Trans American Defender: England’s Finest Crosses America
With American road trip aspirations on the mind, UK Land Rover enthusiast Kevin Baldwin found focused inspiration in an episode of Jay Leno’s Garage. The show featured the Trans American Trail (TAT) Land Rover Expedition, which was part of the LR4 vehicle launch. Suddenly Kevin’s US trip had a defined goal, which offered a whole new level of adventure, from the ubiquitous Route 66 or Pacific Coast Highway American road trips.
The TAT is a 5,000-plus mile cross-country dual sport motorcycle route, laid out by off-road motorcycle enthusiast Sam Correro. The route consists of dirt roads, gravel roads, Jeep trails, forest roads and farm roads, traversing the country from North Carolina to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. The route is well-known to the off road motorcycle crowd, but is still a rarely used route by the 4×4 crowd, even with the publicity it received from the Land Rover Expedition. The route offers a real long distance off road adventure through small-town USA, in genuinely remote locations (which should be on your adventure bucket list) no matter whether your aspirations are two or four-wheel based.
Before Kevin could head out on his grand American overland adventure, he needed a proper vehicle for the task ahead. As a Land Rover enthusiast, Land Rover outfitter shop owner and UK resident, his choice was clear; a diesel-powered Defender 110 was his chosen method of conveyance. Kevin opted for the basic 3-door van model, versus the more traditional 5-door station wagon, as it offers up a larger blank canvas to work with, without having to work around the extra doors and windows. The Defender doesn’t offer much in the way of comfort options, but Kevin did opt for a few factory upgrades; like air conditioning, power windows, a heated windscreen and heated seats. Very little has been changed from the stock, very capable from the factory, running gear on this Defender, including retaining its factory sway bars. In order to handle the extra weight of the camping and off road equipment, the stock springs were upgraded to factory “heavy-duty” springs. Functional, reliable and durable are the themes of this build, and are conveyed in the OEM heavy-duty steel NATO wheels, which are used around the globe on military-spec Land Rovers.
The build truly began after a visit to the famous Abenteuer & Allrad show in Germany. Abenteuer & Allrad is the pinnacle of overland vehicle shows, which regularly draws over 50,000 enthusiasts each year. After evaluating a number of pop-top roof options for his Defender, Kevin picked an Off-Road Hesch 4×4 unit, who also fitted his truck’s roof system, Howling Moon awning and created the rear door table, at their shop in Austria. Kevin’s Defender was the newest Hesch had ever added a top to, at only 6 weeks old, and also had the worst body alignment they had ever seen. No two Defenders are ever alike, hence why no European pop-top roof company offers their system as a kit, as each install requires a bit of custom fitment.
The Hesch roof system was chosen for its exceptional attention to detail, waterproof breathable marine grade tent, memory foam mattress and because it is pre-wired from the roof to the dash for future electrical fitments, like roof mounted solar. The entire roof system adds about 220 pounds to the vehicle, but its relatively compact dimensions still allow the vehicle to fit into a standard shipping container.
“The details are what truly make an overland vehicle function efficiently and comfortably on the road less travelled.”
Kevin custom designed the interior to meet his personal needs, and then handed the vehicle and plans over to Coastline Campers, in the UK, to carry out the interior’s furniture build. With a new Defender fitted with a pop-top camper roof, awning, rear door table and interior furniture, Kevin took the truck into his own shop, MUD UK, to complete the build.
At 6’5” tall, Kevin has a hard time squeezing into the extremely cramped, standard driving position in a Defender. So it’s no surprise that the first modification back at his shop was to modify the 110’s seating position, using MUD seat rails and a load space bulkhead removal bar. He developed this modification, and wrote about it in a Land Rover magazine over 13 years ago. The response from the article prompted him to make a business out of it, and now MUD UK is a highly respected Land Rover outfitter, offering a wide range of innovative components used on Land Rovers around the globe. The details are what truly make an overland vehicle function efficiently and comfortably on the road less travelled. Lighting on Kevin’s Defender has been upgraded throughout; with Trucklight LED headlights, MUD LED area camp lights, a MUD LED awning light and interior MUD LED lighting, which are red and white light selectable, allowing for better night vision and attracting less bugs.
He stays warm at night with an Espar diesel air heater, while his food and drinks stay chilled in the ARB 47 liter 12v Fridge/Freeze. Exterior lockers, installed into the sides of the vehicle provide tons of lockable storage space for tools, spare water, spare fuel, recovery gear, an air compressor, spare parts and other trail essentials. The engine is kept running properly with an upgraded Odyssey battery, factory raised air intake and MUD snow cowl, which keeps moisture and debris out of the fender mounted heater intake.
Since Kevin planned to do the TAT alone, it was essential to have the proper off road gear for self-recovery. He installed a solid D44 front winch bumper, a Warn Zeon 10-S winch with Factor 55 ProLink thimble, a set of Maxtrax mounted to the rear spare tire and a Hi-Lift Jack mounted to the rear bumper. Navigation and quality communications are key to a safe solo off road adventure. Kevin made sure all his basis were covered with an iPad, paper roll chart and GPS for nav, and a Cobra CB radio, cell phone and SPOT satellite messenger for coms. He kept all of these devices close at hand, from the drivers seat, with various RAM mounts. Securing your personal and vehicle documents and cash are always a concern on overland adventures, so Kevin installed a MUD hinged locker under the center console. The secondary benefit of the locker install is that it raises the factory center console enough to make it a much more usable armrest.
“Kevin came across many motorcycles on his route, but only two other 4×4 vehicles.”
Tasteful, durable and functional mods are all that Kevin added to his Defender. He managed to keep a clean and functional exterior aesthetic as well, by not loading down the exterior of the vehicle with gear, and keeping his Defender checker-plate free. By keeping gear off the roof, Kevin has kept his center of gravity low, provided less enticement for would be thieves and created systems where there is no reason to crawl around on the hood or roof of the vehicle. Since this vehicle was designed specifically with the TAT in mind, the parameters of the build, based on capability, was clearly defined. Kevin figured that the standard Defender suspension would offer plenty of flex – there was no need for axle lockers and extra fuel capacity wasn’t needed. TAT maps and GPS files provide information on all the gas stations, and the Defender gets 24 mpg, with its economical, at least by American vehicle standards, turbo diesel engine.
Once the build was underway, Kevin found the stock springs could not handle the additional weight of the build, but found that factory heavy-duty springs, with no additional aftermarket suspension modifications, was the perfect solution for his setup.
Completing the TAT
In the end, the over 5,000 miles of the TAT took Kevin and his specially prepared Defender four and a half weeks plus a handful of rest days to complete. Despite his pre-trip research saying that large sections of the TAT where only passable by motorcycle, he only found one short section in Oregon that was truly single-track. Kevin came across many motorcycles on his route, but only two other 4×4 vehicles. Other than some fresh trail stripes, from overhanging trees and bushes, and needing to replace the factory supplied tires along the way, Kevin and his trusty Defender completed the route without issue.
The Journey Continues
Because Kevin’s U.S. vehicle permit is still valid – and more importantly his thirst for adventure has not yet been fully quenched even after conquering the 5000-plus miles of TAT – solo, he plans to store the Defender in the U.S. over the winter, coming back early in 2017 to travel into Northern Canada by way of the Dempster Highway to Inuvik, and then on to the ice road to Tuktoyaktuk – that’s no small feat either mind you. For some reason, we have a sneaking suspicion that Kevin and his Defender’s overland adventures won’t end there.
- PLATFORM: 2014 Land Rover Defender 110 3-door Van
- ENGINE: 2.2L Tdci 4 cyl engine, 6 speed manual gearbox, permanent 4×4
- SUSPENSION: Land Rover Factory Heavy Duty Springs
- WHEELS & TIRES:
- BFGoodrich AT 235/85R16
- Heavy Duty Steel NATO Wheels, 16×6.5-inch
- ARMOR: D44 winch bumper
- Trucklight LED Headlights
- WARN Zeon 10-S
- Factor 55 ProLink
- Odyssey Battery
- Cobra CB radio
- MUD center console hinged locker
- MUD extended seating position kit
- MUD Snow Cowl, Factory Raised Air Intake
- RAM Mounts for cell phone, GPS, iPad, roll chart holder
- Off-Road Hesch 4×4 Pop-Top
- Howling Moon Awning
- Hesch Rear Door Table
- Custom Coastline Campers interior furniture
- MUD LED lighting
- ARB 47L Fridge/Freeze
- Espar diesel air heater
- Custom-built exterior side lockers
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the winter 2016 print issue of Tread Magazine.