Two-Letter Defender: An LS-Powered Land Rover that goes as good as it looks
Beav Brodie, owner of Fortified Customs in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, had a customer bring him a ’94 Land Rover Defender 90 and a specific request. “The owner wanted to maintain the Defender look without making it flashy or overly customized. Not caring about the exterior imperfections, he wanted it to haul ass and be like new on the inside,” Beav says. Thus began a complete buildup of the Defender, the centerpiece being the installation of a GM 5.3L V-8 engine.
Those Gen III/IV GM small-block engine swaps are popular in part because these ’plants are reliable and well suited for performance modifications. These engines are found in many 4x4 project rigs and are available in aluminum or cast-iron blocks, and they mate to a variety of modern or older transmissions with minor modifications.
Beav estimates that he has over 200 hours into the build of this awesome Defender. That time included the engine swap, stripping the interior, and replacing many of the components, as well as installing a 2 1/2-inch suspension lift. The result is a rig that looks great, is functional both on- and off-road, and is comfortable to drive or ride in. Oh, and it’s fast, just like the owner wanted.
The goals of building up this ’94 Defender included making it “haul ass” and also making the old rig like new inside. To accomplish these goals, Fortified Customs invested about 200 hours of wrenching, which included installing a modern 5.3L V-8 engine among many other things.
The original 182hp 3.9L V-8 engine was leaky and weak. The Defender definitely deserved better, so a 5.3L pirated from a ’02 Chevy Trailblazer was fit with a throttle body from a ’98 Camaro (since the factory was a fly-by-wire) and standalone MSD Atomic LS EFI, and then it was set between the Defender’s framerails on custom urethane bushing-equipped motor mounts fabbed by Fortified Customs. As you can imagine, there were a number of mods that had to be made to fit the engine assembly into the Defender. An example is the custom brackets for items like the power steering pump and alternator. Other mods include a pair of Edelbrock LS Series Coil Covers and a custom exhaust that includes Fortified Customs-fabbed stainless steel headers, 2 1/2-inch stainless steel dual exhaust, Flowmaster muffler, and a single 3-inch-diameter tailpipe. Beav estimates that the 5.3L engine is making “upwards of 400 hp.” A custom flywheel necessitated the use of a different starter. The engine is mated to the factory R380 five-speed manual transmission via a Fortified Customs-built adapter.
Cooling the 5.3L V-8 is a custom-made Griffin radiator, and among its mods are custom bracketry that affix it to the Defender’s factory radiator mounts and also brackets to mount the factory fan shroud to the radiator. The radiator is fit with a pair of electric fans.
Air is drawn into the engine via a Vibrant Performance air cleaner housed at the end of custom intake tubing. Note the high location of the air filter at the rear of the engine bay.
Power is split to the axles via the factory LT230 T-case. It’s a durable little bugger and its offset rear output shaft works with the Land Rover’s offset rear pumpkin location. The front-and-rear offset axles is a design that goes back to WWII-era jeeps and allows you to keep an obstacle under one side of the vehicle, rather than miss the front diff and smack the rear. It’s something Land Rover copied from Jeep and carried on right through the Defender run.
The Defender’s front axle remains in stock form, but a Terrafirma All-Terrain Medium Load 2-inch suspension system is sandwiched between the axle and the vehicle. This system includes new coil springs and shocks. The steering is also factory with the exception of a Bilstein steering stabilizer.
The setup under the rear of the Defender is almost a duplicate of the front and includes the factory axle and a Terrafirma All-Terrain Medium Load 2-inch suspension system consisting of coil springs and Terrafirma shocks.
The customer wanted a like-new interior in the old rig, so Fortified Customs gutted the Defender’s cab and installed a number of new items. The inside of the tub was coated with Raptor bedliner material for easy cleanup. There is also a Tuffy console, Exmoor Trim seats, new shift knobs, new door panels, Auto Meter gauges set in a replacement instrument cluster, and a Pioneer/Memphis audio system, among other things. The interior and passengers can be protected by a bikini top procured from Rovers North.
The Defender rolls on LT285/75R16 Nitto Terra Grappler tires mounted to 7-inch-wide Terrafirma TF102 beadlock wheels.
At A Glance
Vehicle: ’94 Land Rover Defender 90
Owner: Wishes to remain anonymous
Stomping grounds: Hilton Head Island, South Carolina
Build time: 200 hours
Engine: GM 5.3L V-8
Transmission: R380 five-spd manual
Transfer case(s): LT230 two-spd
Low range ratio(s): 3.32:1 Crawl ratio(s): 39:1
Front axle/differential: Stock, 3.54 gears
Rear axle/differential: Stock, 3.54 gears
Front: Terrafirma All-Terrain Medium Load 2-inch coil springs, Terrafirma shocks
Rear: Terrafirma All-Terrain Medium Load 2-inch coil springs, Terrafirma shocks
Steering: Stock w/Bilstein steering stabilizer
Tires: LT285/75-16 Nitto Terra Grappler
Wheels: 16x7 Terrafirma TF102 beadlock
Lighting: HID headlights
Armor: Factory rocker protection and bumpers
Cool stuff: Raptor-lined body tub, Tuffy console, Exmoor Trim seats, Auto Meter gauges, Rovers North-sourced bikini top