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1996 Land Rover Discovery 300TDI Iceland - Have You Driven A Fjord Lately?

Posted in Project Vehicles on September 1, 2009
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Photographers: John Noble

Can you imagine spending a small fortune building your dream monster truck, only to find out you hate driving it when it's finished? That's exactly what happened to Chris Steel. He forked out--wait for it--32,000 (about $50,000 U.S.) modifying his Defender 110 but was underwhelmed with the result. Like most Land Rover modifiers, Chris had a particular goal in mind. "Six years ago, I went on a fantastic fly-and-drive holiday to Iceland, where I drove a big Defender on huge tires. After that, I wanted one of my own," Chris says.

When he got home, he sold his P38 Range Rover and plowed that mountain of cash into modifying his 110. In March 2007, he took it and his family to Iceland to try it out. "I found out just how far short of the mark it was. I kept getting stuck because the tires were too narrow, even though they were 37 inches tall. I was once rescued by Icelandic quad bikes--very embarrassing."

By now, Chris had been transfixed by two intertwined obsessions--crossing Iceland's glaciers and building a Land Rover to do it in. Step one was buying a suitable vehicle. He wanted something more comfortable than the Defender to carry his family in, so a Discovery seemed to be the obvious choice.

"My gardener had a solid-looking 1996 300TDI Discovery auto that had done 175,000 miles. He'd owned it for seven years and agreed to sell it to me for 2500," Chris says. Before starting the build, Chris made two more trips to Iceland during 2008, picking up advice from Dassi Gardarsson and his mates in the Island Rover Club, and also from Snorri Gislason, one of the country's first builders of lifted Land Rovers. Armed with loads of photos, measurements, and advice, Chris was ready to create his very own Icelandic Land Rover.

There are two fundamentally different ways of getting 38-inch tires to fit under a Discovery. "Dassi's way is to lift the body and move the rear axle back six inches to clear the rear doors," Chris explains. "Snorri leaves the body where it is and drops the axles by moving the spring, shock absorber, and chassis mounts down. This is what I did on my 110: the massive suspension lift made it very unstable and scary to drive."

How to modify a Discovery when you don't have a garage. From left to right, below: A look at the extended body mounts that were used; the sidesteps that double as rocker guards; the 15x14 Mach 5 replacement wheels; the chopped inner fenderwell (and replacement extension); and the extended A-arm joint housing.

The advantage with Dassi's method is that the center of gravity isn't affected that much because the engine, gearbox, axles, and chassis are more or less in the same position as standard: it's just the body that's raised up on taller mounts. This is done by unbolting the 10 body-to-chassis mounts and inserting 5-inch steel tubes over the original 1-inch mounts. This gives a lift of four inches. The tubes are welded in place, and original-spec, body-to-chassis bushings are used with longer bolts. It really is that simple--at least up to this point.

Putting this much daylight between the body and chassis requires a bit of adjustment to the steering column and brake flexi-hoses: "You just slacken the pinch bolts on the steering column splined sections, do the body lift and then retighten the bolts. As you lift the body, you need to keep an eye on any cables or brackets that might snag. The brake flexi-hoses have to be swapped for longer ones: I've fitted steel-braided ones," Chris explains. That's the only change to the braking system.

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The radiator had to be repositioned four inches lower so it stayed in line with the fan. Chris fitted a plate above it to redirect air to the radiator, mounted on new brackets he'd made. "Nothing else needs making or moving. I lifted the body an inch at a time, checking as I went. It needed lifting six inches to get the body-to-chassis mounting tubes in place."

Chris has fitted a mild suspension lift, measuring just 35mm (1.4 inch) at the front and 40mm (1.6 inch) at the back: "I decided on heavy-duty Terrafirma suspension from Frogs Island 4x4, which includes a heavy-duty steering damper. On advice from Dassi, I've taken the rear antiroll bar off to improve the vehicle's articulation off-road."

Chris overhauled the axles and sent them to KAM Differentials to have four-pinion locking diffs fitted. They're lower-ratio 4.75:1 fitments--the same as you'll find on Series Land Rovers--to cope with the massive, new 38-inch tires. Apart from modified diffs and brake lines, the drivetrain is standard. The Propshaft Clinic extended the rear prop shaft and fitted wider yolks; the front prop is standard.

Riding on 38.5-inch Mickey Thompsons and KAM-fortified Salisbury axles, Chris' Disco is ready for the glaciers of Iceland. A Safari snorkel is on hand for deep-water crossings, and onboard air is always handy on any expedition rig.

With the big-budget 110, Chris paid others to build it. In the four years since, he's become a proficient DIY mechanic. "There's nothing that I don't know how to fix on Land Rovers now: I've rebuilt engines, everything. The 110 was an expensive lesson."

It wasn't all plain sailing, as Chris admits: "The Safari Snorkel raised-air intake I bought was designed for a manual, not an automatic." Sadly, Chris didn't realize this until he'd chopped a hole in the wrong place on the wing. In order to make it work, he had to relocate the airflow meter--not an easy job, but compared to his problems with the fuel tank, the snorkel was a mere trifle.

"I had a custom tank made by a great old bloke who makes stuff for racing cars. It cost 800 and it looked beautiful, but it wouldn't fit because I hadn't allowed room for the external pipes. I took it back to have the pipes cut off and a flange made and put back on after I fitted the tank." The plastic filler and breather pipes had to be bent to reach the new tank, which has a capacity of 100 liters (26 gallons), 11 more than the standard one. "I took them off, filled them with wet sand, sealed the ends, and then heated them. When they were soft enough, it was easy to bend them and the sand stopped them kinking. I learned that years ago in my plumbing days."

(From left to right) The relocated spring mounts; The stock wheel/tire combo after the lift; The extended floor supports; The stock and replacement fuel tanks (guess which is which).

Moving the rear axle back six inches meant that Chris had to extend the exhaust, using flexi-pipe for the last meter. "You'd think you could just cut the original pipe and reuse the over-axle curve section, but moving it back fouls it on the fuel tank." He also had to chop a section out of the crossmember above the axle, as the A-frame has been lengthened by six inches: rear damper and spring mounts have been moved back by the same amount. The benefit is that you avoid cutting into the rear doors, giving a neater job.

It took Chris six-and-a-half 40-hour weeks to turn a standard Discovery 1 into a genuine, Icelandic-style glacier climber. He's done a fantastic job, doing absolutely everything himself except the final welding: "I did all the prep for the welding--cutting, cleaning, and tacking things into place--and got a professional welder to do the final job."

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Despite its looks, this fab machine isn't quite finished. Chris is planning to fit an ultra-low crawler gear for creeping over soft snow at glacial speeds, and a larger intercooler and chip upgrade from Alisport. He's also looking into alternative fuels. "I'm starting a company called Hydrogen Fuel Extractors, supplying and fitting kits that extract hydrogen from water (a.k.a. Brown's Gas) and feed it into the diesel engine." There are similar systems around, and they all claim to offer better fuel combustion, economy, and power.

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