Between 1993 and 1997, Land Rover imported fewer than 7000 Defender 90s to North America. If you want one, prepare to pay up; prime, low-mileage examples trade for around $100,000. Even the nicest North American Specification (NAS) Defender, however, is old enough to buy beer and wasn’t exactly a paragon of reliability on the day it arrived at the dealer lot. By now, even a good one will likely present leaks from above (the ill-sealing doors) and below (transmission, transfer case, and the 182-hp Rover V-8, which is actually a Buick aluminum-block design from the early 1960s). But what if you could have the blocky charm of an NAS D90 combined with modern horsepower and amenities for about the same price as a nice, used one? For those who care more about driving than originality, Osprey Custom Cars in Wilmington, North Carolina, builds some of the nicest Defenders that never were.
Company founder Aaron Richardet began restoring Defenders in 2009 and eventually realized a truism that applies to any sufficiently thorough restoration: If you’re replacing nearly every component anyway, you may as well just start from scratch. “We’ll do it either way, as a restoration or from the ground up,” Richardet said, “but you end up at about the same price.”
Defender parts are plentiful, and Osprey constructs its trucks from a combination of OEM, aftermarket, and rebuilt components. The frame of the truck we drove was new, galvanized and powder-coated (the old belt-and-suspenders approach to corrosion prevention). Its General Motors-sourced 5.3-liter V-8, while more modern than the NAS Rover V-8, was rebuilt. Richardet likes the 5.3-liter V-8 for Defender builds, but GM Performance doesn’t offer it as a crate engine. “The 5.3 is really perfect for Defenders,” he said. “GM had this engine dialed. It’s happy at the amount of power it makes, and it runs cool. You see plenty of Tahoes and Suburbans with these things in them running around with 300,000 miles.” As installed in this Defender, Osprey claims 325 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque.
The 5.3-liter is hooked to a 6L80E six-speed automatic transmission that’s programmed to keep engine revs low unless you really hoof the throttle, in which case the stubby four-by-four unleashes a bellicose holler through its Cherry Bomb muffler and accelerates with an urgency totally at odds with its toolshed-on-wheels proportions. An automatic-equipped NAS Defender from the ’90s will frequently downshift out of top gear at highway speeds, its old Rover V-8 fighting ongoing skirmishes with the wind. The Osprey has no such problem, but high-speed interstate travel isn’t really its forte. You can build a Defender as fine as you please, but doing 75 mph in one will still feel like you’re riding Skylab out of orbit.
It’s better to take it easy, roll down the front windows and unzip the plastic rear ones on the canvas top. Activate your heated seat if it’s chilly, crank some air conditioning if it’s not. The Osprey doesn’t offer the sophisticated luxury of, oh, a Jeep Wrangler, but it does marry that jaunty old-school Defender charisma with modern features: LED headlights, remote start, a 7.0-inch Pioneer touchscreen with a backup camera. The four side-facing rear seats mean that the Osprey seats six, provided the four in back don’t mind extended eye contact (or avoiding same). It’s an agreeable way to go get some ice cream.
While Osprey doesn’t offer an official warranty, there’s a tacit understanding that the company will support the product if gremlins creep up. Richardet and his team put shakedown miles on each new build, and in this case we helped with that. A two-hour highway drive exposed an occasional hiccup in the driveline that turned out to be a transmission calibration issue. Osprey worked it out after we surrendered the truck, since this one was on its way to its new owner the week after we sampled it. Even at more than $100,000, these trucks don’t linger long in the showroom.
Osprey will build you a Defender considerably nuttier than this one—one recent LS3-powered Defender pickup cost nearly $200,000—as will companies like Himalaya and East Coast Defender. But at this price, in this spec, Osprey’s creation represents the Defender Singularity, the point where new and used prices intersect. You don’t get that Land Rover “Solihull Warwickshire” numbered build plate, but you do get power, reliability, and heated seats. The Osprey is also notable for what you don’t get. After driving it for two weeks, it didn’t leave a spot on our driveway.
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