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Project Bernie: The Defender Restoration That Wasn't Meant to Happen

Rebuilding a car was always something on my bucket list. As a mechanical engineer, we had studied mechanics and how engines, gearboxes and differentials work in theory, but putting these into practice was something new to me. Rebuilding a classic car was always something which tickled some interest, an attempt at putting theory to practice. Goodness me, if I knew now the blood, sweat and tears I would have to go through, I don’t think I would have started this project. I completely and utterly underestimated the amount of work 10-fold.

Bernie came onto the scene last November when one of my mother’s friends mentioned in passing that they had a 4WD they had purchased 35 years ago sitting in their shed and was looking at sending it to the scrap yard. After visiting them, I popped my head into the shed and saw this 1987 Land Rover Defender and was like “Wow, this is a classic!”. I found out later that when it was new it had an engine swap and a Diesel 13B Toyota Land Cruiser engine replaced the V8 petrol.

Bernie before the rebuild -

Land-Rover-Defender

24 hours later... I was the owner of a 1987 Defender

The rust was pretty bad and it hadn’t been started in 5 years; the last warrant of fitness was 10 years ago! For some silly reason I saw potential and enquired about it. Little did I know that 24 hours later I would be picking him up and be an owner of a Land Rover Defender. I remember picking up Bernie vividly, driving it to my place thinking when am I ever going to find the time to complete this. The optimist inside of me thought I will figure something out. The next day I flew back to America for work for 4 months and then in 2020 the world collapsed.

Lockdown 2020: When Bernie the Land Rover Was Born

I managed to fly back to New Zealand just before they closed their borders, with no plans and all the time in the world. I had 3 days in NZ before all the shops closed and this was it, Project Bernie was going to happen. I purchased a welder and all the tools I would need to complete a restoration. I had ordered a new engine rebuild kit a few weeks prior and my online Bearmach cart was full with all the parts I thought I would need.

So then lockdown began and I wasn’t able to leave my house for 6 weeks. With very little idea of what it was that I was doing, I started stripping the vehicle down to the chassis. It was like a massive scale Lego kit and I loved it. Here’s a step-by-step of how everything went down:

Strip Down to Chassis

Defender-Chassis

I removed the engine, body panels and stripped the entire project down to the chassis. I started to make repairs on the rear cross members which were completely corroded. I'd never welded before so this was a good place to learn! I then welded them to the chassis. Big difference in the before and after. The new cross member was 5mm thick so should last the distance.

Rust, Rust & More Rust

Land-Rover-Rust

Weld repairs on the front sections, even worse than the rear! Cutting away rust sections was becoming an art form. Made a start on dismantling the radius arms and removing the non-existent bushes. Started to disassemble each axle. You could see the extent of the rust on some of the bolts!

Landy Inspection

Front axle had a massive dent in the front differential. Crown wheel had worked its way through the differential casing and removed all bearings (all to be replaced). Some were micro-welded onto the shafts and were near impossible to remove without cutting. CV joints were removed and inspected. Checked the zero runout and backlash of each differential, the FWD differential was completely ruined.

Dirty Work

Land-Rover-Parts

I ground away all rust and old paint from the chassis. Very dirty work. Steam cleaned the chassis with boiling water and de-greaser and applied 2 thick coats of zinc rich paint.

Repairs

Painted-Land-Rover-Parts

I prepped and painted the chassis attachments. Pressing out the old bushes was very dirty work once again. I repaired the differential housing, cut away the old casing, beat it out with a hammer, re-weld it back on and pressure tested it to check it didn’t leak. I also started to look at the bulkhead. Wow, the rust was so bad.

I painted the axles and prepared the differentials for painting. The internal rebuild was to start when my parts arrived! I then started on the front hubs. Someone had previously dot punched the internal surface of the hubs to raise the surface in order to prevent the bearings from slipping. I decided to weld and machine out the inside to get a better fit. Stripped apart all the brakes (front and rear). I utilised my turps cleaning station for all of this as the layers of grime were really thick!

Chassis Rotisserie

Defender-Chassis

I moved onto machining out the front hubs. The new Bearmach bearings fitted like a dream! I disassembled the front calipers and removed the chrome plated pistons to be replaced with stainless. Epoxy enamel topcoat of all parts in zinc. I managed to get the chassis on a rotisserie so could spin the entire chassis to make painting easier.

Bulkhead Rust Repair

I sprayed 4 litres of fish oil into the chassis to prevent the internals corroding. I then made a start on the front bulkhead; a lot of cutting away rust and welding. I cut away sections of the bulkhead to be replaced. I think by the end of this, the bulkhead was almost all new with the amount of rust repair work!

Parts Assembly

Defender-Parts

Bulkhead was complete. I assembled new rear brake drums, new cylinderpads, springs, wheel bearings and wheel seals, all from Bearmach. New A frame pivot was installed. Everything started to take shape! Rear axle was then complete. Got my new hub end from Bearmach but had to make some adjustments as the wheel seals were the wrong size, but managed to machine out the hub to make it work. I rebuilt the CV joint and front hubs. Front axle complete (minus the differential). CV joint rebuild with parts from Bearmach.

A Rolling Chassis!

Land-Rover-Engine

Suspension was installed with new dampers and new springs. We now have a rolling chassis! I started on engine strip down. Complete overhaul, replacing all components. Installed new engine and inspected gearbox onto chassis and bulkhead.

Last Shift on Internals

Pulled new brake lines and new master cylinder. The new stainless flexible hoses and clutch (master and slave) were all from Bearmach. Front brakes were rebuilt and engine tappet clearances and welding on all doors completed. Time to start on body work!

Body Work O'Clock

Defender-Body-Work

Front differential rebuild with all new bearings from Bearmach. Zero runout, backlash and teeth meshing all complete. Front brakes installed, gearbox opened up and inspected. Rebuilt master cylinder (again), started on body panels and touched them all up.

Bernie's Big Day Out

Bearmach-LED

I painted the top coat on all panels and put everything together. Next, I took Bernie for his first spin and then handed the keys to my father to try! Bernie was really starting to take shape with new door seals and LED lights from Bearmach.

Bernie was complete. It was a huge amount of work, whether or not it was worth it… Well I guess the adventures will tell.

Restored-Land-Rover-Defender

Huge thanks to the guys at Bearmach for supplying the parts during the COVID-19 lockdown. To be able to ship items across the globe and get them delivered to me within a week during a global pandemic was truly incredible.

Can check out the podcast on the build or follow the joys and mishaps of bringing a Land Rover Defender back to lift on Instagram

Edward Lawley

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