The MOD squad

Buying an ex Army Defender



Just lately I am seeing a lot of freshly demobbed ex-military Land Rovers in the workshop, mainly to fit TDi engines and/or power steering.  A couple of months ago I had five in at the same time, and the place looked like a REME workshop circa 1995, but less tidy.  And now I have gone out and purchased one for myself, so I thought it would be useful to put together a short guide for prospective purchasers.  The MoD seem to be offloading a lot of vehicles at the moment, and some of them are very nice indeed, so if you have always fancied one of these old warhorses, now is as good a time as any.  But read on first, because there is plenty to think about before you trek up to Witham Specialist Vehicles in Lincolnshire and hand over the money.

Just to make it clear, I am not an expert on military vehicles, and do not pretend to be.  I know next to nothing about the in-service history of these vehicles, how they were used by the military, which units they served with and what radio kit they had in the back.  This article is about their post-service life, buying one, living with it and perhaps making a few modifications to make it easier to live with.

Throughout this article I will refer to these vehicles as Defenders, even though that name strictly belongs only to post 1990 vehicles.  Most people refer to any coil sprung 1984 onwards Land Rover as a Defender, and it is a lot easier than typing "Ninety and One Ten".


A brief history:

The Defender first entered UK military service in 1985, in both long and short wheelbase forms.  Early vehicles were all powered by the '12J' 2.5 non-turbo diesel engine, and available as either General Service (GS) or Fitted For Radio (FFR) versions.  Over the following ten years very large numbers of these basic variants were purchased by the MoD.  There followed much smaller quantities of more specialised Defenders - 127 inch Rapier missile carriers, lightly armoured 110 V8s (the now infamous 'Snatch'), GS 110 V8s for the RAF and Special Forces, 110 ambulances and a few other specialised vehicles. 

In 1997 the next generation military Defender entered service, officially known as TUL/TUM and unofficially as the Wolf.  This was based on the Defender 300TDi but extensively redesigned for military use, with strengthened chassis and axles, and 24 volt electrical system throughout.

Around 2007 it was decided to refurbish some of the better 110 Defenders to extend their service life, the result being the 'Tithonus', with a new Wolf-style roof and rollover protection, better seats, internal soundproofing and a light mechanical overhaul.  Mechanical specification remained unchanged.  The idea was to extend the life from twenty to thirty years.

Over the last couple of years the Army has been phasing out all the older 90 inch vehicles and is now starting to dispose of the Wolf 90s (apparently they are unable to carry all the radio kit the Army now require).  A few older Nineties are still coming through the system, but if you want one you should not wait too long. The older One Tens are being steadily sold off, and Tiithonus vehicles are now starting to be released in some quantities, despite being only half way through their projected life.  The 110 Wolf remains very much part of the core fleet: only a tiny number of these have been disposed of, usually due to major accident damage which makes them uneconomic to repair.

Most of the V8 engined versions seem to have been phased out, although a small number of Snatch vehicles remain in service. I do not know whether the 127 Rapier vehicles are still in service - I have not seen one up for sale in quite a while, and it is possible that the 110 Wolf has now taken over this role.



I will concentrate here on the diesel GS and FFR variants as they form around 95% of the vehicles currently being disposed of.  As introduced in 1985, the military vehicles had remarkably few major differences from civilian spec, suggesting that the MoD must have had significant input at the design stage.  This makes these vehicles a very good prospect for civilian ownership as there is no problem getting hold of parts.

Engines: All have the 2.5 non-turbo diesel, putting out around 69 bhp on a good day and around 25 mpg in average mixed use.  It is no ball of fire, but durable, tolerant of neglect and easy to work on.  Parts are cheap and widely available.  Early on there were problems with excessive oil consumption when driven hard: this was traced to the rather crude crankcase breather system, and a modification kit was designed.  This used a cyclonic breather (similar to that on the TDi engines) to separate oil from crankcase fumes and return it to the sump.  Later vehicles left the factory with the system already fitted.  Most engines were code 12J, identical to the civilian version apart from the breather system.  The last few batches (maybe 1993 onwards) had the 11J engine, a military-only version which used the late turbodiesel block with turbo oil feed and return ports blanked off, and had the breather upgrade from new.  The Army tended to swap engines quite readily, so the age of the vehicle is not necessarily a guide to the age of the engine.  FFR vehicles have an oil cooler - separate unit in front of the radiator on early vehicles, combined radiator and oil cooler (same as 2.5TD) on later ones.  They also have a hand throttle on the bulkhead, and an oil temperature gauge.

Transmissions:  Most left the factory with the LT77 5-speed gearbox, identical to the civilian version.  The last few made seem to have been fitted from new with a special short-bellhousing ('stumpy') R380 gearbox, and these also found their way into some older vehicles as service replacements.  Easily identified as the R380 has reverse gear opposite 5th, the LT77 has it to the left of 1st.  Some later vehicles have had their R380s swapped for LT77s...  Transfer box was the well-proven LT230 in two ratios, 1.410 (standard Defender) and low ratio 1.667.  Most Nineties seem to have had the 1.410 box, One Tens can have either 1.410 or 1.667, but the latter is more common.  This works fine with the low powered 2.5 diesels, but is rather too low geared to make best use of the extra power from a TDi conversion (of which more later).  Axles appear identical to civilian spec, with Rover front and rear on the Ninety, Rover front and Salisbury rear on the One Ten.  The very late vehicles (1993 onwards) had disc rear brakes, the vast majority have discs on the front, drums on the rear.

Suspension and steering:  All appears pretty standard with no significant differences from civilian spec.  None of these vehicles have power steering, which can make them pretty heavy to shunt around crowded car parks, but the steering lightens up nicely once on the move.  The Army standardised on 7.50R16 tyres for both 90 and 110, and most recent disposals have Michelin O/R tyres on heavy duty Wolf rims.  The wheel studs look a little short for these rims, but presumably the Army never had a problem with wheels falling off, or they would have done something about it...

Body and interior:  Very basic interior with Series-style vinyl seats on sliding frames, no floor or transmission tunnel mats, no centre seat.  A few late vehicles had Defender-style seats, and a few also had moulded plastic door trims with map pockets.  These are much sought after.  Electrics are little different from civilian spec, apart from the six-position light switch in the centre of the dash, and military pattern lights with screw-in lenses.  FFR vehicles have a large generator bolted to the timing case, with its own wiring loom and batteries under the radio table in the back.  The 24 volt system is completely independent of the vehicle electrics, and the generator can be easily removed with no problems.  GS vehicles usually have a full length soft top, FFR are hard top.  Arctic-spec vehicles sometimes appear: these have a lined hard top, Webasto diesel-fired heater bolted to the offside inner wing, and full-length radiators in the back.  Doors are usually two-piece with Series 3 bottoms and all-aluminium tops with double sliding windows, like those used on early civilian One Tens.  Arctic vehicles have one-piece doors with wind-up windows, identical to the civilian version.

Some GS vehicles were configured for reconnaissance duties, and these have a very substantial rollover hoop behind the seats, with seat belt upper mounts built in - well worth having if you plan to keep the soft top.  Recce vehicles do not always come with door tops or canvas.

Tiithonus: Defender style seats in Outlast fabric from Exmoor Trim, Wright Off Road moulded matting system.  Full rollover cage, semi-external.  Fold down bench seats in the back (also in Outlast).  Available as hard or soft top.  Soft top has plastic-coated canvas, hard top has special moulded composite top similar to the Wolf.


Where to buy, how to register:

If you want to buy direct, the main source is Witham Specialist Vehicles in Colsterworth, who are the MoD appointed disposal agents.  Their website lists vehicles available for direct sale, and usually has a few available for online auction. 

Vehicles coming out of military service will need to be road registered before they can be used.  Withams will usually do this for you at a cost, or you can do it yourself.  On purchasing a vehicle from Withams you will receive a sales invoice and an MoD Form 654 (disposal form).  Once you have got your vehicle home (on a trailer, obviously) the procedure is as follows:

1. Get an MoT on it.  This can be issued against the VIN number, and legislation allows you to drive the vehicle to and from the test station without it being registered.  This makes sense as you cannot register a previously used vehicle without an MoT.  You will need to arrange insurance, again on the VIN number, and some insurers may find the concept of insuring an unregistered vehicle too difficult to understand.  You need to find a fix for this, as you cannot register the vehicle unless it is already insured.  The MoT tester will need to know the date into service, which you will find on the Form 654.

2. Get it registered.  You should complete form V55/5 (available to order from the DVLA) and send this off along with the Form 654, insurance certificate, MoT certificate, proof of identity (as specified in the V55/5 guidance notes) and a cheque for the registration fee and road tax.  At the moment you can still take all this stuff to your local DVLA office, but these are scheduled to close in October 2013, thereafter applications will be by post only.  Make sure you photocopy the Form 654 as you will not get the original back.  Provided everything is in order, within a few days you will receive a tax disc and a letter authorising the purchase of number plates.  The V5 registration document will turn up a few days after that.

The V55/5 looks a bit daunting with lots of boxes to fill in, but most of these relate to EU Type approval which only applies to vehicles built after 2010.  You will need to find the engine number which is not on the Form 654.  Body type is 'Light 4x4 Utility', wheelplan '2 Axle Rigid Body', Type Approval number 'Exempt', and in answer to the question 'Is the vehicle exempt from Type Approval?' answer 'Yes, built (date), ex military vehicle'.  Revenue weight is as per the VIN plate, normally 3050kg for a One Ten, 2400kg for a Ninety, but check what your VIN plate says rather than taking my figures as gospel.


How to choose?

First decision - do you want a Ninety or a One Ten?  Then, hard or soft top?  How much money do you have to spend?  Typically, GS and FFR vehicles direct from Withams are around the £3500 mark, more for very late and low mileage examples.  Tithonus vehicles are £5000 upwards.  Forget about age, forget about recorded mileage, and buy entirely on condition.  The most important area, as on any Defender, is structural condition.  A lot of the vehicles you will be looking at are 25 years old or more and have had a hard life in a variety of different environments.  Some of the vehicles coming out of service are amazingly good: my own 110 is rock solid and has never been welded.  Others have patched chassis frames and (more commonly) patched and plated bulkheads.  They rot along the top of the bulkhead under the windscreen, round the top door hinge, and along the bottom half of the footwell.  The Army didn't make any effort to hide welded repairs, so any rot damage will be obvious.  My advice would be to avoid a vehicle with any rot in the top half of the bulkhead.  This kind of rot starts on the inside, with water penetrating the gap between bulkhead and windscreen frame, then works its way out and down.  By the time you can see the rot on the outside, the bulkhead does not have many years left in it.

Same goes for chassis repairs.  There are enough good solid vehicles coming out of service now that there is no need to buy one that has been patched.  It is unlikely to be significantly cheaper than a sound unwelded one. Royal Marines vehicles are likely to have been driven through the sea, and anything that has spent time in the Falklands will most likely be rotten as well.  Take your time, and do not be afraid to crawl underneath the vehicle and get dirty.  One big advantage of buying direct is that nothing will have been hidden: no filler, no underseal.  The rot you see is the rot you get.  Pay special attention to the rear crossmember as this is usually the first area to go.  If you find a vehicle whose chassis looks almost new, there is a good chance that it is.  A replacement chassis will not usually have a VIN number stamped on it (should be on the outside of the offside front chassis leg).  Some vehicles will also have had replacement bulkheads, and these are the ones you really want, if you can find them.

Mechanicals - although the Ninety is being phased out entirely, the One Ten remains very much part of the MoD fleet.  That means that if a One Ten is being disposed of, there is probably a reason for it.  Ideally you need to establish that reason before you buy.  The criteria for disposing of a vehicle are not publicly available, but as I understand it each vehicle has a lifetime repair budget, and once that is used up, even a fairly minor fault will cause the vehicle to be sent for disposal.  Faults I have seen recently on direct ex-service vehicles: failed crankshaft oil seal (twice), blown exhaust manifold gasket / leaking front shocks, failed A frame ball joint / poor cold starting, dragging clutch.  Chassis / bulkhead rot can also be a reason for disposal. So even if the vehicle seems to start, run and drive OK, there is a good chance that there will be something wrong with it.  It may be minor, or major.

The good news on the mechanical front is that these vehicles, in my experience, have been very well maintained, with worn parts replaced as needed and work done to a good standard.  They generally leave Army service with nice clean fluids in the transmission and axles, plenty of life in the brake discs and pads, suspension and steering all in good order, and quite often with a recently reconditioned engine (easily identified as they are painted light green, and have a plate on them showing the rebuild date).  So you will not have the problem you so often have with older civilian Defenders, trying to catch up on about ten years worth of maintenance that the previous four owners never bothered to do.


Improvements and modifications

These vehicles, as built, are slow, noisy and heavy to drive, with very basic seats.  Fuel economy is not that great either. That is fine for a shoot or site vehicle, but not so much fun if you want to do a lot of on-road driving. So modifications are popular and there is a lot you can do to make an ex MoD Defender easier to live with, without losing all its character.  But you need to keep a sense of perspective.  By the time you have bought a standard One Ten and had it fitted with a TDi engine, power steering, high ratio transfer box, new seats, moulded matting system, door trims, shiny new wheels and big tyres etc etc you could easily have sunk ten grand into it.  That sort of money gets you a really, really nice Defender 300TDi, quite possibly on a galvanised chassis.  To some extent you need to accept these ex Army vehicles for what they are, rather than try and turn them into something else altogether.  Having said which...

Power steering - probably the first thing you will want to do.  Four or six bolt Defender steering box and drop arm will bolt straight in.  You will also need the combined alternator / PAS pump bracket, reservoir and pipework and possibly a double row crank pulley, although most ex military vehicles have a triple row pulley which will drive the pump just fine.  If you know of someone who is converting a civilian Defender to TDi power, try and get the pump, bracket and front pulley off their old engine.  If you are planning to convert to TDi power using a Discovery 200 or 300 engine, these have a different design pump and bracket which should come with your new engine.

Engine conversions - cheapest and simplest is the old 2.5 turbodiesel (19J) which is pretty much a bolt-in swap.  You will need to change the exhaust, and the radiator unless you have a FFR vehicle which already has an oil cooler.  However the 19J doesn't have the best reputation for durability, and is no more economical than the old 12J.  It also doesn't produce all that much more power.  So only worth doing if you are offered a really nice low-mileage 19J for peanuts.  Much better is a Defender 200TDi engine (11L) - also a bolt-in swap provided it comes with the radiator and intercooler, air cleaner, fuel filter and all the pipework.  This is how I acquired mine, and I did the job in six hours from start to finish.  However, complete 11L engine and ancillary packages very rarely turn up and are normally very expensive when they do.  So you will probably end up fitting either a 200TDi or 300TDi from a Discovery, which is a lot more work but gives you the best result per £ spent.  Other possibilities include various Japanese diesels (Mazda, Nissan, Isuzu etc) which can be very nice, but need a fitting kit which will be expensive if you have to buy it new.  If you want to drive within the London Low Emissions Zone, all diesel options are out: these vehicles cannot be made LEZ compliant at a sensible price.  In that case you will be looking at either the Defender 2.5 petrol engine (bit slow, very thirsty) or a Rover V8 (not so slow, even thirstier).

Transmission box - if you have the 1.667 box it is well worth swapping it for a 1.410 Defender box.  You can use a 1.2 Discovery box, but this really takes the edge off the acceleration - still OK in a Ninety, but a laden One Ten will struggle a bit even with TDi power.  The LT77 gearbox can be changed for the stronger R380 but you will need the special 'stumpy' version with short bellhousing, which will cost you about the same as two reconditioned LT77s. To be honest I wouldn't bother, the LT77 isn't that bad a box provided you don't abuse it.

Interior - Defender seats will fit in place of the military ones, but you will need to drill new holes in the seatbox and use either captive plates or Rivnuts, unless you want seat fitting and removal to be a two man job.  This especially applies if you are going to fit the Wright Off Road moulded matting system with the seatbox cover.  Alternatively you can use Series high back seats which fit the existing frames, are almost as comfortable as Defender seats and about a third of the price.  Door trims - either use Series trims, or the special military moulded ABS trims if you can find them.  Floor mats - WOR matting system is nice but expensive, civilian LT77 transmission tunnel and bulkhead covers are cheaper but unavailable new and hard to find second hand. Rubber floor mats are easily available, but use good quality tailored mats, not the cheap universal ones which can slide forward and jam the throttle pedal. Earlier vehicles have the hard four-spoke steering wheel (36 spline fitting), later ones have a nice padded two spoke wheel (48 spline).  The two types are not interchangeable - to fit the later wheel to an early vehicle you will need to change the upper steering column.  Late Defender TD5 Station Wagons have a different design of padded wheel which has the same 36 spline fitting as the earlier four spoke wheel, but these are not easy to find second hand.

Body type - hard top, soft top and truck cab are all easily interchangeable, with no significant differences between civilian and military bodies.  My own vehicle retains the soft top but I have fitted a side-hinged tailgate - nice and easy, just needs a couple of door hinges and a few bolts, and stops the tailgate getting bashed on the tow hitch.  Speaking of which, these vehicles come with a NATO hitch bolted to the rear crossmember - great if you have a Sankey trailer, as much use as tits on a bull otherwise.  The military vehicles have the same rear crossmember as civilian ones, so a standard Defender drop plate will bolt straight on.  The only problem is that the 110 (especially an unladen GS soft top) sits quite high at the back, and you may have trouble finding a drop plate deep enough to get the tow ball at the right height.  I ended up fabricating one to my own design - fine if you are confident in your design and welding skills, and perfectly legal on any vehicle built before 1998.


Defender Wolf

As noted above, the 90 inch version of the Wolf is now coming onto the market in significant numbers, and this is likely to continue for a while.  These vehicles are a lot more expensive than the previous generation military Defenders, typically around £8000 from Withams.  Most of the ones I have seen so far have done a lot of miles, and many have significant chassis and bulkhead corrosion problems.  So it looks as though the MoD are very sensibly getting rid of the bad ones first.  If you are thinking about getting a Wolf you need to bear this in mind.  You also need to be aware that the Wolf differs very substantially from a civilian Defender 300TDi, with many mechanical components unique to the Wolf, not least the 24 volt electrical system.  This can make them expensive to run: a new starter motor, for example, is around £500.  I have a feeling that at some time in the future I will find myself converting ex Army Wolfs (Wolves?) to 12 volt electrics, and I suspect it will not be a cheap or easy job.

The only 110 Wolves I have seen for sale have been heavily damaged - either rolled, or hit something hard enough to bend the chassis.  A few brave people have managed to straighten these out, and there are also a few Wolf replicas kicking around, so if you are looking at a 110 Wolf for sale, be very, very careful.


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