Building a Thomson Land Rover Defender

Written by Thomson Safaris

As anyone who’s been on safari knows, a reliable vehicle is an absolute must. Not just any car can handle the dusty roads, river crossings, and rugged terrain you’ll encounter in the Tanzanian bush.

That’s why we started with the best: the Land Rover Defender. This vehicle originally earned its stripes in the military, and has withstood some of the most extreme conditions on the planet. Capable of towing other vehicles out of the mud, staying on the road for days at a time, and off-roading through almost any condition, the Defender is as tough as its name sounds.

If you ask us, that’s the perfect place to start.

But it’s just the beginning. Land Rovers are already ideal in many ways: they have lightweight aluminum bodies that won’t rust like steel, coil springs and long range shock absorbers on every wheel, offering a more comfortable ride and the ability to handle much rougher roads, and a permanent four-wheel drive system (many safari vehicles, including the popular Toyota Land Cruiser, use two-wheel drive in normal conditions and must be changed into four-wheel drive, sometimes manually at the wheels).

Best of all for our purposes, though, Land Rovers are still assembled by hand out of individual body panels. Unlike the vast majority of modern vehicles, which are unibody, a Land Rover Defender can be broken down part by part, all the way to the chassis, with nothing more than simple hand tools.

That means we can customize the body to our exact specifications, building in extra room for seating, pop-up roofs for 360° viewing, side-passenger steps and extra body reinforcement.

Next, we install high density foam seats (that sit lower in the vehicle, to improve viewing), seat belts, and arm rests, all hand-picked to maximize guest comfort.

We top it off with a small Turbo Direct Injection (TDI) four cylinder diesel engine (which we modify with an air intake snorkel, so it can handle river crossings with ease).  This design is powerful and very fuel efficient. According to Thomson Safaris co-owner Rick Thomson, who helped design our custom vehicles: “a Defender can idle on the smell of a pump attendant’s trouser cuff.”  Land Cruisers, on the other hand, are powered by a large six cylinder, regular design diesel engine, which is far less fuel efficient.

We might be biased, but we think the end result is hands-down the best safari vehicle on the road…or off the road, as the case may be.