1990 Land Rover Defender 110 Station Wagon
Good Friends And Good Trucks
You make friends in this business. It's one of the best things about traveling around Europe, buying old cars and trucks. You make friends everywhere. Some of them are fleeting - acquaintances that go again as quickly as they come - but others are the kind you form a bond with, and in a modern world, with smart phone apps and social media outlets, keeping in touch is easier than ever. After a few years of doing this, I have people I consider friends in little towns and big cities from Porto to Mallorca, from Bilbao to Gibraltar, and from Brussels to Casablanca. Good people. People I can trust.
Israel (the man, not the country) is one with whom I keep in touch fairly regularly. Not every week, or even every month, but hearing from him is always a pleasure, so when my phone beeped recently with a message from his office in Sanlucar de Barrameda, I read it immediately.
"I have a car I think you will like," it said.
Barely three days later I was on the road, heading south out of Javea, running down along the coast for a couple hours before cutting west across Andalucia for the long run to Sanlucar, a beach town in the extreme southwest of Spain. It is a drive I have done numerous times, and the wide-open haul through Andalucia is one of my favorite stretches of roadway in all of Spain. On the modern Autovia, it is a straight, high-speed drive with expansive views of arid buttes and distant mountains, reminiscent perhaps of the American southwest. But if you exit the Autovia onto the smaller, older "nacional" roadways the view changes. Corners are more plentiful, and the N-roads wind you through small villages and up and through the hillsides. National parks abound in Spain, and Andalucia has some of the best, not the least of which is the legendary "Parque Nacional de Sierra Nevadas." The Sierra Nevadas are stunning mountains, and high enough that, despite their location in the hot and arid south of Spain, offer skiing in the winter months.
Regrettably, I was in too much of a hurry to meander along the nacionals, and the August sun was blazing away in particularly fierce fashion, so I stuck to the Autovia, cranked the air conditioning, and bored through the province like a 140 kp/h bullet, past Granada, Antequera, and on toward Sevilla, before bending south again toward Jerez (home of the racing circuit), and Sanlucar.
When I pulled into Israel's place, I greeted him warmly and chatted with him and his girlfriend for a bit about the heat and our lives since we last saw each other. After a bit of time, he walked me to the back of the property and showed me the Land Rover.
"Here it is," he said. "I hope your trip was worth it."
Bonatti Gray White Whale
In the wake of the recent cessation of Defender production, and the resulting outpouring of love for the model, it is often forgotten how poorly they were selling during the last quarter century of their production run. In the early 1990's, as vehicles like the Toyota Land Cruiser, Nissan Patrol and others were increasingly eating into the market share, Land Rover was struggling to sell 15,000-20,000 Defenders per year, world wide, and that includes ALL body styles, even the 130 models. Worse, many of these were fleet sales to municipalities, utility and construction companies, and the like, so very few were finding their way into private hands. Land Rover, in the early 1990's, was well and truly becoming a company focused on the vastly more popular, more modern, and more profitable Discovery and Range Rover models, and the gallant old Defender was being relegated to special-application status. As a result, four-door Defenders from this period are rare in Spain. They're rare everywhere, so when I walked through a large double-doorway and saw the Bonatti gray Defender station wagon sitting there, spotless and gleaming, I couldn't help but smile.
"That's it," said Israel, and threw me the keys.
At first glance, it looks like a later Defender. Originally Slate Grey, it was painted Bonatti Grey during the restoration, and the judicious application of diamond plate trim, later decals, and other details give it a modern, up-to-date appearance. Other details reflect the year, however, such as the unadorned steel wheels and original 1990-style interior. I like it. I have always been a fan of Bonatti Grey. I owned a Discovery II in this color in the USA, and I have immense respect for Walter Bonatti, the ground breaking Italian mountain climber for whom the color is named. To my eyes, the chrome grille is maybe too much, and I made a mental note to order a stock Defender grille, but right from the off I found myself imagining what I would do I could keep it for myself. A set of Wolf steel wheels, maybe?
I crawled underneath and poked around. No rust. Popped the hood and looked everywhere. No leaks. I cranked the engine and let it idle. A little smoke at startup, which vanishes as it warms. All very normal. The interior is clean and well kept, with just a few mars on the seat cushions here and there, but all else good. Someone really sweated the details on this truck, and it shows.
"I have to get back to work," Israel says. "Call me when you're done driving it."
It's easy to see why the four-door Defender "station wagon" is the preferred body style for most American owners. It's big, and you sit up high with a commanding view of the road, but that is true of all Defenders. You can carry a lot of gear in the back, and on the roof if necessary, but that's true of the 110 2-doors, as well. It's really only the four-door that has the ability to easily take a handful of your friends along for the ride, and that goes a long way! With no center console, this four-door seats six adults comfortably, without sticking them in folding jump seats or forcing them to spelunk past a tilted front seat to get inside. Leg room is fairly accommodating, front and rear, even for a pretty big guy like me. Gauges are clear and the ergonomics are a worthwhile advance from the Series III days. It's even reasonably quiet in the cockpit, and as I drove along, working the big gear lever, I could envision owning a Defender with a radio in it - an idea that would be laughable in a Series truck.
I pulled out onto the roadway and headed for center of town, gunning the engine and getting a feel for how it runs. This is not the 200TDi, but rather the earlier 2.5L turbodiesel (or "Diesel Turbo" in Land Rover parlance.) It's a simple powerplant, but rugged, and in terms of power it doesn't feel substantially different from the later, direct-injection 200Tdi. No Land Rover is a stoplight racer, nor meant to be, but this 2.5L Diesel Turbo is the first engine that allowed the Defender to operate in a modern context, with highway capability and acceleration that can keep up with normal traffic. I am an unabashed lover of the earlier "Series" trucks, with their unique sense of occasion, adventure and history, but... wow. The difference in usability between a Series III and a turbodiesel Defender is just night and day. The gearbox, too, is much different. Slick, modern, and relatively short of throw, it is a world apart from the "rifle bolt" action of the Series III, with its long throws and wide spacing. Both are fun, but this transmission is vastly more modern and easy to operate, and the truck itself just feels infinitely more at home on modern roadways.
Of course, the raison d'être of the Defender is not bombing down highways. Defenders exist to get their feet dirty, ford streams, climb mountains, and cross deserts. And thank goodness for that! Any highway capability in a Defender is just a little bonus, at best the means to get further afield and gain access to more adventures, not an end in itself. Alas, time constraints and logistics mean there will be no off roading on this trip, so I pulled into a suburban parking lot, engaged 4WD and low-range, and drove it through a nearby dry creek bed, for no good reason whatsoever other than just general principles. The Defender powered through with zero difficulty, clambered easily over some rocks which turned out to be much larger than they looked from the bank, and pulled itself back out again, on the other side, without ever breaking a sweat. BAM. Successful test.
Back at Israel's, we signed some paperwork and I gave him the money. After shaking hands again, I thanked him profusely for the tip and got back on the road, off to find other vehicles, hopefully as nice as this one.
Land Rovers. You gotta love 'em. They are honest, loyal, and trustworthy. Just like a good friend.
(CLICK THE IMAGE BELOW TO CYCLE THROUGH THE GALLERY)