1997 West Coast Defenders Land Rover Defender 90 First Drive
1 June 2016
Land Rover ceased Defender production on January 29, 2016. The English automaker made more than two million of that most English of trucks over 68 years. Most of those Defenders were built practically by hand; the Defender assembly line was the quietest corner of Land Rover's Solihull factory because human beings did much of the work. Soaring sales after Land Rover announced the end of production drove the automaker to extend production for a month.
Now that the Defender is no more, soaring public demand is driving thefts up by 69 percent. Having spent a day in a 1997 90-Series Defender prepared by West Coast Defenders, we understand the clamor. The bygone model is the bouncing ball of off-road vehicles – simple, ancient, fun, and very good at its intended purpose.
Like champagne, ivory soap, and the microwave oven, accident and serendipity helped create West Coast Defenders (WCD). Founder Matthew Perlman, a Chicago native, says he's always been a Land Rover fan – his first car was a used Range Rover Classic. Not long after Perlman bought his first Defender, one of his friends asked to buy it. When Perlman bought a second Defender as a replacement, another friend pleaded to buy that one. Sensing opportunity, Perlman flew to London to survey the Defender market. He liked what he saw, and WCD was born.
Perlman's company provides turnkey services for Defender seekers. Once a customer fills out the wish list – 90 or 110 Series; hardtop, convertible, or pickup – WCD locates the appropriate vehicle, which could be anywhere in the world. WCD occasionally finds a worthy Defender in the US, but Perlman said international markets contain a broader selection of vehicles at least 25 years old (making them eligible for importation to the US), and in better overall shape. Even so, Perlman said his five scouts only buy 20 percent of the Defenders they look at, because WCD is finicky about sourcing a rest-free, quality chassis.
No matter where WCD finds the Defender, the truck's first stop is the company workshop in Somerset, England. There, veteran Land Rover mechanics tear it down to the chassis, conduct a 230-point inspection, and fix everything that needs repairing. When the mechanics reassemble the truck they replace all the nuts, bolts, and rubber seals on the body, put sound dampening material inside the B-pillars and rear quarter panels, and attach steel rocker-panel guards on vehicles that don't already have them. WCD performs this routine with two to three Defenders per month before shipping the trucks to the Port of Los Angeles.
In L.A., West Coast Defender upgrades the trucks to the company's basic luxury spec, which includes LED headlights and taillights, a backup camera, power windows and door locks, and a stereo head unit with navigation and Bluetooth. Standard colors are black, white, silver, and gray, but any custom color is available for an additional sum. The outfitter offers a choice of three different heated leather seats – sport, or cross-stitched or piped leather – depending on whether the owner plans to spend most of his time on-road or off. Those are the kinds of modern conveniences the Defender has eschewed, and Perlman said Defender purists occasionally chide him over his work.
The upgrades smooth the truck's roughest historic edges, but a piped leather driver's seat maintains touchpoints from a distant automotive past: an early 1980s dash cluster, plastic stalks and switchgear from the seventies, oddly placed temperature controls, the massive black plastic center tunnel, the row of vents at the bottom of the instrument panel that blows air on the steering wheel and on your lap. The no-nonsense, pugilist exterior lines and throwback interior are why Classic Car Driver in 2014 called this Land Rover "the only remaining 'classic car' that you can still buy fresh from the showroom." The Washington Post had harsher words, calling the Defender "an ergonomic disaster" and "Ugly. Period." We like the truck. The Defender is a brute, but a really good looking one if you have a thing for two-story gray brick.
The 1997 Defender 90 we drove is one of Perlman's personal vehicles (hence the unrepaired dings in the body). Proof of the truck's timelessness is that none of the Defender's admirers had any idea how old it was. We got caught up in parking lot interviews every time we ran an errand. When we told people this Defender is 19 years old, the universal response was, "Really?!" Some of the questioners, perhaps dubious, would then ask, "Can I see inside?" That view erased all doubt.
The US-spec 4.0-liter V8 – an ancient engine tracing its roots back to the all-aluminum Buick 215 V8 first sold in 1961 – belts out 182 horsepower and 233 pound-feet of torque. With help from a four-speed heavy-duty ZF transmission, the torque keeps the Defender in the mix with stop-and-go city traffic. When merging onto highways, though, the Defender will get you to your desired speed, but acceleration is better measured with an egg timer rather than a stopwatch.
The 1960s motor inside the barely evolved 1940s body makes for vintage levels of NVH. Around town the V8 drone and tire hum create relentless background music inside the cabin. On the highway at 70 miles per hour – about as fast as the Defender wants to go even though the speedo is marked to a little beyond 110 – it's hard to speak over the wind noise, engine howl, and roaring Cooper Discoverer rubber.
The Defender isn't made for the road, though, and that statement is no excuse or exaggeration. When brothers Maurice and Spencer Wilks – both Rover car company employees – invented the original truck in the 1940s, they envisioned "a Rover for the land." In this case, "land" meant every wild and unpaved corner of the world. For 42 years the Wilks' creation went only by the name "Land Rover" followed by 90 or 100, denoting the wheelbase in inches. The company coined the Defender moniker in 1990 to differentiate it from the Discovery.
We found a small corner of Defender heaven in an off-road vehicle area near the West Fork San Gabriel River, outside of Los Angeles. Nothing among the giant dry river bed, scrub, sandy uphill loops and soft, wide sand bars would truly challenge the truck, but we played with the Defender as if it were a rambunctious puppy let loose at the dog park. The suspension, noticeably soft on the road, found its sweet spot between articulation and body control.
The Defender doesn't possess the preternatural smoothness of the Mercedes G-Class; nevertheless, it gets the off-road job done without beating up its occupants. (WCD installs stiffer springs and dampers for customers who plan to spend most of their time on the road.) Gun the throttle, and the previously intrusive engine noise becomes a pleasure as we chuck it up and down hills, hurtle over whoops, and throw sand everywhere. We never touched four-wheel low. The toughest situation we encountered was pulling a Jeep Grand Cherokee out of some deep sand, and even that was easy. The Jeep couldn't be faulted for getting stuck, though – neither the Jeep driver nor her teacup Chihauhua belonged in the soft sand.
Having someone source a Defender from somewhere in the world then spend roughly seven months rebuilding it, upgrading it, and importing it isn't cheap. Perlman said prices begin about $90,000, which covers a standard suite of upgrades like leather seats, the LED lighting, air conditioning, navigation, and power accessories. Compared to what these trucks sell for on the US open market, though, that's not a bad price. The NADA guide puts average retail for a stock 1997 Defender at $55,300, high retail at $88,800. Autotrader lists plenty of Defenders around $90K and above that don't include any of the perks WCD installs.
Before WCD performs its alchemy on the unique and charming beast that is the Defender, the truck is archaic, crude, and hugely proficient and fun in the muck. After WCD works it over, the Defender is all of those things with added leather, comfort, and convenience – and worth every penny.