Osprey Land Rover Defender 90 First Test Review: Iconoclastic Fantastic

Ethel Walsh


  • Head-turning good looks
  • Better-than-new galvanized forever-frame
  • Baller Bentley-grade leather



  • Underdeveloped ride/drivability
  • Fiddly aftermarket UX
  • “Authentic” panel fit

The Land Rover Defender was England’s response to the American army jeep that helped liberate the U.K. This no-nonsense, hose-out tool was designed, built, and worked like a hammer. Now that it’s been around for nearly as long as America’s venerable army jeep, the aftermarket can’t resist gilding these ditch lilies with ferocious Yankee V-8 power, diamond-stitched hides, and pile carpeting that will never face a sheep-dung-crusted Wellington boot. Is this corruption of an icon’s original mission warranted? Does the resulting product work? We mounted our test gear to find out.

What’s an Osprey Land Rover Defender 90?

As we explained in our recent first drive of its soft-top 90, Osprey Custom Cars of Wilmington, North Carolina, carries out extensive frame-off restorations built on a completely new, better-reinforced, stamped-steel frame (not box-welded). The frame is also made of thicker-gauge steel and is hot-dip galvanized for the ultimate in corrosion protection, inside and out. This shiny frame remains clearly visible and serves as an easy way to distinguish Osprey Land Rovers from those overhauled by other companies like Twisted Automotive and East Coast Defenders (which typically paint or powdercoat their frames black). Osprey offers fewer build options, which simplifies the ordering process and keeps prices down.

As founder Aaron Richardet says, “I don’t want to $500 folks to death,” so he offers a choice of body (the mix is about 70 percent two-door 90s and 30 percent four-door 110s, with about half being soft-tops), color, wheels, and a raised or lowered suspension—typically at no extra charge unless someone demands something peculiar. Our test vehicle’s fully diamond-quilted leather interior—seats, side panels, and headliner—is a $16,000 option over the base black leather seats with techno-mesh inserts and Alcantara headliner. Our truck’s interior also included forward-facing rear bucket seats that fold up against the side windows, whereas base 90s get a pair of two-person rear benches facing each other. Note that the sides and rear of the hardtop are fully dark-tinted Masai glass, not black paint.

Corvette-Sourced LS3 Crate Motor

GM has made a profit center out of selling crate engines, and this Corvette-sourced and -branded LS3 V-8 comes bundled with a 6L80E automatic transmission and all the software required to make the whole thing sing. In our case, with the donor chassis being more than 30 years old, the exhaust features an oxygen sensor but no catalytic converters to alter its aural (or olfactory) quality. It’s also programmed for harsh full-throttle shifts that utterly do away with any shred of British reserve. GM Performance rates the LS3 at 430 hp and 425 lb-ft, but Osprey claims its tuning and freer-flowing Borla exhaust deliver “435+ hp and 445+ lb-ft.” Keeping everything cool is a Griffin aluminum radiator, and almost all fluids flow through braided stainless lines. To accommodate this engine, the hood is bulged and the bulkhead is replaced with a more modern design that provides more powertrain clearance and accepts the latest dash.

So How Corvette-y Is It?

We managed to coax a 5.5-second 0-60 run out of this 4,346-pound Defender 90 en route to a 14.5-second, 95.9-mph quarter-mile run in between fault code fits, which we’ll get to. That compares with 7.4, 16.3, and 81.0 for a recent test of a fully emissions-compliant soft-top model weighing 4,303 pounds. Defender 90 hardtops powered by the 3.5-liter 182-hp/233-lb-ft Buick-designed aluminum V-8 and four-speed automatic tended to need a couple more seconds (9.8, 17.6, 75.0) back in the day. (Fitted with its original 2.5-liter turbodiesel and five-speed manual, our 90 might have lumbered to 60 in about 16 seconds back when it was new.)

Chassis and Suspension

This build fits a heavy-duty LT230 transfer case similar to the original, which offsets both the front and rear driveshafts. This setup positions the front and rear axle differential “pumpkins” one directly behind the other—a boon when trying to dodge a tall obstacle. Those axles are also new, heavy-duty parts. This setup brings some compromises, though, like the drum parking brake that acts on the transfer case, rather than directly holding the rear wheels. There are also limits to the power and torque this setup can handle, so Richardet says his team is working on a new, more conventional, and stronger drivetrain setup better suited to some of the higher-power LT1-based GM crate engines Osprey is readying for sale. This chassis uses the slightly lower ride height, which negates the need for double-cardan driveshafts and simplifies the radius arm designs (they are nevertheless all new). Of course, the radius arms that locate the front axle limit the steering angle these big 265/70R18 Cooper Discoverer AT3 tires can swing, which results in a giant, 40-plus-foot turning circle (bigger than a Mercedes GLS-Class and well up from the 36-ish feet skinny-tired Land Rover 90s of yore managed).

Interior Mod Cons

There’s a lot of lipstick on this former farmer, and it struggles to deliver all the modern conveniences, leaning heavily on an ATOTO S8 aftermarket infotainment unit to provide Bluetooth phone connectivity, wired or wireless Apple CarPlay/Android Auto, hands-free voice controls, and a backup camera (viewing from bumper level, it’s actually quite helpful for aiming between parking lines when clean). But for anyone mildly acquainted with modern cars, this one’s tough to acclimate to, and the Rockford Fosgate speakers have their work cut out for them in shouting down this engine. So will you on a hands-free phone call. The central A/C vents don’t cool the outboard extremities much, and the defroster relies on wires in the windshield, which can distort vision when hot. Finally, all that flat glass delivers lifelike reflections that can also be distracting, a problem endemic to the classic Defender in general.

What’s It Like to Drive/Live With?

Richardet reckons this is the perfect Manhattan city truck, owing to its tidy dimensions and attention-grabbing looks and sounds. We reckon it’s ideal for making an entrance at cars-and-coffee gigs. As transportation, it suffers mightily from a brittle ride on small impacts and major harshness on bigger bumps. This example also suffered from some sort of electronic powertrain gremlin that caused it to enter limp mode every time it got full throttle (so our performance numbers are at 90 percent throttle). Between that problem limiting our confidence in probing its Corvette nature, and the disconcerting ratio of overall height to wheelbase/track footprint that limited our willingness to bend it hard into turns, we struggled to find any joy at the helm apart from the uniqueness of the experience—and when onlookers were fawning over its design/paint/interior/etc.

Would It Go Off-Road?

Probably. The Defender 90 was an awesome off-roader in its original guise, all the hardware is still there, and no spring or damper settings have been cranked up excessively to compromise articulation. But who’s likely to subject their $179,950 automotive bauble to trail rash? How much time would they be willing to spend power-washing the silver galvanized frame and gold anodized Panhard and steering rods?

Bottom Line

At MotorTrend, ours is not to dissuade buyers from indulging their peculiar automotive passions, and if yours is a Yank-powered British icon, Osprey’s offerings do seem easier to order and their pricing is less exotic. (Yes, you read that right, a lot of the others charge even more.) That said, this truck’s wonky passenger door fit, wavy bodyside panels, and spare tire that rattles when the rear door closes and seems to use the right taillamp as a limit stop all make it hard to stump for the Osprey Land Rover 90—even if it hadn’t gone all limp every time we floored it. Then again, for those who accept its flaws, don their Wellies, and are fearless enough to flog it over hill and dale, perhaps such things present themselves as badges of authenticity.

1991 Osprey Land Rover Defender 90 Hard Top Specifications
BASE PRICE $163,950
VEHICLE LAYOUT Front-engine, 4WD, 4-pass, 2-door SUV
ENGINE 6.2L port-injected OHV 16-valve 90-degree V-8
POWER (SAE NET) 435 hp @ 5,900 rpm
TORQUE (SAE NET) 445 lb-ft @ 4,600 rpm
TRANSMISSION 6-speed automatic
CURB WEIGHT (F/R DIST) 4,346 lb (49/51%)
LENGTH x WIDTH x HEIGHT 145.3 x 70.5 x 78.2 in
0-60 MPH 5.5 sec
QUARTER MILE 14.5 sec @ 95.9 mph
BRAKING, 60-0 MPH 159 ft

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