Should I buy an old Land Rover Defender

A person on Quora inquired whether it is wise to buy an old Defender. I explained some of the main points that we look for when we buy stock.

Do people buy old Defenders?

Well, our company buys old Land Rover Defenders in order to restore them. So ignore all the naysayers and rather arm yourself with proper knowledge so that you can make an informed decision. Also, we only work on petrol Defenders so I won’t include 300tdi’s or TD5’s in my answer.

For a petrol engine, you basically have two choices – V8 (in different variants) or the South African built special edition BMW M52 2.8i Defender. Good luck in finding one of these … only 645 90’s were built and I am unsure how many 110’s.

Pro tip – we currently have a fully restored Defender 90 2.8i on our showroom, ready to be shipped to a very lucky buyer, if you are interested.

defender m52 restored by leox rovers small

But I digress…

The biggest risk

So let’s assume you will not be able to get your hands on one of these rare gems, that leaves you with a V8. The V8 is a good engine but it was designed with one big flaw – the cylinder liners move out of place over time and then the engine leaks coolant internally. This is very, very bad.

defender v8 engine being rebuilt by leoxrovers.com

This is the inside of a V8 that we opened. Behold the horror!

And rest assured that you are probably going to pay as much for the engine rebuild as you have paid for the Landy in the first place.

Top-hat liners all the way

The proper way to fix this problem is to have engineering install “top-hat” liners that are held in place by the cylinder heads. So the first question that you should ask the seller is whether this conversion has been done. If it has been done you are ticking off the biggest box on your checksheet. If not, consider whether you have the budget for an engine rebuild. Also, the guys who still know how to rebuild a Rover V8 engine are getting pretty scarce.

Compression and leak down tests

Your next port of call is to have compression and leak down tests performed. If the seller refuses, you walk away from the deal. If you don’t know what these are, allow me to explain:

Compression

The compression test consists of screwing a pressure gauge into the sparkplug holes one-by-one and the turning the engine with the starter motor. Each reading is recorded. An engine will have a published spec that you can use as a guideline but factors such as atmospheric pressure and outside temperature will affect the reading. Now, if the compression rings are worn the pressure in the cylinder will read low and this is one of the major problems that we are testing for. Also, head gasket problems and valve problems will affect readings. We won’t exactly know where the problem lies if the reading is low but we are looking for one or more cylinders that have readings that differ a lot from the others. This would indicate a problem.

Leak down

The leak down test is more specialized, needs a compressor and leak down tester and generally takes more effort to perform. The test involves pressured air to be injected into the sparkplug holes, one-by-one via the leak down tester. The tester measures how much pressure escapes from the cylinder. Chances are that a cylinder that tested low in compression will leak excessively i.e. more than 25%

The neat part of the leak down test is that you can also determine more or less where a problem is lying.

If air rushes out when you take the oil dipstick out then the air is escaping past the rings. This is bad because the rings are in the block and this will mean that the engine probably has to come out.

Air bubbles from the radiator (when you loosen the bolt) mean that somewhere the pressurised air is getting into the coolant passages. The bad news is that this can also be in the block – a cracked or shifted liner. It can also be a faulty head gasket or a crack in the head. Best case scenario here is that it is the head gasket, all the other options are really bad.

Air noise at the exhaust or the intake manifold means that the valves are probably not sealing properly. This can mean a simple valve replacement or the head has a crack (which is very bad).

If air blows out by an adjacent sparkplug hole, the head gasket is faulty. This is probably manageable.

Now bear in mind that there will almost always be some degree of leakage, especially past the rings. The engine operates on tolerances and if the cylinders sealed perfectly, the engine would seize. The art is to know how much leakage is within spec.

Wiring

Land Rovers have Lucas electronics in them and this is the bane of our existence. Lucas electronics are finicky at best. On a V8 you will probably not have the option of having fault codes read – the bulk of them (to my knowledge) don’t have ECU’s. So wiring problems are a track-and-trace exercise. If you have time, determination and patience you can do this yourself.

leox rovers land rover defender wiring

I redid the wiring on my 2.8i years ago, armed with nothing but a few basic tools and whatever knowledge I could find on the interwebs. Took me a year but I got the job done.

You are looking for wires that have chafed through, burned, got eaten by rats and most likely – DIY wiring jobs by the previous owner. Fortunately, the Defender wiring system, with all its faults, is pretty forgiving. My Landy had more than fifty potential shorts, yet it never burned to the ground. This included plenty of DIY wiring by the previous owner – it even had open wires right in the petrol tank to the fuel pump, that was burnt!

Drive train

Check for clunks, grinding noises, or the sound of gears turning. This spells trouble in the gearbox, transfer case or diffs. All of these need to be professionally tended to if there are problems. Check if the diff-lock engages. Put the truck in low range and listen for screeching noises – this can indicate worn bearings in the transfer case.

Rust

The Defender’s body is made from aluminium but that doesn’t mean that it is rust-proof. Check the entire body for “alu-worm” – a trail of bubbles under the paint. This is mostly cosmetic but can be challenging to fix.

The door frames are made of steel and are especially prone to rust on the undersides where condensation forms. Not a deal-breaker but can be challenging to fix. You will need someone who can cut out the rusted part of the frame and weld in new steel. Then some paintwork will also be required. Or you can choose to live with this.

The firewall is also steel and can rust, especially if brake fluid leaks inside the engine bay. If the rust is bad – walk away from the deal.

The chassis is the most critical area to check for rust. If the chassis is badly rusted, the truck is a no-go.

Of course, this list is not exhaustive but I feel that I have covered the most critical things to check. Good luck in your search and I hope you find the Defender that will put a smile on your face for many years to come.

Driving a Defender is a really special experience.

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