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Early 90 Buying Advice

Early 90 Buying Advice

I wrote this originally for a fellow forumeer when he was buying a Ninety a couple of years ago. It's not definitive, but I hope my perspective of buying and owning a late 80's Ninety may be useful to others.

Do your homework

First off, buy books and spend time reading them before you buy. Something like Martin Hodder's 'You and your Land Rover Defender 90/110' published by Haynes is a good start, and the Haynes repair manual is a good investment if you want to understand how it all works too.

What should I look for?

I would get the best car you can, otherwise you'll be rebuilding it and cursing it. There will always be plenty to fix on an old Land Rover to keep you joyfully occupied, without major jobs to do. An old, but sound example from the 1980's or early 90's is going to be worn, which is a world of difference from being past redemption. An honest runner might only cost another £500 compared to a cosmetically/superficially OK rolling wreck that's beyond economic viability. So check with care and don't feel rushed, but be aware that faults are inevitable...which is why they are so affordable.

What you don't want is a chassis that requires extensive repair, or even worse, replacement. Check the chassis for holes - get under it with a screwdriver and have a good stab and tap with a hammer ( the main chassis rails should 'ring' when tapped, not thud). Don't worry about the surface rust though, and a car that has been Waxoyled or Dinitroled is a good thing - but can mask welding or holes. There will probably be some repairs/replacement to the rear crossmember and outriggers, or at least expect some corrosion there. Having said that, you can get lucky with a pampered/garaged non-commercial vehicle. However the rear crossmember on any Land Rover of this age will probably have been replaced, if it has check that it is on straight. If it hasn't been replaced, chances are it will need to be.

The bulkhead is another problem area. Surface corrosion bubbling on the side of the bulkhead between the upper door hinge and vent flaps is a common sight. Holes above and below the door hinges are more advanced corrosion, but as long as the corrosion is not extensive both are a straightforward (if perhaps labour intensive) to repair. If you can weld then no probs; if not, it'll cost over a grand for parts and labour to extensively or repair/replace a rotten bulkhead. Peel back the mats and look at the foot well and door pillar for corrosion. Also check around the foot pedals, any holes here will need to be properly repaired before MOT time. The footwell may have rusted out too, but that is cheap to repair and less time consuming. Chalky corrosion and bubbling paint and peeling off the door bottoms and lower parts of the wings is common. This is caused by electrolytic corrosion (it's where the aluminium door skin meets the steel frame). Unless the skin is significantly holed or the door bottoms are crumbling away it's mainly a cosmetic issue, but will require attention at some point and is expensive to fix properly (£270 plus labour and painting per door). The rear door is likely to be in a similar condition to the fronts, it comes in two pieces on the early models and if the spare tyre is mounted on the back check the door hinges for wear.

Body styles

As for body styles there are so many. Hard tops (no windows or rear seats) are the most common - because they are the bread and butter of farmers and commercial users. There are pick ups, soft tops, truck cabs and Station Wagons and County Station Wagons (CSW's). These fetch a premium over hard tops, not because of the seats, but because they will almost inevitably have lead an easier life in private hands, or non-commercial use. A mistake is to discount a CSW on the basis that it's cheaper and easier to fit windows and seats to a hard top - it totally misses the point! This why a late 80's V8 90 CSW can fetch £10k - light use, rare example and USA exportable. So do check the chassis number to see what it was originally, this will tell you if it has the same engine and body style as when it left the factory. The chassis number is stamped into the chassis on the driver's side front rail. You may have to scrape back a load of gunge to see it - so take a wire brush with you. Land Rovers are big meccano sets that get chopped and changed very easily.


Well from 1983 there was a petrol 2.3 litre and diesel 2.5 litre. Both are poor performers, even by the standards of 30 years ago. The petrol engine was enlarged to 2.5l by 1985 (I think), it's quite thirsty though - in the old days Land Rover quoted MPG as 16.3 urban and 22.8 at a constant 56mph. The constant 75 mph figure is 'N/A' because you'll be lucky to get to that speed. In practice the fuel consumption is likely to be high teens. The speedo is likely to over read by 5-10%, so don't be fooled into thinking it's quick! Otherwise the engine is an old trooper and cheap to fix. The 2.5 diesel is another venerable design producing 63 bhp and returning about 27 mpg. The 2.5 Turbo Diesel in production from 1986-1990 is really best avoided. Most have been rebuilt at least once because the design was not up to turbocharging, and it is expensive to fix unless you can do it yourself. The 2.5l petrol has similar performance, is easier and cheaper to fix, and will only use another tank of fuel per 1000 miles, so think about how many miles you'll be doing a year and do the maths before being seduced by diesel.

Check the distributor and carb for signs of constant fiddling - they are prone to wear and if the engine is not running very well it's likely to be one of those at fault. The 3.5 V8 was used in the 90 from 1985, initially with 114 bhp, but then improved in 1987 to 134bhp with SU carbs and a reprofiled cam. Fuel consumption will be in the mid teens, but it's a flyer and a great engine. Open up the oil filler cap and check for baked-hard flaky oil particles - indicating a dead engine. Tapping from the top end indicates a worn cam and valve gear requiring a top-end overhaul, but thumping from the bottom is terminal. Factory V8's with their stronger (but noisier) LT85 gearboxes command a premium over other variants based on their rarity.

From 1990 the diesel 2.5 turbocharged direct injection (200 Tdi) was available, which is an altogether much better engine with 107 bhp and 195lb ft of torque. The price for these vehicles will be significantly higher than a normally aspirated diesel. A common conversion is to fit a 200tdi from an early MOT failure Discovery, these can be differentiated by the turbo which is located beneath the inlet manifold.

From 1994 the 300Tdi was available, which again will add a premium. The weakness of this engine is the head gasket, so do the usual checks for overheating and exhaust gases in the coolant. The engine can soldier on with a leaking head gasket, and then fail suddenly. Having said that, a well kept 200tdi or 300tdi is one of the best Land Rover engnes, but if it's you're struggling to afford a good one I'd suggest buying an A1 condition 2.5/3.5 petrol or the 2.5 normally aspirated diesel instead.

The tiny fuel tank (Land Rover optimistically quote 12 gallons, but 10 gallon/45 litres is your average refill) is under driver's seat on 90: check for leaks, it's a real pain to extract and replace.


On the test drive accelerate hard in all gears and slow down in them all. If it jumps out of any it's an expensive repair. 2nd gear has a reputation for weak synchromesh, if it's worn it'll be stubborn to engage, especially from cold. Strangely the manual gearbox up to 1994 (LT77) uses Automatic transmission fluid, unless it's a factory V8 - in which case it uses engine oil (LT85). More conventionally the transfer gearbox and axles use conventional EP90. If the gearbox has been filled with EP90 gear oil it will wreck the synchromesh and will necessitate costly repair (£500 plus labour), so it might be an idea to ask if the owner has personally changed the gearbox oil, and what grade they put in. If in doubt whip off the level/filler plug and look for red ATF.

Try the high/low lever and diff lock. The ratio shift may be a bit tricky indicating lack of use, but if the difflock doesn't work I'd invite the owner to get it working before sale, or knock £100 cos it can be a pain to sort. You won't break the driveline just testing it and it's not just a niggle, it is essential that it works for using the 4WD off road. If the gearbox is noisy at idle (rattles or a 'swishing' bearing noise like running water) the bearings in the box are very worn, or the clutch release bearing is worn and is best repaired or rebuilt. A clutch replacement costs about £100 plus 7 hours labour to take the engine out. The transfer gearbox will whine in all gears but should whizz, rather than howl! Although a noisy gearbox is unlikely to fail catastrophically, the noise can be a major annoyance when driving more than a few miles.

Test Drive

Make sure you run the nearside front wheel over a few potholes on the test drive, if the steering wobbles violently you know you have bushes, dampers, ball joints and swivels to adjust repair/replace. If the steering is inaccurate and the car requires constant correction - it's worn or badly adjusted, Land Rovers did not leave the factory like that! Early examples are unlikely to have power steering, but should be easy to steer once on the move.

Conversely, power steering that is finger-tip light indicates a problem with the pressure relief valve and possible damage to the steering box seals. Check for red fluid leaking out, any more than dampness is an MOT failure. Speaking of which I'd ask for a new MOT on it, at your own expense if necessary - which will check all of those things. Give the brakes a good stab too, a seized piston will show up as pull to one side (so do this on a wide road!) Rear brakes are drums on the pre-93 ones and easy to maintain.

The ride is much firmer compared to a car - that's normal. But if the ride feels harsh, crashy and uncontrolled (as opposed to firm yet controlled) - that's the dampers at fault. . If it leans to one side it'll need new springs; no hardship to replace but a set of 4 springs and dampers is £200. Only fit genuine or good quality springs as the budget ones cost pennies less and are a false economy.

I would advise caution about being seduced into 'upgrading' the dampers and springs. For greenlaning and road use I would never fit raised springs and 'heavy duty' dampers to a 90 – the centre of gravity is raised, the ride can become too harsh and the propshafts and axles are working in ways they were not designed to.

Wheels and Tyres

Have a look at the tyres, do the sizes and profile numbers match? Tyres of different sizes are a big no-no on a 4x4. If they have different circumferences the centre diff will be working all the time to compensate for the rotational difference, and you should budget for a set of decent tyres. Differently branded non-matching tyres are no major issue. Check the spare if it has one, pull the cover off it and budget for a replacement if required. Alloy wheels are a popular aftermarket accessory, but beware, Tornado (aka Freestyle) and other Land Rover factory alloys from the Range Rover and Discovery won't fit rear drum braked models.

In summary

If the fundamentals are right (chassis, bulkhead, engine, gearbox and driveline) it's a good vehicle. Regular maintenance by previous owners are the key to this. Everything else is a running repair and part of the fun. Please don't be influenced by fancy wheels, chequerplate, bullbars, auxiliary lights and window dressing that spruces up a tired old example. Also if someone has mucked around with the electrics I'd walk away unless you really know what you're doing. Do not rush into buying a Land Rover - time spent now will save you loads of time and money later.

And finally, if the owner says that if the roof doesn't let water in - it's a lie. They all leak and are all equipped with a factory-fitted spider!



1 – This was my 1989 V8 Ninety in 2001. Here in fairly original condition, with Rostyle wheels and 205x16 tyres. Compared with current Defenders the tyres look very small, and fitting taller and wider tyres is a common modification.


2 – Most examples will have the more practical vinyl flooring, rather than full carpeting. Be sure to check for corrosion under any sound insulation and floor matting though. Most cars will have a centre seat rather than a cubby box, though it is a fairly simple substitution if you need the storage space.


3 – The engine bay. Check for leaky head gaskets and signs of overheating on all examples. The viscous fan should spin freely when cold, engaging when the engine starts up. You should be able to hear the airflow 'roar' for the first minute or two after a cold start, then it will disengage and the fan will freewheel until cooling is needed.


4 – Again, pull back any floor covering and check the floor for holes. The side opening tailgate is the expensive item to fix, so check it for corrosion and worn hinges. The rear cross-member is a big rust trap too, so check it thoroughly – including the chassis legs going forward.
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Very good basic overview of what to look for, hopefully it will be of assistance to many prospective purchasers.
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