The British icon is certainly different from a modern Land Rover.
There has been a lot of speculation surrounding the replacement for the legendary Land Rover Defender. This British icon ended production last year after being built in the same factory for 68 years. We were sad to hear that Land Rover was killing off the Defender because we knew how much of an off-road hero it was. However, the Defender hasn't been sold in the US since 1997 and prices have now skyrocketed. In fact, Defenders in N. America command such a premium that companies now build custom cars for the US market.
We had the chance to visit East Coast Defenders in Orlando Florida to take a look at how big the custom Land Rover Defender market has become. Thanks to our archaic 25-year import ban, it is illegal to import non-conforming cars into the US unless they are 25 years or older. Luckily, the Land Rover Defender isn't really impacted by this law. Since the Defender barely changed throughout the years, the parts are basically interchangeable. You could import a 1980s Defender and swap out new lights, doors, and even the dashboard from a much newer car. ECD imports old Defender models and transforms them into incredible custom creations fit for very fortunate customers.
These builds are not cheap, but the amount of craftsmanship that goes into each one more than justifies the expense. Sure, you could go into a Mercedes dealership and buy a G-Class, but it will never be as unique as one of ECD's cars. The process begins by importing not one, but two Defenders from England. One car acts as the base, while the other mainly gets used for its parts. ECD can do everything from a ground-up build to basic maintenance on the Defender, but their coolest trucks are the full builds. The chassis on the Defender is known to rust, so ECD starts off by using a galvanized chassis. They then add an individually catered suspension according to customer specifications.
Each build is given a unique name during the build process so that every car is technically a one-off. The cars each carry the owner's name while they are being built and only receive their final names, chosen by the customer, upon delivery. Some interesting past names include Project Urban Assault, Project Avalanche and Project Tomb Raider. ECD rolled out the red carpet for us and gave us our own CarBuzz tag to put on one of the cars which we codenamed "Project Cyber Stomper." Customers can choose between the original 3.9-liter V8 Rover engine, a new New Vortec Chevrolet LC9, or the LS3 from a Corvette. These engines can be mated to either a six-speed automatic or manual.
While it would have been awesome to drive a Corvette-powered Defender, sadly none were available to drive during our visit. We did however get to drive a Defender with the original Rover engine and a manual transmission. This way, we could really experience what the Defender was all about for our first drive. We knew the Defender was never a fast car, and it really didn't disappoint in this aspect. The engine is much like a toddler trying to pull an obese adult in a wagon. It will move, but only when it is really ready. Even after mashing the throttle, and pinning the pedal down as far as it would go, the Defender didn't want to move much faster. Although, the engine certainly sounded like it was trying.
Even though we basically didn't go anywhere, the engine sounded like it was about to come loose at the seems. Still, this is all just part of the Defender's charm. We knew that the Defender would not drive like a modern vehicle, which is what makes it so unique. Even with the doors and windows closed, it sounds like you are driving in a convertible with the roof down. There was even a pesky gap in the door frame that let the sun in just enough to temporarily blind us. The Defender has very few modern amenities. Bluetooth radio is a rare exception despite the roaring road noise drowning out the speakers. Upon request, ECD also installs air conditioning, but the owner of the one we drove felt he could live without it. Probably British.
The four-door pickup model that we drove, called Project Buffalo, had a lifted suspension, making it a bit tough to drive at any speed beyond 45 mph. All of the faults we mentioned are heavily improved when ECD builds the car from the ground up with modern components, but we wanted the true experience of an original. Now that we are initiated in the Defender experience, we can truly say how much we love and miss this truck. There is nothing on the market that drives like the Defender and we thank ECD for giving us the opportunity to spend some time with one. We can't wait to see what it's like with a 400-plus horsepower Corvette engine under the hood.