If I asked you to describe an African safari trip, 99 percent of you would mention a Land Rover. The boxy British 4x4 is so ingrained in our image of overlanding and adventure that you see them in most any advertisement that is trying to sell the general public an off-road adventure product. “This coffee will make your adventure great!” Ad shows a rugged guy drinking coffee beside a Land Rover. “This cigarette will make your adventure awesome!” Who remembers the Camel Cigarette guy always standing next to a Land Rover? (Cigarettes cause cancer, kids. Don’t smoke.) “This toilet paper will make your adventure less poopy!” OK, I’ve never seen an ad with a guy walking away from a Land Rover carrying a shovel and roll of Charmin, but you get the picture. Land Rovers equal adventure.
So last year when I was heading to the Overland Expo I decided that driving there in an old Land Rover would be fun (and it would make my adventure more adventuresome because every advertising agency ingrained that image in my head). I called up my friends at Land Rover and asked if they knew of an older Rover I could borrow, and lo and behold they had one in storage.
Now, there are old Land Rovers and there are not-so-old Land Rovers. What they had in storage is a not-so-old 1992 Land Rover Defender 110. It looks very similar to the older version Series 109 Rovers of your African safari dreams. (By the way, my grandfather actually went to Africa to teach the locals how to better raise cows. He was a successful dairy farmer, and while there he drove around in a Land Rover, so that image is based on truth, not just advertising brainwashing.) The older Series Rovers are cool, but the Defender was a later upgrade that came to the United States in the early 1990s and had coil-sprung suspensions, V-8 engines, and only slightly more refined interiors (as in still beautifully sparse and rugged). So when the Rover folks told me they had this 110 sitting idle I jumped at the chance to take it for an adventure.
The driver’s seat of the 1992 Land Rover Defender 110 is a cramped little place with a great view. The Defenders seemed to be designed more for right-hand drive countries (like Britain) because with the steering wheel moved to the left-hand side the cockpit gets extremely tight. The fact that you almost have to open the driver’s window and hang your arm out to get enough personal space will make claustrophobes uncomfortable, but the large flat windows gives excellent visibility so you don’t feel too confined.
The Defender 110 has a coil link suspension. The axles are actually quite narrow, and the tall skinny truck on tall skinny BFGoodrich Mud-Terrains can feel a bit tippy weaving along mountain roads. Plus, we added a James Baroud rooftop tent for a nice place to sleep (and an even more adventurous look if that is possible), which definitely didn’t help the body roll issue.
Under the hood of this 110 is a 3.9L aluminum V-8 that feeds an automatic transmission and full-time transfer case. Fuel economy isn’t great, and neither is off the line acceleration, but the engine chugs along and gets you there eventually. The automatic wasn’t original (all U.S.-spec Defender 110s had five-speed manuals), and the engine was actually swapped in after an earlier one gave up the ghost. In fact, this was a very early Defender 110 brought to the U.S. for engineering tests and to determine whether it would live in the U.S. market, so it earned roughly 100,000 miles in a year of crisscrossing the states.
Driving a Defender 110 requires you to change your perspective on things. It’s not really fast so you can’t be in a rush, but it’s very capable so you need to make time to explore with it. Plus, people see the square styling and factory external safety cage work and love to stop and talk about it. You could be going for groceries and people would assume you had just crossed the Amazon and made a breakfast of crocodile eggs and cactus syrup pancakes earlier that morning because you’re in a Defender. The full-time 4-wheel drive and upfitted ARB Air Lockers meant snowy mountain roads were hard to ignore. The front winch bumper and Warn 8274 meant we were in good hands if we ran out of talent.
The Defender 110 is on many of our bucket lists to own, but prices on used ones are only going up. They look cool, and as such we always wanted to test one out. After driving one for a week we can say we still want one to own. Sure, it’s a bit slow, less than spacious, and kind of funky (the key goes in the left side of the steering column?!), but it’s very capable off-road and very unique. There is a fair bit of aftermarket support to modify these rigs, and if you’re not in a major rush it could take you around the world.
The Land Rover Defender and the Jeep Wrangler are both very similar in package size and styling, and in the next few years both will be reworked. The Defender hasn’t been available in the USA since 1997, and only 500 of the 110 models (longer wheelbase, four doors, only offered in white) were ever offered for sale in the U.S., all sold in 1993. After that, Land Rover offered the shorter, two-door Defender 90. Due to a lack of required safety items like airbags and Land Rover’s switch to a more upscale vehicle lineup, the automaker hasn’t had as rugged a vehicle for the U.S. market, but rumors are that this will change with the new Defender. Of course, the sparse number of 1993 110s means their value has skyrocketed, but because the Defender model ran from 1983 up to 2015 in the rest of the world many U.S. Rover enthusiasts have imported foreign-spec trucks.
Look at this guy. It’s pretty obvious he is going on an adventure, even with two little dogs, his bright red Back to the Future jacket, and aviator sunglasses, you can tell he’s an outgoing guy looking for his next mountain to climb because he’s standing in front of a Defender 110 .