Thought all the best Defenders came from Solihull? Think again. Those that have driven or owned the South African BMW 2.8 Defender reckon it is the best Land Rover, ever
Now it's time for us to enter the third and final phase of Defender Heaven and meet 22-carat 90 Number 3. But to do so we need to take a trip to the Southern Hemisphere – preferably on a Thursday night. Because that's when it comes out to play. Mike Porter from South Africa lives for Thursday nights. At precisely 4.30 pm he greets the 50 or so employees of his Land Rover Service Centre, a successful business started 16 years ago with two of his schoolmates. He then fires up the one true love of his life – a 2.8 BMW-engined Defender 90 – and heads off to the Atlantis Dunes, 45 kilometers north of Cape Town. With the dramatic Table Mountain as a backdrop, this is where he plays until the early hours of the following morning, stopping only to have some dinner, which is normally a quick BBQ.
This is Mike’s Mecca, where he comes to meditate and reflect on what he has done to his 2.8 and, more importantly, if it is working the way he wants it to. “Some people go watch a movie to zone out and relax. I go dune driving – time disappears quickly when you are out here – plus I get to forget about all my troubles and just focus on just driving up and down dunes, around the bushes while doing some drifting at the same time. You get to push the vehicle and your own boundaries,” he explains. Defender enthusiasts in the UK view the 1995 BMW purchase of Land Rover with mixed emotions.
In truth, the Germans never really understood the marque and certainly never got to grips with the Solihull culture. But for South African enthusiasts it was nothing short of a masterstroke, because with it came the launch of the BMW M52 2.8-litre six-cylinder engine in both the Defender 90 and 110. Fully assembled in South Africa, this Defender replaced the old Rover V8 and was only available locally. It produced an astonishing 142 kW of power and 280 Nm of torque. Purists criticised it for lacking low-down torque, but who's bothered when it goes like no other Defender before it. Land Rover South Africa had to make tweaks to the suspension in order to handle the powerful BMW engine. In addition to this some other ‘local’ enhancements were made, including air con, interior trim and specially-developed 235/85/R16 Continental tyres.
Sadly this Defender was never distributed worldwide, which is nothing short of a tragedy because according to Mike: “There has never been a better petrol motor fitted to a factory-produced Defender.” Sadly, it all too soon came to an end when Ford purchased Land Rover from BMW in 2001 and the supply of popular 2.8 BMW engines ended. If you analyse the development of the BMW 2.8 Defender almost every one of the bits 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 and bell housing all came from the Range Rover P38 DSE, which had the 2.5-litre BMW diesel motor in. So when Land Rover sat down and started to think about how to connect this new BMW petrol motor to the existing gearboxes, the Range Rover P38 DSE with its R380 gearbox provided the perfect solution. 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. The BMW 2.8 engine was supplied with the existing electronics DME (ECU). Then the whole lot was just wedged together, including a fuel pump from the 3.9-litre fuel-injected Discovery 1 and, voila, you had a Defender like no other. So there was minimal redesigning involved; they were just using what they had. Mike’s 1999 Defender 90 might have started life with a standard 2.8 engine, but over time it has evolved into a whole different beast. He rebuilt the engine using Wiseco ceramic-coated pistons and K1 forged rods in order to lower the compression ratio to 9.1:1. This gives him more revs and it now redlines at 8000 rpm. It also allows a turbo boost of up to one bar. Then it has a Garrett GT 2871 water-cooled ball bearing turbo with custom-built exhaust manifold. This helps him leave 4.5 EFI Toyota Land Cruisers behind. Then he installed a BMW M3 oil cooler housing with thermostat and high-capacity oil cooler. The new radiator was custom built and is of the four-core high-capacity type with in-core turbulators, and a Turner Motorsport high-volume water pump assist in keeping the motor cool. A turbo radiator is fender-mounted to pre-cool turbo coolant before sending it to the main radiator. Engine management is achieved via the Dastek Q-Chip piggy back system with electronic boost controller; dump valve and many other turbo accessories. Lastly, he added a custom-built 76mm stainless steel exhaust. These changes made a huge difference to an already remarkable Defender.
The evolution of Mike’s Defender has taken two years and cost him mega-money. In fact you could have fed an average-sized African tribe for a few years with the money he has spent on it. At the end of the day he feels he has got it just right and, more importantly, it runs reliably. As he is one of the local distributors of Terrafirma products he sees his time in the dunes as testing the product. “We need to show the customers that we have faith in these products. I can take the customers to my Defender and show them what a castor-corrected radius arm or beadlock rims look like and, more importantly, what it does. So you don’t just take the customers' money,” argues Mike. You have to get out and drive the 2.8 to appreciate it as it does not sound, feel or handle like a standard Defender, even before all the changes that Mike has made. It is like driving a Defender that handles and flies like a Dakar Mini. “I used to be a V8 man. All my previous Defenders were V8s and I still have some of them. But the 2.8 is just a far more driveable machine,” argues Mike, who now owns five Defenders, two of which are 2.8s. To watch him in these dunes is rather special – there is no air in the back tyres and the only thing holding them on to the rims are the beadlocks and the heat they are creating. The front tyres are no better off as he has only given them 0.2 of a bar. These are extreme conditions that Mike knows only too well through years of driving here. There is sand blowing everywhere as he drifts across the face of a dune, the KAM side shafts and ARB diff-locks are locked and the engine is whining like an unpaid stripper. Beautiful to watch, but seemingly impossible to execute. Yet Mike manages to do it.
In the short time that BMW owned Land Rover, there were 1042 of these BMW-engined Defenders produced. Today they are still one of the most popular types around – especially amongst those living near massive volumes of sand like the Kalahari or Namib Deserts – and owners can normally sell them for more than what they paid. Is this the best petrol engined Defender ever produced by Land Rover? There are at least a thousand South Africans that would say "yes, including Mike.