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Compatibility matters when upgrading vehicle engine

Wednesday April 24 2019


The engine of a Land Rover Defender. The BMW M52 M52 can go into the Landy, but requires a bit of extra work to ensure compatibility. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Hi Baraza,

Congratulations for being so knowledgeable on matters motoring. It takes a lot of effort and interest to be at your level and that's why I need your advice. I've been having some trouble with my LR Defender a 2004 model, 300TDI engine for a while now. What with the frequent breakdowns, overheating and unending oil leaks! I have had to improve on my mechanical skills in a bid to reduce my frequent trips to the garage. I don't want to overhaul the engine for the third time, but I'm seriously considering adopting a BMW 2.8 straight 6 petrol engine, a Nissan QD32 diesel or any other as you may advice. I don't think I want to go back to using the 300TDI engine. I still want to keep the boy because I like his looks. Kindly advice on the best engine to adopt, its possible costs and related risks. Also, kindly advice on how the gear box and transfer case would blend in with the adopted mother.


Hi Eric,

You mention Land Rover in the same sentence as "frequent breakdowns, overheating and unending oil leaks" and the first thought that comes to mind is, "Ah, par for the course".

It is par for the course; Land Rovers are well-known in the off-roading world as highly capable but ultimately undependable rigs that look good, drive nicely and will not get back home quietly without a fight.

Typical slay queen behaviour: comely, fun, but not to be trusted. I may catch some heat for this from both manufacturer and enthusiast, but come on, we all know the truth. Let's start with the Nissan QD32 engine.

This is a popular replacement in a lot of Land Rover Defender and Range Rover Classic vehicles as replacements for whatever engine as fitted there in the first place - and I do mean whatever engine, be it a four-cylinder diesel or a romping, stomping petrol V8.


Another popular replacement is the QD's close sibling, the TD27. Word from people who have done this swap is the fitment is direct and fuss-free, so either of these engines would be a good bet.

The QD32 suffered cooling problems while in service in the Nissan Caravan Matatu; I don’t know if this extends to usage in a Land Rover product.

But then again I doubt anyone runs their Land Rover as hard as a matatu. Matatus run endlessly from dawn to dusk, sometimes longer.

Then there is the BMW straight six and this is where things get interesting. There was a production Land Rover Defender fitted with BMW's 2.8 litre M52 engine but this was a South African-spec car, It did not reach global production, but it was an official Land Rover model all the same.

The Defender bodies were shipped down south to Mzansi in CKD form, while the development of the M52 for Land Rover use was done by BMW with the assistance of Land Rover headquarters at Solihull. This was around the time BMW owned Land Rover.


There is a small BMW sports car called the M2 — a romping, stomping red-blooded, diminutive, rear drive BMW M Power track star that would be totally irrelevant to this conversation had it been its top engineer didn't drive something called the "Red Mamba": a bright red Land Rover Defender 110 with a black grille, two spot lamps in the centre of that grille, grey "Defender" decals running along the side, alloy rims, a roof rack, a snorkel and of course the piece de resistance: BMW's 2.8 litre M52 straight six engine.

This man, Herr Frank Isenberg, sheds more light on how this particular Land Rover came to exist:

"It was in the 90s when Land Rover was part of the BMW Group and I was working for BMW in South Africa. On a Friday afternoon, walking through the workshop, my boss introduced a Defender 110 with a 3.5 Rover V8 to me.

"Looking at the carburettors, he said that many people in South Africa complain about the high fuel consumption, but otherwise it would be a great vehicle. For me as a chassis man, it was difficult to accept a truck with solid beam axles and a not-that-impressive engine in our BMW Test Centre. But after having a closer look, I started to fall for this Landy's character.

"On the hoist next to her was a BMW 325i waiting for an engine upgrade. The new BMW M52 2.8i engine had already arrived, waiting to be fitted and tested for the local South African conditions.

"We grabbed a tape measure, checked the M52 engine and the Defender's engine bay, and on Monday night this brand new 194hp engine was hanging on a rope, now in the Defender's front end."[Source:]


There is a lot more that Herr Isenberg said, but in a nutshell, it took a bit of work to sort out the electrics and a lot of components had to be changed, but eventually the car ran with a smoothness and performance not even the engineers behind the top-secret project expected (the engagement between Solihull and Munich was kept on the hush-hush and nobody had any idea what exactly these chaps in the RSA were up to).

To get approval, these engineers had to create the "Green Mamba", a green soft-top Defender 90 for durability testing which partly involved a very noisy 170km/h blast.

Total production amounted to about 1,000 cars or slightly more in two body styles, exclusive to the RSA.

Years later, Isenberg was to encounter a red M52-powered 110 5-door with 120,000km on the odo in Gum tree South Africa, which he promptly relieved its owner of.

So, yes, the M52 can go into the Landy, but Isenberg mentions a bit of extra work to ensure compatibility.

Patrick Cruywagen of Land Rover Monthly says the engine from fan to the end of the crankshaft is pure BMW, but the clutch, flywheel, pressure plate, release bearing, bell housing and gearbox came from a P38A Range Rover; the DSE with the BMW diesel engine.

The fuel pump was from a 3.9 litre Discovery with fuel injection.

Further enhancement to the A/C, interior and Continental tyres fitted and of course some robust suspension to make the whole package gel. Do you have all these donor cars to create something similar? Or do you want to test your mettle and might against the joint effort of two established car manufacturers?