MALIBU, California—For a brief moment I imagine I’m in a Bond film. Two sinister-looking Land Rover Defenders flank me but, instead of henchmen, two delightful chaps — Tom and Elliot Humble — exit the vehicles. The proprietors of East Coast Defender walk to me excitedly, ready to show off their latest creations.
The rigs, a street-tuned Land Rover Defender 90 and a more opulent but nonetheless off-road capable 110, make the Porsche Cayenne S I arrived in look impotent. These Land Rovers are almost three decades older than the Cayenne but have presence and modernity that compete against the Porsche as if each was designed yesterday.
The Humbles — brothers and British expats — began East Coast Defender in a small shop in Florida, tinkering and ruminating on an idea. Since those initial late-night, warm-beer-fueled brainstorming sessions five years ago, East Coast Defender has expanded to an 11,000-square-foot workspace. Its 29 full-time employees are passionate about a single make and model: the Land Rover Defender. The Humbles wanted to propagate the Defender’s cult status while building only enough so as not to dilute their devotion to precision.
Depending on its specs — and the depths of your bank account — an East Coast Defender can be almost anything, from mild to serving up your every want and need. The ragtop Defender 90 rides on a stock chassis and maintains the lines of the Solihull-produced body with street-tuned suspension, a set of 18-inch Kahn Design wheels shipped from the U.K., and a set of light-duty off-road tires. The 110, however, is another story.
Nicknamed The Beast, it features a new subframe, differentials, upgraded off-road suspension, a Kahn Design wide-body kit with a full exterior roll-cage, Warn Winch, Kahn Design wheels, BFGoodrich tires, upgraded interior including Corbeau racing seats, a new dash and instrument panel, and a host of other modifications. The Beast has been through one of East Coast Defender’s most extensive and extreme builds to date, and has a price tag — apparently still climbing as of this writing — of $210,000.
Both the 90 and 110 feature a Chevrolet Performance E-Rod LS3 crate motor. While East Coast Defender is more than happy to sell you upgraded and updated engines from the originals’ lineup, according to Elliot, “The original Land Rover motors aren’t that great. The power, torque, and easy and cheap maintenance a GM crate engine offers was a no-brainer.” You probably won’t be stuck on the side of the road in these Defenders. The Humbles also hinted the company is looking into other engine swaps, including a dry-sump LS7 and Chevrolet’s 650-horsepower LT4 supercharged V-8 found in the C7 Corvette Z06 and Cadillac CTS-V.
I hop into the 110’s leather-lined bucket racing seats — similar to the sport seats found in the Jaguar F-Type SVR and Range Rover Sport SVR — eager to play with the monstrous truck on the dirt roads of the lemon orchard we have use of. I turn the key to the sound of … silence. The engine doesn’t even crank. Ten minutes later, the battery and engine are separated, and I’m in the more street-prepped 90, instead ripping through some tight and sandy paved roads.
The 90 feels like an old truck. There are squeaks and rattles and all manner of common Land Rover Defender aches and pains. But unlike a normal Defender, I’m not worried about overheating or being stranded. The engine transplant makes it feel resilient enough to go another 400,000 miles, which isn’t what usually comes to my mind when I think of Land Rover.
The lowered suspension and big wheels and tires make the ride interesting, as the Defender lists left and right when you enter a turn. It doesn’t feel dangerous, but definitely more boat, thoughlike than modern Land Rovers. Coupled to this LS3 is a four-speed automatic transmission; while a relic from GM’s old parts bin, it doesn’t feel out of place in this application, shifting quietly and delivering torque and power smoothly. I also never really notice its lack of gears. If we took the 90 on the highway, I suspect I’d have a different opinion, but it’s perfectly adept puttering around the back-road maze.
I head into the lemon orchard’s tangled web of off-road trails that lead everywhere and nowhere. The squeaks and rattles are a little louder but no worse than any other true off-road vehicle. Drowning the noise is easy, though, with 430 horsepower available. Ripping the Defender through the tight maze, the sound of American displacement singing through the trees, this may as well be the Dakar rally. The knobby tires grab and hook the loose dirt, gravel, bark, and sand that make up the trails, sending rooster tails shooting into the air as the speedometer needle climbs. The racing seats now make perfect sense.
By now the 110 is back up and running. Its immobilizer turned out to be the problem. Immediately, I’m struck by just how quiet and insulated this model is versus the 90. I ask Elliot to explain the difference between the two. He says, “The 90 was a light restoration, the owner just wanted to keep it as stock as possible but update it so it works on a daily basis. This thing is just as its name suggests, a beast.” According to Elliot, the owner wanted pretty much everything East Coast Defender could do: new frame, new body kit, new interior bits, new pretty much everything. And it couldn’t squeak or behave like a normal Defender; it had to be solid, almost Bentley-esque no matter the terrain.
It’s hard to argue with the finished product as it barely makes a peep while hitting the rutted, rough trails at speeds that would’ve made the little 90 sound like a maraca. It bounds over berms, rolls over rocks, and cruises over cracks. It’s phenomenal.
Climbing through the miniature mountain range around the orchard, the LS3’s torque eats the trail with ferocity. We turn onto what appears to be a little-used trail, judging by overgrown brush and a lack of tread marks. A massive concrete slab the size of a small factory appears out of nowhere and sits adjacent to a nearly 60-degree hill. With a wry smile, I look at Elliot who shares my expression. The 110 advances nonplussed up the steep hill with no drama, all while coddling us in plush leather seats as we rock-out to a custom stereo.
Yes, you need a substantial amount of funds to access this experience. Even more basic builds start at around $90,000, and most projects take about three months to finish when started with a customer’s personal Defender. For a ground up build, that takes around 9-12 months, depending on spec. Pictures and updates keep customers up to date throughout the process. For those who don’t want to wait, two East Coast Defender builds are available for immediate purchase. Both 110s, they feature a host of upgrades and options, including one powered by the General Motors’ LC9 V-8. The LC9 110 costs $169,995, while the Land Rover-powered 110 is $129,995.
When you talk about a truck boasting as much history and gravitas as the Defender does, price might be subjective. And with the attention to detail East Coast Defender offers, you get what you pay for. “Everything we do puts the customer and the vehicle at the center of our business, and our fantastic team simply makes it happen,” Tom says. “Good isn’t good enough.”
|East Coast Defender 90 and 110 Specifications|
|ENGINE||6.2L OHV 16-valve V-8/430 hp, 424 lb-ft (est)|
|TRANSMISSION||4-speed automatic, 6-speed automatic|
|LAYOUT||2-door, 4-passenger (90)/ 4-door, 6-passenger (110), front-engine, 4WD SUV|
|L x W x H||157.0 x 71.0 x 80.0 in (90)/ 181.0 x 71.0 x 81.0 in (110)|
|WHEELBASE||92.9 in (90)/110.0 in (110)|