The Tale of the 1991 Land Rover Defender


A few weeks ago I was on my way to the rink for my son’s hockey practice when I noticed an unusual amount of smoke coming from under the hood of my 1991 Land Rover Defender. Seeing smoke coming out of the truck is, well, not unusual; it has a British-built 4-cylinder turbo diesel that puts off a fair amount of bluish exhaust on a good day, but especially on cold Rhode Island mornings.I think it was Tow Mater in the Disney Pixar Cars series who said, “the thing about old British engines is that if there ain’t no oil under ‘em, there ain’t no oil in ‘em.” I take that advice to heart, and given that my truck is older than half the people in my class, I pay attention to anything that is unusual – sights, smells, sounds, and horrified stares from people in the lane next to me. In fact, every time I drive over the Newport Pell bridge I say a little prayer; something to the effect of, “Please don’t quit on me until I am on the downslope.” I used to say that, anyway. I don’t need to anymore, which brings me back to that cold November Saturday when more than a trace amount of smoke was wafting past the windshield.

Tow Mater from Disney Pixar’s Cars

We made it to the rink and I immediately popped the hood to troubleshoot. The smoke was coming from the oil fill cap, and when I took it off it looked like I was barbecuing a couple briskets and a rack of ribs. My first thought was…actually, let’s skip the first thought and move on to the second thought. I need a mechanic. So, I whipped out my trusty old iPhone 5 (go ahead and laugh, but it’s not a flip phone) and immediately searched for diesel mechanics in the Newport area. I called the closest one, a mere 1.5 miles away. Being that it was Saturday they weren’t working, and in hindsight it was the best thing that could have happened to me at that moment.



Back in my flying days with the Navy, we were advised to wind the little analog 8-day clock on the instrument panel when faced with an inflight emergency. Obviously, if the the plane was on fire or the wing fell off we would eject, but when engines, electrics, hydraulics, or other onboard systems started dropping offline the worst thing you could do was panic. Panic always makes things worse, so to get you through the initial shock of flashing red lights and alarms we were told to reach out and wind that little clock. It gave you something to do (that was completely harmless) and bought you ten seconds of clarity. I remembered that as I was grasping for a solution to the smoke belching out of the top of my engine. So, I mentally wound my little internal 8-day clock and the solution hit me like ton of bricks.

I am an IYRS student, and even though we hadn’t started our study of diesel engines, I bet there was enough expertise in my class to figure this out. Boy, was I right.

After hockey practice I gingerly drove the truck to the IYRS campus (ignoring the horrified stares of other motorists not wise in the ways of British engines) and left it there rather than risk driving it home.

Nels Larson, Lead Instructor of Marine Systems

Come Monday I shared the description of what I saw on Saturday, and at lunchtime a couple of us started troubleshooting with our lead Instructor, Nels Larson. Nels had us run through all the easy stuff first. He didn’t want us tearing apart a perfectly good engine only to find out that the fuel filter needed to be replaced or that a screw was loose somewhere. We changed the fuel filter (I happened to have a new one in the truck), checked the positive crankcase ventilation, made sure the air filter was not obstructed, checked the exhaust, and so on down the list. After systematically eliminating all the other possibilities, we determined the head gasket had ruptured and I would have to pull the cylinder head off the engine and replace it.



Go time. This is exactly why I decided to come to IYRS.

Nels had prepared us well for such a moment. Just a few weeks earlier we went through a classroom exercise where he had us compile a complete list of parts for a simulated head restoration and renewal project on a 38-foot sailboat. Our task was to come up with an estimate in both time and parts to complete the job. For my real-world engine crisis, I did the same. Having specifically identified the problem through a rapid yet thorough troubleshooting process, I knew exactly what I needed. Naturally, this all happened on the Monday before Thanksgiving. However, after calling a parts distributer in Vermont, I was able to get the parts I needed moving towards Newport, RI right away. Everything went just like Nels described in class.

Study the problem, come up with a plan, assemble a list, then start talking to people.

Study the problem, come up with a plan, assemble a list, then start talking to people. The key was preparation. If there is one important lesson I have learned during the first two months, is that regardless of the type of project you are tackling, assembling all the supplies and parts is one of the key contributions to success, and by success I mean finishing what you start in a relevant timeframe with a successful outcome. It’s all about the process; about planning and executing, prioritizing and layering, and then hitting it hard.

The new cylinder head – cleaned and assembled in the shop ready for installation.

On Wednesday afternoon I and one of my talented classmates began disassembling the cowlings, fans, and accessories to get at the cylinder head. By the time we finished for the day, all the parts had arrived and we were ready to go with the hard stuff. Thursday being Thanksgiving, I didn’t do any work. Instead I put together my plan of attack, made some templates to hold the critical, size-specific bolts I would need to remove from the engine, and then watched a number of instructional videos. Even though I had never done something like this before, I felt pretty confident going into the project on Friday morning. Confidence is a funny thing, though. It’s only based on what you know; not on what you don’t know. In hindsight, I would have screwed this up royally if it weren’t for the fact that Nels decided…on his own…to come in on his day off, walk me through the cylinder head removal and replacement, and get my truck up and running again.

I’ll spare you the step by step playback of what took place over the next day and a half, but by Saturday evening we had pulled the cylinder head, replaced the head gasket, re-calibrated the rocker arm assembly, installed a new water pump, replaced the glow plugs, installed new belts, installed a new thermostat, and put everything back together to spec. The truck started the first time and purred like only a diesel engine can. Nels was right there with me the entire time, a full day and a half, mentoring and coaching. I learned more in 24 hours about diesel engines than I have in a lifetime. I drove the truck home Saturday night.

I learned more in 24 hours about diesel engines than I have in a lifetime. I drove the truck home Saturday night.

What Nels did for me speaks volumes about IYRS. Actually, watching my classmates pitch in also speaks volumes. I was blown away by the enthusiasm and willingness of people to help. If you ask me, it’s because everybody who is here in this program wants to be here, and loves this type of work. The general response I got from everybody in my class was, “Man, that sounded like fun. Wish I could have been there.” (remember, it was a holiday weekend so most were out of town)



For me, IYRS equals empowerment…empowerment and self-confidence. Every day is an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to push the boundaries of my comfort level with ever more complex electrical and mechanical systems. I can’t thank Nels enough for what he did for me, but I am not special in that regard. He’s that way with everybody in the class. Have an old outboard motor that needs refurbishing? Nels is there. Need help with your boat’s alternator? Nels is willing to guide you through the project while sharing the inside trade secrets he has acquired over his 35 year career. I won’t share them with you in this forum, of course. If you want to know what I have learned, come on by the school and check it out for yourself. For me, it’s been worth every penny and every second.