Home » How A Corvette LS3 V8 Turns The Already-Sketchy Land Rover Defender Into A Lovable Monster

How A Corvette LS3 V8 Turns The Already-Sketchy Land Rover Defender Into A Lovable Monster

Osprey90 Top2

I like to tell people that cars aren’t rational things. I tell them that’s why I like them so much, why I find them so fascinating, why I’ve made them the focus of my career. I tell them that if cars were rational things, there’d be like a handful of standardized types group by the jobs they were intended to accomplish and they’d be about as interesting and engaging as the heat pump unit behind your house or apartment building. But, again, they’re not rational. They never have been, they never will be. And this is all fun and exciting to say to people but sometimes you need to really, you know, live it, which is why I’m so delighted that Osprey Custom Cars loaned me this handsome, ridiculous thing: a very modified and customized Defender 90 with a Corvette engine and so much leather inside I have to remind myself of the Autopian’s strict policy against kink shaming. I’m delighted because this thing is, well, completely and unashamedly irrational, and proves the point I’m trying to make.

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Anyone who has ever driven a Land Rover Defender on dry pavement would likely offer you a cold compress and a place to lie down if you told them that what you thought the Defender needed was lots, lots more power, because there’s clearly something very wrong with you. I’ve driven a stock, 120 hp Defender 110, the long wheelbase one, in Iceland, and while it was fantastic off-road and going through ice and snow, on pavement it was about as graceful and nimble as a rhino on roller skates with one of those vibrating pager things from restaurants like Chili’s shoved up its ass.

The last thing you’d want to add to that clunky equation is tons more power, but I have experienced just that, with the last Osprey machine I tested, back in 2020 when they loaned me a 600+ hp Defender 110. That thing was an exciting handful, and while I had fun with it, it was always a bit of an ordeal to drive. This latest Osprey is a bit different, though. It’s a Defender 90, meaning it’s the two-door, short wheelbase version, and instead of a 600 hp engine, this one has a slightly more civilized 6.2-liter LS3 V8 out of a Corvette, making about 435 hp and 445 pound-feet of torque.

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It’s still plenty nuts, but thanks to the more compact dimensions of the Defender 90, I found this one a lot more fun and easy to drive around, especially in a city. In fact, I found the short wheelbase version to be preferable in almost every way, perhaps because I’m a selfish lout who doesn’t care if the rear seat passengers get their own doors or not.

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This is a restomod of a 1991 Land Rover Defender 90 Station Wagon, and is now painted in the lovely Keswick Green color. It started life as a 1991 Defender 90, but Osprey has re-built the car from the ground up, starting with a brand new hot-dipped galvanized chassis, and there’s no question that it’s been put back together far better than when it was originally screwed together in the first Bush administration.

There’s a number of aesthetic changes made compared to the original Defender, the most dramatic of which may be Osprey’s choice of a much sleeker hardtop, with glass that hides the pillars and creates a much cleaner and sleeker silhouette.

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Other significant changes to the Defender’s look can be seen up front, where the whole front end is body colored, from what Land Rover people call a SVX-style grille to the headlight bezels. The result, especially with modern LED lighting hardware, is something a lot more modern-looking than the Defender would seem to have any right to be.

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There’s DRLs inset into the bumper, and most of the trim and detailing and badges are in anodized black. It’s a cleaner, purposeful look, and I think I generally like it.

There’s something about the proportions of a Defender 90 that I’ve always found appealing in an almost cartoonish way, or maybe it just feels like a puppy with huge paws it has yet to grow into, this cube and rectangle perched atop big tires.

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Whatever it is, I like it, and I’m inclined to ascribe traits like pluckiness and eagerness to this vibrating lump of metals, because there’s something about the rugged and wide-eyed look of the thing that makes me feel so. Again we see the irrationality this thing inspires, just like it’s supposed to.

The big glossy black wheels, 18″ Sawtooth alloys, fit the look well, not too ornate or fancy so they detract. I think I’d prefer some steelies myself, but you know, I feel a little guilty when I drink from glass instead of plastic.

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The overall effect of this thing is striking; it feels somehow out of the ordinary, something a bit special, and even if you’re not familiar with Land Rovers, it definitely has some presence. If you are familiar with Land Rovers, I think you’d really notice it. One Land Rover enthusiast knocked on the window to ask about it, because it caught her Land Rover-focused eye like a cat catches a wren, just with less feathers and blood.

The Inside Within

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I think what I really liked most about Osprey’s modifications here are how they handled the interior. The interior volume of a Defender 90 is an interesting space, at least in how uninteresting the basic volume is: it’s a cube, pretty much. You’re in this cubical room that’s both small and roomy at the same time, and there’s a lot you can do in such a space. And Osprey very much did a lot. And most of that lot is quilted leather.

Yes, lots and lots of puffy diamond-pattern quilted leather, with white contrast stitching over some lovely and fragrant chocolate brown leather. Every surface is covered in this quilted leather, and the overall effect feels strangely familiar, bringing up images of the illustrations of the interior of the moon-projectile from Jules Verne:

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…or, maybe even more so, it reminds me of the interior of the ornithopter flying machines in David Lynch’s 1984 movie of the sci-fi classic Dune:

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Yes, that’s almost exactly what it felt like in there, a nearly cubical space covered in brown leather diamond quilting. And I mean this as a compliment! I always wanted to spend time in the cockpit of that ornithopter, and this Osprey restomod came the closest to delivering that experience to me in reality, or, at least the close-enough reality I call my life.

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Sure, the layout of most everything is just as baffling as it is in any Defender, but when you slather everything in nice leather, you’re more forgiving of the deeply peculiar decisions made by those Brits way back in the 1980s when they designed this dash, once, and then stopped forever.

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I still can’t ever pretend I understand the logic behind the Defender’s trademark confusing tray/cubby/oh shit handle assembly, but I definitely know it feels better when handled like this. And, of course all of the Defender’s charmingly weird control bullshit is still here, like the left-hand ignition and a light switch seemingly designed by someone who just learned what light switches do on the way to work that day.

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Oh yeah, and a horn on a stalk, just because.

The wood-rimmed steering wheel is nice and old-school, and it’s fun to align the holes in the spokes so you can read the instruments through them.

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The overall lean quality of the wheel is a pretty radical departure from the thicc, juicy wheels of modern cars, which also serves as a good reminder that there’s no airbag in there, so pay attention to the road, dummy.

Out back you have a pretty good amount of space, and it’s relatively flexible, too, since each back seat can be folded, admittedly pretty clunkily and bulkily, off to the side:

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My kid really liked it in the back of this thing; he liked coming in the big back door (really, you can kind of think of this as a three-door, because the rear is absolutely usable for passenger entry and exit) and he liked all the headroom and the windows above, and the overall cabin-like feeling of the space.

Really, this may be one of my favorite car interiors of the entire year. It’s comfortable and roomy, and there’s a coherent visual theme going on, and I appreciate that. It’s not just slathered alcantar hides or opulent and overly complex gadget-luxury, it’s just nice materials and a specific style to use them with.

How Is It To Drive?

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In a word? Bonkers. It’s bonkers, unashamedly, gleefully bonkers. As soon as you start this thing up, you can feel the whole car torque to the side from the engine turning over, and then you’re met with a gravelly, throaty roar, like you just interrupted a horny lion mid-gargle. It’s loud and raw and a little unhinged. You’re going to love it.

Here, I made a video, just because:

In case you can’t bear to look at me (I get it, it’s fine) here’s another option:

You probably want a little more. I understand:

 

As you can see, it’s also loud as hell, right from the moment you turn that key. If your goal is to do less sneaking in your life, this car will absolutely help you achieve that, as there is no way you’re going to sneak around or past or away from anything in this thing.

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And, of course, there’s no need to sneak anyway when you can get away from whatever you want as fast as this thing will let you. Acceleration is a yank and shove by strong arms, flinging you at a wall or down some stairs. The short wheelbase can be pretty pitchy under hard acceleration, rearing back, then nosing forward under hard braking. You get a very full and rich sensory experience in this Defender 90, audio, visual, momentum and balance, smell, everything.

All that power goes to the wheels via a 6L80E 6-speed automatic transmission, which tends to have some pretty hard shifts, and then an LT230 transfer case. It’ll go like boxy hell in a straight line, and the brakes do seem plenty powerful, and it’s generally planted on the road, but you can’t fight physics after a certain point. It’s still a cube perched on tall tires, so handling feels like what you’re likely imagining it feels like. It’s a bit top heavy, and I wouldn’t pick this for my autocross car, no matter how much power it has.

Img 3669 LargeThat said, when you’re not trying to be an idiot, it’s not too bad to park or even parallel park, though getting used to the throttle so you don’t whiplash the hell out of everyone in the car at every stop sign does take a bit of practice.

It’s a little bit of a handful, but the short wheelbase does make a lot of driving easier and more nimble, even if a lot of the forces of driving are felt more viscerally. Which isn’t always bad.

Could you off road it? Oh, almost definitely. It’s still a Defender! Would you? Ehh, probably not. This thing isn’t cheap, and I bet most owners would rather spend a vacation in a coma than scratching up the lovely paintwork or caking mud on that quilted leather.

Given all of the architectural compromises the Defender makes to be a great off-roader, is this kind of ridiculous?

Yes, yes it is. But I bet you could have guessed that.

Electronic Whatevers And Fax Machines And HAM Radios Or Whatever

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The basic Defender of this era’s infotainment system was a radio that hopefully got BBC Radio 4 and a copy of The Sun wadded up in that cubby in front of the passenger. Things have come a long way since then, so now Osprey includes a nice CarPlay/Android Auto-capable head unit, with a screen that’s big enough for almost anything you’ll likely need. It’s good enough, really.

 

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There’s some USB plugs in that pretty deep center console cubby between the seats, and on the lower part of the console, under and in front of the shifter, is a wireless charging pad that is hilariously unsuited to this car. It works fine, in that you lay your phone on it to charge, but it’s just a flat panel and this car is so fast and potentially violent in how it can move that most of the time that charging pad is really more of a launching pad to fling your phone across the padded cab at significant speeds.

Price and Verdict

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Remember what I said at the beginning? About cars not being rational? Keep that in mind and embrace it as I inform you that these sell for just under $180,000. That’s a lot of money. I couldn’t grow enough kidneys to raise that sort of cash, yet I know there are people out there who can drop $180 grand on a car. And, if you can do that, why not something like this?

It’s fun and striking and not the same thing that everyone else has, and sure, it takes some practice to drive it well, but doesn’t that just make it more satisfying? I think it does.

It’s not an expected choice, but I think Osprey builds some quality, interesting machines, and this is absolutely one of them. So, you know: be irrational.

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39 Responses

  1. Wait. So they quilted the headliner and installed an Atoto head unit? That should at least help maintain the reliability experience of an old Land Rover.

  2. Remember, JLR used a loophole in Euro crash tests that if you didn’t change the bulkhead you didn’t have to retest. Now stick 400+ hp into it… yeah fuck that lol. “No air bags, we die like men” is a meme and not something you should aspire to.

  3. I love older Defenders, and that one is especially well-done. If I had unlimited funds and time to build one, I’d strongly consider an LS swap in a 110, though realistically I’d probably go with a 4th Cummins instead.

  4. Bleh. It’s an engine swap that doesn’t have good characteristics for off-road use, and is completely overpowered for the chassis on the road. It’s for the crowd that wears (over)paying a lot of money as a badge of honor. Yeah, yeah…”irrational” was covered in the article…

    On the plus side, as least builders like Osprey are doing complete builds, so you are getting a quality product, and not a paint/lift kit/wheels crapwagon.

    1. There is almost nothing put on the road in the last 40 years that qualifies as “overpowered” to me, as long as the driver is sane and competent, and the brakes capable of scrubbing off the power added.

      I grew up in the era where 200HP was thought of as a lot of power, and people were calling 300HP vehicles “overpowered”. I refuse to participate in that kind of foolishness.

      There are many vehicles that shouldn’t even travel at the full legal speed limit, and this Defender might be one of them. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t get to its own limit very briskly.

      Overpowered? How do we decide such a thing? I’ve driven British sports cars with such bad brakes that they felt overpowered at under 100HP. I’ve driven modified 396 and 454 Chevelles that felt overpowered, but only until the brakes were upgraded to discs on all four corners.

      Unnecessary? Hell, yes, it’s unnecessary!

      Maybe I just haven’t driven anything truly overpowered yet, to experience what you’re talking about.

      But if by “overpowered” you mean it should require additional licensing, I could get behind that in an instant.

      I also think modified cars should be have mandatory efficiency testing, and be subject to an additional gas guzzler tax if they degrade the efficiency of the original vehicle.

  5. “which also serves as a good reminder that there’s no airbag in there, so pay attention to the road, dummy”

    Says the guy reading the instruments through the holes in the steering wheel spokes. 🙂

    Irrational is good. Irrational is right. Irrational… works.

    Which is why some years ago I picked up a Range Rover Sport with the supercharged 5.0-liter V-8. It had a lot of the qualities that seem to be present in this little jewel: copious power, a great exhaust sound, a good complement of creature comforts in a fairly posh interior. In the big scheme of things it was probably a little irrational but to a car person it made perfect sense.

    1. Ah, the Supercharged. The connoisseur’s choice, sir.

      Too much of a drink problem for Europe, but absolutely the one to have. Do you still have it?

  6. Correct me if I’m wrong, but can’t you get an AMG G-Wagon for that money? As much as I like the LS-3, I had a 2011 C6 after all, wouldn’t you rather have the AMG? The Defender is still a British product, Lucas (the prince of darkness), electrics and whatnot.

  7. Expensive? Sure.
    At least it’s not yet another boring EV conversion/restomod and a bit more unique than a run-of-the mill G wagon or new Defender.
    Even if it’s unattainable to me, it makes me happy there are companies like this out there.
    I would love to see a Toyota 70-series build from them.

    1. Electric Classic Cars make a drop-in Tesla swap for the Defender that is anything but boring. It’s even more bonkers over-powered than this Corvette engine.
      It does 0-60 in 3.5 second. In a Defender. There’s no way you can call that boring, terrifying would be e better word.

  8. I want one, I want one, I want one! And a Legacy Power Wagon, and New Legend Scout 80/800 half cab, and an Eagle E-Type and, and … what? I’m not on Santa’s knee? Darn. Well, maybe if I’m real good, there’s a Bronco Heritage Edition 2-door with manual 7-speed somewhere in my future. It’s not a Corvette-engined Defender, but then, what is?

  9. “those Brits way back in the 1980s when they designed this dash, once, and then stopped forever.”

    Jason, that’s a TDCI/puma dashboard, that was introduced in 2007 and in production until the end in 2016. the vehicle by the looks of it shares very little with how it rolled out of the production line in 1991.
    the dash board is completely different that was used originally.
    Along with the dash i spy TDCI/Puma: seats, door cards, chassis?, bulkhead, bonnet and more.

    Largely what you have there is a very modified version of a TDCI/puma defender on a early 1991 vin number. Cool build but really shouldn’t be thought of as an early defender as its a very different vehicle.

  10. British contributors note: Defenders are far too bougie for readers of The Sun. A white Transit with several unidentifiable dents, obscene graffiti scrawled in the dirt and an interior full of empty Greggs wrappers is more their vibe.

    1. It seems appropriate, if given the conditions that the gardener had to bring it round from the out buidlings because thier ‘man’ had his hands full ensuirng the toff in question still had only the finest English hardwood still jammed up thier chuff in advance of the afternoon pheasant shoot.

      1. You sure their ‘man’ wasn’t taking ‘care’ of the lady of manor, I mean if all those costume dramas on the BBC have taught me anything that’s what happens.

    2. I sort of own a dented Transit, and when driving it I do morph in to a Sun-reader moron. I only ever buy a newspaper when I’m road-tripping in the Tranny, and I’ll get a copy of the Sport to shove down the front of the dash.

      I’m not sure what the right paper is for a Defender. They used to be classless and could be driven by absolutely anyone, but more and more by rich hipster unicycling waxed-moustache wearing dicks, now the prices have got high enough that people who actually need the utility can’t afford them.

      I’ve driven a lot of Defenders, and I dread to think of the transmission shunt in this. I’d want some of that padded leather on the steering wheel for every time I lift off the throttle.

      1. I was wondering what the right paper for a landie driver is too. The best example I can think of would be the Gloucestershire Echo, because that was read by everyone in my village, rich and poor alike.
        (Also, I too have a friend who will always buy a copy of the Sun whenever he hires a van, purely to stuff down the front of the dashboard).

        I’d love to know what the Americans think we’re talking about right now 😉

  11. You take that back about heat pumps. Knowing how they operate and how the different variables impact your comfort (and your wallet!!!) is rather important. The wrong size system with poorly matched features is guaranteed to leave a space uncomfortable and be expensive to run/repair. A correctly sized system with appropriate features and setup will make a space very comfortable and be economical to run.

    Not a HVAC person, just an efficiency minded person whose heat pump is keeping them far more comfortable than the old furnace did.

    Oh yeah, nice Defender.

    1. I’m trying to think why anyone would want, ever, a leather headliner or a leather padded rear hatch in an off road beast like this. Nope. You’re right.

      The rest of it though… especially the LS. That’s a resounding yes.

    2. Texture — it’s all about visual interest through almost-fractal texture. In leather, a spendy way to achieve it, but sign me up.
      (They have me wondering whether, with my Singer Fashion Mate zig-zag, I can approximate that look using sailcloth in the cabin of my sailboat?)

  12. I can’t say I’m a fan of the headliner. It reminds me of those crazy overly large Chinese floor mats. I know, all the cool stuff baked in and that’s what I think about.

  13. I love everything about this…except the wheels…and the interior. Which means I just want a regular-ass Defender with an LS3. The people who can afford this would say I don’t get it; although I don’t know art, I know what I like.

      1. Not unless you have a guy in Spain and Italy trolling the “buy here finance here” lots buying candidates for 1/3 of that and sticking them onto a container ship.

        1. Hahahahahahahahahahaha.

          Since they stopped building L316 in 2016 values have gone bonkers. I wanted a late 110 Utility in black with these SVX wheels and I was watching prices climb by the week.

        2. I mean, that’s what I would probably do. I have friends and family in Spain, it’s just getting someone to export it but I want the Santana, only for sentimental purposes.

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