It was hot on Manhattan’s West Side Highway, but for once I didn’t mind. I was sitting tall and happy behind the wheel of a restored Land Rover Defender 110 and I felt like I could go anywhere and conquer anything.
The reason I was driving the ruby-red Defender that day instead of sitting at my usual spot behind a computer screen was because Himalaya, a company that both restores and customizes Defenders, happened to be in town and invited us out for a go in one.
Himalaya performs frame-off restorations on vintage Defenders, improving the trucks so they feel more modern. The trucks are sourced from all around the world from all left-hand markets and are then basically rebuilt from the ground up.
The company pays special attention in particular to the tactile feedback of the truck. Take, for example, the door-closing action. On a normal Defender, the door slam sounds cheap and shoddy. A Himalaya Defender’s door offers a rich, mechanical thunk when you close it.
In all the work that Himalaya does to these trucks, they do not lose their feeling of being an old vehicle; they’re just a whole lot nicer than actual, unrestored old Defenders.
I’d driven a Defender only once before. It was a Defender 90 with the automatic transmission and a V8. It was terrible. Once the novelty of driving a Defender wore off, I found myself stuck in a slow, rattly truck that couldn’t get out of its own way. It was definitely not as great as everyone talked it up to be.
Himalaya’s restoration was a long ways from that slow, stock Defender that I (or you reading this, assuming you’re one of the fashionable Manhattanites who flock to old Landies) was familiar with.
You want the diesel engine, which is what powered this particular 110 I drove. You want that and the five-speed manual. At idle, it makes that classically diesel noise, that ting-ting-ting-ting-ting-ting that makes you feel as mighty the semi-truck next to you.
The 110 was still not incredibly fast, but the torque made all the difference. The engine was happy to rev and very nearly refused to stall, even as we approached extremely low speeds in the traffic-choked lanes. But once the lights turned green, it lumbered forward like a tank, jostling over manholes and cracks in the road.
It held higher speeds better than the 90 I drove, in that it didn’t feel like it was going to collapse into pieces if a Beetle passed it too aggressively. You felt like speed was achievable, but you did have to be mindful of the swaying motion that’d kick in at around 60 mph. Like you were on a boat.
The interior was surprisingly snug. Even for me, it was cozy. For once, the seat didn’t need to be moved a quarter of a mile forward so I could reach the pedals. And the skinny wooden steering wheel felt retro in my hands.
My first brush with a Defender was less than stellar. This time was joyous. I think the turbo-diesel and manual are the secrets to a good Defender. Check out the video!