Special Brew

Originally Published: March 2013 Words: Paul Looe Pictures: Harry Hamm

When Jim Marsden bought his Defender 90 SV, little did he know that one day he would drive it to a string of successes in Britain’s top winch challenges. But even as he was doing so, there was one thing he did know: that the day would come when he turned it back into a showroom truck. It’s just that his idea of a showroom truck was a bit more radical than Land Rover’s…

Two decades ago this year, Land Rover made a break with tradition and did something extraordinary. At the time, it was more than extraordinary: it was verging on the unbelievable.

Only 90 of them were made, but the Defender 90 SV heralded what would become a new direction for the company. A batch of 90s was sent to Land Rover Special Vehicles – and with alloy wheels, metallic paint and a black soft-top, what Solihull’s in-house customising operation produced was the first look-at-me Landy. There had been many years of County models by then, but this was the first ‘lifestyle’ model to come out of Solihull.

Dating from the later part of the 200 Tdi era, the SV was still a good, simple Defender under all the bling. Good, simple and possessed of disc brakes on the rear axle, as well as an engine and gearbox that didn’t turn themselves into scrap metal with the same enthusiasm as some of those that came before and after.

This made it ideal for vehicle builders of ten or so years ago, to whom the 200 Tdi 90 struck the perfect balance of modern technology and traditional simplicity. The only problem was that being such a rarity, turning one into a modified warhorse was a good way of earning the wrath of serious Landy sniffers.

That’s exactly what happened to Jim Marsden, proprietor of Gigglepin 4x4, who’s had the rare distinction of receiving hate mail for his off-road activities. His crime was to use a 90 SV in winch challenges: not just use it, in fact, but turn it into one of the most successful competition motors of its era.

Between 2001 and 2007, the SV scored top three finishes in every major UK winch event, winning many of them outright. And for every hater who thought such a rare Land Rover should be treated like a classic car, there were dozens who appreciated Jim’s efforts not just to improve the truck but to drive it the way a 90 should be driven. Not recklessly, but hard as hell.

During those six years of competing, this Solihull rarity was caned through more mud, bashed against more trees and dragged over more rocks and stumps than a hundred average Defenders put together will see in their lifetimes. It was the test bed for a wide range of products, including Gigglepin’s heavy-duty suspension arms and now-famous upgrades for the Warn 8274. Finally, it was retired from action and (worst of all, you might say) spent half a decade untouched by the sun’s rays.

During that time, Jim’s reputation as a top challenge driver was going from strength to strength. His ambitions had outgrown what the UK scene could offer and, behind the wheel of a new competition Landy, he started adding Europe’s top events to his burgeoning list of successes. But he never forgot his 90.

‘I always wanted to rebuild it,’ he says. ‘It’s a car that’s won or been placed in every UK major from 2001 to 2007. It’s a special car and it’s got a lot of memories for a lot of people.’ He even bought a new galvanised chassis, but this too ended up getting mothballed as the demands of running a thriving business and competing at the very highest level took up all his time.

But then, about a year ago, that thriving business gave him exactly the excuse he needed. ‘I knew we would be launching a new winch,’ he says. ‘And we also needed a vehicle to show off Gigglepin’s suspension. I talked to my workshop guys and we decided we could probably rebuild the SV in a nine-week window, if we got on with it’.

When you’re talking about a truck that’s been hammered non-stop through Britain’s worst off-road conditions and you’ve already got a new chassis waiting to go under it, the question of whether it’s still going to the same car afterwards is bound to crop up. The answer is simple: get talking to him and it turns out that however hard he may have used it, Jim never lost sight of his vehicle’s heritage. In fact, as far as he’s concerned he’s merely been adding to it all the while.

‘I’ve tried to be as sympathetic as possible,’ he says. ‘I didn’t want to replace everything, stick the registration plate back on it and say here’s the same car when it quite clearly wouldn’t be. If you try to refurbish the parts nicely, they’re right for the vehicle and they work, and we’ve tried to do that as much as we can.’

A case in point was the bulkhead – something which often needs replaced on Defenders of this age even if the toughest thing they’ve ever done is pull a trailer full of sheep. ‘I’d had quite a serious roll in Wales one day and I’d damaged the bulkhead quite badly,’ Jim recalls. ‘Also, the rust worms had got in there. So we sent it for shotblasting… and when we got it back, we could have cried.

‘At that point, it would have been easier to pick up the phone and order a new one. But I didn’t want to bin that bulkhead. There were little things on it that to me, make it MY bulkhead. So I welded it up and sorted it out. A lot of it’s new, maybe it’s a bit like Trigger’s broom, but it’s back up and running. And it is the RIGHT bulkhead!’

The same went for the axles, which needed ‘some serious love’ both inside and out. That’s exactly what they got, however, and once again the result is that the 90 rides on the same parts as when it left Solihull back in 1993.

Perhaps the biggest job of the lot, though, was the rear tub. The original had, in Jim’s words, ‘seen one event too many. The filler neck area was destroyed, and so was the whole of the back. We kept beating it straight back then, but it was dead.’

He admits that whereas the bulkhead was a labour of love, this was more like just a labour. ‘Land Rover rear tubs are put together with spot welds. So I had to find a way of rebuilding it that wouldn’t mean using hundreds of pop rivets.

‘Luckily, we found a body panel glue that’s absolutely fantastic. So I set about straightening the tub. I spent a long time with hammer and dolly, straightening panels, heat-shrinking areas, going back over panels trying to get the dents out, steam cleaning, sorting everything out and then setting it all up so it would fit with the other panels. It was very hard work.

But I managed to save the cappings on one side – though the other one was, well, most of it was missing…’

What a result, then, that several years previously he had bought a capping from his local Land Rover dealer. ‘You can’t get them any more, all of them are gone. But I’d bought a genuine SV capping and it had been sitting on the shelves for years.’

All good, and it got better still. You’ll shake your head in awe at the man’s luck, but get this. ‘I never competed in it with a full canvas on, but even so the original hood she came with was destroyed. So way back, years ago, I phoned up my local main dealer and asked if they still had one.

‘He said “you’re not going to believe this, we’ve got one on the shelf. We ordered it in for a customer years ago and they never collected it. We’ve looked at Land Rover Parts and they haven’t got one either.” I said I’ll have it, and how much do you want for it, in that order! I couldn’t not have it! Last SV hood in the world!’

Told you you’d shake your head in awe at his luck. But read on: ‘So when we were doing the rebuild I was very cocky, got a brand new canvas for it, not a problem. So we got the canvas out of the bag one day, laid it out on the floor… and saw that the mice had wanted it even more than we did. There was a hole, more than a foot square, that had been gnawed in the front edge. I could have cried.’

At least this meant he had a template, though, so off he hood went to Kim at All Wheel Trim. ‘Now, the original SV hoods had these poppers on them which were forever coming undone, and a pain to fit, and there are better systems on the market now. But I wanted it to look right – I don’t like it when they don’t have the right catches and stuff. So against Kim’s advice, he thought I was mental, we fitted poppers on it. And all credit to his hood, it’s that good that they fit bang on.’

Elsewhere, it was a case of moving through the vehicle and rebuilding everything that needed it. And everything needed it. ‘You wouldn’t believe how many parts those seat boxes are made from!’ says Jim, having rebuilt them piece by piece to look if not new, then certainly original, and he even managed to make the battery boxes go again. ‘I was gobsmacked that such a rusty old mess was salvageable, to be honest, let alone into a good enough condition to be galvanised.’

However easy it would be to replace things, Jim reused them wherever he could. The intercooler pipes went away to be passivated, and details like the bonnet catches and wing mounts were brought back from the dead. The wiring harness was unpicked and re-loomed, using conduit to keep it tidy, and even some of the brake lines were able to go again.

How can this possibly be the case on a truck that’s had such a hard life? Pay attention, because here comes an answer worth listening to: ‘I was always quite religious in getting the car clean. If you ever want to buy your Land Rover a special treat, buy a decent cleaner. If you keep your car clean, your car will love you. It’s that simple. Even something like an exhaust: if you always keep an exhaust clean, you will not believe how much longer it will last.

‘So things we were expecting to be rotten and destroyed, we were finding they were actually in pretty good order. Bolts came out when you wanted them to.’ This last statement alone should be enough to convince you.

And don’t look away now, either, because here comes some more good advice: ‘The timing belt, it’s meant to be changed at 60,000 miles. I did it every six to eight months, religiously. Water gets in, it goes for the idler bearings and it’s just not worth taking the chance. Anyone using one in anger every weekend, change that belt as often as you can. Commonsense I think is the word…’

And guess what? The 90 is still running perfectly well on its original engine. It’s on its original gearbox, too, and Jim thinks the same goes for the transfer case. At twenty years, six of them in death-and-hell winching action.

Get the point?

Getting towards the finishing touches, Jim had that new winch to fit. ‘It’s one of our very latest Adventure Series winches. That fits with what the car’s about, which is moving on and trying things.’ The winch sits on a competition height bumper from Devon 4x4, custom made with non-tapered ends and stainless steel loops: ‘just a really nice bumper,’ says Jim, and you can tell that just by looking at it.

Really nice, but not really original. So, would those Landy purists who hated seeing Special Vehicles’ best being winch-challenged be any less horrified at the way it’s been restored? You’d like to think so.

At the very least, you’d hope they would accept that if nothing else, this is a 90 that’s been used the way Land Rover intended – and will be again. ‘I love it,’ says Jim. ‘Grin factor ten. It was the family car when I first bought it. My girlfriend and I, we took it everywhere. We’ve travelled all over Europe in it, and that’s what I want to do again. We’ve got some great memories, some great stories…

‘People say it should be back to concours. But to me, every Land Rover leaves the showroom and then, only then, takes on its personality.

And that 90, as it stands now, in my eyes that’s how the SV should have left the showroom. Bigger tyres, a little suspension lift, decent winch on the front, good lights… that, to me, is how it should be, that’s my interpretation of the SV. That’s MY special vehicle.’


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