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Safari HP Turns a Crusty Defender 110 Beach Cruiser into an LS3-Powered Rocket

Photos by Matthew Jones

There are countless ways to build the perfect Defender 110; starting with a crusty beach runner isn’t usually one of them. Every once in a while, though, a bad idea makes good sense, especially when you’re effectively starting over anyway.

Stephen Peters knows the pitfalls of restoring old Land Rovers all too well. As the owner of Safari Heritage Parts in Orlando, Florida, he’s seen his fair share of ill-advised purchases and shortcut restos gone wrong, and his shop ends up on the receiving end of someone else’s shoddy work and is tasked to fix the unfixable.

So when the phone rang a little more than a year ago, and the gentleman on the other line described his ideal Defender to Peters, he found it refreshing to be speaking with someone interested in doing a proper build. With the deal done, the customer let the Safari crew find the perfect donor vehicle and turn them loose to do what they do best.

There was only one hitch: It would have to be a North American-spec 110 station wagon — no personal imports with worrisome paperwork, just a straight-up, one-of-500 collector’s item as a starting point. No big deal. The truck was going to live in New England, and the buyer wanted to make sure it would have a clean registration that would allow him to eventually sell it should his interests change.

Of all the Defender variants Land Rover has produced, the 110 station wagons are almost universally coveted for their relatively accommodating interiors, capable of carrying up to nine people, uncomfortably, if necessary. They came to the States only in 1993, and in a very limited run of just 500 units, all of them finished in Alpine White. It’s understandable why clean, original examples command more than their original MSRP today, which made it all the more challenging for Peters to come up with a suitable donor.

The islands of Nantucket and neighboring Martha’s Vineyard may be the most Defender-rich locales in all of North America. They’re apparently the trucks best suited for getting the family from the summer cottage to the beach or for bombing around between social events. They evidently look good on ferries, as well, like set dressing for a Wes Anderson film or a J. Crew catalog shoot. Needless to say, it didn’t take long to find one for sale on the islands.

The candidate was a bit of a washed-up waste. The truck had been off the road for more than a year when it was discovered. The salty and humid maritime climate had taken its toll on the vulnerable chassis as well as on the other usual suspects: the brake pipes, firewall, and footwells were all crusty. All of it would need to be replaced, but that was just fine for the project envisioned by Safari and the Defender’s new owner.

Once the truck arrived in Florida, it was assessed for salvageable parts, which were then thoroughly stripped and catalogued for later reconditioning and reassembly. The frame was a write-off, so a new galvanized unit from Marsland was ordered up, offering the assurance of a longer life the second time around. The same approach was taken for the bulkhead, which had more holes in it than the U.S. tax code. A new factory piece from a late-generation “Puma” model would replace it, at the same time eliminating the less-than-watertight cowl vents below the windshield.

In fact, as long as new parts were being ordered, Safari went ahead and arranged for a bunch of new exterior panels including doors and hinges — both victims of bimetallic corrosion — plus a Puma bonnet.

While that was underway, the mechanical team got busy on the hardware. The buyer decided to ditch the tired 3.5-liter Rover V8 in favor of something more potent and serviceable. Safari HP selected a new Chevy LS3 V8, its 6.2 liters offering close to double the displacement and nearly triple the horsepower of the old 150-hp lump. The Chevy V8 has become a popular option among Land Rover customizers because of its lightweight aluminum construction (just like factory) and ease of tuning, maintenance, and parts availability.

A mildly tuned 420-hp version of the LS3 made the most sense for this project; no sense overtaxing the mechanicals downstream. The new engine mates up to a General Motors four-speed 4L80E automatic, which feeds power to the original LT230 transfer case with the help of an adapter from Marks 4WD from Australia. By choosing the four-speed box instead of the available six-speed GM transmission, Safari was able to adapt an original Land Rover shifter without sacrificing any gearing options.

The engine and transmission run on stand-alone control modules but communicate to each other natively. Three wires from the ECU feed the factory Land Rover wiring harness — in this case a brand-new full harness from a 2016 Puma model — to make the engine and vehicle electronics fully compatible. As a point of pride, Peters tells us every wire in the engine loom is color coded to the original Land Rover wiring loom, component for component, making it possible for an experienced Land Rover technician to diagnose and repair the hybrid.

The LS3 uses all GM components for such accessories as power steering, alternator, and air conditioning, all driven by a single serpentine belt for simplicity. The radiator has been upgraded to a thicker unit to help dissipate all the heat created by the bigger engine. Safari fabricated a custom exhaust Y-pipe to help clear the frame rails, integrating a pair of high-performance catalytic converters to make sure the old Defender still plays nice with its annual emissions inspection. An aftermarket cat-back exhaust system opens up the breathing, delivering a dramatic bark at the tailpipe.

The factory axles, fully reconditioned inside and out, house the original differentials, although the half-shafts and CV joints are now beefier Ashcroft units. Heavy-duty Tom Woods driveshafts replace the Land Rover components, adding durability. Brakes are late-model factory Defender 110/130-spec vented front and rear discs. Safari chose all the engine and drivetrain hardware based on the buyer’s plans to use the Defender as a light-duty beach runner; had he prioritized rock crawling or more severe off-road driving, differentials would have been upgraded as well.

Rolling stock on the freshened Defender is 265/75-16 Goodyear Wrangler Duratrec mud terrain tires mounted on factory “sawtooth” wheels. A mild 2.0-inch lift comes courtesy of Old Man Emu springs and heavy-duty shocks.

On the road, the added punch from the bigger V8 comes through immediately. The Safari HP Defender gets up and moves.

Inside, the Puma theme continues with a fully modern — for a Defender anyway — late-model dashboard. It is hand-trimmed in black leather, but that’s not the real gem in its crown. The fully electronic instrumentation communicates seamlessly with the GM engine control harness thanks to a custom CAN-to-CAN “translator,” an electronic interpreter that takes the signals from the ECU output and converts them to Land Rover’s electro-dialect. This Defender represents the first known successful pairing of the two, allowing everything to function just as Solihull intended.

Creature comforts are sprinkled conservatively inside, staying fairly true to the vehicle’s roots. The air conditioning blows surprisingly cold air (something Americans has always done right), and there’s a modern Alpine digital receiver in the dash. Otherwise, luxury gadgets are limited to power windows for the front- and second-row passengers.

The utility-grade seating is gone, replaced up front with leather-trimmed factory Autobiography seats. The second row employs original-style Defender seats trimmed in the matching leather that also covers the pair of inward-facing benches in the rear compartment.

The outside is bound to get more attention than the interior, however. The perfect new sheetmetal abandons the de rigueur white paint in favor of a more sophisticated gray metallic hue. The Safety Devices exoskeleton roll cage is a brand-new item, of the same type originally fitted to all North American-spec Defender 110s, though the internal cage has been omitted to save space in the already tight interior.

An ARB front bumper with bull bars houses a Warn M8000-S electric winch should the Defender sink in the sand. A pair of Auxbeam 7.0-inch round LED driving lights are perched inboard of the headlights, which also feature full LED arrays for both high and low beams. On the roof rack a quartet of 7.0-inch round LED flood lights pierce the night sky like a rolling lighthouse. All the way around, in fact, LEDs have replaced incandescent and halogen bulbs, placing less stress on the electrical system while providing more than ample visibility.

The resurrected Defender won’t spend its second life entirely confined to the island. The new owner plans to use it on the mainland as well, justifying all the changes, particularly under the hood. On the road, the added punch from the bigger V8 comes through immediately. While the big tires and additional equipment do their best to tamp down the fun, the Safari HP Defender gets up and moves. Power comes on strong and smooth from the naturally aspirated lump; the whine of a supercharger is not missed.

All of the high-end mechanical hardware plays well together, giving this 110 station wagon a more athletic attitude all around. If anything, it could use a bit more brake, though it doesn’t present an issue in regular traffic.

In the end, more of the Defender is new than original, but that hardly matters. A once dormant legend has come out of retirement, if only to enjoy the good life once again near the ocean. Will this second life this time around be longer? We don’t know, but we certainly know it will be faster.