To escape from my daily life, I sought to immerse myself in nature, visit different places and create new memories. That’s why I decided to make a cross-continental trek in my 31-year-old Defender 110 200 Tdi.
I grew up in Kenya, where Series and Defenders were as common as Asian cars are in the US today. Over the years, my father had owned multiple Series, 109s and Defenders. My favorite was a blue ‘92 RHD Defender 110 Tdi made in Solihull. Driving up-country and to the plains of the savannah in this beautifully hand-crafted metal box set me up for life. I admit to having a love-hate relationship with it, thanks to its rough handling and stiff suspension. I recall an occasion when the family driver (yes, we had a driver) overshot a speed bump. The 109 rocketed me to the roof and back to the rear-facing seats like a NASA space shuttle falling back to earth.
In 2018, I fulfilled my childhood dream of owning a classic Defender when I found a replica of my father’s go-anywhere machine. Since the Defender served as a childhood dream, I decided to refurbish it myself with an approach to make it a more modern, enjoyable and safer rig that my millennial family would covet for both local and international travel. I thought my professional skills as a cybersecurity threat researcher would help me to accomplish the rebuild. The Defender quickly turned me into a mechanic and with time, patience, a keen eye and the acquisition of many tools, I slowly overcame the refurbishment challenges.
With the need to ensure the Defender would handle a long trip comfortably, I made some key upgrades. I modified the R380 gearbox with an 0.732 ratio fifth gear and a limited slip LT230 transfer box with a 1.2 final gear ratio. The front and rear differentials went from a stock 10-spline axle to a limited slip 24- spline. To increase engine torque, I installed a VGT (variable geometric turbocharger) and a larger intercooler. The VGT turbo increased the maximum torque from 188 lb-ft @ 1800 rpm to 235 lb-ft @ 1400 rpm (The same specs for a 300TDi with VGT turbo and intercooler upgrade).
Additionally, I invested in some comfortable sport seats and custom air conditioning. I had previously soundproofed and heat-protected the Defender with Dynamat and quarter-inch Dynaliner throughout, including the doors and bulkhead. Since the Defender serves as my summer daily driver, my upgrades focused on performance, comfort and reliability. When it came time for my nearly 8,000-mile adventure, my work on the Defender as well as my advance planning gave me confidence in my preparation.
New locales and new experiences would force me to confront my feelings, excitement and assumptions. I began in August 2022, when I drove from my then-home in Linden, NJ, for a six-hour trek to Niagara Falls, ON, where I spent my first night at a Canadian campground. The tranquil scenery had already exceeded my expectations, and it prooved a perfect place to relax before the upcoming adventure. With my bag full of snacks and a heart full of joy, I eagerly wondered what nature might hold in store.
Armed with potable water, a cooking setup and back-of-truck sleeping accommodation, I embarked on the four-week journey. Ontario captivated me with its mountainous, heavily wooded landscape, complete with plenty of wildlife. A black bear crossing the road brought me to a stop. The pristine, postcard-worthy lakes were amazing to behold and I found the deserted sandy beaches of Lake Superior very welcoming. Ouimet Canyon made time stand still. Nowhere else had I seen so many waterfalls, but the Takkakaw Falls in British Columbia took home the prize for the most amazing site on my trip. The Canadian Rockies presented a noteworthy challenge to the 200 Tdi engine, but the Defender descended the Rockies well and sound. The rapid clicking and ticking sound of direct injection was music to my ears. Oh, and have I mentioned that I was getting 25 to 28 MPG? Ponder that, my V8 aficionados!
I experienced firsthand why many Canadians regard British Columbia as the pinnacle of outdoor enjoyment. From the pristine mountain lakes to the soaring, glacier-capped mountain peaks and everything in between, there is no shortage of breathtaking views. No wonder many country musicians, such as Ian Tyson, Neil Young, Gene Autry, Slim Whitman and Jim Reeves, sang about the blue Canadian Rockies. Considering the dryness of the summer, I did not encounter one forest fire.
The US Rockies impressed me as well, but not to the Canadian scale. The climb through Routt National Forest in Colorado taxed the 200TDi and, yet again, the old metal prevailed. Then came the I-70 drive toward Denver through the Eisenhower tunnel; at one point it felt like the 7% grade would prevent my Defender from keeping up with 2022 traffic.
My sleeping setup in the Defender was a move to lighten the load. I had ditched the rooftop tent to reduce weight and air drag. Bracing the nights in the truck was sometimes a challenge, however, as overnight temperatures dropped to 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below at a campground in Ontario province of Canada and at a campground in Yellowstone National Park. On the other hand, the overnight temperatures at a campground in Utah were in the high 80s to 90 degrees. There was a thunderstorm that night but when I got up in the morning, it looked like it had not rained. The thirsty Utah ground had swallowed up all the raindrops. A 30-degree sleeping bag kept me comfortable on the cold nights and a light cotton sheet kept me cool on the warm nights, coupled with an inflatable pillow to adjust firmness.
During this trip, I visited with family in Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and Seattle. Their common reaction to my trip was amazement at how the truck handled. I experienced only one mishap, when the passenger side wiper arm suddenly fell off. I could not source a replacement wiper arm until I reached TRS Automotive in Calgary – and yes, I bought a spare one too. Throughout my trip, I did not see another L316 Defender until I reached their shop.
This trip provided me with a life-altering experience. The valleys, hills, glacier-capped mountains, rivers, gorges and waterfalls, wildlife, people, food, excitement and challenges seemed overwhelming at times. I might not have another opportunity to see some of the things I saw, do some of the things I did and meet some of the people I met. I never say, “I am going on vacation.” I always say, “I’m going to travel.” Traveling full time in a Defender isn’t always easy, it isn’t always comfortable, but reaching places where time seems to stand still changes you. I travel to grow. At the end of this adventure, my body felt fatigued, but my emotions felt energized.
I changed my Defender, but my Defender changed me too.