Land Rover South Africa offered a unique Defender during the period the group was owned by BMW. Between 1997 and 2001, the Defender 90 and 110 were offered with a BMW petrol engine alongside the normal Tdi engine. The engine was the legendary BMW M52 2793 cc, straight-six, 24-valve engine as found in the E38 728i and the E36/7 Z3.
The vehicles were built at Rosslyn outside Pretoria and one of them belongs today to Frank Isenberg, Chief BMW Driver Training and the leader of the M2 project.
In an interview with Road & Track, Isenberg talks about this one-of-a-kind truck and how it came into his possession. When he was working for BMW in South Africa, the M2 engineer came across the Defender 110 which at the time was powered by a 3.5 Rover V8. Isenberg was looking for a more fuel efficient engine and interesting enough, next to the Rover was BMW’s new M52 2.8 engine. Using a tape measure, the engineer quickly came to the conclusion that the M52 could fit in the Defender’s engine bay.
After countless phones to Munich and Solihull, Isenberg managed to get right dimensions of the components he had to change and to sort out the electrics. Fast forward 2-3 weeks later and the first Defender 2.8i was up and running.
“Everybody involved was impressed by the smoothness and performance of the conversion” Isenberg said. “This first prototype was used for some functional testing like drivability, off-road capability, hot environmental tests and so on.”
But getting approval for a full production series is a tedious work at any large company. Isenberg had to prove the engine’s durability according to Land Rover and BMW test standards.
“ we converted a green 90 soft top into the first Defender 90 2.8i – the so called Green Mamba, because of its power and speed” Isenberg added. Testing happened all over South Africa and especially the ´government approved high speed testing´ at about 170 km/h was a lot of fun, even when a bit noisy because of the soft top and the NAS roll cage.”
In 1997, the Defender 2.8i went into production to become a big success.
But Isenberg’s love story with the Land Rover hasn’t stopped there. Many years later, he spotted a red Defender 110 2.8i on Gumtree, a classifieds website popular in South Africa. A ticket to Capetown and the Red Mamba found a new home and owner.
“With 75,000 miles on the clock, no strange noises and almost no rust I believe I made a good deal. It took me about a week to convert her into a basic camper equipped with only the most necessary goodies (roof rack with solar panel, deep freezer, coffee machine). It is still impressive how nice she runs. It’s great on the highway (still capable of 94mph (GPS) fully laden), but comes alive even more in the dunes.”
As any great offroad car, Red Mamba has seen its fair share of exotic adventures. From the Namaqua Eco Trail with the famous “Road to Hell”, to the Kunene 4×4 Trail with van Zyl´s Pass and a Namib Desert Crossing, the Defender has proved its worth.
The truck shows 97,000 miles on the odometer today with only few user-infused technical issues: broken propshaft joint (poor maintenance – no grease) and a blown clutch release bearing (heavy over revving when going downhill – the engine survived).
So it comes as no surprise that such passionate engineer ended up working on the M2 which has been recently highly praised by Jeremey Clarkson.