The Land Rover Defender is an archaic, slab-sided agricultural work truck. Yet people are paying $200,000 for custom versions with extra layers of leather inside and outrageously overpowered engines. I’ve driven a lot of steroidal trucks, but East Coast Defender’s Chevy V8-swapped Land Rover was definitely one of the most... dramatic.
For the handful of you unfamiliar with the Defender, it’s like a Jeep with more caché by virtue of being British and extremely rare in America. The model was only briefly sold in the U.S., and any “new” trucks coming here have to be over 25 years old and imported privately. Everyone loves them. The Defender is a legitimately stout off-roader with an earnest pedigree in adventure driving. Plus, only a few hundred were ever sold in the U.S. in the 1990s.
But the rarity makes them prohibitively expensive to be trail pigs, so many of the Defenders that are in the U.S. end up as showy third cars in Southern California. The beach bourgeoisie dig Defenders because the trucks are a little cooler than Jeep Wranglers (too common) and more chill than Mercedes G-Classes (too flashy.)
Unless your Defender is this ridiculous wide-body, exo-skeletoned, V8-swapped monster prepared by East Coast Defender. Behold the “Project Beast:” A 430-horsepower collection of high-capability components created as an altar to attracting attention.
Even though the differential locks have been sacrificed in favor of a driveline than can support a high-performance engine, the truck is assuredly still capable off-road. A two-inch lift has made room for bigger tires, all four of which are driven all the time. And even though the sidewall is pretty lean, this Nitto all-terrain rubber has enough tread to get dirty.
The 6.2-liter V8’s 430 horsepower and the swapped-in six-speed it’s connected to make the truck feel significantly quicker than what I remember my old own 4.0-liter Land Rover being like. By which I mean, my truck would still be cranking over by the time The Beast was a quarter-mile away.
That said, I wouldn’t call the acceleration gut-sucking scary, but the exhaust is so loud you could certainly convince yourself it’s all the fast you’d ever need.
East Coast Defender is a Florida-based importer and upgrader of, you guessed it, Land Rover Defenders. The company is fairly new, having started out doing straight imports in 2013. But shortly after the “upgrade” side of the business began building steam. The shop now employs 28 people, 17 of which are technicians according to the company’s rep I drove with for a few miles. Their orders range from tweaks to existing trucks to full-on custom builds, and their reps told me about 100 vehicles have been through the shop in some capacity in the last few years. The average price the company has been getting for an import, restoration and extensive upgrade package is “about $170,000.” And every one is built to order. This Defender 110 apparently cost its Las Vegas-based owner “over $200,000” when it was sold a few years ago.
I was also assured that the company’s projects are more complex than shoe-horned engine swaps. Their engineering efforts are led by an ex-Land Rover man, and the mechanical cohesiveness of the trucks was indeed impressive: the engine and transmission looked and felt like they belonged there.
So what did he get for his money? On top of the V8 engine swap and six-speed automatic transmission this truck has a quilted leather interior, cargo drawer system in the back, suspension upgrade and lift, wide body kit and an external roll cage that I was assured is indeed functional.
“You’re telling me we could roll it and that thing would survive,” I asked, ever skeptical of rolling jungle gyms like this.
“Yes. It’s structural and integrated to the chassis,” was the reply. The cage was my favorite part of the vehicle. Even after climbing inside and driving it.
The cabin was extensively drenched in quilted leather, but even though some choice materials were deployed the Defender couldn’t quite get over its farm truck build quality. Like–the seat isn’t perfectly squared up with the steering wheel, which I have a feeling may be a universal Defender quirk, but having never driven another one I can’t say for sure.
Pretty sweet having power windows in this thing, though.
Slam on the gas, and you will, the truck pulls hard off the line squealing all four tires into submission through a shift or two. In a hard charge it struts ahead and swings its shoulders like a superhero heading into battle. But doesn’t feel as secure as it sounds–under heavy acceleration, the front wheels are liable to go rogue and run their own direction if you’re not careful.
That sensation of the power doing the steering is amplified by the soft suspension, which becomes even more apparent when you go to make a turn and the whole thing starts feeling like a carnival ride. It’s more of a good-humored tilt than a pearl-clutching “thank god we have that exo-cage” sensation, but I still made sure to scrub plenty of speed before making a turn.
Slowing down forces you to think ahead, too. East Coast Defender mentioned the brakes on the 110 had been upgraded from stock but they still required a huge input to reel the Rover back to a stop.
The two-door Land Rover that East Coast Defender had also brought to our playdate was different in a few key ways–namely, it was running a four-speed automatic instead of a six and had suspension set to be one-inch lower than stock as opposed to the longer truck’s two-inch lift.
Instead of the four-door Beast’s Corvette-sourced LS3 engine, I was told that this two-door truck was running the 5.3-liter LC9 V8 from a Chevy Silverado.
Naturally, I expected the convertible to be a louder than the fixed-roof SUV. But even ignoring the exhaust bark, the wind and road noise in that little truck was a lot closer to a sixty-year-old canvas-body Piper Cub airplane with an open window than any car I’ve ever driven. Except maybe that Jeep Wrangler we ripped the windshield off of.
Between the wind coming off the Pacific ocean, the Defender’s given disregard for aerodynamics and a roof made of cloth (albeit high-quality cloth) you’d want an intercom system to comfortably have a conversation while underway in this truck.
And then there were the tunnels. What is it about a reverberating environment and a clear-throated V8 that turns us all into children?
Oh, right, it sounds freaking awesome.
I know we’re in an age where smaller turbochargers have been declared the replacement for displacement, but there’s something about the sound of a big angry well-exhausted eight-cylinder engine that makes me feel like a grizzly bear with a jet pack.
In the two-door, or “Defender 90” as it is called (for the wheelbase, which is about 90 inches) the four-speed seemed little slower through hard acceleration and of course we were down some horsepower from the other truck, but the handling was so much sharper and sure-footed that the whole driving experience was markedly better. Even though it was a lot noisier.
Just a few days ago, I would have called a lowering kit on a Land Rover an affront on all I hold sacred. But to be honest, I think that the one-inch drop was the most appreciable improvement to this vehicle. There was plenty of pothole-clearing space left over underneath, but the steel brick was a whole lot easier to steer.
At this point I’m sure many of you have already scrolled to the comments to ask something like: “but is it worth $170,000?”
Is anything? Hard to say from any normal person’s perspective, but it does invite comparison to conceptually similar vehicles you can have for around the same amount of money. And the standard-bearer in this segment, high-end treatments of hardcore old-school off-road trucks, is still Jonathan Ward’s California-based company Icon 4x4.
Ward has been at the resto-mod game a lot longer than East Coast Defender, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that his reimagined Toyota Land Cruisers I’ve driven have felt a bit more complete than these trucks. While Icon removes and re-cuts every tiny piece down to the door handles in upgraded material, the first thing I grabbed on the East Coast Defender 110 was a passenger handle “leather-wrapped” ...by one of those velcro seat belt pads. And that’s a tough first impression to overcome when the vehicle costs as much as a decent house in some parts of the country.
But both of East Coast Defender’s demo trucks seemed mechanically sorted. And they nailed the action-movie prop-car look better with this four-door Defender 110 than any other custom 4x4 I’ve seen in Hollywood. I’m still not convinced “faster” and “fancier” make a vehicle like this “better,” though.
Defenders are fun because they ride the way they look—rugged and rough. All the world’s horsepower and quilted leather strips the vehicle’s organic brutality and replaces it with a different kind, creating a split personality I’m not completely sold on.
Regardless of whether or not you want (or can afford) one of East Coast Defender’s trucks, you’ll probably enjoy building your own on the company’s simple-but-sweet online configurator. And if you like to make noise and look tougher than your friends with G-Wagens, this might just be your truck.