Thoughts and advice on the care and feeding of fine automobiles from Machine Aficiionado and bestselling author John Elder Robison, owner of JE Robison Service in Springfield, Massachusetts

We are independent restoration, repair, sales and service for Audi, BMW, Bentley, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Rolls-Royce automobiles.

Bentley archives

Land Rovers

As we near the end of another extensive Defender restoration, I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on what makes a quality restoration, and what it takes to achieve that result.

Looking at the photo of the near-finished truck, it does not look very different from any other new Defender.  Except that this Defender is 19 years old!  And the fact is, with the work we did, it would not matter if the Land Rover we started with was 20, 30, or 40 years old.  The end result would look essentially the same, with the exception of period details.

You can go to any car show and see beautiful paint jobs.  But a paint job does not make a restoration.   Sometimes, all it makes is a mess.

When you paint a modern car, you are repairing damage on a vehicle that’s basically complete and serviceable.  So you can paint a scratch or repair a dent, blend the repair to the existing paint, and you’re fine. 

You can’t do that on an older vehicle like this.  In most cases, vehicles that are 20 years old have started to corrode on the seals and joints.  That’s usually where corrosion begins – there, and the places water is trapped under or inside.

A true restoration won’t hide corrosion.  It will remove it.  And a good restorer will take steps to reduce the chances of corrosion happening again, to the extent possible.

A proper restoration usually requires disassembly of the body.  Not just stripping the paint off – but actual disassembly.  On a job like this, we begin by taking the vehicle apart. We take photos every step of the way, and bag and tag the fasteners and hardware as we go.  Even when we use new hardware – often the case – having the original stuff tells us what sizes we need.

On a Defender we lift the body off the frame, and dismantle each section.  In this photo you can see the rolling chassis – rusted framing and all – in the process of teardown.  

A little while later, we begin the process of assembly – in this case, with a new galvanized frame.  We can use the old frames over – we can even galvanize them – but they are often weakened and building them back up will cost more than a brand new part.  Since the look is the same, we usually go new for this core component on 1990s trucks.  With an older vehicle we may go either way but a restored original frame will almost always end up costing a good bit more and that’s always a consideration.

As soon as the vehicle is apart we begin the process of stripping and overhauling the components.  This is a more extensive process than what we do when a vehicle comes in for component overhaul in our service department.  The difference:  In a restoration, we take everything apart, have the metal tank cleaned and blasted, and then we re-plate or powder coat every part before it goes back on.  The result is a subassembly that’s finished far better than it ever was new, and will hopefully outlast the original version as well.

The body sections are also broken into their component parts, and depending on the job, are liquid painted or powder painted after being cleaned up and repaired as needed.  On this truck we saved almost all the exterior sheet metal, though a good bit of repair was needed on some sections.

Disassembly and paint removal often reveals corrosion you never knew was there!

When the vehicle goes back together we replace or rebuild just about everything we handle under the car.  In many cases, we install upgraded or improved parts.  You can’t see this work unless you look close, but this kind of detail separates a paint job and cleanup from a true restoration.

Many of the parts we plate or powder coat were bare metal when these vehicles left the factory.  That may have been fine a few decades ago, but we cannot let them continue to corrode – in 20 more years there would be nothing left, and no replacement parts to be had.

Here are some examples, all of which are visible in the images of this truck
  • -       We replace the steel fuel lines with stainless
  • -       Rubber brake hoses are swapped for performance braid hoses
  • -       All bushings and joints are new, as are springs and shocks
  • -       Brakes are totally rebuilt with all wear items replaced
  • -       Exhaust is new, and assembled with non-corroding copper fasteners
  • -       Extensive use of stainless hardware to reduce corrosion on the body
  • -       Everything under the car is finished with the same care as the top

We often make subtle improvements.  For example, this vehicle has a custom Badger top.  You can buy cheaper tops from a catalog, but I have never seen a better piece of work than what we get from The Badger.  He’s slow and he’s finicky but if you want the best . . .

This Defender also has the Exmoor premium seating, which looks fairly original but is light-years better than what was supplied in this truck new.

The wheels are another area of change.  In America, these trucks came with allow wheels and BF Goodrich general purpose tires.  For this fellow’s use we installed military Michelin XZL tires on NATO steel wheels – which were also powder coated.  They are very different from original, but they are what armies use on these rigs all over the world, for good reason.

It’s no surprise that we installed a better stereo.  For a beach truck “better” means water resistant.  For that, we turn to marine radio and speaker components.  The original Rover stereo would be ruined in the first rain shower.  This system will shrug that off, and it has Bluetooth, ipod control, and a host of other features.

We’ve also swapped the non-secure wood console for a lockable steel Tuffy Box.  The vehicle is open all the time, and some secure storage is needed, even on a small island. 

A job like this will eat up at least 1,000 hours and require the skills of a number of different craftsmen.  This particular truck employed:
-       general Land Rover mechanics
-       two body men
-       a painter (liquid)
-       a powder coat specialist
-       several metal platers
-       a fabricator/welder
-       several upholstery men
-       a good detailer
-       a stereo/electronics installer

The list goes on . . . this kind of project is far from a one-man task.

We’ll be sending this truck to its summer home in a few more days.  Stay tuned for the finish photos and description . . .

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