It seems there are plenty of companies in the USA who’ll take workmanlike classic 4x4s, like Land Rovers and LandCruisers, and turn them into luxo-beasts that are as comfortable and capable on Hollywood Boulevard as they are on the Rubicon Trail. East Coast Defender (ECD), based in Kissimmee, Florida, is one such company.
Think Vintage Cruiser Co. or ICON to get an idea of what ECD do. But unlike those other companies, ECD are devoted exclusively to Land Rover’s Defender, and have built up a tidy business specialising in modifications and upgrades of the recently discontinued model.
Owned and run by a trio of expat Brits, ECD started less than five years ago, but they are now widely recognised and highly sought after in the US for the work they do on Defenders.
Shadows of Solihull
When you grow up near the home of Land Rover in Solihull, England, it seems natural that you’d gravitate toward the off-roaders that rolled out of that factory. Such was the case with Tom and Elliot Humble. The brothers were Land Rover aficionados long before they owned one. In Tom’s case, he owned several, and when he migrated to the US with his wife in 2010, he took two Defenders with him! When the husband and wife decided to sell one of their vehicles, it was snapped up within a week. That was Tom’s first inkling of the demand for Defenders over there.
Residing in Florida, Tom’s knowledge of classic Defenders saw him drafted in to fix and upgrade Defenders already in the hands of US owners, as well as source examples from the UK for those keen to get one of the tough, go-anywhere vehicles.
This was initially only a hobby for Tom, but demand grew, leading him to convince Elliot to join him in Florida. Together, they set up East Coast Defender as a full-time concern in 2013. Later, another expat Brit, Scott Wallace, joined the team, bringing investment and marketing savvy that has seen the business grow.
The market for custom Defenders in the US may seem niche (and I’m sure it is), but ECD are doing quite nicely out of it. Their work is thorough – and priced accordingly – but there’s no shortage of customers: clients range from CEOs and other business professionals to doctors and celebrities.
In a few years, the business has grown to occupy a 21,000 square foot facility (which the Brit bosses call the “Rover Dome”) and employ 30 full-time staff, some of whom are ex-Land Rover employees that bring years, in some cases decades, of experience with them.
ECD turns over around 30 vehicles annually, but they limit their subject matter to Defenders that are 25-years-old, or older, to meet US import restrictions. That suits their customers down to the ground, as they want the look of a classic Defender – at least on the outside!
Under the skin and inside the cabin, the Defenders produced by ECD are unlike anything that rolled off the line at Solihull back in the day.
The team offer two basic packages: the ‘upgrade’; and the ‘restoration’. In reality, both are quite similar, as ECD don’t do back-to-factory-spec restos, unless a customer specifically requests it.
ECD builds are defined by engine upgrades (usually modern petrol V8s, although a Cummins diesel modification is in development), more in-car tech, luxury seating and trim, additional noise and vibration insulation, modern wheels and tyres, updated suspension, custom paint and bolt-on bling.
ECD start each job by stripping the Defender down to its chassis, then refurbing, repairing or replacing components as required. Depending on the project, chassis are sandblasted and powdercoated before custom paint, trim, fitout and other additions follow.
Each project can take up to 12 months from start to finish and uses a “mini assembly line” that sees the Defender moved around different specialist areas under the Rover Dome, with a quality controller checking each stage of the job. If it’s not up to their standards, the Humbles say it goes back to that area for rectification.
Once complete, each project is then tested for things like waterproofing and functionality of the various mechanical, electrical and tech upgrades, then road tested for up to 1,600kms before it’s handed over to the customer.
Upgrades are said to cost around US$100,000 each, while restorations can be anywhere from US$170,000 to US$250,000 (and sometimes over US$300,000), depending on spec and features requested.
For that price, you’d expect the job to be thorough and that’s what ECD claim to do. Tom Humble said that, in his early days in the US, he saw plenty of cheaply-modified Defenders done by guys looking to make a quick buck, so he’s been determined that East Coast Defender go in the opposite direction. The company describe themselves as “the best Land Rover Defender builders on the planet” and that devotion seems to be paying off.
UVC and the Viper
One would think that the existing product of ECD would satisfy most US customers’ demands, but the company says there have been calls for an even higher level of custom finish - a true ‘handcrafted’ SUV. The first product of that demand is “Project Viper”.
The dual cab Defender ute shown here that wears the Project Viper tag is also the first product of ECD’s UVC (Ultimate Vehicle Concept) division that caters for no limit (and no limited budget!) builds.
“We created UVC in response to the overwhelming demand from clients who want a pure, handcrafted SUV that is not limited by a specific Bill of Materials or budget,” Wallace explained.
“With one-of-one builds like the Viper, we’re pushing the creative envelope with bigger, more capable trucks that celebrate our heritage, with added daily comfort and reliability.”
Wallace adds that UVC Defender projects are created in close co-operation with each client and will be exclusive, with no more than ten units produced per year.
Each UVC Defender represents what ECD says is a no-budget-restriction, no-creative-restriction, built-from-scratch, one-of-one vehicle. Rather than just looking tough and being packed with comfort and tech features, each UVC Defender will also be purpose-built to handle the most extreme off-road and weather conditions, according to ECD.
“While staying true to Land Rover heritage, our clients will be able to completely redesign their Defender,” said Tom Humble. “Each SUV that rolls out of our facility will be ready to cross continents or tackle the most demanding conditions in a Baja race. We’re taking the Defender to a whole new level and the Viper is the pinnacle of what a true adventure-lifestyle SUV should be.”
Elliot Humble added: “Build options available to UVC clients include custom built axles, shock absorbers, air intakes for snorkels, lighting options and off-road protection, as well as hand-built wheels.
“Approximately 95 per cent of the custom work is done by hand, by skilled craftsmen and engineers. The build process is time intensive and includes countless hours of design, build, fit, re-design and re-fit until the vehicle exceeds UVC’s standards for design and performance.”
While a separate area of their Rover Dome will be devoted to UVC projects like the Viper, ECD says these elite builds will not impact on their regular custom work.
This UVC project presented here was commissioned by a doctor in 2016 and cost a reported US$285,000 (around AU$355,000) to build. Powered by a Chevrolet LS3 V8 and fitted with a laundry list of hand-made and custom parts (that includes Aussie-made off-road componentry), Project Viper made its debut in New York City this past May. The spec and features list is as follows:
Project Viper performance specs include:
- 6.2-litre, 430hp (320kW) Chevrolet LS3 V8 engine
- Six-speed automatic transmission
- USA hand-built custom aluminium radiator
- Ricks Tanks hand-built Ricks Tanks full stainless steel fuel cell with dual point fuel pickups
- Braided stainless steel fuel lines
- Stainless steel brake lines
- Wilwood brakes with 6-piston front race calipers and 4-piston rear race calipers with vented and drilled rotors all around
- KAM custom heavy duty axles with electronic locking diffs
- Heavy duty steering arms
- Custom suspension system: King Off-Road Racing shocks and steering damper; 2-inch lift Old Man Emu coil springs
Project Viper interior and convenience specs include:
- Puma dash upgrade
- Air conditioning
- Classic Instruments’ Moal Bomber series gauges
- Kenwood touchscreen infotainment system with GPS, backup camera, WiFi, and Apple Car Play/Android Auto
- Custom Morel amplified speaker system
- Wireless phone charging
- Corbeau heated leather seats with white accent stitching
- LED lighting throughout, incl. auto-on headlights, mood lighting, and puddle lighting
- Power windows
- Remote locking and alarm system
Project Viper exterior and styling specs include:
- Custom ECD Edition 20-inch wheels by ADV.1 with Nitto Mud Grappler tyres
- Tinted factory windows
- Tubular winch bumper with WARN winch
- Custom-built swingaway spare wheel carrier
- Full Safety Devices external roll cage
- Front LED spot lamps
- Rear LED work lamps
- Custom-built, diamond-plated bed liner with toolboxes and seating
Visit: <a href="www.eastcoastdefender.com">eastcoastdefender.com</a> to find out more.
Words: Mike Ryan
Photos: Nathan Deremer, courtesy of East Coast Defender