The wide arch of the bend fills the windscreen. It feels as though we’re rushing headlong towards the edge of the world – surely there’s no way two tonnes of Defender can remain upright, let alone make it safely round the concrete curve. Is there?
The tyres howl in protest as the boxy body does its best to continue on through the looming bank. After a brief struggle, the front tyres somehow find just enough grip to turn into the bend – but the fight is far from over. In a last-ditch act of defiance, the back end of the Defender throws itself around like a two-year-old in a tantrum.
With split-second timing, Matt Walton, the man behind the wheel, takes the 90 by the scruff of the neck, giving the steering a flick of opposite lock and, for a moment, we’re drifting around the bend, with power, brakes and steering all perfectly balanced. As forward speed scrubs off rapidly, the back end loses interest in sliding outwards; stored-up momentum and spinning rear wheels begin to pendulum it back with impressive verve. At this rate, we’ll spin right around the other way.
Luckily, Matt’s already anticipating and reacting; all that happens is that the body rocks on its lowered springs and we carry on up the two-mile straight at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground at an indecently quick pace. The acceleration is phenomenal for a Td5 Land Rover, and so is the exhaust smoke.
Like countless other Land Rover owners, Matt’s a huge fan of the Defender 90. Over the vehicle’s 25-year life, it has developed a worldwide reputation as an unstoppable mudplugger, conquering everything in its way. But instead of exploiting its undoubted talents in this field, Matt’s chosen to unleash his Td5’s dark side as a track-burning racer.
And the Td5 is eminently suitable for releasing hidden performance. It has a sophisticated electronic engine management system that can readily be re-programmed and there are a number of specialist companies with considerable experience in doing precisely that. Matt’s particular choice of Td5 tuner is Twisted Performance and the company’s boss, Charlie Fawcett, is here today with his specially developed drifting Defender. In fact, it’s a bit of a family outing: Matt’s brother Joe is here with his ex-Twisted Performance press demonstrator that we first drove in 2003.
Matt and Joe are no strangers to former Wellington bomber base Bruntingthorpe and its four-mile circuit, mainly because their dad owns the place. As I take a closer look at this impressive machine, Charlie and Joe drag-race up the immense runway that was built by the USAF when they were in residence here from 1959 to 1962.
Matt’s gleaming Td5 started life as a white-roofed, Caledonian Blue farmer’s hack, albeit a top-spec one with ABS, traction control and Freestyle alloy wheels. It was ‘a bit of a shed’ when he bought it: although only about a year old, it had done 28,000 miles. He used it for another year before deciding what to do with it.
While he was still trying to decide, the head gasket failed, cracking the cylinder head. While the Land Rover was in the workshop waiting for Matt to fix it, brother Joe decided that the Land Rover really needed painting. ‘I came back from a holiday and there was no roof, no doors, no sides and no interior.’
After what we’re told was a frank exchange of views, Matt spent the next two months stripping the rest of the 90 and preparing it for a full respray in his trademark colour, Matt Orange (yes, very clever…).
Matt’s grown up around fast cars all his life but his love of Land Rovers, and especially Range Rover Classics, is down to his grandfather and father. ‘My family used to own a land drainage company: in the early ’70s, we had a fleet of 10 brand-new two-door Classics. My dad painted every single one orange with a green roof and a green stripe down the side. Every car my dad owned, he always painted orange to keep them in company colours.
‘When I was at school, I had a Mini – and then this 90 came up when I was 18. I’ve been thrashing it and tuning it ever since.’ So far, Matt’s fitted springs that lower the suspension by 30mm; 18-inch Hurricane alloy wheels that need adapters to make the Range Rover P38A wheels fit; and a Gale Force tuning kit from Twisted Performance. The kit includes a performance exhaust system, upgraded intercooler and turbo pipes, EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) removal, K&N air filter, chip upgrade and Twisted Performance’s extra ECU box.
The result is around an extra 80bhp, pushing the engine from 124bhp to over 200bhp. Torque is also improved, from 221 lb ft to 344ft lb, which is why it rockets away from the start line so easily.
‘I’ve built it for quick acceleration and fast, twisty country roads; I don’t do a lot of motorway driving.
‘I’d like to get more power out of it but without affecting reliability. I’ve had three turbos in there already. The main reason for the first two failures was that I don’t always let it cool down properly after thrashing it and silly things like that. I think the next step might be a bigger turbo. I’m putting an oil cooler on next week, which will help the current turbo live a little longer.
‘I was thinking about fitting a Discovery transfer box, but Joe’s got an overdrive on his 90 – and it’s so good and easy, I may just do that instead. For now, I think that’s probably it. There’s not much else I can do to it without affecting reliability.’
I’m still mesmerised by that amazing display on the track earlier, so I’m keen to learn more about the art of drifting around a corner. Apparently, it’s easy in a powerful rear-wheel-drive car such as a BMW:
‘As you approach the bend, go left then right-flick it and plant your foot to the floor to keep the back sliding; standard Top Gear stuff. It won’t work in a Defender,’ says Matt.
So, would it work if you were to disconnect the front propshaft? ‘Well, I drove my 90
in rear-wheel drive for about a month after
I snapped the front halfshafts. It handled like a pig.’ That’ll be a no, then.
‘In a Defender, you have to go into the bend a bit quicker then lift off the power, a bit like in a front-wheel-drive car. When you lift off, the back goes all loose: let it go and then put the power on once you’re sideways. Sometimes, if you put too much lock on, it just wants to pull you straight but too much power and it just spins. The trick is to avoid the grippy bits of the track.’
He’s created a stunning-looking Land Rover that eats corners and straights with equal ease. Not surprisingly, it doesn’t venture off-road too often. As Matt says: ‘It only goes off-road when I’m dragging idiots out of the trees here or thrashing across fields on my brother’s farm.’
This feature appeared in the March 2009 issue of LRO. Current and Back issues are available to download on digital devices here. Please note, we only hold stocks of the the last three back issues.