By Graeme Hurst

The original Land Rover fathered the off-road automotive industry as we know it and remained in production for close on 70 years. A remarkable run which saw its basic format largely unchanged, apart from a series of engine changes in an ongoing quest for efficiency and enhanced performance. Only the latter phrase was never really part of the Land Rover lexicon… until the engineers at our local factory shoe-horned in one of Bavaria’s finest.

I’d like to have been a fly on the wall at a few board meetings in automotive history. Meetings which were unprecedented owing to their displays of sheer incredulity at recent news. Like the one held at Ferrari the day after Ford snatched a 1-2-3 victory at Le Mans in June 1966 with its GT40 – this after Enzo had famously refused to sell his company to Henry Ford so they could win the coveted endurance race. Or the one at Jaguar after Goldfinger premiered in September 1964 – just months after the Coventry carmaker refused a request by Eon Productions for an E-Type, the director’s first choice for 007’s wheels.


Another is the board gathering at BMW in Munich shortly after it acquired Land Rover back in 1994. No sooner had the ink dried on the corporate paperwork for the purchase of a company making a veritable dinosaur of a motor car, than BMW’s head honchos got a fax from the South African Rosslyn plant detailing a Land Rover boasting BMW six-cylinder power from the range-topper in the company’s 3 Series sedan.

Yes, you read that correctly… a then near-50-year-old off-road vehicle with a body fabricated with a sheet metal press and held together with rivets was running around with the company’s state-of-the-art, multi-valve six-cylinder engine 6 000 miles away on the other side of the world. Mein Gott, the fear of the impending brand taint must have been enough to have management choking on their bratwurst!


Truth is, the South African BMW operation had a bit of a reputation for surprises, having a penchant for re-engining cars in an act of ongoing brinkmanship with the mothership back in Bavaria. First there was the 745i. When Munich said it wasn’t coming in right-hand drive as their turbo application fouled the steering box in that configuration, engineers at Rosslyn reacted by shoe-horning the M1’s M88 engine into the shell of a standard 7 Series to create our own version that reigned supreme in Group 1. Then, when BMW HQ created the four-cylinder M3, its engineering peers over here delivered the mighty 333i with an extra two cylinders. And then there was the 325iS – a mix of an M3 chassis and Alpina-tuned 2.7-litre engine.

It was probably clear by then that BMW’s South African outfit had no shortage of talent on the engineering front. It also had an ability to judge the market; unlike the 745i and 333i, their latest prodigy would go further than just minimum homologation numbers when it came to production volume. Indeed, what started out as a three-week engineering project before management back in Munich got wind of anything ended up being an exciting and unique chapter in Land Rover’s colourful history.

The 2.8i Defender story began just after BMW had moved production from the ageing Blackheath plant in the Western Cape up to Rosslyn, shortly after the corporate acquisition. At that stage, the model was offered in diesel and petrol format here in SA. The latter meant Rover’s 3.5-litre V8, which had been in service since 1983. That all-alloy engine – the design of which was bought back in the 1960s from Buick in the US – had also powered three generations of both Rover and Land Rover’s premium product, the Range Rover.


But, although it was remarkably versatile in application (in 5-litre form it was later the grunt behind the TVR Griffith 500 over in the UK), it was particularly thirsty when installed in the Land Rover. A lack of aerodynamics and the sheer heft of the Landy’s chassis-based design was responsible for its drinking habit, particularly when covering long distances by owners here in SA.

The V8 engine also felt underpowered in our local conditions. Especially to the likes of Mike Dawson (the product development manager in the early 1990s), as Rob Gearing – now GM of After Sales at BMW SA – recalls. “Mike was a keen diver and outdoor guy at the time, and he had the idea of putting in the 2.8i after complaints about the V8 being heavy on fuel and not particularly awesome when it came to power. He was also familiar with the 333i, 325iS and 745i projects that came out of the engineering development building.”


The 2.8i was known as the M52 engine in factory parlance. At the time, it was one of BMW’s shining stars, powering the company’s then new 328i as well as the 5 Series and 7 Series saloons, and was much talked about in the industry because of its variable valve timing technology (known as VANOS), which widened the straight-six engine’s torque band. In output metrics it was good for 142kW at 5300rpm with an impressive 280Nm torque at 3950rpm. Back then the figures made for heady reading by V8 Land Rover owners who only enjoyed 100kW from the dual-carb 3.5-litre unit, although that was in part due to Land Rover’s deliberate use of a low-compression specification that was more suitable for fuel quality in third-world markets.

Although the Defender had a suitably generous enough engine bay to accommodate the unit, it wasn’t actually Dawson’s prime choice for the transplant. “His initial thinking was to put it into a Discovery, as that was a more refined vehicle,” explains Rob. “We built and ran one and it had really good fuel economy, but there was a lot of pushback from Solihull. They were finding every reason not to do that.” With the Defender being assembled at Rosslyn for the local market (unlike the Discovery which was a full import), the idea of a transplant was easier to pull off without resistance from Land Rover or BMW overseas, and Dawson’s team in product development soon had a few prototypes up and running. The project was made easier by the fact BMW SA was assembling the M52 engine, which meant it had a supply of them; commandeering a batch from Munich might’ve been trickier.

The switch wasn’t all plain sailing as an adaptor housing to mate the BMW engine to Land Rover’s 380 gearbox had to be designed and cast. A lot of the clutch parts – including the slave cylinder ­­– came off the 2.5-litre Diesel Range Rover, while items like the pilot bearing in the crankshaft had to be specifically machined to mate an engine using metric dimensions to a gearbox boasting (typically post-war) imperial measures – a sign of just how much of a juxtaposition the marriage of engine and car was back then. Other adaptions included the installation of a bespoke Lucas engine management system in place of BMW’s Siemens item, along with reconfigurations of the engine cooling and air intake systems, plus the relocation of ancillaries such as the air-con pump.


Also getting attention was the gearing of the Land Rover’s transfer box, which had to be adapted to suit the M52 engine’s character in ‘closed-throttle’ conditions, as Rob further recalls. “The inherent problem was that the M52 was a high-efficiency engine, but the downside was that it didn’t have engine braking ability for the real low-range, walking-down-a-mountain type driving. It just couldn’t match the V8’s ability on that front.” The development team compensated for that to a large degree by opting for a shorter transfer box ratio. “I think it was 1:6 in place of the V8 and Diesel’s 1:2, which improved things. But it was only really an issue in maximum conditions.”

All in, the project took around 18 months before the 2.8i model was launched in 1997, in both three-door ‘90’ and traditional five-door ‘110’ configurations. The time to market would’ve been quicker if it weren’t for BMW’s stringent road-test regime. “BMW ownership meant a lot of sign off. The company was really rigorous about that compared to Land Rover,” recalls Rob. “We also shipped a few to Munich and there was a lot of NVH (Noise Vibration Harshness) testing conducted at Gerotek. In total we covered around 80-100 000km, which took time.”


It was worth the wait, however, with CAR magazine calling it the ‘hot-rodder’s 4×4’ when its editorial team got the keys to a 90 version in July 1998. No surprise, really, when you consider they clocked it a 0-100km/h time at 9.3 seconds – for an all-wheel-drive, chassis-based vehicle complete with solid axles! That number was almost half what the outgoing V8 Landy achieved at the hands of CAR’s  testers in March 1990. Back then the V8 version could only muster 134km/h at full lick but in 2.8i ‘90’ form it hit 169km/h, and even that number was capped, as Rob recalls. “It saw over 170km/h on test, but we had to limit it as the Land Rover got quite nervous at high speed.”

Those numbers would’ve startled the Landy’s original designers, brothers Maurice and Spencer Wilks, had they been around today. When they famously sketched out a design for an all-purpose vehicle with the capability of the American Willys Jeep more than 70 years ago in the sand on a beach in Wales, they could never have envisioned this pairing. Or even the fact that their design would remain so recognisable when the transplant took place in the mid-1990s.

And it’s the recognition that made it well-loved enough back then for BMW to bank on a market for their prodigy; Maurice and Spencer would’ve felt right at home if either one had stood on the foot plate to hoist himself up and behind the wheel of this 2.8i. Despite the use of plastic to locate instruments and minor controls, the old-fashioned, sit-up-and-beg driving position is unchanged. Ditto the signature lever-operated horizontal air flaps and the fold-down sideways benches in the rear – and indeed the external hinges on the doors. Sure, there have been additions over the years, such as the knee-level 1970s-style air conditioning vents, but a few minutes behind the wheel will have you entertained by the farcical lack of ergonomics. Of course, that’s what makes a Landy so endearing. Turn the ignition key and the emotions continue as you hear the distinct sound of the BMW ‘6’. It’s a noise that becomes increasingly addictive the more you prod the throttle and feel the resultant surge that’s incongruous with the Landy’s traditional willing-but-lumbering character.


A few miles behind the wheel is enough to demonstrate just how well engineered the ‘transplant’ was in terms of ability; the 2.8i Defender feels utterly capable for all your typical normal on- and off-road conditions, both here and abroad. Except it was only available locally as Land Rover wasn’t set up for export in those days and, any case, the main assembly plant in Solihull was flat out producing diesel variants for the rest of the world. Even if Land Rover HQ had bought into the concept for UK assembly, the Munich-powered version would’ve got the chop when Ford took over the famous four-wheel-drive brand in 2000.

By then more than 1 300 2.8is had been screwed together for South African buyers. Today they’re highly coveted in both overseas and local markets. Overseas owners thrilled by the chance to drive something that offers unrivalled performance and local owners who bask in having the keys to a piece of SA motoring history that had jaws dropping in Bavaria all those years ago.

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