Driving old cars turns trips into adventures. That’s exactly what happened over the New Year’s weekend when I took the SCM 1984 Land Rover Defender 90 across Mount Hood to a friend’s house near Sunriver, Oregon.
It’s about 180 miles, and in a modern car not a particularly challenging trip. However, combine sub-freezing weather conditions, snow and a 31-year-old Land Rover turbo-diesel, and you’ve turned a regular drive into an expedition.
SCM bought the Defender 90 on eBay a few years ago from an enthusiast in Amherst, MA, who had imported it from England. The rig was a true off-road hot rod in the best European tradition and had led a rough life. It wears entrant stickers from the 1999 Warn Challenge off-road competition. It’s been fitted with a replacement frame, 5-speed from a Disco, later 200TDi turbo-diesel engine with a huge intercooler, higher-performance 4-wheel disc brakes, lift kit, Superwinch and more. Perhaps the only original components are the battered body panels.
The D90 never ran particularly well until local vintage Rover specialist Doug Shipman of Ship’s Mechanical rebuilt the injection pump. Since then, it generally starts easily, pulls hard and routinely gets more than 20 mpg.
A couple of years ago I figured out that to get any engine heat at idle in cold weather, I had to put the canvas “muff” over the bodywork in front of the radiator. At highway speeds I can leave the muff partially open, but when crawling along off-road, it needs to be buttoned up completely to indicate any water temperature — which translates into heat, which keeps your toes from freezing.
My preferred route to Sunriver follows Highway 26 over Mount Hood, with a summit of 4,416 feet at Government Camp. In 4th gear, the D90 motored along the upward grade at 55 mph. On the downhill stretches, 70 was achievable in 5th, but given the rig’s raised-up, tippy nature, it’s not a speed you want to maintain for very long. Especially on curving mountain roads.
The overnight temperature hit nine below, and in the morning I learned just how hard it can be to start a diesel under those conditions. The engine cranked very slowly and just couldn’t spin fast enough to fire up. I posted a quick note on the Pacific Coast Rover Club bulletin board and got a note back about something new to me: portable magnetic engine block heaters.
I’ve since ordered one for future winter trips, but on this day I had to let the truck sit in the sun for a few hours and wait for the temperature get above 20 degrees before we could coax it to life.
A variety of snow drifts blocked the entry way to the house. By locking the center differential in the D90 and engaging the ARB air locker on the rear differential, we were able to plow through all of them.
We finished the trip without any additional drama, covering about 500 miles in all. I can’t say we were particularly warm, or that we were able to hear the radio, but we got 24 mpg and kept up with traffic. I played to the vehicle’s strengths and knew its limits. I didn’t ask it to handle or brake quickly, so it didn’t let us down.
Kitted out with auxiliary lights and faded event stickers on the doors, the D90 got a lot attention in the resort parking lots. More than one guy gave a thumbs-up and a “Wish I had one of those” comment — before climbing into his modern, heated-leather-seat, electronic-traction-control SUV.
I came home with new memories of a weekend spent with a vintage off-road machine. The Rover is now put away in the SCM garage, waiting to turn another car trip into an adventure.