This is not just a Land Rover Defender. This is the best Land Rover Defender, built by BMW with a straight-six in South Africa. Called the Red Mamba, it belongs to Frank Isenberg, BMW Driver Training's top dog and the leader of the M2 project.
I'll let him walk you through what we're looking at here:
"It was in the nineties, when Land Rover was part of the BMW Group and I was working for BMW in South Africa. On a Friday afternoon, walking through the workshop, my boss introduced a Defender 110 with a 3.5 Rover V8 to me. Looking at the carburetors he said that many people in South Africa complain about the high fuel consumption, but otherwise, it would be a great vehicle. For me as a chassis man it was difficult to accept a truck with solid beam axles and a not that impressive engine in our BMW Test Centre. But after having a closer look, I started to fall for this Landy's character.
On the hoist next to her was a BMW 325i waiting for an engine upgrade. The new BMW M52 2.8i engine had already arrived, waiting to be fitted and tested for the local South African conditions. We grabbed a tape measure, checked the M52 engine and the Defender's engine bay and on Monday night this brand new 194 horsepower engine was hanging on a rope, now in the Defender`s front end.
It took a lot of phone calls to Munich and Solihull to get the right dimensions of the components we had to change and to sort out the electrics. Initially the engineers on the other side where quite confused by our questions as they had no idea what was going on – it was a top secret project.
After 2-3 weeks the very first Defender 2.8i was running – like hell. Everybody involved was impressed by the smoothness and performance of the conversion. This first prototype was used for some functional testing like drivability, off-road capability, hot environmental tests and so on.
To get sign off and full approval for production we had to prove durability according to Land Rover and BMW test standards. Therefore, we converted a green 90 soft top into the first Defender 90 2.8i – the so called Green Mamba, because of its power and speed. Testing happened all over South Africa and especially the ´government approved high speed testing´ at about 170 km/h was a lot of fun, even when a bit noisy because of the soft top and the NAS roll cage.
We only had a few minor technical issues until in 1997 the Defender 2.8i went into production to become a big success. During this period, I–the BMW chassis guy–felt in love with the Landy, off-roading and southern Africa.
Many years and some BMW projects later, on a rainy Saturday morning back in Munich, I spotted a red Defender 110 2.8i on Gumtree South Africa. As I've been looking for such a characterful car, I had a very bad sleep, only to ask my boss on Sunday for an unplanned leave. On Monday, I got a ticket and flew to Capetown. After arrival Tuesday lunchtime and a short test drive I signed the contract and the Red Mamba was mine.
With 75,000 miles on the clock, no strange noises and almost no rust I believe I made a good deal. It took me about a week to convert her into a basic camper equipped with only the most necessary goodies (roof rack with solar panel, deep freezer, coffee machine). It is still impressive how nice she runs. It's great on the highway (still capable of 94mph (GPS) fully laden), but comes alive even more in the dunes.
You can feel the power of the M52. It is amazing how the Red Mamba runs up the steepest slopes, with the roar of the natural aspirated BMW straight-six revving up to 6500 rpm. Maybe unusual for a 4x4, but great fun.
The best trips so far were the Namaqua Eco Trail with the famous "Road to Hell", Kunene 4x4 Trail with van Zyl´s Pass and a Namib Desert Crossing. Now the odometer shows 97,000 miles and there were only a few technical issues caused by...me. A broken propshaft joint (poor maintenance – no grease) and a blown clutch release bearing (heavy over revving when going downhill – the engine survived). From my experience across the "Road to Hell", I fitted a locking rear differential."
According to 's Patrick Cruywagen, the BMW Rosslyn-built Defenders had the following modifications to make the M52 conversion work and to get them ready for South African conditions:
"Every bit that was used came from the Land Rover parts bin. Obviously, the motor and everything up until the end of the crankshaft was BMW but the fly wheel, clutch mechanism, pressure plate, release bearing, bell housing and gearbox all came from the Range Rover P38 DSE, which had the 2.5 BMW diesel engine in. Thanks to the 1.667:1 LT 230 transfer box ratio, you now had a short gearing, high-revving engine, which resulted in one very nippy Defender with loads of power. In addition, some 'local' enhancements were made, including air con, interior trim and specially-developed 235/85/R16 Continental tires.
Land Rover South Africa also had to make tweaks to the suspension in order to handle the powerful BMW engine. Once the whole lot was wedged together–including a fuel pump from the 3.9-liter fuel-injected Discovery 1– you had a Defender like no other."
Between 1997 and 2000, a little more than a thousand M52-powered Defenders were built in two body styles, exclusively for the South African market.
Now, you know why the M2 ended up being so good to drive.