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1997 Land Rover Defender Built to Tackle the Toughest Trails In America

Posted in Features on June 20, 2018
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Land Rover Defenders are cool. They are also expensive. Last imported into the U.S. in 1997, these vehicles conjure up images of the Camel Trophy or crossing Africa with the spare tire on the hood. It is rare to spot a Defender these days, and even rarer to see one modified for hardcore trail use. Over the last 20 years Bill Ritchie’s Defender has taken many different forms, but none as capable as the current iteration, which he affectionately refers to as FrankenRover 3.0.

Version 1.0 saw a swap to a longer Defender 110 chassis and a 300Tdi engine that were imported from overseas. Version 2.0 added Unimog axles and 42-inch tires with 18 inches of clearance under the differentials. Version 3.0 ditched the portal axles, lengthened the wheelbase, and lowered the Rover significantly. Now the belly has 18 inches of ground clearance!

Bill says, “My friend KC and I built Version 2.0 to tackle Las Cruces back when I lived in New Mexico. Now that the Rover stays in Moab it has been purpose built to tackle the terrain there.”

Dirt Squirrel Fab stretched the wheelbase to 119 inches and replaced much of the body with tube, skinning the tube work to match the original Defender lines as closely as possible. The results work so well that we don’t expect to see Version 4.0 any time soon.

Bill Ritchie swapped out the underwhelming 4.0L aluminum Rover V-8 for a 300Tdi engine years ago. The 2.5L diesel has proven to be quite reliable and produces a generous amount of low-end torque. Factory specs put the engine at 111 hp and 195 lb-ft of torque, but a modified injection pump and an increase to 19 psi of boost allow Bill to easily exceed those numbers.
While much has changed over the years, the interior is still distinctly Rover. The shifters row an R380 manual transmission backed by a Rover LT230 transfer case fitted with an Ashcroft underdrive. These transfer cases have a great 3.32:1 low-range ratio, and the addition of the underdrive multiplies that by 2.69:1 when engaged, for a final crawl ratio of 138:1.
Jeff Stevens at Dirt Squirrel Fab did all of the tube work, including fabricating the aluminum bed. It holds a 15-gallon Jaz fuel cell and still has enough space for gear for a long weekend on the trail.
The Defender is plated and street legal. Although Bill lives in Washington, the Rover stays with his friend Gary Lee Fisher in Moab, so the ability to drive to and from the trail is useful. Powertec latches are used on the tailgate and hood and add an industrial look.
The front axle is a Dana 60 from a CUCV and retains the factory 4.56 gears. The front end has been fortified with Yukon 4340 35-spline chromoly axleshafts and Yukon Super Joints. The open differential was replaced with a Yukon Grizzly Locker, but steering the locked axle is a nonissue with the PSC double-ended hydraulic ram mounted on an Artec mount.
The front suspension is a three-link design with a Panhard bar to control side-to-side movement. The ADS hybrid coilover air shocks use a lightweight coil spring rate (75 over 150 lb/in) for a smooth ride, but then supplement the spring rate with oil and nitrogen, just like a normal air shock.
The rear axle is a GM 14-bolt out of a CUCV, so it came with 4.56 gears and a Detroit Locker, although the full-floating axleshafts have been upgraded to Yukon 4340 chromoly. A shave kit from TMR Customs adds ground clearance, and the RuffStuff Specialties disc brake brackets shed weight and improve stopping.
The rear suspension consists of a triangulated four-link with ADS hybrid coilover air shocks and a Currie Enterprises AntiRock sway bar. Dirt Squirrel Fab built the control arms using 2x0.250-wall DOM tubing and 1.125-inch rod ends from RuffStuff Specialties.
The Warn XD9000 winch has lived on the front of the FrankenRover through all of its iterations. The tube work surrounding the winch is new though. Dirt Squirrel Fab matched the original lines of the Defender really nicely and mounted Wisamic headlights and LED turn signals.
Rolling stock consists of sticky 39-inch BFGoodrich Krawler KXs mounted on 17x9 TrailReady HD beadlock wheels. The turbodiesel engine offers plenty of grunt to spin the big tires when necessary.

Tech Specs

1997 Land Rover Defender
Engine: Rover 2.5L 300Tdi
Transmission: Rover R380 5-speed manual
Transfer Case: Rover LT230 w/ Ashcroft underdrive
Front Axle: Dana 60 with 4.56 gears and Yukon Grizzly Locker
Rear Axle: 14-bolt with 4.56 gears and Detroit Locker
Springs & Such: 3-link with ADS hybrid coilover air shocks (front); 4-link with ADS hybrid coilover air shocks (rear)
Tires & Wheels: 39x13.5R17 BFGoodrich Krawler KXs on 17x9 TrailReady HD beadlock
Steering: PSC double-ended ram, pump, and orbital valve; Artec steering arms
Lighting: Wisamic Harley Davidson LED headlights, AutoSmart LED taillights
Other Stuff: Warn XD9000 winch, 15-gallon Jaz fuel cell, Currie Enterprises AntiRock sway bar, custom tube work by Dirt Squirrel Fab, Artec axle trusses

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