For almost three decades, the short wheelbase, coil-sprung, utility Land Rover has been the perfect farm runaround and tug. Go down to any auction mart on sale day and the car park will be packed with Land Rover Ninety and stock trailer combinations. They are a British double act as celebrated and ubiquitous as Morecambe and Wise or Wallace and Gromit. These Land Rovers tend to be standard base models with flat paint, steel wheels and a few dents while the dashboard and seats may have suffered at the teeth of a bored Jack Russell. Typically, they will sport plain hard tops or perhaps truck cabs with an Ifor Williams canopy. These are not lifestyle vehicles with fashion accessories to look good, like so many recreational Land Rovers, but works tools, purchased for a job and worked hard.
This Ninety belongs to Matt Avery, a vehicle recovery specialist from South Derbyshire. He is only the third owner of a vehicle that spent all of its previous life as a farm vehicle. Other than running repairs and servicing, it is totally original. The original 2286cc engine has only covered 47,000 miles since April 1985. It has never been repainted or accessorised. It carries a beautiful patina that can tell stories of bumped gates and itchy sheep. It is a bit like a Barbour jacket; even though it has seen a good few seasons, it never goes out of fashion and neither does the slightly worn exterior detract from its appearance and function. The Marine Blue colour was also known as Farmers’ Blue and is a shade more commonly associated with the Series II or III; indeed, 1985 was the last year it was available.
The Land Rover Ninety model was launched in June 1984 so this vehicle is from the first full year of production. The Ninety became available just over a year after the launch of its longer counterpart, the One Ten. Limited engineering department resources meant that one would have to precede the other and since demand for the farmers’ favourite, the 88inch Series III, was still high, the new shorter version was delayed. Even up to a comparatively late date, the length of the new wheel-base was in debate. Initial prototypes from the late 1970s had 100in wheelbases but it was decided that this was just too long as an 88in replacement. Not only would it be too close to the One Ten in terms of market placement, it would cost almost as much to produce but command a lower price. A number of ‘true 90’ inch wheelbase engineering models were built but the rear propshaft was very short, the ride somewhat bouncy and the seat bulkhead position compromised internal space. Eventually a length of 92.9in was settled on; a somewhat random sounding figure until translated to 2360mm.
This delay also meant that the One Ten tested the market and for its second year of production, various new components arrived and specifications were rationalised. The newly launched Ninety therefore received all the upgrades of the 1985 year-model One Ten. Initially, the One Ten could be bought with selectable 4×4 though the permanent system proved most popular so became the only option on both models. The One Ten still had the two-piece front doors from the outgoing Series III but with slanted profile sliding windows. These were rather agricultural on a vehicle such as the County Station Wagon, that had pretensions of attracting upmarket customers. A one-piece door design from Santana was therefore introduced with wind-up windows for the 1985 year-model One Ten and first Ninety. These early doors had lift-up handles and a galvanised trim to match the old body line of the outgoing two-piece doors. This trim was dropped the following year and the push-button doors we know today arrived in 1986. Replacement parts for these early doors are hard to find and therefore command a high price. Thankfully, other than light corrosion on the bottom, both doors on this particular vehicle are sound and the windows wind up and down with ease.
Both wheelbase lengths could be ordered with the recently introduced 2495cc diesel engine but for the first year, the petrol vehicles were still powered by the venerable 2286cc engine from the Series III, albeit in slightly upgraded form. The cam was re-profiled and a twin choke Weber carburettor replaced the single choke Solex unit. The water-pump had an extra outlet on it to allow for a separate radiator expansion tank. When you get into this particular vehicle, the first thing that strikes you is just how gentle the engine sounds, especially if you are used to the clatter of a Tdi-powered Defender. When you turn the ignition on, the electric fuel pump ticks into life and the engine starts with a slight rasp but settles down into a quiet, steady tick-over. It sounds and feels slightly gutsier than a normal Series ‘two and a quarter’ though the performance is only slightly improved. If used to tow a fully laden stock trailer, this vehicle would have been slow and steady and nothing like the modern 2.2 TDCi engine.
Despite the no-frills exterior, this particular vehicle was ordered with a number of ‘modern’ options. It has a deluxe cab,sporting sound-proofing, a fluffy headlining and an internal light. It also has adjustable seats, introduced in 1981 for the Series III Station Wagon and the same basic design that we see on current Defenders. The very first base-model Ninetys had simple seat squabs like the outgoing basic Series III. This Ninety also had the power steering option fitted at the factory and it has the early metal reservoir, not the ZF plastic one we are used to. Power steering on a utility vehicle would have been considered a luxury 28 years ago and it would certainly have made reversing trailers easier. The vehicle was also originally fitted with an Ifor Williams canopy. This was an accessory available for the Series III, but a different version is required for the Ninety’s extended rear tub.
There is something very appealing about the proportions of this lovely vehicle. It is almost toy-like and indeed, model makers Britains Ltd quickly produced a 1:32 scale version, complete with canopy, for their farm sets. Matt’s young son Jack loves Land Rovers and it was his enthusiasm that won Matt over and convinced him to buy the Ninety and later a Discovery 3. Until he can reach the pedals of the Ninety, Jack has his own version, a Rebel Replica Series II painted the same colour.
With the ever-growing interest in Land Rover ‘Defenders’, a name only used since 1990, and recreational off-roading, many early standard trucks like this have been modified to improve their performance, economy, off-road ability and to modernise their appearance. The fact that modern Defenders have the same basic body-shape means that in some eyes, the early Ninety is too modern to carry off the patina look, so faded and scratched paintwork is often repainted. Later body parts such as push- button doors and bulged Puma bonnets are common fitments and indeed these parts are, sadly, frequently stolen from newer vehicles. There is nothing new about Land Rover modifications, upgrades and makeovers. Looking through Land Rover history, later engines were fitted to Series Ones from the 1960s and this continues to the present day. In the 1970s, later wings with headlights were fitted to Series II models and in the mid to late-1980s, GRP 90/110 bonnets and wheel arch extensions were fitted to make Series vehicles appear younger. In the present age, 200Tdi engines from scrapped Discoverys are a ubiquitous conversion in pre-Defender coilers. It is, however, delightful to see a totally standard example of an early Ninety, one that remains in great solid condition and hasn’t been modernised. This vehicle is a future classic and should be kept as original. The paint is slightly faded and scratched but it looks right – it is true and honest.
There is nothing flashy or fake about this motor. It doesn’t try to be anything else than what it was bought for – a work tool, a tug, a runabout. When Defender production finishes in two years time, unmolested early vehicles like this will shoot up in value.