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Custom Cummins-powered 1988 Land Rover Defender 110 review

By Chris Collard | Photos: Chris Collard & Samantha Thomas, 14 Jan 2019 Custom 4x4s

Custom Cummins-powered 1988 Land Rover Defender review feature

A classic British lion receives an American heart transplant.

Ron Thomas wasn’t always a Defender guy, or even a staunch fan of Land Rovers. However, he loved the idea of a good adventure and one day while traveling in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands, he glimpsed the boxy lines of a 110. It was simple and oozed coolness. So-much-so that he took a photo and saved it on his cerebral desktop.

He thought, albeit mistakenly, a Defender would be a stylish alternative to his full-size truck and he could eliminate the heavy-handed payment (he’d obviously never owned a Landy).

When the timing was right he called Tower Auto sales, who specialises in exotic imports, to check its inventory. There were a few in stock, so Ron and his wife took a road trip to Pittsburg to kick some tyres. They told the salesman they were “just looking,” but by the end of the day they were en route home in separate vehicles. 

With plans to do a major refit, Ron said, “I bought the crappiest one they had.” It was a 1988 110 wagon with Defender badging and a 200Tdi. The drivetrain worked as it should, but the underpowered 200Tdi was deplorably slow; so much that he felt the need to raise an apologetic wave to truck drivers that became stuck behind him on the slightest of grades.

He’d heard rumours that Cummins would be releasing a crate version of its 2.8 turbo-diesel, a powerplant that has been utilised in commercial equipment for a decade. He tucked the idea of a repower on his desktop as well. But the first task was refitting the interior.

After stripping the cabin down to the floorboards, he designed an interior that would fit his travelling lifestyle as a BMX event producer (his previous career was as a pro rider). With the glass and doors removed, the body was treated to a fresh Olive Drab green paint job before being refitted with new seals.

The seats were treated to brown Serengeti leather accented with black trim, as were door panels and select portions of the dash. Out back ExMoor fold-down jump seats were fitted to custom mounts and the entire ensemble was placed over dirt-resistant black carpet and OE mud mats. New power windows and door locks were added, along with homemade billet aluminium hardware (Ron is also a hobby machinist).

As a pseudo audiophile, the sound system needed to rock the house. The result was a mix of 13 Alpine and Pioneer speakers strategically placed to optimise the listening experience. Rounding out the interior is a custom console, navigation system, and homemade aluminium and walnut steering wheel with a BMX rider doing a backflip off the centre. The final touch was a reversing camera monitoring system.

Intending to spend many nights in the backcountry, Ron looked to Front Runner Outfitters for the appropriate equipment. He selected its roof-top tent and Monsoon gear bag, and mounted them on the full-length aluminium rack.

Auxiliary LED driving lights were fitted to the OE bumper, and a diamond-plate panel kit and rock sliders from Rovers North protect vulnerable body parts. The heavy-duty rear bumper and tyre rack were sourced from Proline. To maximise contact with the terrain, BFGoodrich A/T KO2s wrapped around Kahn alloy wheels cap the OE Salisbury axles.

Going places? Find 2019's gear essentials on 4x4's 2019 Gear Guide

The Repower factor

With the interior buttoned up, the future looked bright until the clutch went south during a road trip across Michigan. He figured that while half the drivetrain was removed, he should revisit the idea of updating the engine. A call to Cummins, which had just released the R2.8 turbo-diesel crate motor, sealed the deal. 

The cool thing about selecting the R2.8 for a repower is that it includes most components to make it run; pumps, alternator, wiring harness, Murphy gauge, and even a drive-by-wire accelerator pedal. Just add a battery, fuel, plumb the exhaust, cooling and wiring, and presto! Right?

The challenge was that few R2.8 conversions had been done, and none in a 110 with a manual transmission. Not only were there no YouTube tutorials available, aftermarket manufacturers had yet to develop a transmission adapter, motor mounts, or any of the other bits and pieces required. Additionally, Ron had little experience as a mechanic and this would be his first engine swap. The repower adventure began.

After prying the crate open and sourcing an engine stand, he took detailed measurements of the bellhousing interface, flywheel and pilot bearing, frame rails, and critical engine dimensions. The next task was to purchase 6061 billet aluminium plate in a variety of thicknesses and dimensions. During the next three weeks, his patience and fabrication skills would be tapped extensively.

Emerging from his machining man-cave, he had a custom-milled transmission adapter, flywheel attachment, slave cylinder mount, and engine mounts in-hand. When the day of reckoning arrived, everything lined up and bolted together with the precision of a military marching band.

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With the R2.8 sitting in the engine bay, the wiring harness and throttle pedal were integrated into the dash and footwell, and a custom exhaust was fabricated. A Summit Racing radiator and intercooler were installed via a mix of stainless steel and aluminium plumbing. Air supply was also custom, short of the Specter filter, and a second radiator was mounted under the bumper behind a skid plate.

After 10 months of playing in his garage – three weeks just on the heart transplant – the Landy was repowered and ready for a proper evaluation. Ron said, “After I finished installing the R2.8, we decided to drive it across the country for a test run.” 

We caught up with Ron and wife Samantha on the Cummins Repower Cruise across America’s Pacific Northwest. They said they loved the new interior, camping in the roof-top tent, and the additional power and grunt the mill provided on long climbs.

No trucker apologies were needed, and they were averaging 13 to 14.5L/100km. By the time they returned home to Detroit they had spun 4200 miles (6759km) on the odometer. We’d say that’s not a bad “test run”.

1988 CUSTOM LAND ROVER DEFENDER 110 SPECS: 
Engine: Cummins R2.8-litre turbo-diesel
Power/Torque output: 120kW/429Nm
Transmission: LT77 5-speed manual, LT230 transfer case
Axles: OE Salisbury
Bumpers: Proline rear bumper and swing-away tyre carrier 
Armour: Rovers North sliders, diamond plate skins
Tyres/Wheels: 265/65R18 BFGoodrich A/T KO2, 18-inch Kahn alloy wheels
Interior: Serengeti leather, walnut trim, ExMoor jump seats
Electronics: Alpine/Pioneer audio, reverse camera monitoring system