Deciding Which Vehicle
Having decided to do an overland expedition, one of the first tasks was choosing a suitable vehicle. I initially thought I may purchase a vehicle in the US and store it there, so began looking at options there. I soon came across the Sportsmobile 4×4, a Ford E350 van converted for off road use and fully kitted out for camping. The Ford E350 van is extremely common within the US so there is easy access to parts and service. However, I suspect that would not be the case in Europe and Asia, so it probably isn’t a good choice for the trip I am planning.
My thoughts then turned to the iconic Land Rover Defender. Land Rover prices in the US are very high but there is a huge availability of them at much better prices in England. There is also a substantial support network within the UK and the vehicle is well established throughout the world, so access to parts and support should be possible in many European and Asian countries. I began to visit Land Rover websites and forums and purchased several back issues of Land Rover Monthly magazine to learn more about these vehicles. I soon learned that the Defender 110 or 130 models with the 300Tdi engines were the most suited to overland travel. The 300 Tdi engines were fitted to UK models during the 1990’s but continued to be fitted to export models after that. These diesel engines don’t have an ECU and don’t require a laptop to diagnose problems. As such, they are more likely to be repairable by a bush mechanic anywhere in the world. I began to focus on the Land Rover Defender as the vehicle I needed for the job.
Whilst standard Land Rovers are built for off-road use, they can be adapted to be better suited to the extreme conditions that are likely to be encountered on an overland expedition to countries with poor or non-existent roads. Vehicles also need to be suitably equipped if they are to serve as both transportation and living space for several months. I soon realised that expedition modifications cost significantly more than the base vehicle itself. Now the research began on the types of modifications that are often made to Defenders for expedition purposes.
I began looking for suitable vehicles and found two that caught my eye. A former Paris-Dakar support vehicle was listed on e-bay by its owner, Peter Vallender. It was prepared to a high standard and seemed to have every piece of kit that I might need. A second expedition-ready vehicle was listed for sale by Nene Overland. This vehicle had already travelled through Australia and Africa. Both vehicles were listed for sale for around 25,000 UK pounds.
The staff at Nene Overland were very helpful (Andrew Harrison-Smith and Kevin Mackman) as I considered purchasing one of their vehicles. However, special mention must go to Peter Vallender who provided a great deal of information to assist me in deciding what I needed in a vehicle – even if that meant that I didn’t purchase his. Peter was extremely helpful and provided some focus for me on selecting appropriate modifications for a Land Rover.
Realising that I needed to learn more about Land Rovers and expedition modifications, I bought several books on the subject. The two books that I found to be of most value were ‘Overlander’s Handbook’ by Chris Scott and ‘Vehicle-Dependent Expedition Guide’ by Tom Sheppard. Perhaps the key point that I learned from both of these books was to keep the weight of the vehicle to a minimum and keep the weight as low to the ground as possible. This advice helped me to decide that I would not have a roof rack or a roof-tent on the vehicle. Of course, I learned much more from these books and I was able to fine-tune my specification list for my vehicle.
I should also say that the books suggested that a Toyota Land Cruiser HJZ75 Troop Carrier would be a better vehicle for overland expeditions than a Land Rover. However, whilst these vehicles are common in Africa and Australia, they are hard to find in England or the US. Due to the lack of availability of the ‘Troopie’, I decided to stick to the plan to buy a Land Rover.
Land Rover Defender – The First Attempt
Having fine-tuned my spec-list, I realised that the expedition-ready vehicles that I had been considering had modifications that I didn’t need, or didn’t have some things that I wanted. If I bought one of them, I would still need to modify it further to suit my needs. Further, whilst these vehicles were appointed to a high standard, they had already undertaken expeditions so the equipment had already been subjected to some degree of wear and tear. At that point, I decide to enquire into the cost of having a vehicle custom built to my own specifications. I e-mailed my spec-list to three companies to obtain a rough quote, including Patterson Off-Road located in Hartlepool (something that I later came to regret).
Within a couple of days, owner Colin Patterson made contact and we commenced a series of regular e-mails in which we discussed the possibility of Patterson’s undertaking a custom build for me. I was impressed by Colin’s prompt and helpful communication (but that communication dried up rapidly after he got the job). Colin explained that all of their vehicles are fully refurbished and are fitted with a new galvanised chassis and are repainted, inside and out. He was happy to discuss my suggestions for expedition modifications and he was able to provide a very competitive quote for a custom build that would include all of my required modifications. The complete custom build, with a new chassis and a reconditioned engine, would still cost less than the 25,000 pound asking price for the two vehicles I had been looking at. Also, as I’m located in Bermuda and can’t just pop over to the UK to inspect potential vehicles, having a vehicle totally rebuilt removed my concerns that I could be buying a base vehicle with problems. On 30th July, 2011, I decided to get the vehicle custom built by Patterson Off Road (a very bad decision, unfortunately).
Patterson Off-Road sourced a base vehicle for me. We opted for a 1990 Defender 110 and decided to fit the base vehicle with a new galvanised chassis, a new bulkhead, a reconditioned 300TDi engine and gearbox and all of the goodies on my spec list to prepare it for the overland expedition in 2014.
Then, in October 2011, following further discussions we decided to adjust the vehicle specs and switch to an older 200TDi engine. They have a reputation for being more reliable than the 300TDi which is an important factor to consider when taking the vehicle half-way around the world. Plans to ‘lift’ the suspension by two inches and fit aftermarket suspension and anti-roll bar were also shelved in favour of using Land Rover parts that can readily be replaced from LR dealers around the world.
The adjusted spec list for the build was as follows:
Insulation and soundproofing to bulkhead (engine bay side) and interior walls and roof
New Land Rover suspension all round
Heavy duty half-shafts and drive flanges
Heavy duty steering rods
Fuel tank guard
Sill protectors and rock sliders
Lamp guards (front and rear)
Front bull bar with winch (either T-Max or Goldfish TDS 12000)
NAS rear bumper
Spare wheel carrier on rear door
Window grilles on side/rear windows
Wing top strengtheners
Bonnet top strengthener
External roll cage
Snorkel raised air intake and extended breather kit with upgraded air filter or a Donaldson pre-filter
Wolf steel wheels (with larger valve stems so that they can take tubeless tyres)
Upgraded brake pads (EBC Red Stuff)
Rear brakes upgraded to disc brakes and braided brake hose all round
Additional fuel tank in rear wing
Air conditioning (Red Dot R2000)
Upgraded door locks
Cubby box between front seats
Stereo system with multiple speakers
Fridge/freezer behind front passenger seat (Engel MT45)
Additional Optima battery with battery management and T-Max split charge system
Jerry cans of water secured in rack behind driver’s seat (4-6 20 litre cans)
Lockable foam-lined storage box behind front seats (centred) for cameras, laptops, etc. Fold-down third seat, side-facing with lap-belt in area next to jerry-cans
Cooking stove (2-burner with grill – propane) – mounted on rear door
Mounting bracket for propane cylinder (15kg) – located outside vehicle at rear
Power inverter (12v to 240v)
Storage system (drawer system at base with storage boxes above with rows of securing cleats)
Interior L.E.D. lighting
Solid sleeping base above storage area from rear of vehicle to behind front seats (could be in sections and would also cover area with fridge, jerry cans and spare seat)
Upgraded front seats (electric controlled seats from a Peugeot car)
Insect screening on sun roof and inside rear sliding windows
Diesel powered heater (Webasto)
Roof mounted solar panel for battery charging (150 watt)
Air compressor (T-Max) recreational 4wd type capable of 2-4cfm
Air-bag jacking system
On 2nd December 2011, I visited Colin at Patterson Off-Road in Hartlepool, England. We discussed the finer points of the vehicle specs and came to an agreement on the various outstanding points. The visit to Patterson Off-Road also allowed me to get my first look at my Land Rover. The photos below show how it looked on 2nd December before the refurbishment work commenced in earnest.
Pattersons Fail to Get the Job Done
The promised regular e-mail updates and photos from Pattersons never materialised. E-mails went unanswered. To get an update, I had to make telephone calls. The vehicle completion date was pushed back and they had cash-flow problems. Despite an agreement of 50% deposit and 50% upon completion, Pattersons sought additional funding. In hindsight, I should have refused! But, to keep the work moving, I forwarded more money (a mistake I now regret).
The vehicle was supposed to have been completed by June 2012 when we arrived to take it on its first shake-down trip to Europe. Unfortunately, I arrived and the vehicle was nowhere near ready. I was forced to rent a car for our trip to Europe. I no longer had faith in Patterson Off Road’s ability to complete the job to a suitable standard and in a reasonable time-frame. I decided to move the vehicle elsewhere to be completed. I had overpaid for the work performed to date and would have to pursue compensation at a later date.
The photos below show how the vehicle looked on 20th July 2012.
Independent Vehicle Inspection
I had the vehicle transported to Somerset where it was independently inspected to determine what work had been carried out and what was outstanding. I knew that the vehicle needed a lot of work but I wasn’t aware of how bad things were.
The inspection revealed a range of shoddy workmanship and concluded that it was far from suitable for its intended purpose. So much work would be required to bring this vehicle to the required standard that it would not be financially viable. I realised that the only rational way forward was to purchase another vehicle and try to salvage some of the parts from this vehicle. What could not be salvaged would be sold and I would have to initiate proceedings to get a refund from Pattersons (who had since closed down the business).
Land Rover Defender County Station Wagon – A Fresh Start
In November 2012, having made the decision to start fresh with a new base vehicle, I was very fortunate to have the expert assistance of David Lovejoy in Somerset. David writes a regular column in Land Rover Monthly magazine and has helped me with advice previously. Familiar with my plight, David quickly provided me with more advice and also knew of an unmolested County Station Wagon that was available. The photos looked good and David agreed to inspect the vehicle for me.
The 1993 Land Rover Defender 110 200Tdi County Station Wagon (CSW) was in great shape and was in original condition with the exception of a stainless steel exhaust, a swing-away rear wheel carrier and a Kenlowe fan that had been fitted to replace the standard fan. There were a couple of issues with the vehicle but the seller agreed to fix those before the vehicle was sold. The CSW got a big ‘thumbs up’ from David and I agreed to buy it.
I bought the vehicle from Sam Storey in Devon, operationg as Millin Trading. Sam acquires and sells Land Rovers and, according to David, he has a knack for finding good ones! Sam can be contacted by e-mail at email@example.com
Vehicle Specs – Second Time Around
With a new base vehicle acquired, the next task was to equip it for overland travel. Most of the work was done by Causeway 4×4 located in Somerset – a garage that came highly recommended by David.
This time around, I followed David’s recommendations very closely to ensure that the vehicle was appropriately kitted out. Some items were transferred from the first Defender, whilst the rest have been purchased from various suppliers. The specs for the vehicle are as follows:
- Additional fuel tank (rear right wheel arch)
- Rock sliders
- Security window grilles
- Underbody protection (diff guard, steering guard, sump guard)
- Two new Optima batteries (one yellow top and one red top)
- Clim-Air wind deflectors
- Pair of new Exmoor Trim front seats (other seats removed)
- Coolant alarm
- Remove Kenlowe fan and install a standard fan, thermo couple, shroud and new radiator
- New set of black steel modular wheels fitted with Continental Cross Contact tyres
- Bearmach snorkel
- Engel MT45 fridge/freezer
- Storage area behind passenger seat (for jerry cans of water)
- Raptor cubby box between front seats
- Roof-mounted GB-Sol solar panel with Morningstar MPPT regulator
- X-Eng winch grade split charge system
- Noise Killer full soundproofing kit
- Raptor dash console to hold stereo and a bank of 12-volt cigarette lighter sockets, USB sockets, TIM oil pressure and boost gauges
- X-Eng security items: pedal box lock, gear stick lock, ignition barrel shield
- Heavy-duty drive flanges
- Super Pro bushes
- New suspension: OE springs and Bilstein gas shocks
- Fit an adjustable ball joint to the A frame
- Rear bumperettes
- Rear LED worklight and interior LED lights
- Re-wire headlights to separate relays
After months of frustration with the previous vehicle and Pattersons, it was such a pleasure dealing with Causeway 4×4. They have done a great job preparing the vehicle and I am happy with the work that they have done.
Here are some photos of the vehicle at the time of purchase.
Photos of the completed Defender
Review of Vehicle Performance
I’ve now been back from my big trip for two months and one of the questions I am frequently asked is whether I experienced any mechanical issues. I’m pleased to say that my 21 year-old Land Rover Defender performed very well over the 23,000 miles that we covered in 5.5 months. There were no major mechanical issues, although there were a few minor issues that had to be dealt with.
The first issue arose on my first day on the European continent. As I was driving along a German autobahn at night, my headlights suddenly went off. Fortunately, I was able to make it to a nearby parking area where I slept for the night. The problem was a defective multi-switch on the high beam/indicator lever. I had a new one fitted in Berlin that solved the problem.
On the morning after the headlights went out, the low-coolant warning light began flashing. I’d had an after-market low-coolant warning system installed that activates a light on the dash. The coolant level was fine, but there was a short circuit that was causing the light to come on periodically. Trying to trace the short in the circuit would be a nuisance whilst on the road, so I ignored the warning light for the rest of the trip and checked coolant levels as part of my daily checks.
Two problems in the first two days was a bad start to the trip. The next problem arose in Lviv, Ukraine, two weeks into the trip. The primary battery was dead one morning, as I was about to drive to Kiev. The Defender had two Optima batteries installed – one as the primary battery and a second to operate the fridge. The primary battery would charge up whilst the vehicle was running and would show a good level of charge on the battery meter but, after being parked for more than eight hours, the battery would be dead. Fortunately, I could use jumper cables between the leisure battery and the primary battery to get the vehicle started in the morning. Five days later, in Saratov, Russia, I had the local ‘battery doctor’ test the battery. He told me that the battery was fine and suggested that the problem was the alternator (he was wrong). A couple of days later, I was in the larger city of Samara where I was able to buy a new battery. Once I installed the new battery, I didn’t have another problem with vehicle starting. It turns out that the Optima batteries are known to have an issue with ‘false memory’ where the battery thinks it is fully charged but isn’t, and then quickly discharges.
One month into the trip, in Yekaterinburg, Russia, I had the oil changed at a local ‘Auto Master’ service centre (I had driven 4,652 miles on the trip at that point). Immediately after that oil change, the after-market TIM oil pressure gauge became defective. The gauge worked whilst the oil was cold but as soon as it got hot, the gauge dropped off to a zero reading. The gauge remained that way for the rest of the trip and is now being repaired/replaced.
Six-weeks into the trip, I had the Defender serviced in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, as it was the last large city I’d visit for a while. The engine oil wasn’t changed as they didn’t have oil of the correct viscosity (they didn’t have 15-40 or 10-40 available). However, fluids were changed in the gear box, transfer box and differentials. The rear wheel bearings were also adjusted.
Two-months into the trip, I lost the cap from the heavy-duty flange on one of the rear wheels. I assume that it wasn’t tightened properly during the service in Mongolia. I ordered one from the UK and had it shipped to a hotel in Almaty, Kazakhstan, that we’d visit a week later. The part arrived on schedule and was fitted.
Whilst in Almaty (11,882 miles into the trip), I took the vehicle to a garage for an oil change. The mechanic found water in the transfer box and both differentials – obviously from the multiple water crossings that I had to drive in Mongolia – so I had those fluids changed using the 6 litres of EP90 fluid I had onboard. EP90 is hard to find in Central Asia, as is semi-synthetic oil with 15-40 viscosity, so it is worth carrying a supply of both on the vehicle. Fortunately, I also carried a supply of oil filters and fuel filters with me. Local garages will do the oil change if you have an oil filter, but they will refuse if you don’t have one.
By 15th June (2.5 months into the trip), the secondary (Optima) battery acquired the same problem that I’d experienced with the primary battery. The battery would be fine during the day but it would be dead by morning. The battery was only operating the fridge so I decided not to try to replace it and I managed with the defective battery for the rest of the trip. It has now been replaced with a new (non-Optima) battery.
Whilst in Jalal-Abad, Kyrgyzstan (on 20th June), I had a young local mechanic check the vehicle to find the source of an annoying ‘ringing’ noise that had been evident for a few weeks. After driving down the road with him ‘under the bonnet’ listening to the engine, and then driving back and forth over him whilst he lay on the ground, the noise was traced to the disc hand-brake. Once the handbrake was adjusted (tightened) the noise vanished. The noise returned later in the trip and a quick adjustment of the handbrake resolved it again.
Whilst I was in Kyrgyzstan, the fuse for the electrical circuit for the horn and dashboard clock kept blowing. After replacing the fuse a couple of times, I realised that there must be a short circuit on the circuit. I took a look at the wiring inside the dash and also had it checked at a garage but couldn’t find the fault. As the clock and horn were not critical, I completed the rest of the trip without them and scheduled it for repair once the vehicle was back in England.
I also caused some minor damage to the rear offside panel whilst in Jalal-Abad, whilst reversing out of a hotel parking area. As I was reversing, I was negotiating past a light pole but I didn’t see a long bolt that was attached to the pole. The bolt caused a long crease down the body panel. The panel is being repaired and repainted in England.
On 8th July, the Defender got its last service of the trip in Kiev after driving 15,579 miles on the trip. The service included new oil, oil filter, fuel filter and air filter. Two linkages were also replaced on the rear swing-arm as they showed excessive movement. From this point onwards, almost all of the driving would be on paved roads.
A week later I had to replace a blown headlight bulb and later in the trip I had to wire-in a new connector in the same headlight but the last two-months of the trip were incident free with respect to the vehicle.
Throughout the trip, I followed a daily check-list keeping an eye on things like fluid levels, fan belt, tyres, lights, etc. I re-greased the prop shafts every week and adjusted the fan belt a few times during the trip.
Whilst there were several minor issues to deal with on the trip, there were no major issues. There were no breakdowns and I didn’t even get a punctured tyre during the entire trip. I had the spare wheel on the back and also had an air-compressor on board as well as a ‘tyre-plugga’ kit. I only used the air-compressor a couple of times – to top up the tyre pressures. Prior to the trip, people asked me if I was going to take two spare wheels with me. That would have been such a waste of space and an unnecessary addition of weight.
I was very happy with the set-up of the Defender. She performed beautifully when driving off-road and her sure-footedness instilled me with confidence. I think part of that was down to a good suspension set-up using LR springs and Bilstein shocks.
I was particularly glad that I’d had the interior changed to include a sleeping platform with mattresses, as there were a number of occasions when they came in handy. I slept in the back of the vehicle several times when the terrain was unsuitable for camping, or when the weather was bad and it was just easier to stay dry inside the vehicle. One day I was driving and started to feel quite sleepy. I found a shaded lay-by on the side of the road, parked and just climbed into the back where I slept for an hour in comfort. Once refreshed, I continued driving. It was also nice to be able to pull out the six-inch memory foam mattress for use inside the tent. Who said sleeping inside a tent has to be uncomfortable?
I had considered fitting a winch to the front bumper before the trip and decided against it. I’m happy with that decision. There was perhaps only one occasion when a winch might have been helpful – when I got bogged down in mud in Russia – but there were only thin beech trees in the vicinity to use as anchor points, so I’m not sure the winch would have helped. Not having a winch saved on weight and expense. I took a hand-winch with me but I didn’t really need that either.
If I were to take the Defender on another overland trip, there isn’t much that I would change. I probably wouldn’t take the hand-winch. I wouldn’t carry as much water on board. I’d consider taking some decent waffle boards or track mats for muddy conditions. However, there are no immediate plans for another overland trip.
I’m now unable to get UK vehicle insurance as a non-resident. I have considered the option of moving the Defender to France and registering/insuring it there but, with no overland trips on the horizon I’ve decided to sell the vehicle. It has been serviced and all of the above problems are being taken care of. I hope that she’s going to provide someone with as many great memories as she’s given me. A wonderful vehicle indeed!
With the adventure completed, I found myself unable to get insurance for the Defender in England. Having considered my options, I listed the vehicle for sale. A young man bought the Defender with plans on taking her to Australia. Hopefully she will enjoy more adventures.