You’ll never really know what you’ve got, it’s a hand-built car, and it does have its unique issues.
What you’re looking out for is rust. Yeah, it’s aluminium I hear you say. I know, but the chassis is steel as well as the bulkhead and the door frames on the inside. Look underneath any defender door you’ll see rust, steel and aluminium don’t like each other, they will cause oxidation at a certain point, which means the aluminium starts to disappear. Rust on the bottom of the doors is always an issue. Make up your mind about what you’re prepared to live with, I mean, all Defenders will have rust somewhere.
The other side is oil leaks. Most will, but (shock horror) not all of them leak oil! The newer ones are better in that regard because they’re less old, of course. So the odds are that you will have oil leaks on your driveway, if you can live with that great!
There are two camps in Defender land – you have the work trucks and you have trucks that are only running around the cities. And there are really cool vehicles out there, normally the clean ones are looked after well, parked inside and used sparingly. The work trucks have a hard life and you will have some issues. Be prepared for some bills in the beginning when you first get your truck, we have all been there.
I’m glad you asked! I think the starting point, the sweet spot is probably the TDI 200Tdi followed by the 300Tdi, but I may be a little biased. These have sufficient power, around 100-odd horsepower, they are sufficiently simple and therefore reliable, which is also quite important as well, when you’re considering a vehicle. You don’t want to be stranded at the garage repairing your vehicle every second week!
These engines are, however, at the beginning of the Euro emission standards and they’re not super clean, so if you’re a bit worried about your neighbours and what the Tesla drivers will think of you, you might not want to consider this option. After that, just at the beginning of the 2000s, Land Rover developed the Td5 5-cylinder engine. To many, the epitome of the Defender engine, which has good power is very tunable, has a gorgeous sound, just fantastic. The only issue with that is it can have some electronic problems which you need to be aware of.
After the Td5, Ford came along and they put the Puma engines in there, which is basically a Ford Transit engine or Ford Ranger. These are a lot more refined, they’re cleaner and have good power and good torque. You can actually cruise comfortably on the highway, and you can overtake! You can hit 140 kilometres an hour (so I’ve heard) which is quite a clip for a Landrover. However, as you are starting to gather, it is a lottery, so you need a bit of luck on all fronts.
Things to consider
Prices are all over the place. There is no sweet spot. You may be looking at a 1995 Tdi compared to a 2015 and think the Tdi should cost 7,000 and the Puma 35,000 but it may even be the opposite. You decide the price you’re willing to spend and you go and search and you see what comes up and you will be surprised how you get some really old beatup clunkers, and some that looked brand new that have been cruising the highways.
Everybody is worried that the Defender has an image of being unreliable which is probably not fair. For example, a 2015 Defender which I drove for five years and 100,000 kilometres had exactly zero defects. We replaced a pair of brake pads on the front and that’s it, it still had the original Continental A/T factory-fit tyres. No worries at all.
They are as reliable as any other vehicle considering what they get put through
We have a 1993 Tdi with a lot more miles than that, about three times the amount. It has its problems, it does leak oil and we had some issues in the beginning. I think they hold up pretty well if you think about how much action they get.
I’d add that probably the inverse of that is build quality. The original design was good, it still is good, and it hasn’t changed much for over 60 years. The biggest change is they put the coil springs under here to replace the leaves, for the rest not much has changed, right? Which says a lot about the original design.
The implementation might not have been that good, considering British industry and Industrial challenges at the time under British Leyland. There was no investment money, no budget to develop and do research -which is a real shame. So the design remained unchanged and the appearance and basic engineering have some dichotomy in that because they didn’t invest in it, they didn’t change the design, and because the design wasn’t changed, it kept its appeal.
Cost of Ownership
I do a lot of things myself. Also, I am lucky to have a garage next door which has helped me out as well, they’re not very expensive, and this helps us run it as a daily driver, our only car, in fact. The parts can also be very cheap, they don’t cost much, apart from the big ticket items like gearboxes, transfer cases, water pumps and steering boxes – those are big ones. But most of it, especially the older models, you can fix yourself, just you and a Haynes manual and you can get there on your own.
Basically, there is no spec. It’s one engine mated to one gearbox type, depending on the year. You didn’t have any choice really, except for the colour. But what you can have is air conditioning, which in the newer models is quite cool because the dash has changed, and there aren’t any ventilation flaps anymore. In the old dashboard, the air conditioning vents are at knee height, which kind of cramps your already-cramped seating position.
Electric windows which were available on the newer models, actually are quite handy, and then you can have central locking, that’s about it. So you really don’t have to worry about looking for the right spec, because all the Defenders are basically the same. You have different wheels, you can have bull bars and all of that stuff put on. If I were you, I’d look for a bog-standard Defender, be it a 90, 110 or a 130 which hasn’t had too much done to it. If it is still fairly standard, it gives you a nice base to work from and a lot of people who do their own repairs actually improve the vehicle because the vehicle becomes more reliable than it was leaving the factory!
Go for it
What I wanted to say, in a roundabout way, is go for it, man. Get out there. Get yourself a Defender, you won’t regret it. You will have some bills in the beginning, but that’s just part of the character-building between you and the friendship with your vehicle. If you were wondering if it is a viable daily driver, then I’ll put your mind to rest by saying that we’ve had our Defender as our only vehicle for over ten years. Yes, there can be a couple of issues, but that’s true of any make, even Toyota. There’s also a huge community out there, parts are cheap to source, it has unmatched character and the styling has remained unchanged forever.
It is potluck, after all. Look out for some rust and be happy with a couple of bills. If you like a nice mechanical vehicle, very basic, then this is the one for you!