Formerly named East Coast Defender, ECD Automotive Design is one of those businesses that began with a couple of guys sitting around a table at a gas station diner eating sub sandwiches.
Entrepreneur Scott Wallace and Land Rover specialists Tom and Elliot Humble were among them, and over lunch they hatched an idea to restore Land Rover Defenders. Defenders – most of them of the 90in-wheelbase, two-door variety – were imported into the United States in very small numbers over just a few years. This was in stark contrast to the millions of the tough-as-nails, go-anywhere utilities that had otherwise been sold worldwide.
The machines instantly became cult classics, and the guys at the gas station felt there was a business to be built fixing, modifying and properly restoring them.
But rather than simply clean them up and turn them for quick profit, these gents divined that the way to do the best job was to set up shop in the manner, style and mechanism of a low-volume automotive producer with a proper assembly line, quality-assurance procedures and such like. Humble decided to quit his job, Wallace committed to selling his other business, and East Coast Defender was born in Florida in 2013.
They set up shop and got to work. Besides performing factory-original-type restoration work, they discovered that there were many areas upon which the tough little trucks could be improved upon from engineering and quality standpoints.
Customers were also asking for certain modification and upgrades along the way, to include increased performance and reliability, luxury-trimmed interiors, up-to-date connectivity, and a variety of wheel/tyre and lighting options.
This led to a line of Defenders, each modified, customised and optimised to owner order in terms of performance, appearance, quality, features and infotainment. It wasn’t long before someone said: ‘Why don’t we apply this approach to the classic Range Rover model as well?’ And so ECD has…
That model was imported into North America from 1987-1995. Lauded for its charm, comfort, luxury, and super off- and all-road capability, it had a V8, automatic transmission and full time four-wheel drive with low- and high-range transfer case.
In those early days, the Rangie’s reputation for quality assurance and reliability was patchy at best, as was its dealer and service network, although it was and still is loved for its utterly British charm and feel. ECD’s uniquely optimised and remanufactured Range Rovers are called RRC, for Range Rover Classic.
Using the same approach to construct the new RRCs as it does its award-winning Defenders, ECD’s build process begins with a client selecting the bodystyle, drivetrain, wheels, tyres, accessories, exterior and interior materials, and colours of their custom RRC, while working with the lead vehicle designer.
The ECD team then procures the foundation RRC vehicle, and begins the build process by tearing this down to the bare chassis. Every project is then engineered, rebuilt, upgraded, repainted and reupholstered from the ground up, at the company’s 30,000 sq ft ‘Rover Dome’ headquarters and build centre in Kissimmee, Florida. ECD has also just opened a customer contact and design office in Malibu, California.
‘Our custom RRCs are the kind of vehicle that are suited for practically anything,’ says Tom Humble, Founder & Co-Owner of ECD. ‘Our clients will take the same design journey that they would with our custom Defender models. There really is no limit to how we transform the RRC into an SUV that supersedes everything currently being built.
‘Each will have a different look and feel, which means you’re not going to see 15 of the same vehicles lined up at your children’s school or at the valet. They’ll each be as unique as their owner and as comfortable as any new luxury automobile available today.’
ECD currently has 52 employees, about 42 of whom are ASE certified mechanics (or higher). The Rover Dome facility is very much set up like a small automotive factory, with quality checks and assurances at every turn. Virtually every job and process is handled in-house, from the initial vehicle inspection and disassembly to all mechanical and cosmetic restoration and upgrading, including painting, powder coating, electrical wiring and upholstery.
‘Our mission,’ explains Wallace, ‘is absolute quality. Our technicians and installers are the very best we could find; it’s not just a job for these folks, they are driven to do great work and encouraged, and in fact incented, to improve the process and thus the product. Every single employee, from an engine installer to a sewing-machine operator, is empowered to call a halt on the production line if some components or processes aren’t up to snuff.’
Upon acquisition, each vehicle is disassembled down to the last nut, grommet and washer, and its condition fully evaluated. Components that can be reconditioned and reused are tagged and set aside for those processes and reinstallation. The rest is binned.
All replaceable service items, (belts, hoses, brake components, bushings, bearings and the like) are replaced with new. The frame is stripped to bare metal, refurbished as needed, then rustproofed and refinished.
Most ECD builds involve a more modern and better-performing powertrain upgrade in the form of a brand new ‘from the crate’ General Motors LS3 all-aluminium emissions-compliant V8. With a capacity of 6.2 litres, it’s a virtual twin to what Chevrolet installs in the Corvette and Camaro.
The unit is naturally aspirated, fuel injected and rated at 420bhp – which is a long step and major improvement from the original 3.9-litre Rover V8’s 178bhp output. Mated to this powerful and hi-tech GM powerplant is a General Motors six-speed computer-controlled automatic transmission.
This is the combination most ECD customers opt for, but if the client is dead set on retaining the Rover V8 set-up, ECD offers that as an option on certain models. The new powertrain retains catalytic converters in a custom exhaust system that is calibrated to California EPA emissions level, and thus smog legal in anywhere in the US. Meanwhile, superchargers that push horsepower into the low 500s are optional.
The factory wiring harness is scrapped entirely, and a new bespoke electrical system is built up from scratch for each vehicle, All of the exterior lighting is upgraded to LED clusters that are modern in terms of performance yet retain a proper classic vibe.
The body and chassis are equally refurbished to better-than-OEM standard, while insulation and sound deadening are carried out to levels exceeding those of any other car maker in the world. Even though the manufacturing processes all sound very ‘assembly line’, which they are, don’t think for a moment that ECD is a big machine stamping out identical hamburger patties by the thousands.
Other than prototypes and the few display vehicles ECD produces for these purposes, every customer Range Rover Classic or Defender is absolutely bespoke built to order. Each customer works with an ECD designer to perfect the colours, leather, stitch patterns, wood finish, options, lighting, infotainment and myriad other equipment and finish options.
ECD will build your RRC on either the shorter or longer-wheelbase Range Rover platforms, and the number of customer-elect choice combinations ensures that no two ECD Rangies will be identical. At the moment, output is strictly limited to 36 vehicles per year, so they’ll never be thick on the ground.
Our test drive today means a behind-the-wheel date with Project Alpha, the first custom Range Rover Classic built by ECD. This also serves as the company’s on-going development test mule and prototype for new processes and features; it’s otherwise representative of what any customer-spec vehicle is or can be, other than that it was not built to be sold.
Project Alpha was specced to represent the custom RRC Pinnacle Edition on a ’95 long-wheelbase platform. Due to its smooth ride and more generous rear cabin legroom, this particular model was a firm favourite among many owners when Land Rover first introduced it.
It now features an aggressive lower front facia flanked by rectangular LED foglamps and 16-inch custom-painted Range Rover alloy wheels wrapped with Michelin Defender tyres. Exterior upgrades continue with a black roof in full gloss, tinted side windows and custom ECD badging to complete the look.
Inside, it features more aggressively bolstered front seats in super soft Cappuccino leather with complementary Sand stitching and high-impact black piping, a classic soft dash, luxury black carpet, leather-wrapped steering wheel and premium digital gauges.
‘The new ECD RRC will finally bring the vehicle into the 21st century, without sacrificing its classic heritage and originality,’ states ECD Automotive Design co-owner Elliot Humble. ‘We’ve make it look and feel much more premium by focusing on some key design elements. For example, we kept the original seats, but completely rebuilt them with premium leather, stitching and trim appointments. There is nothing comparable on the market.’ It is remarkably modern and old school, all at the same time.
Climbing aboard the ECD Range Rover feels little different than it did when we first jumped into a new Range Rover back in 1988. Then you begin to notice the differences; there’s high-quality leather everywhere, and the much-evolved console and centre stack now pack a touchscreen LCD and a more modern shifter for the automatic trans.
The main instrument cluster is also a more modern piece that’s comprehensive, brilliantly lit and easy to read. Twisting the key fires the Corvette-based engine into life, with the exhaust emitting a deep, throaty rumble – speaking, but never shouting, its quiet authority and inherent muscle.
Engage drive and mat the throttle, and you’re rewarded with sounds and smooth, ultra-strong acceleration no original Rangie can match. The car’s 420bhp and 5000lb kerbweight make for an inspiring weight-to-power ratio, and we find that the LS3 is perfectly mannered at all rpm levels; it idles butter smooth, and revs to its 6000rpm redline with vigour.
And the GM auto box is its perfect dance partner, with a smooth, crisp change up or down the ratios, and no hesitation to respond to commands from the shifter or your right toe – something to which the original Rover V8 and Borg-Warner trans combo could not lay claim.
An important element of the remanufacturing process replaces the original air suspension with conventional performance-rated steel springs, and the ride and handling are that much better for it.
The ECD Range Rover Classic retains the controlled suppleness of the original, but with a firmer footprint and more confident cornering. Credit the use, on this unit, of original 16-inch rolling stock that offers the cushioning effects of the relatively tall tyre sidewalls, and not the rock-hard, decidedly uncompliant super-low-profile 20, 22 and 24-inch tyres offered, or customer installed, on so many luxury SUVs these days.
It’s no lightweight sports car in the handling department, but feels responsive in your hands and gets around corners with controlled confidence. The premium Michelin tyres offer meaningful grip, too, with no rumble or road noise. The fully reconditioned factory brakes feel more than up to the job.
Besides all of the customer options, ECD offers its custom Range Rover Classics in three distinct levels of trim: the range-topping Pinnacle, the slightly more aggressive Pursuit, and the Retro (this is the model that retains a remanufactured Rover V8 and factory four-speed automatic transmission).
Depending upon model, choices and options, prices range from around $160,000 to just over $200,000. Not so much compared with Bentley’s ultra-premium Bentayga SUV, which commonly exceeds $300,000.
Wallace makes the point that an ECD Range Rover Classic needn’t be a weekend-only toy, like many classic cars may become: ‘It is designed, engineered and manufactured to be driven every day, anywhere, and any time, by any owner under any conditions they wish to drive it.’
So whether it’s the school or grocery-store run, daily commute, trek up to the ski cabin or a cross-country excursion, the ECD Range Rover Classic will get you there in thoroughly modern, up-to-date, dependable luxury.
Find out more about ECD Automotive Design here.
Photography by Matt Stone and ECD Automotive Design