East Coast Defender: Building Full Custom Land Rover Defenders
New Flair, Classic Style
Located in central Florida, a little more than a stone’s throw from the House of Mouse, is a business devoted to the restoration of Land Rover Defenders called East Coast Defender. The whole thing started innocently enough a few years back, when Tom Humble and his wife moved to the U.S. from England. A life-long petrol head, Tom brought a couple Land Rover Defenders over with him when he made the move. Not knowing exactly what to do with them, Tom threw them up on eBay and within a couple weeks had them sold. But the story doesn’t stop there, soon he had people coming to him looking for Defenders and asking if he could get more.
Working with his younger brother, Elliot, who was still in college back in the U.K., the pair began slowly importing more Defenders to the U.S. As the business began to gain traction, customers came to Tom asking not only for the Defender, but also if he could restore and even modify the vehicle for them. Needing the help to keep up with demand, Tom rang Elliot to see if he’d be willing to move to Florida and help with the growing business. As it goes with most young college students, Elliot was two and a half years into a sports science degree that he had grown to loathe, so he put his studies on hold and hopped a plane for the U.S. to join the growing business.
At this point brothers Tom and Elliot were still working the business part time. This is where East Coast Defender’s third partner, Scott Wallace, came into play. Scott had moved from the UK to Florida several years prior to Tom and Elliot’s arrival and knew Tom’s in-laws through another business venture. One night, over dinner and drinks, Scott told Tom that if this business was ever going to take off that he had to jump in with both feet and start doing it full time. The next day, and much to the chagrin of his wife, Tom quit his day job and began working the Land Rover business full time. Needing capital to scale and a business manager to clean up the process, Scott joined Tom and Elliot and East Coast Defender was born.
From its humble beginnings, East Coast Defender has built up a reputation for being the go-to builders of ultra-high-end Defenders. They do one thing, and they do it very well, and that’s building and rebuilding Land Rover Defenders of all types, ages, and origins. The core of the business is full custom builds. The process begins with a client selecting the type of Defender that they are looking for (90, 110, or 130) and whether they want traditional styling or a more modern look. From there the base vehicle is selected, imported, and goes through a full frame-off restoration process that can take as long as nine months to complete. In the end, the customer gets a Defender that is reliable enough to drive every day of the year, day-in and day-out. An East Coast Defender custom build will set you back between $100,000 and $300,000, depending on options, and as such they have formed a client base of wealthy elites who are looking to stand out amongst their peers. In a sea of supercars and ultra-luxury SUVs, nothing turns heads quicker than a finely restored Defender rolling by. If the entry price seems a bit high, remember this: a rust-bucket North American spec ’90s Defender will set you back about $50K, if you can find one. And an imported ’80s model fetches around $15K, before the hassle and fees of importing it.
The second half of the business is a bit less glamorous—and one that the guys are hoping to spin off in the near future. In addition to full custom builds, East Coast Defender also repairs, restores, and modifies Defenders that people currently own. So far this year, the crew has completed 52 projects, with 30 builds and 22 restorations.
Before any project gets delivered to the customer, the crew at ECD logs more than 1,000 miles of testing. This ensures that the end product is delivered free of the bugs and gremlins that are normally associated with custom builds. Fortunately, this also meant that they had a few at the shop for us to drive. We were able to jump behind the wheel of a Defender 90 destined for California with a smog-legal GM E-ROD LS3 and four-speed 4L65 automatic transmission, a Defender 110 with the factory Rover V-8 and five-speed ZF automatic, and another 110 with an LS3 and 6L80 six-speed automatic.
All of the Defenders were fun and easy to drive. With updated steering and brakes they all drive much like a modern Jeep Wrangler. They aren’t super quiet, especially with the soft-top, and aren’t ultra refined like a Rover of today, but that’s not what Defender buyers are looking for anyway. The factory Rover V-8 won’t win any races, but the nostalgia makes it fun to tootle around in. If winning races is something that you’d like to do, the Defender 90 with the LS3 and four-speed transmission is the ticket. This one felt like a rocket ship, with quick acceleration and crisp shifts. Most refined of the bunch was the LS3 and six-speed combination. This combination retains all of the LS3’s potency but combines it with an extremely smooth shifting transmission.
With a price tag that rivals a decent single-family home in most parts of the country, owning a Land Rover Defender built by East Coast Defender certainly isn’t for everyone. But if the choice comes down to having just another sports car in the driveway or picking up a unique Defender the choice should be easy. So far, the crew at ECD has proven that there is demand for these ultra-high-end SUVs. We wish them all the best of luck because, selfishly, we’d love to see more Defenders on the road!
What Is A Defender?The Rover Company conceived the Land Rover in 1947 during the aftermath of World War II. The company’s original vehicle was called the Series I and began production in 1948. After that came the Series II, Series IIA, and the Series III.
In 1983, the company launched Land Rover One Ten, shortly after that the Land Rover Ninety, and then the Land Rover 127, with the numerical designation referring roughly to the vehicles wheelbase in inches. In 1989 Land Rover introduced a new model to the lineup, the Discovery. The decision was made in 1991 to rename the existing models the Defender 90, Defender 110, and Defender 130 in an attempt to avoid confusion.
Prices for North American Spec Defenders are incredibly high, due in no small part to the fact that they were only sold here from 1990 until 1997. When airbags became a requirement in 1998, instead of adding them to Defender, Land Rover decided to pull the off-roader out of the North American market.
Defender had been produced and sold in Europe until January 2016, meaning that parts are still relatively easy to come by and there should be a steady supply of donor trucks from Europe for many years to come.
Editor's Note: This is obviously a very high-level overview of the Defender. There is so much to know about this historic vehicle that we could fill a book and then some.
Once a donor vehicle arrives in the U.S., it is housed in a special warehouse with other donors until all of the parts arrive and the build is ready to begin.
The first step on its way to becoming an East Coast Defender is disassembly. The Defender is stripped down to nothing, its frame is sent out to be acid dipped, and when it’s returned, it’s either patched and repaired or replaced with a new galvanized frame. Original frames that are kept are coated with bed liner before heading to the next step.
Defenders in all stages from donor to complete can be found littering the lots at the East Coast Defender headquarters.
To protect the quality of the finished product, all aspects of each build are handled in house, including paint. The paint shop at East Coast Defender works almost exclusively on the company’s Defender projects. However, being gear heads, they guys will sometimes paint cool cars for people just for fun.
One of the biggest upgrades in terms of performance and reliability that East Coast Defenders performs is an engine swap. Their engine of choice at the moment is the 6.2L GM LS3 mated to a six-speed 6L80 automatic transmission. Churning out 430 hp, this combo is a proven winner.
Interior, upholstery, and electrical are all handled in house as well. Nearly everything is replaced, eliminating many of the common failure and frustration points that are well known among the Defender community. Modern creature comforts are added as well, including touchscreen infotainment units and heated seats.
While frame off restorations are the main business, they also repair and upgrade customers existing Defenders. This particular one was purchased off of eBay and turned out to be a dud. So the owner turned to East Coast Defender to set things right. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, it would have been less expensive for this owner to purchase an ECD build instead of rolling the dice.
While engine swaps are the way to go some customers want the nostalgia of the factory Rover engine. Fortunately, the crew at East Coast Defender knows how to properly diagnose, tune, and repair Rover 3.9L and 4.0L V-8 engines. We’re not really sure why anyone would keep one of these boat anchors over the LS3, but we digress.