Apropos of nothing, I’ve been thinking about the South African market BMW-powered Land Rover Defender a lot, lately. It was an unusual car and one many enthusiasts know little-to-nothing about. In fact, most car enthusiasts are unaware that BMW owned Land Rover for a time in the ’90s. During that time, a couple of brilliant madmen working for BMW South Africa decided to build a BMW-powered Defender and what resulted was a very limited run, extremely cool car that was unfortunately mostly forgotten.
During the BMW/Land Rover years, BMW chassis engineer Frank Isenberg was working for the Bavarian brand in South Africa. While walking through the workshop, he noticed a Land Rover Defender 110 with a 3.5 liter V8 in it and, next to it, an M52 BMW engine (2.8 liter inline-six) on a hoist, ready to go into a 3 Series. That gave him an idea.
Isenberg measured the engine and the engine bay of the Defender, realized it would fit, and then went on the journey of figuring out how to stuff the 2.8 liter BMW straight-six into the Land Rover. Once the prototype was built, it blew everyone away. The biggest complaint about the Defender 110 from customers was its lackluster carbureted V8 engine. Replacing it with a revvy BMW I6 completely changed the character of the Defender, making it far more enjoyable to drive.
While the engine was a BMW engine, the rest of the powertrain and drivetrain were from a Range Rover P38 DSE, which ironically used a BMW diesel engine. The prototype was called “Green Mamba”, due to the fact that it was faster and more fun… and green.
Not only was the BMW-powered Land Rover Defender 2.8i faster than the original Landy, it was smoother and more enjoyable to use. I spent nearly ten years with the same engine in my E36 328i and I can easily see how it could cause such a transformation. It was a wonderful engine; smooth as silk, strong at low revs, sonorous at high revs, and incredibly linear. Just a lovely engine and far better than the old Rover V8 from the original Defender.
Unfortunately, neither BMW nor Land Rover sold the car in any other market. If either of them had sold it in the ‘States, I’d be all over that (even though it’d probably cost more than my house with today’s classic car prices). However, I’m glad that such a car ever existed. It seems like it would be a blast to drive, even today.