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by David Phillips, 3rd January 2017

Meet the ultimate desert Defender, built for speed, comfort and unrivalled off-road power and capability

Land Rovers and sand go together like buckets and spades. Whether you’re blasting across deserts, traversing beach dunes or tackling the off-road track at your local quarry, there are no better wheels to tackle sand than an example of Solihull’s finest. From the very earliest days of Series I production in the late 1940s, adventurers were quick to recognise the capable Land Rover’s potential to open up previously unexplored tracts of the world’s greatest wildernesses. Places like the Sahara’s aptly-named Empty Quarter didn’t get called that for nothing, you know. It just happens to be one of the most dangerous places on the planet – a place seasoned explorers wouldn’t venture without their Land Rovers.

You can find out more about the perils of crossing the infamous Empty Quarter later in this issue (see page 46). In the meantime, let’s imagine the sort of Land Rover you’d build if you wanted the ultimate desert driving machine – and if money was no object. It would need amazing capability to tackle strength-sapping soft sand and steep dunes, plus plenty of room for you and your friends and family. Oh, and plenty of on-road oomph for those long, fast drives along the ruler-straight highways you find streaking through the Gulf states. All that adds up to a roomy Defender 110, with a lot of power. This sounds like a job for a V8 petrol engine, only it would prove too thirsty. Range is all-important in the wilderness – after all, you don’t stumble across many filling stations in the middle of the desert – so a powerful diesel engine would be needed under the bonnet of our dream sand-blasting 110.

Just a dream? Yes, it most likely would be to you and me. But if you happen to be a very rich Arab who loves desert driving and is determined to own the best-appointed Land Rover in the Gulf of Arabia, you’d end up with something akin to the amazing vehicle featured on these pages. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. This story started more than a year ago when a wealthy Land Rover fan from Oman was flicking through the pages of his copy of Land Rover Monthly and spotted the advert for Nene Overland’s Icon range of bespoke Defenders. He wanted a Defender that combined unrivalled off-road ability with sumptuous comfort – so he immediately contacted Nene’s owner, Andrew Harrison-Smith, to place his order. “He came to us and said he wanted a Defender 110 that was fairly quick on road, comfortable but capable off-road, with lots of power,” recalls Andrew. “He’s one of the biggest importers of vehicles into Oman, although not Land Rovers.

But he wanted the most capable desert vehicle possible and he knew it had to be a Defender. “It was a real challenge. I knew we would have to create something halfway between our 3.2 Icon Sportwagon road car and the Icon Extreme off-roader, with the best of both worlds, which isn’t as easy as it sounds.” Nene’s sales manager, Paul Jolly, was put in charge of the project, helped by bespoke engineer, Dan Padmore. Paul recalls: “The client came to England and spent four hours with us, briefing us on what he wanted from the vehicle. It’s always difficult to combine on-road performance with off-road capability, because it has to be robust but useable. It went from there. He wanted it to be a comfortable seven-seater for taking his friends and family out for adventures in the desert. Once we understood what he was looking for, we got to work.

Things developed...” The base vehicle for the project was a Defender 110 County Station Wagon in Stornaway Grey, with a TDCi diesel engine. The first task was to replace that engine with a 3.2-litre version. Why the 3.2? “He wanted to have a torquey diesel for lugging up and down the sand dunes and off-road,” says Andrew. “The 3.2 is ideal because it will do all that with ease but at the same time it will cruise at 95 mph all day long on the highway. “It’s diesel because of the range you get from the more frugal engine. Petrol is very cheap out there in Oman, but you don’t get the same range with a thirsty V8, which would be down to single-figures mpg driving off-road in the dunes. “This is more about going into the desert and staying there for a few days without worrying about running out of fuel. Diesels are the only option. “The 3.2 is from the same family as the normal Puma engine. Put crudely, there’s an extra pot bolted on the end to make it five cylinders instead of four. The result is 250 bhp and almost 500 lb-ft of torque. There’s also the option of fitting a bigger turbo, which would boost the power to 275 bhp.

The client is still considering that option...” Meanwhile, Paul and Nene’s engineers worked out how to deliver all that extra power to the wheels without destroying the transmission system. They settled for an MT85 HD six-speed gearbox, which was re-engineered at the back to accept the Land Rover transfer box. Heavy-duty half-shafts, CV joints, steering box, track rods, radius arms and steering arms were installed, while underbody protection like diff guards and rock sliders offered protection for vulnerable components. A full Safety Devices roll cage offered protection for vulnerable occupants. “He told me it’s all too easy to roll over when driving up sand dunes and he didn’t want to end up six inches shorter!” says Paul. To get maximum traction in tricky off-road situations, ARB locking front and rear differentials were fitted, powered by an on-board compressor. It was fitted in the offside seat box, along with fuses and relays. Extra ground clearance was achieved by giving the Defender a 2.5-inch lift via Icon HD progressive and Old Man Emu springs, plus Fox racing shock absorbers.

The 35-inch BFG Mud Terrains on Terrafirma split-rim alloys, with bead lockers, also helped achieve height as well as superb grip on all surfaces. In the desert, rocks feature as well as sand. To solve the dilemma of achieving optimum handling on and off-road, it was decided to fit a detachable anti-roll bar – which stiffens up the ride at speed, on the fast, straight highways of the Gulf, but can be easily unclipped to afford maximum articulation in extreme off-road situations. Mounted on the front of the Defender is the latest Warn Zeon 10S winch, with 10,000 lb of pulling power for those situations like deep soft sand, when no amount of power will blast you out of trouble. Meanwhile, a Safari snorkel was fitted to keep the air intake as high as possible above the choking dust clouds that inevitably envelop desert vehicles. And then came the bling... “He wanted it to look purposeful, but without going over the top,” says Andrew. The end result is very tasteful, with the front seats re-trimmed and extra leather around the dash and cubby box – the latter also housing the amplifier for the impressive sound system. Improved sound-proofing of the entire vehicle means there’s minimum road noise to interfere with the driver and passengers’ enjoyment of that sound system.

LED multi-bulb lights and Lazer LEDs in the front bumper make night driving in the dunes feasible, while a Mono steering wheel offers a little bit of luxury. All this adds up to a very impressive vehicle. You don’t have to be a desert driver to appreciate the dual role that this well-sorted Defender offers, on and off-road. Before the finished vehicle was shipped to its new owner, Andrew and Paul gave it a final shakedown in a deserted sand quarry in the Cambridgeshire Fens, where we found the nearest thing to desert dunes you’ll see this side of the Mediterranean – and where LRM snapper Alisdair Cusick took the photographs for this feature. As the sun set over the Fenland fields, I swear the entire flat landscape shook as Andrew floored the throttle and aimed it at the precipitous banks of sand, which it crested with ease. Purposeful power is what off-road machinery is all about and this special Land Rover is the epitome of that particular automotive niche. This is an amazing vehicle for a very fortunate new owner. It was a shame to see it packing its suitcase for its new life in the Gulf. But somehow I can’t see this being the last of its kind to emerge from Nene Overland’s dream factory.

...Andrew and Paul at Nene Overland. Visit www.defendericon.com

Photographs: Alisdair Cusick

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