While we eagerly await a completely new Land Rover Defender, it doesn’t take much to rekindle our nostalgia over the bare-knuckled brawn of the original, which was introduced overseas in 1983 but had roots in the original Series I Landie of 70 years ago. A recent short drive of a re-engineered version, the Defender Works V8, celebrating Land Rover’s 70th anniversary, reminded us of all that this handsome brute can be while serving up a surprise under the hood: a modern V-8 and an eight-speed automatic transmission.
The Defender was last offered in the United States in 1997 and has been out of production, period, since early 2016. But now the company’s Land Rover Classic operation chooses primo used vehicles to restore and upfits them with new, factory-original (or better, in this case) components. Carefully chosen off-the-shelf components for this edition include a naturally aspirated 5.0-liter Jaguar Land Rover V-8, an eight-speed ZF-sourced automatic transmission, and upgraded brakes. The traditional live-axle layout remains but benefits from a handling kit that includes new springs, dampers, and anti-roll bars. It adds up to some youthful vigor within the chiseled, handsomely weathered shell. Since Land Rover itself recalibrated everything—the Defender 110 Works V8 we drove was a 2015 model—the bonus is that the powertrain mapping plays nicely with the traction control, and everything simply works. And as we found out in a recent short drive of the Works V8, the transplants go a long way toward improving performance without messing with the magic.
The new engine’s 399 horsepower and 380 lb-ft of torque are enough to make the Defender Works V8 the most powerful (and quickest) Defender ever created by Land Rover itself. According to the brand, it can sprint to 60 mph in just 5.6 seconds. That’s for the shorter 90, although we drove the somewhat longer and heavier 110—the designations refer to the wheelbase in inches. In all, it’s quite an improvement over the former Buick/Rover gasoline V-8 (which made 182 horsepower and 233 lb-ft of torque) and four-speed automatic transmission, the last combination that was offered in the United States. When we tested one in 1997, we were awestruck by the Defender 90’s off-road chops but saw it as compromised for the pavement and “about as sophisticated as a claw hammer.” On that 550-mile trip, this correspondent found it was barely able to keep up with American freeway speeds.
With this transplant, the Defender has a punchiness that it never had in production form—especially if you don’t count the diesels sold in other regions—as well as quick, decisive downshifts and strong passing power. The Jag V-8 sounds the part, too, settling in to a nice thrum at idle and emitting a baritone note on harder acceleration that feels like a a counterpoint to the brashness.
In many other respects, the experience is that of a vintage SUV. It’s a long step up into the Defender, and the driver’s-seat accommodations are tight; there’s not much legroom in front, so taller drivers (like this one) need to splay their legs to the sides and find themselves close to the windshield header as well as the lower rim of the steering wheel. The view outward is excellent, however, and you always have a good lay of the land in terms of where the corners and fenders are. Compared with modern vehicles, its gauges are very low in the line of sight, but they’re big, round, and analog.
Outside of the engine and transmission, there remain plenty of reminders that this actually is effectively a vintage truck. There’s some play in the steering and wander on center that takes some getting used to, as does the full-body waggle when you stomp your right foot down, but it’s easy to embrace the level of communication you receive through the steering wheel from the knobby all-terrain tires.
Prices start at about $210,000, but even if you’re flush with cash and connections, you can’t get one of these in the United States. For now it’s available via Land Rover Classic only in the U.K. and in Middle East and North Africa (MENA) markets. European countries are handled on a case-by-case basis. The plan at this point is to build just 150 copies of this version.
The next Defender will no doubt deliver a very different kind of on-road (and off-road) experience, along with loads of modern comforts that this Land Rover—the Land Rover to many—never had. Yet for a vehicle that essentially began its life as a farm implement, it has come a very long and very charming way.