Road Tests

Quick Drive: East Coast Defender Project Viper

An ultimate expression of Land Rover resto-mod customization

NEW YORK, New York — East Coast Defender has quickly built a name for itself as the go-to outfit for well-heeled Land Rover Defender fans keen to acquire a modernized version of the iconic off-roader. The Orlando, Florida-based outfit’s latest effort, Project Viper, is perhaps the most extreme Defender built to date.

Built for a Costa Rican client through the company’s Ultimate Vehicle Concept (UVC) customization program, Project Viper is a rolling $285,000 showcase of East Coast Defender’s skillset. The client wanted a truck suitable for duty in his country’s tropical climate, so ECD started by sourcing an early 80s Defender 130, the longest variant made by Land Rover. It then stripped the ute down to the frame, which was restored and then galvanized for protection against rust in Costa Rica’s wet, salty air. The body was restored and repainted as well, at which point the customization process began.

The beauty of ECD’s work is that it not only restores the Defender, it modernizes it in ways to cure the car’s shortcomings. For instance, a 6.2-liter LS3 V-8 sits under the hood in place of the archaic Rover V-8 lump. In between the transfer case and the flywheel lies a six-speed Hydra-matic automatic — and the goodies don’t stop there.

A custom aluminum radiator is fitted to keep things cool. The center transfer case is also restored and upgraded, though remains controllable with its standard center-mounted floor shifter. KAM heavy duty axles with electronic locking differentials front and rear improve the Defender’s already considerable off-road ability, while the suspension is overhauled with adjustable King Off-Road Racing shocks, a 2” lift from Old Man Emu coil springs, and an upgraded steering damper. The result is simply staggering.

If you’ve ever driven a Land Rover Defender before, you’d know it’s a crude, slow, and clumsy experience. The upgrades however transform it into a completely different beast. Basic physics can’t hide the inherent behaviors of its old-school, solid front and rear axle, body-on-frame construction. Finding the cabin a bit cramped is a result of the 130’s reduced cabin, shrunk to make way for the bed. The experience, however, is far more palatable experience than any bone-stock, fully-restored Defender could ever dream of.

The 430-hp Chevy V-8, unsurprisingly, provides far more effortless power delivery than the original 4.6-liter engine and out-classes it in every way possible. The brakes have zero power assist, but jamming on the pedal isn’t necessary to make things happen thanks to Wilwood racing brakes that feature six-piston clamps up front and four-piston ones in the back.

Taking in the decrepit surfaces that Manhattanites call 10th Avenue in a stock Defender would leave your back aching. In contrast, the Project Viper’s suspension provides a more modern and comforting experience, even with the 18-inch ADV.1 wheels wrapped in Nitto Mud Grappler rubber. And the steering no longer feels like it was made from chocolate pudding thanks to the heavy duty steering damper and arms.

Helping complete the package for the customer’s need is a tubular front-mounted winch, front power windows, a Puma leather dashboard, custom Recaro leather performance buckets, air conditioning, Moal Bomber gauges, a Morel speaker system, and a Kenwood-based infotainment touchscreen system with sat-nav, WiFi, backup camera, and Apple Car Play/Android Auto support. Completing the look for the exterior is a custom paint job, an external safety roll cage, front and rear LED spot and work lamps, and a diamond-plated steel bedliner with integrated toolboxes and seating.

While our short urban stint offered a mere peek at what Project Viper is capable of, there is no doubt in the quality of ECD’s work. Growth of the boutique custom and restomod market doesn’t look it will be slowing down anytime soon, so we should see fresh customs like Project Viper from ECD as well as the likes of Singer Vehicle Designs, Eagle GP, and Mechatronik for years to come.

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