-inch 260W LED Light Bar mounted to the roof rack, as well as JW Speaker replacement LED headlights. There’s a pair of Stedi LEDs mounted at the rear of the Defender, too, to help light up the campsite when Damian’s on a trip.

custom land rover defender 90 bashplateThe underside of the Defender is well protected with a Britpart front bash plate, Mulgo side rails and rear-corner bumperettes, and an APT Fabrication Fuel Tank Guard. The Mulgo side rails are manufactured from zinc-plated steel and, as well as offering significantly more protection than the factory aluminium steps, they also provide a neat factory look. The Mulgo bumperettes protect the rear corners and provide a good first step to complement the Front Runner ladder that leads up to a Tradesmen roof rack.

custom land rover defender 90 roofrackThere’s a Darche awning mounted to the roof rack, which also carries a Front Runner twin jerry can holder, Hi-Lift jack, shovel and a pair of MaxTrax, as well as any other gear that won’t fit into the shorty Defender’s cabin. And the weight of that heavy 35-inch spare is no longer on the Defender’s rear door thanks to a Mantec swing-away spare wheel carrier; this trick set-up has a unique hinge that allows the rear door to be opened while still attached to the spare wheel carrier.

If Damian has to pull any Toyotas or Nissans out of the muck, the Defender’s front bar is equipped with two substantial recovery points, while the rear-end sports a recovery point that bolts to the Defender’s rear cross member and is manufactured by Nugget Stuff. This simple design is ideally suited to Defender owners who want a strong rear recovery point but who don’t want to fit a bulky tow bar.

INSIDE STORY
The interior of Damian’s Defender 90 hasn’t been as heavily modified as the rest of the vehicle, but he has made upgrades to tailor the vehicle to better suit his requirements.

custom land rover defender 90 interiorWhile happy with the Defender Limited Edition’s standard partial leather front seats, the rears have been flicked in favour of maximising cargo space. Damian has also installed a flat floor in the back so he can more easily access the fridge and stow stuff underneath said floor. Other than that he’s fitted a Uniden UHF and upgraded the sound system. “The stereo system has been upgraded completely; speakers, subwoofer and it’s running an Alpine sat-nav system,” says Damian.

A dual battery system resides under the passenger seat and is managed by a Redarc BCDC charger. There’s a 12V power outlet in the rear of the cabin for the fridge.

PERFECT FOR TWO
While a short-wheelbase Defender 90 mightn’t be big enough for a family off-roading getaway, Damian says there’s still plenty of space for two. “It’s just me and my girlfriend, and I think for two people it’s the perfect tourer. I think you’ve got as much [cargo] room as a 110 when that’s got all five seats in it.

custom land rover defender 90 offroad“My girlfriend loves it. When we first hooked up she told me she loves it, and throughout this whole modifying process she’s been really supportive of it, you know, she’s more than happy to support my hobby and she loves going camping, and when we go up to the High Country she’s basically a really big fan of it.”

“We get to the High Country as often as we can,” says Damian. “We’ve just come back from Fraser Island over Christmas, we’ve been up to the Grampians, we’ve got a Tassie trip planned hopefully in the not too distant future… and then I have my little fun days doing more hardcore stuff on day trips.”

Custom Land Rover Defender 90 rearDamian is also of the opinion that 90s are the pick of the Defender range. “I wanted to modify my 90 because there’s not enough of a heavily modified presence in Australia with the 90s,” he says. “This is one of the reasons I have done it. The 90 may not be as practical as the 110, but it’s more fun and it looks better.”

LANDY COMMUNITY
So what has Damian learnt from this build? Well, he makes no secret of the fact that he’s learnt a hell of a lot about Landies in a short period of time, thanks to both the people he’s met out and about as well as the wealth of information he’s been able to access online.

“There’s a good community; the Land Rover people all stick together,” says Damian. “It’s been a learning process all through the whole thing, meeting people and talking to various people and experts about what to do and that sort of thing.

custom land rover defender 90 front“There’s a good forum, the AULRO (Australian Land Rover Owners) forum, that’s just priceless for information, and then there are a couple of Facebook pages with Land Rover guys in Australia who modify them.”

As a result, Damian has built the perfect Defender 90… at least it is for him. With its bulletproof driveline it’s capable of some pretty hardcore off-roading, and with just two occupants it also fulfills its duty as a tourer. But Damian is not finished yet.

“I’ll probably be forever modifying it,” he admits. “Next is the suspension, and I’m also in the process of putting a hot water shower system in there, and I’m planning to put a gullwing window in the rear so I can access the fridge.”

As Damian has found out, catching the Landy Bug is more than an obsession with

a specific make and model of vehicle. “I love the look of it, I love how capable it is, I love how you become a part of this Land Rover cult group,” he enthuses. “You know, you drive past somebody and you wave to each other, without even having to say anything.”

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