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1997 Land Rover Defender 90 - Built For Adventure

Posted in Features on February 17, 2007 Comment (0)
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Editor's Note:John Lee is the co-owner of Expedition Exchange Inc. (www.expeditionexchange.com), a 4x4 outfitter in Southern California. When we first spoke with John about his Defender 90, we learned of the great adventures he had taken across the world with his friends. After spending some time looking through the numerous image galleries on his website, we knew our readers would want to hear directly from John. His wealth of knowledge covering camping, off-road driving, vehicle modifications, and survival is vast - not to mention he owns one very well-equipped Land Rover.
- Kevin McNulty

As a vendor and co-owner of Expedition Exchange, I am fortunate enough to have access to almost all aftermarket components available for my personal off-road vehicle, a '97 Land Rover Defender 90. I am often asked why my Defender is relatively unmodified and looks so plain compared to many other off-road vehicles. The answer is simple: With the amount of aftermarket components I'm exposed to every day, I see for myself and also hear about what works and what doesn't on the trail, and I limit my vehicle's mods to the ones that actually work. At almost every large club run, I see off-road trucks fail with alarming regularity because the owners didn't modify their vehicles properly. Most times, the mods were costly and difficult to install and didn't really add anything beneficial. Even worse, they usually detracted from the vehicle's overall reliability, which to me is the most important attribute in any aftermarket modification. If a product makes the vehicle less reliable than it was from the factory, why do it? I wouldn't recommend anyone doing anything to their vehicle that compromises its reliability and repairability in the field.

I'd like to cover some of the mods I've done on my Defender 90, and perhaps they'll relate to the trail truck you would like to create. Just keep in mind that there is no one way to create an off-road vehicle. What works for me and my personal vehicle may not necessarily work for your personal trail truck, especially if your vehicle is an off-road race truck or a competition rockcrawler.

The Husky 10 and Expeditionware synthetic winch line enable extrication of the Defender or other vehicles when they inevitably get stuck on the trail.

Let's start with suspension because I am constantly asked about suspension and I believe it's one of the first mods four-wheelers usually do their vehicles. The factory Land Rover springs are not up to the task of carrying very heavy loads, at least not the size loads I carry when hitting the trail. To sustain me for a trip, I carry all sorts of spares, clothes, personal effects, a fridge, food, water, spare fuel, tools, and so on. These pieces of gear and supplies weigh a considerable amount. Furthermore, these items are in addition to the greater vehicle weight caused by adding vehicle armor, a winch, a roof rack, etc. The factory Land Rover springs are also relatively low and provide only a decent amount of ground clearance. Had I stayed with factory springs, my vehicle would now be sitting on the bumpstops.

To gain greater clearance and load-carrying ability, I pulled the factory coils and replaced them with Old Man Emu heavy-duty coils. The Old Man Emu coils gave me 2 inches of additional height and several hundred pounds more of load-carrying ability. My current springs can handle the greater load, both vehicle weight and gear. Taller springs require taller shocks, so I replaced the factory shocks with Old Man Emu LTR shocks, which feature a separate reservoir that doubles the oil capacity of each shock. The greater surface area added by the reservoir and the increased oil volume prevent shock fade on long trails. The LTRs are also valved to match the spring rate on the Old Man Emu coils.

Taller springs and increased shock travel necessitate longer brake hoses. I have seen a few trucks where the brake hoses were the limiting factor in their suspension travel. Obviously, this is not a good thing. I replaced my factory rubber brake hoses with Expeditionware stainless braided hoses that are 3 inches longer than stock. The Expeditionware hoses are covered with a clear plastic sleeve to prevent debris from working its way in and deteriorating the stainless braiding's integrity. On top of the clear plastic sleeve is a black plastic spiral that prevents the longer brake hoses from contacting other suspension pieces and becoming abraded.

The overall appearance of this 90 remains stock-looking, although the vehicle is far from stock.

The coil spring, shock, and brake hose changes are basically the only changes I've made to my vehicle's suspension system. The lift is not so tall as to require driveshaft or suspension geometry changes, and the vehicle's overall reliability is not compromised in any way. In fact, I believe the Old Man Emu LTR shocks and Expeditionware brake hoses are substantially stronger and more reliable than their corresponding factory components. Furthermore, all of the suspension mods are reversible if I change my mind or something better should come along. All of the factory mounting points are unchanged, so I can locate replacements easily if I should be unfortunate enough to break a suspension component far away from home.

Lifting a vehicle usually results in fitting larger and more aggressive tires. I chose to increase the reliability of my vehicle in the process. Factory Defender 90s came fitted with BFG All-Terrains in 265/75 size. The All-Terrains are excellent tires, but I wanted something taller and more suited to my specific needs so I replaced the All-Terrains with Michelin XZLs in 8.25 R16 size.

The Old Man Emu suspension provides greater flex than factory but was not chosen for flex but greater load-carrying capacity and off-highway performance.

My XZLs are just shy of 34 inches tall, but they are very skinny to permit full tuck into my wheelwells without any trimming. The XZLs are also very strong tires, having four steel belts beneath the tread and a steel-belted sidewall. Ninety-percent of your trail fixes will involve the tires, so having strong ones greatly enhances your vehicle's overall trail reliability. The XZLs are not as pliable and grippy on the trail as other tires, but I accept that in order to gain greater strength. To increase wheel reliability further, I replaced the alloy factory wheels with Land Rover steel wheels. The steel wheels are stronger than the alloy wheels and may be pounded back into shape with a hammer if bent on the trail.

Just as with the suspension, the larger and heavier wheels necessitated some other mods to maintain driveability and reliability. The taller wheels required regearing to maintain engine performance. The factory ring-and-pinions on Defender 90s are 3.56-ratio. I replaced these gears with 4.11 to maintain driveability on the road and trail. The larger wheels also reduce braking efficiency, so I replaced the factory brake rotors with drilled and slotted versions from Disc Brakes Australia (DBA). My truck still does not drive like a factory Defender, but it does drive better than if had I not made these changes.

The heavier spare wheel also required fitment of a Mantec spare-wheel carrier to prevent damage to my cargo door. The factory spare-wheel carrier on the Defender is mounted directly to the cargo door. The cargo door's hinges are not up to the task of carrying a 100-pound spare wheel and will eventually fail. The separate wheel carrier solves this problem.

A four-wheel-drive vehicle requires greater underbody strength than what Land Rover provided on my Defender. I've added the usual protection pieces that most four-wheelers fit to their vehicles, including rock sliders to protect the doors, a heavy-duty winch bumper and brushguard, frame sliders to protect the framerails from teetering damage, differential guards, heavy-duty suspension links to prevent bending under load, pinion guards to protect the driveshaft yokes, and heavy-duty steering rods. I listed heavy steering rods last, but not because steering rods are unimportant. In fact, I believe that steering is one of the most important abilities of a vehicle and must be reinforced. Steering is more important than a running engine. A vehicle without steering but with a running engine still can't go anywhere. A vehicle without steering and a dead engine can't even be towed anywhere. Do not underestimate the importance of steering when reinforcing your vehicle. Most people overlook this when strengthening their vehicles; it's a mistake.

The Safety Devices Expedition roof rack provides greater load-carrying ability than the smaller Defender 90 stock rack does.

I have replaced my factory drag link and track rod with heavy-duty sleeved pieces from Rock Ware. My track rod is the offset type, where the steering rod bumps upward for additional clearance. I've been fortunate enough never to have bent my track rod on the trail, whereas others in my group with similar vehicles have bent theirs. My heavy-duty Rock Ware steering rods all employ the Land Rover factory ball joints, and I carry spare ball joints in my vehicle at all times. If I should break my spares, others in my group will likely have their factory spares. If I had prototype joints, I would be in jeopardy of having no steering or replacements available on the trail.

Something else four-wheelers often forget is to properly outfit their vehicle for safe recovery and security. Often, we all see trail trucks with huge tires and lockers but no winch or recovery points. When you're ready to purchase your winch, get the largest and strongest winch your vehicle's mounting and bumper options will allow. My winch is a Superwinch Husky 10, which is a superb performer. An added bonus is that the Husky's worm gearing makes unnecessary the brake inside the drum that's required on planetary designs. Thus, the Husky may be winched out without generating heat on the drum, and it is fully compatible with all of the latest synthetic winch lines.

The Safety Devices Expedition roof rack provides greater load-carrying ability than the smaller Defender 90 stock rack does.

Next, I replaced the factory open front and rear differentials on my Defender with traction differentials. My reasons were both greater traction and greater strength. My front differential is now a Truetrac limited-slip, and my rear is a Detroit Locker. The traction differentials feature solid carriers that are much stronger than the Land Rover open differentials, which feature only two side gears and an open carrier.

Lockers can enable you to drive your vehicle even if just a single wheel has traction. This puts a tremendous strain on your halfshafts and often results in breakage if you fit lockers but keep the factory halfshafts. My halfshafts are from Great Basin Rovers and are constructed of 300M alloy. They are very strong and I have yet to see a broken one. They feature the same external dimensions as the factory halfshafts and do not require vehicle modification or butchery to install. Accordingly, I have retained my factory halfshafts as trail spares. My trailmates and I can also share our spares, and we have done so several times on past trips.

Two large Troy Smith toolboxes reside in the cab of this 90.

My Defender is fitted with multiple auxiliary lights. Many consider auxiliary lighting to be a poseur mod, and quite often it is. However, auxiliary lights make driving at night much safer and less fatiguing. When fitting auxiliary lights to your vehicle, be sure to include a work lamp on the rear of your vehicle. The rear work lamp is useful as a very bright reverse light when backing up at night. The rear work lamp also greatly facilitates camp tasks such as setting up a tent or cooking a meal after dark.

Trail vehicles often have to cross streams, and a snorkel will prevent the engine from sucking in water and hydrolocking. Furthermore, off-road vehicles often trail in convoys and suck in large amounts of dust. A snorkel does make a tremendous difference in how clean the engine stays on dusty roads.

Some will contend that a snorkel is a joke on a gasoline engine, but I cannot agree. Even if a gas engine shorts underwater, that's still better than hydrolocking the engine from ingesting water. A stalled vehicle in the water can still be recovered, dried, and restarted. A hydrolocked engine presents much greater problems.

The snorkel and Borla exhaust system are my only engine modifications. I leave the engine stock so that I can service and repair it while using my workshop manual as a guide. A stock engine also lets me drive into any Land Rover dealership in North America and know that the techs there will be able to work on my vehicle.

As you can see, I consider a proper trail truck neither fancy nor flashy but solid and reliable. When building a proper trail truck, choose your vehicle modifications accordingly. All of my vehicle's mods were chosen to enhance capability, reliability, and utility rather than for flash. Make your truck as reliable and trailworthy as you can, and you will enjoy many years of adventure on the trail.

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