Building the Lego Land Rover Defender

Me and Lego go way, way back. When I was a kid, my parents bought me the very first Lego Expert Builder set (Kit #850-1, the fork lift truck), and I was hooked. I spent the bulk of my childhood building all sorts of transportation-related things out of Legos. Besides the tractor, the helicopter, and the go-kart, I built a fleet of planes and buses and a working aerial tramway; you could say I wasn’t much for playing outside. So, when I saw Lego’s new Technic Land Rover Defender (kit #42110—Get it? 110, like the Defender!*), I thought how much I’d like to give it a try, if only I had the time. And then the safer-at-home orders came down, and suddenly I did have the time!

* Technically this is a two-door Land Rover Defender 90, but Lego gets points for the effort.

The Ridiculously Intense Lego Land Rover Defender

The Lego Land Rover Defender is a 2,573-piece monster with a  494-page instruction book (PDF here), far more complex than the biggest set I’d ever worked on (the #8860 car chassis). I hadn’t built a Lego set in close to three decades, and when I saw that massive pile of parts on my dining room table, I began to wonder whether I should have just stuck with writing about ugly cars.

Assembly is divided into four main phases, the first of which is the rear suspension, differential, and part of the gearbox. The Lego Land Rover Defender’s claim to fame is its inordinately complex transmission, which takes up most of the car’s central spine. It has four speeds, forward and reverse, plus low and high range, with shifter handles modeled after those in the real 2020 Land Rover Defender.

Shifting gears (or the transfer case) changes the speed at which the little Lego pistons in the headless engine fly up and down. I really wanted to pay attention to how the whole system works; when I was a kid, my Legos taught me the basics of things like differentials and rack-and-pinion steering. But instead, I was too busy worrying I’d somehow leave a piece out. I kept reminding myself this thing was meant to be built by 12-year-old kids, and I began to wonder if I should have recruited one of them to build it for me.

Lego Land Rover Defender: Yes, You Can Do This

Truth be told, if you’ve never built a Lego set, it’s not too difficult; the instructions are written for idiots. Like me. Frankly, whoever writes the instructions is just as impressive as whoever designs these actual kits. Take note, Ikea.

The parts are packaged in bags numbered to correspond to the build phase. Most Lego pieces can be measured by counting the nubs or holes. For axles and other non-descript parts, there are actual-size drawings to help you. Considering the sheer number of steps (860!) required to build the Lego Land Rover Defender, I found myself headed down surprisingly few dead ends.

The second phase was the longest one, encompassing the front suspension, steering and differential, more of the geartrain, plus the winch and the engine, which has six little “pistons” that pop up and down as the Defender rolls along. Also the seats, which are little Lego masterpieces all by themselves. Part of the process includes attaching the sub-assembly from the first phase. After 4.5 hours of building—more than twice as long as the first phase took me—I had a complete rolling chassis!

The Big Lego Land Rover Defender Panic

During this phase, I had my two Big Lego Panics: First was when I thought a piece was missing. Talk about a needle-in-a-haystack situation. I went so far as to visit the Lego website‘s replacement-part page; If a kit is missing a piece, Lego will replace it for free. As it happens, I found the missing bit in the garbage—it was in one of the parts bags that I thought was empty and threw away. Yikes! The missing piece I ordered arrived about three weeks later, after I had totally forgotten about it, so you definitely don’t want to lose a piece, regardless. The second panic came when I put in one of the geartrain sub-assemblies backward. Getting these suckers apart and back together is not for the faint of heart. Again, whoever designs these instructions has my undying respect.

The third phase involves the body aft of the A-pillars, and the various bits that attach it to the chassis. One of the sub-assemblies is the rear door, which includes a nifty latch mechanism actuated by rotating the spare tire. Surprisingly, though this part of the build seemed simpler, it took me nearly as long as the second phase, just shy of four hours. When I was done, though, I finally had something resembling a Land Rover Defender.

The final phase covers the front bodywork, hood, and the roof rack and its accessories. This is where you get into some of the fancier brickwork, like the headlights that bear a striking resemblance to the real thing. The time flew by; 2.5 hours later, I was snapping on the wheels. My Lego Land Rover Defender was done!

The Completed Lego Land Rover Defender

The result is pretty darn cool: Full-travel suspension, working winch (with a winding mechanism concealed under the hood), working steering (actuated by either the steering wheel or a gear atop the car). The little pistons pop up and down when you roll the Lego Land Rover Defender, and that fancy transmission really works—the engine changes speed when you shift gears and stops when you shift to neutral. The action isn’t the smoothest—in fact there’s a minor error in the directions a brilliant Lego superfan figured out how to solve—but it works, and that’s kind of incredible.

Equally incredible is how good it looks. It’s pretty hard to render curved sheet metal with mostly flat Lego bricks, but of all the Lego models I’ve seen, this one is among the best in terms of capturing the look and feel of the real thing. The side doors and cargo boxes all open, the ladder folds down, the recovery ramps are removable, and the rear seats fold forward to show off the geartrain. You can pull off the roof rack and all of its associated components (including the steering gear) and enjoy the skylight windows and those strange sail panels Land Rover popped in between the rear side windows.

Amazing Lego Land Rover Defender Engineering

The engineering that went into the Lego Land Rover Defender really blows my mind. How many geniuses does it take to build a working geartrain from existing Lego parts, then fit them into the space allotted to create a scale-model Defender? And why can’t we get those geniuses working on society’s bigger problems? Surely anyone who can create a Lego Land Rover Defender with eight speeds can cure cancer and bring about world peace.

All in all, I spent 13 hours assembling the Lego Land Rover Defender. (An experienced Lego builder did it in five). I came away with a nifty model and a great feeling of accomplishment. It’s fascinating to see how Lego sets have gotten so much better since I was a kid … maybe it’s time to order the Lego Bugatti Chiron!

POSTSCRIPT: During our photo session, I managed to drop the Defender on its nose while positioning it for an off-road shot.

I believe this makes Automobile the first publication to wreck a new 2020 Land Rover Defender. The damages were extensive, but repairs were pretty easy—I wonder how low collision insurance rates would be if all cars were made of Lego bricks? Still, I might take the Defender apart and build it all over again … y’know, just to be sure. Maybe this time I can do it in less than 12 hours.

Lego Land Rover Defender Highlights

  • All-wheel-drive system with high and low ranges
  • Four-speed sequential transmission
  • Front, rear, and center differentials
  • Four-wheel independent suspension
  • Moving pistons
  • Working steering
  • Working winch
  • Opening hood, doors, and rear hatch
  • Removable roof rack and accessories
Lego Land Rover Defender Specifications
ON SALE:Now
PRICE:$199.99
ENGINE:0.0-L 0-cam 0-valve I-6/0 hp, 0 lb-ft
TRANSMISSION:4-speed sequential with 2-speed transfer case
LAYOUT:2-door, 4-passenger, front-engine, AWD SUV
L x W x H:16.1 x 8.1 x 9.0 in
WHEELBASE:9.2 in
WEIGHT:4.5 lb
0-60 MPH:We’d love to see it
TOP SPEEDHowever fast you can push, fling, or throw it

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