A failed gearbox on a Defender 90causesto be a bit of a challenge after it’s discovered the vehicle was previously stolen and recovered
One of the eternal problems facing the small garage proprietor is time management. There is a fine balance to be struck between taking on enough work to pay all the bills, while still allowing a bit of slack in the schedule for when things go wrong as they inevitably do when working on vehicles that are sometimes more than half a century old. You never know when things might go quiet, so the temptation is to fill up the diary, cross your fingers and hope for plain sailing. This is seldom a good idea, as a recent arrival in the Norfolk Garage demonstrates.
The vehicle in question is a Defender 90 which I have been looking after for a little while now. Two years ago it was treated to an engine rebuild, and when the engine was refitted it made sense to fit a new clutch.
There are about half a dozen different part numbers for clutch kits to fit four-cylinder Defenders: all share the same fixing bolt and shaft spline pattern, and my preference is for the 9.5 inch diaphragm clutch, STC8358, supplied by either AP Driveline or Borg & Beck. I have fitted a lot of these clutches over the years and never had any problems with either of these brands. This particular vehicle had a Borg & Beck clutch fitted, and I was a little surprised when the owner rang me up one morning to say that the clutch had failed and that the vehicle was on its way to the workshop on the back of a big lorry.
The symptoms certainly pointed towards a catastrophic mechanical failure of the clutch. The vehicle had started making a rattling sound which got progressively louder and sounded as though it was coming from the bellhousing area. Approaching a roundabout the rattling got much louder and the vehicle lost drive and coasted to a halt. When the owner attempted to depress the clutch pedal he found that it had locked solid. There was also a strong burning smell. All a little odd, and I was most curious to see what had happened.
Seeing as the engine had been out of the vehicle fairly recently whereas the gearbox had not, I decided to tackle what I thought would be a simple clutch change by removing the engine. In just over an hour I had it out of the engine bay and hanging on the crane. When I split the engine and gearbox I was expecting an avalanche of small broken bits of clutch to cascade onto the floor, but there was nothing in the bellhousing, and the clutch itself looked totally fine, with all the bolts securing it to the flywheel nice and tight and no sign of anything amiss.
I grasped the gearbox input shaft and tried to turn it by hand, and at once realised that I was looking a gearbox rather than a clutch failure. The shaft would barely turn and the cogs inside the ’box were clearly not happy. So why had the clutch locked solid? That was an easy mystery to solve: the clutch release bearing slides on a sleeve which forms part of the gearbox front cover. The cover had got so hot that the plastic body of the release bearing had started to melt, and glued itself to the sleeve.
So instead of a nice, simple half day clutch change I found myself having to schedule a gearbox removal and refit, on top of refitting the engine. And just to make matters a little more complicated, the vehicle in question was previously stolen and recovered, and the serial number has been ground off the gearbox (along with those on the engine and axles)
“As a result of all this mechanical mayhem, I ended the week a day and a half behind”
in an attempt to hide the vehicle’s original identity. Reconditioned gearboxes are almost always supplied on a like-for-like exchange basis, and without a serial number there is no way to tell which variant of the LT77 gearbox this is, apart from by dismantling it and peering at the internals. So rather than buy an exchange unit I have to send the old, broken gearbox off to be rebuilt.
This is not untypical of the way in which jobs can escalate and make a mockery of any attempt to plan the week’s work. In the same week that the Defender came in I found myself unexpectedly replacing a front hub assembly on a Series IIA to get it through the MOT (shot bearings and two wheel studs held in place with silicone sealant), welding up the nearside dumb iron and front crossmember on an ex-military One Ten, rebuilding the (incredibly hard to find and expensive) military-pattern headlight bowls and backing plates on the same vehicle, and replacing the front exhaust pipe on a petrol Series III, after it disintegrated when I attempted to separate it from a rusted-out rear section.
That last one could have been much worse than it turned out to be. Nine times out of ten the downpipe studs on the manifold either shear off when you try to undo the nuts, or strip their worn and rusted threads when you attempt to fit the new downpipe. This particular vehicle had a newish manifold with brass nuts and everything came undone exactly as per the workshop manual.
As a result of all this mechanical mayhem, and with absolutely no spare capacity in the diary, I ended the week about a day and a half behind. One way round this problem is of course to work weekends, but even Land Rover mechanics need a break occasionally. It only takes a couple of bad weeks like this before drastic action is required. About six months ago I cleared a full week in the workshop diary to give me a chance to catch up and tidy up, and it is getting close to the point where I will have to do the same thing again.
with limescale, and the wiring loom and seats were eaten by mice.
The vehicle had been a garage breakdown truck, probably for its whole life. Back in the good old days just about every garage in Britain had a Land Rover with a Harvey Frost crane in the back, unregistered and running on trade plates, which meant they never needed an MOT test. In the 1980s the rules changed and many of these old vehicles were taken out of use, being too old and unroadworthy to be worth bringing up to MOT standard.
This particular vehicle had been road registered in 1984, had lost its crane, but still had the holes in the rear floor and mounting plates welded to the chassis rails as evidence of its previous life. It also had makeshift coil springs jammed between the rear axle and the chassis to supplement the sagging leaf springs, and a pair of ‘Mickey Mouse ear’ indicator repeaters attached to the truck cab.
Undaunted I set about bringing the old beast to life, and in the process learned more about Land Rovers than any other vehicle before or since. The engine had a bottom end knock, and the water pump was leaking past the seals. I bought new bearing shells and a new pump, and thus learned that there are two types of two and a quarter petrol engines: the type fitted to 95 per cent of Series Land Rovers, and the early 151 which is what I had – and none of the spares suppliers seemed to have heard of!
I bought an alternator to replace the dynamo, spent a full day trying to remove the long through bolt which holds the dynamo to the block, and learned that oxy-acetylene beats WD-40 when it comes to freeing seized fasteners. I fitted a brake servo from a Series III, messed about with the pushrod length in an attempt to reduce the excessive pedal travel, and the first time I applied the brakes firmly they locked solid.
Using a Massey 135 tractor with a front end loader and leaking hydraulics I gingerly lifted the body off the chassis to reveal the full extent of the corrosion. Everything was horrible. There was a large scrap pile on the farm which I was free to raid: the Series II ended up with all the rot cut out and replaced with 4 mm steel, and a homemade rear crossmember fabricated from a length of steel channel, all done with a cheap arc welder from Halfords. I even made my own footwells. By the following January the beast was back together, brush-painted with Bronze Green tractor enamel and had passed its MOT. Then it started to snow.
Some readers will remember the winter of 1990-91. Snow fell heavily over several days and many isolated rural areas were cut off from the outside world. This included my part of Lincolnshire. The roads in and out were blocked with snowdrifts, but for a young lad with an old Land Rover it was paradise on earth. For a couple of days my old Series II and the farmer’s Ninety were in constant use moving cattle feed and hay bales, fetching and delivering groceries to stranded pensioners, towing lesser vehicles out of ditches and generally being useful.
In the end I sold the Series II to a pub landlord who did a bit of pheasant shooting. The rattly old petrol engine finally died a few months after I sold it: the cylinder head corroded through the casting from the inside leaving a thumbnail-sized hole near one of the spark plugs, which is something I haven’t seen on any Land Rover since.
The new owner asked me to drop in a diesel which he had acquired. That locked solid after a week due to the combustion chambers filling up with oil when the engine was cranked over on the starter, and I haven’t seen that fault since, either. I ended up rebuilding the engine for him with new pistons and crankshaft.
So even after the vehicle had left my ownership it was teaching me new skills. The vehicle is still registered with the DVLA but its last MOT expired in 2009: hopefully it is out there somewhere, waiting for its chance to teach another young enthusiast some of the tricks it taught me.