Anyone can swap a big engine into a car—making it work like it’s from the factory is the difficult bit. That’s what makes the new Defender Works V8 from Land Rover Classic truly special.
This story was originally published 03/08/2018, but we're re-publishing it today in honor of Land Rover's 70th anniversary celebrations - Ed.
“All the traction aids work in conjunction with the powertrain, and as a conversion, no one other than JLR is capable of doing that,” Greg King tells me. King is an engineer at Land Rover Classic Works, and he’s the guy behind the truck you see here, the Defender Works V8.
Other than models sold in North America between 1994 and 1997, Defenders haven’t typically featured V8 power and automatic transmissions. People at Land Rover wanted to do this sort of car as a regular-production model to send off the old Defender as it left production in 2016, but it would’ve been prohibitively expensive.
Enter Land Rover Classic Works. King and the people there decided to create this car to celebrate Land Rover’s 70th anniversary this year. It’s not technically a new Defender, though. For the 100 it plans to make—all sold out, by the way—Classic Works sources a 2012-2016 Defender, then fits it with all sorts of upgrades.
The engine is the big one, and not just metaphorically. It’s a naturally aspirated version of Jaguar Land Rover’s typically supercharged 5.0-liter V8, cranking out 400 hp here. It’s mated to the same eight-speed automatic used in the Range Rover Sport, which then sends power to an automatic torque biasing center differential. There are also strengthened propshafts to help deal with all the horsepower
On a very brief road drive of Defender Works V8 prototype #002, the driveline’s brilliance is revealed almost immediately. At normal speeds, the V8 lopes along in the background, with the ZF transmission beautifully slurring through changes. It almost feels American. Right up until you decide to get real stupid with the throttle, at which point, the gearbox quickly downshifts, a valve in the exhaust opens, and you rip forward in a way that this old farm truck really shouldn’t.
But besides the sheer thrust—0-60 mph in 5.6 seconds—and all the noise, it’s relatively drama free. That center diff and traction control system get down to business quickly, sending power where it needs to be. There’s no wheelspin, no axle-hop, no issues of any kind. The Defender just scoots off.
Credit that to the diff and the traction control, but Land Rover Classic beefed up everything else to handle the power too. The shocks, dampers, and anti-roll bars are all new, and there are big brakes with lovely vented rotors and Alcon calipers.
And it’s all been properly developed. King told me that his team drove two earlier prototypes from the UK to the Sahara with 5000-pound trailers attached. When they arrived, they unhitched the trailers, did a bunch of off-roading, came back, re-hitched the trailers and went home. All without issue.
“In terms of breadth of capability, we haven’t compromised the Defender off-road at all,” King says. “But you have the extra performance and dynamic envelope you don’t have with the core car.”
Of course, all those upgrades can't hide the fact that the Defender Works V8 is still, at its core, an old off-roader with solid axles front and rear. But you could say the same about an AMG G-Wagen. And, this Land Rover has nicer, more accurate steering than the old G.
The driving experience is still decidedly old-school. I’m short at five-foot seven-inches, and yet I was really cramped in the Defender, leg brushing against the door. Visibility, as you’d expect with an old 4x4, was excellent, and it's surprisingly comfortable too.
King says he wanted it to be a great long-distance cruiser, and still work around town. If you could deal with the fuel bills, it makes a great city car, subtle but effortlessly stylish, and small enough to maneuver through Europe’s tight city streets with ease.
It’s a fairly relaxed car too, which its 400 horsepower might not suggest. The exhaust only goes all angry HELLO COPS when you’re at full throttle, otherwise burbling along pleasantly in the background. You could totally daily-drive this and never feel tempted to dip into its deep well of horsepower. But of course when you do, you’ll be grinning from ear to ear.
“As a Defender enthusiast myself, I think it’s the car that every Defender enthusiast has always wanted it to be,” King says. It’s hard to argue with him.
With this car, Land Rover Classic Works has been given the budget, time, and OEM software code to make the ultimate Defender. It’s the ultimate evolution of an icon, one that can traces its origins back to the truck that got Land Rover started in 1948.
Seems to us like a pretty good way to celebrate Land Rover’s 70th.