Tips for Potential First-Time Vintage Car Owners

Version 1.2 – Updated Frequently (10.07.2017)

The first time I sat in a vintage Land Rover Defender was the moment I collected the keys from a purchase I had made online. She was mine. I flew into South Carolina (where she was imported) with the plan to drive her home to Minneapolis. I hadn’t driven a 5 speed since my early twenties, but fortunately had a lot of experience with right hand drives due to my film work down on the Caribbean island of Dominica. Of course I had also owned a lot of vintage vehicles at this point, so I was aware that I wasn’t buying a fresh-off-the-car-lot new Land Rover. If you’re reading this, your situation is probably a little different.

No pressure. This is a normal house, right?

Even if you’ve driven an old car before, it may have been a long time ago. For those interested in adopting a vintage Land Rover Defender, we’ve constructed a guide to help potential first-time Defender owners through the process. This should hopefully prepare you for your first experience.

Tip One: This is not a new car

At a minimum the vehicles you’re looking at are 25 years old. We sometimes forget how far our technology and engineering has advanced in such a short period of time. The late 80s and early 90s represents a time before a lot of the modern conveniences on today’s vehicles. Electronic fuel injection was standard on most American cars, but not the Defender. Airbags were not an option, ever. The British-born Turbo Diesel is quite different from the typical petrol-sucking V8’s that filled our motorways at the time.

Even in her prime, the Defender was never meant to be a luxury vehicle. She was a work vehicle, tractor, and leader of exotic expeditions.

An old car, Defender or other, will not be perfect. Unless you found a museum quality vehicle, there will be things that were non-standard from the factory. One of the charming details about the Defender is that they are highly customizable. And in a typical lifetime there has likely been a few changes. There’s also likely to be a dent, scratch, or a bit of surface corrosion. Unless you’re paying $150k for one of these Defenders, you’re going to have to be prepared to live with these items.  In fact, we cherish these  marks, as each of them tell a story of adventure.

Defenders actually look better with faded paint and a few nicks gathered along the way. For the Defenders we offer, we like to make sure the key components are solid, rust has been mitigated, and nothing structural will leave you abandoned on the side of the road. Our approach is to provide you with a vehicle that you can drive as-is, or improve upon over time to your own taste. If we go go far, you’re not likely to enjoy her the way she was meant to drive, nor would you be able to afford one.

Tip Two: Driving a 5-Speed (from the other side)

It had been 20 years since I had driven a 5-speed vehicle, and even then I was not exactly proficient. Since most of the Defenders we import are manual transmission, you’ll need to think about that ahead of time. My re-training period took place on the luxurious grounds of the Biltmore Hotel (the former Vanderbilt Mansion in South Carolina), where I was able to slowly grind through the gears, stalling on what seemed like absolutely flat ground.

This is not as frightening as it may seem.

There were a few things at play here when I jumped in the driver’s seat:

  1. 20 years of automatic transmissions had made me lazy
  2. The pressure of people, far richer than me, wondering what the hell I was doing
  3. Shifting with my left hand
  4. Driving on the right side (more on this in the next section)

After about 10 minutes, I was able to re-learn how to shift without stalling.  Another 10 minutes and I was able to get past second gear. By the time an hour had elapsed, I was less likely to have an aneurysm driving on a public road.

My point being: it comes back to you.  Eventually.

Tip Three: Right Hand Drive (RHD)

Driving on the right side of the vehicle is probably the easiest part of owning a classic Defender. Reminding yourself to get in on the right side is harder than actually driving from the right side.

A few things to note about your first time in the driver’s seat on the right side:

  1. It’s perfectly legal to drive a RHD vehicle in the United States
  2. Parallel parking is incredibly easy, as you can just look down at the curb and judge your distance
  3. Some of the controls are switched – blinkers, wipers, etc.
  4. The key is placed on the left side of the steering column and you have to pull towards you instead of turn away, as with most American cars
  5. The gas, brake, and clutch pedal are all the same as cars in the states
  6. The parking brake actually pinches a collar around the axel, so you’re not likely to move if you forget to release it (push the button on the top and push the handle forward until it’s parallel with the ground)
  7. Turning right is always easiest, turning left takes some training, but becomes second nature very quickly
  8. The seat does adjust forward and back, but not by much – maybe an inch or two (reach under the seat and pull the bar up while scooting forward or back)
  9. The little lever on the right side of the seat base will adjust the seat back (an inch or two forward or back)
  10. Buckle your seat belt and enjoy the ride — everything else is pretty much the same at this point

Once you master the art of driving on the right hand, you’ll certainly love the look on people’s face when you pull up to an intersection.  A lot of people will say: “The steering wheel is on the wrong side!”  My favorite response: “Nope, it’s on the right side.”

Tip Four: Starting a Turbo Diesel Defender Motor

I will admit that I had never owned a Diesel before.  I had heard horror stories about diesel motors, mostly from people who had never owned, driven in, or otherwise seen a real-life diesel in the wild. The truth is that the rest of the world lives on diesel. It’s cheaper, far more efficient, with higher reliability. There are some issues in extreme weather climates, but for the most part, diesel engines are just as reliable as anything else on the planet. Just put it this way: most long-haul and military vehicles are diesels. That says something about dependability.

As for the Land Rover Defender Turbo Diesel family, you’ll most likely be driving a 2.5L Turbo Diesel or a 200TDi, based on the years that are now eligible for US import.  They both start the same way.

The Turbo Diesel does not have spark plugs, but rather ignites the diesel fuel based on compression. To aid this compression, each of the TD’s have been fitted with something called a glow plug, which heats up the ignition chamber before the starter motor kicks and and starts spinning the crank over. Hot air, compression, fuel = start.

Ok, ok, … too technical. Let’s put it simply. The ignition switch turns on the glow plugs, they heat up the chamber, and boom… the car starts.  The process is simple:

  1. Turn the key towards you and hold–right before the starting position (you will get a feel for it)
  2. Hold it there for between 8-13 seconds for the glow plugs to heat up and warm the chamber
  3. Turn the ignition the rest of the way

Tip Five: There is no Air Conditioning

My White Defender 90 did come fitted with a V8 and air-con from the factory. That’s rare.  Plus, the air-con has never worked. I don’t know how many times curious buyers have asked me: “Does it have air conditioning?”

Truthfully, I don’t respond. Because if that’s your top priority, they should maybe look at a Jeep.

There are a few aftermarket kits to add air-con, which run around $2,500 + install.  So, it is possible, but with the vents in the front of the dash and windows that roll down, it’s not likely you’ll ever need it.

There is heat. Sometimes.

Tip Six: Parts & Repairs

When I started this venture I was surprised how easy it was to get parts. There are quite a few options to get things shipped in from specialist companies overseas.  I tend to rely on 2-3 different vendors, with a little eBay action to fill in the gaps. I find that I can get parts from the UK just as fast as something from Amazon sometimes, at a fraction of the price.

I’m planning a post later on to talk about how to order parts, where the best places are to ship from, how to figure out the right parts, etc.  The short version of the story is this:  it’s easier and cheaper to get Defender parts than any other car I have ever known. My front porch is proof.