The Land Rover Defender with the Heart of a Tesla
My custom Land Rover Defender 110 softtop is Geyser Blue, a Subaru color. Although its bones are at least 25 years old, it is effectively an entirely new vehicle. It has Barbour plaid inserts on its six seats (three rows of two, all forward facing), Brembo brakes, and two Hella auxiliary lights flanking the winch on the front bumper. I went with steel coils instead of the optional air springs in the name of simplicity and reliability. Under the hood: batteries, because my Defender is Tesla powered, with one battery pack up front and one in the rear feeding a 450-hp electric motor that spins the factory four-wheel-drive system. I'm not really second-guessing any of my choices on the build, except maybe the Brembos—getting the big brakes meant I had to go with 18-inch wheels, and I think Defenders look better on 16-inch wheels with some more sidewall on the tire. I skipped most of the body armor (bull bars, even guards for the door handles) because if I scratch it up and wear it out, I'll just bring it back to E.C.D. Automotive Design and start planning a new one. My Defender only cost about $300,000, so if I get on the wrong side of high tide on Nobadeer Beach on Nantucket, I'll make like Eazy-E—throw it in the gutter and go buy another.
It's easy to imagine life as a carefree billionaire, because E.C.D.—the artist previously known as East Coast Defenders—led me through the design process in much the same way they would with a client, presenting the endless litany of choices that would result, 14 to 16 months later, in an exquisitely perfect one-of-one Defender. We may have skipped around a bit in the E.C.D. design book, which runs more than 100 pages. We definitely skipped the part at the end where money changes hands, starting the clock on a Defender that's unlike anything that ever rolled off the line at Solihull.
Fortunately for me, I can still find out how my vision translates to reality, because E.C.D. just finished one much like it, right down to the Subaru-inspired color—in this case, Cool Gray Khaki, a hue you probably associate with the Crosstrek. So I paid a visit to the E.C.D. factory in Kissimmee, Florida, to find out what happens when you shove Tesla guts into a British farm implement.
That's not a slander against Defenders—any given E.C.D. truck may have spent its most recent years plugging through the mud on a farm outside of Eglwyswrw, Wales, before being snatched up by E.C.D.'s U.K. vehicle-sourcing outpost and sent across the Atlantic. Each finished E.C.D. Defender is usually the product of two donor vehicles: an at least 25-year-old one that can be imported whole and a later-model truck with the updated interior prized by the kind of people who buy Defenders that start at $209,000. Ironically, it's the newer trucks that get preemptively destroyed overseas, their choice dashboards sent along to join an import-eligible chassis in Florida. And in the case of the electric models, there's also a Tesla involved. Electric Classic Cars in the U.K. handles that side of the logistics, sourcing and adapting a Tesla Model S P100D powertrain—divvying up the battery pack and adding its own controllers and software.
At E.C.D.'s 40,000-square-foot facility, I meet Scott Wallace, a co-founder of the company along with fellow Brits Tom and Elliot Humble. As the company grew in recent years, it bought up space in adjacent properties, but the ad hoc expansion wasn't ideal for an outfit that's now producing one truck every five days. Thus, E.C.D. is about to move into a 100,000-square-foot building of its own design, right down the street, with plans to build a truck every four days. If that doesn't sound like a blistering pace, you need to understand the level of fanatical perfectionism that goes into each vehicle. "Getting to 95 percent perfection is easy," says Wallace. "It's that last 5 percent that's hard." I wonder how many North American–specification Defenders were ever 95 percent perfect on their best day.
At any time during an E.C.D. build, any technician can flag a problem to be remedied. Software tracks the progress of each truck and who's signed off on each detail. There are three quality-control stops along the build process, and the company puts a thousand shakedown miles on each truck. If a truck needs to be pulled aside to address some thorny issue, there's a bay for that and time built into the schedule. And every staff member is encouraged to suggest any means to improve the finished product. For instance, Hector Lopez, the head of the paint department, informed E.C.D. that Spies Hecker clear-coat looks better than PPG's product, a contentious assertion since E.C.D. had a contract with PPG to use its paint start to finish. A blind comparison ensued, with PPG conceding that, yeah, that Spies Hecker clear-coat is mighty nice, and go ahead and use it.
All this attention to detail allows E.C.D. to offer a warranty that is, essentially, all-encompassing as long as you own the truck. If you have a problem, you call, and they get it fixed, even if it's not really their fault. Wallace says that solving individual problems can sometimes seem like a bad business decision—flying a tech somewhere to fix an issue that maybe could have been solved locally or over the phone—but results in an extremely loyal customer base. There are repeat customers who sell their Defenders back to E.C.D. and commission a new one every few years. Because, hey, seeing your dream truck come to life is a big part of the fun. Then the used truck gets sold to someone who's maybe never owned an E.C.D. Defender but gets hooked and decides to spec out a new one, and the process repeats. There's one particular Defender that E.C.D. has sold eight times. So far.
In the sales office—its walls adorned with leather samples, steering wheels, gauge packages of varying designs—I meet John Price, sales and design lead, and co-founder Elliot Humble. A rendering of my Defender is up on a TV screen so that we can all admire my good taste and restraint. But what if, I ask Price, a customer wants something less than good taste, like yellow paint with a red grille, the ol' mustard and ketchup? "Our role is to build whatever the customer asks for," he says. "Of course, we could advisea different direction." There are limits, of course. I ask what they'd say if I wanted an independent front suspension, and Humble replies, "Well, that's not a Defender though, is it?" All right, I'm getting on my Gulfstream G650 and getting out of here. Nobody says no to the founder of Ezrariffic Industries.
But first I'll drive Project Britton, the electric Defender 110 parked outside next to its evil twin, a black E.C.D. Defender 90 powered by a GM-sourced supercharged LT4 V-8. Unless you're keen enough to notice the absence of an exhaust pipe, the 110 offers no clues that it's now electric—the Tesla motor sitting beneath the floor about where you'd expect a shift lever to sprout. Inside, there's a major clue: The analog tachometer reads to 12,000 rpm, a speed that would cause the internals of a Rover V-8 to exit through the hood.
This truck, while it looks flawless, is only past the first quality-control check and still has some tuning to be done, most notably in the power delivery, which can elicit some juddering and vibration if meandering about in the middle of the accelerator's travel. But once you're moving, it's a stoic Anglo-American tank, the air springs smothering the road and the steering tracking better than any original Defender ever did. There's a whine from the gearing that mates the Tesla motor to the Land Rover transfer case, but in low-load—think cruising—all you hear is the noise of the wind and tires. And even that's subdued, thanks to thick layers of sound insulation beneath the carpeting lush enough for a Bentley. The doors seal so well that you have to close them with authority to ensure they latch. "Normally, Defender door seals are all collapsed," Wallace says after my first failed attempt to gently close the driver's-side door. If you're accustomed to Defenders that are on a continuum of shattered decay, you'll need to adjust your expectations upward. Way upward.
Especially regarding acceleration. I also drove the LT4-powered Defender 90, for science, and the Tesla-powered 110 feels close. E.C.D. claims a 5.0-second 60-mph time, and that's entirely believable. At one point, I have to blast across an intersection with four lanes of traffic, and as I cross the crown of the road midway through, at maybe 40 mph, Project Britton is pulling hard enough to briefly spin the front tires on the wet pavement. E.C.D. estimates range at around 200 miles, and while I can't verify that, a half-hour spent researching maximum acceleration only knocked about 10 percent off the charge. Besides, how many miles of roads are there on Nantucket, anyway?
There are a few drawbacks. For one thing, you can't use a Tesla Supercharger—just regular Level 2 charging, which means you'd need longer than overnight to replenish roughly 100 kilowatt-hours of batteries. And, since the rear batteries go under the floor, you lose some flexibility with your third-row seating arrangements. (E.C.D. can do two forward-facing seats or something like the setup in this truck, which features a rear-facing leather-and-wood tailgating lounge.) Oh, and going electric adds about $90,000 to the price, but I have a feeling that's not a huge deterrent to this demographic.
With E.C.D.'s new facility more than doubling the space it has now, you'd think there might be room to tackle some new projects. Like, what's the car equivalent of a Defender—iconic, British, relatively abundant yet worthy of a 2200-hour restoration? "The Jaguar E-Type," Wallace says. "We have some plans for that."
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