The most eye-catching car in Los Angeles is big, black and boxy. It has trouble exceeding the speed limit.
It’s the ECD D90, a modern restoration, or resto-mod, of the classic Land Rover Defender D90 by Florida-based ECD Automotive Design. D90s are rugged and unforgiving SUVs, many of them prone to breaking down after tough lives. ECD makes them palatable for 2018.
On a recent drive along the coast of Malibu, Calif., the ECD D90 – nicknamed “Project Diva” – is an attention magnet. Its midnight black paint explodes off the vintage design language, which is enhanced with a flared body kit, metal roll bars and enormous mud-terrain tires. Diva appears outfitted for war.
In the land of Hollywood glitz and glamour, the hardcore truck is irresistible to locals. A young couple holding surfboards stood slack-jawed as the D90 rolled by. The driver of a passing Mercedes-Benz G-Class slowed to snap a photo. “What is that?” one beachgoer said. “A big Jeep?”
Project Diva is a behemoth. It weighs nearly 6,000 pounds and sits high above the ground even without a suspension lift. Its hulking size is partly why Land Rover only offered the Defender in the U.S. from 1993 to 1997. ECD imports most of its vehicles from Europe when it begins a new project.
Torque from the 6.2-liter Chevrolet LS9 V8 engine that sits under the hood of Project Diva creates a small earthquake as the D90 rumbles forward from a stoplight. The truck feels at home cruising down Pacific Coast Highway at 35 mph. Speeding up requires a stomp on the accelerator. Even then the D90 only travels about 50 mph. The steering is floaty, and the brake pedal requires a long distance to safely bring the D90 to a stop.
The ride is thrilling but primitive. At upward of $170,000 per custom order, the cost of entry for the throwback vehicle is high. It takes a year to build each one, and the company can’t make them fast enough.
“There’s always that lust for something that wasn’t here very long,” said Tom Humble, co-founder of ECD. Humble and his brother Elliot founded the company in 2013. The pair grew up just miles from Land Rover’s assembly plant near Birmingham, England. They spent their childhoods building off-road-ready Defenders – breaking them and fixing them again.
When Humble moved to Florida in 2013, he brought two Defenders and quickly sold them online for a large profit. Soon he was taking requests.
“The company rose out of demand,” Humble said. “Defenders are hard to get in the U.S., but customers are willing to go though it because of the quality and reputation we’ve built over the years.”
Today ECD employs 50 people. It produces 36 vehicles per year from its “Rover Dome,” a 30,000 square-foot facility in Kissimmee, Fla. Defenders are the bulk of the business. In addition to the D90 the company also offers the four-door D110 and D130 pickup truck. It recently added the Range Rover Classic to its lineup. An electric powertrain, with up to 400 equivalent horsepower and a range of 250 miles, is newly available for 2019.
The company is responding to growing demand for meticulously restored vehicles with improved components. Singer Vehicle Design, an inspiration for Humble and ECD, turns classic Porsches into works of art. Icon 4×4 and its founder, Jonathan Ward, specialize in Toyota Land Cruisers and Ford Broncos.
The ECD Defenders stand out because of their capability. In addition to sterling interiors, the trucks are often equipped with winches, snorkels, heavy-duty bumpers and steel bar cages. Most have beefy BFGoodrich all-terrain tires with bright white lettering announcing the driver’s off-road intentions.
Each nut and bolt is replaced with a newer one, Humble said. The factory electric components, a notorious problem for Land Rover owners, are replaced by hand with more than 2,000 feet of wiring. Each vehicle undergoes a 21-day, 400-point inspection with 500 miles of testing before delivery. Quality control manager Sergei Kovalev signs a plaque on each ECD vehicle to guarantee its robustness.
When asked to name parts of the Defender that aren’t modified from their original condition, Humble struggles to come up with an answer.
“The frame?” he said. “That’s probably about it. There isn’t really anything stock about them.”
The gas pedal uses an electronic throttle for a more modern feel. All ECD vehicles come with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. Wireless smartphone-charging stations are available in the front, back or both. An optional air suspension, built by an Australian company, will soon be available.
Humble expects the battery-electric versions to be popular, especially in the Southern California market. Not only does an emissions-free Defender stand out and score environmental points at the country club, but many ECD customers also already have electric vehicles and the associated charging equipment at home.
ECD has built two electric Range Rover Classics so far, and a third is in production. It’s the company’s latest effort to create variety in its offerings because each customer wants something exclusive. A range of personal preferences already is available – from steering wheel type to interior material and exterior paint. ECD developed paints to match everything from favorite sports teams to nail varnish. One customer requested a match to the family dog.
Despite the cosmetic choices, many ECD vehicles are put to their intended use. About half go off-road, and 20 percent see rugged action, Humble said.
Land Rovers are legendary among the off-road community. It is the fourth-most-popular vehicle make at the Overland Expo West, according to the organization. Only Toyota, Jeep and Ford have more share, an impressive figure considering how few Land Rovers are sold in the U.S. by comparison.
And the ECD customer base is split about 50-50 between men and women, Humble said. The rise of women in off-roading and overlanding is a frequent talking point among vehicle manufacturers and accessorizers. A recent report from the Specialty Equipment Market Association, or SEMA, found that young men want fast and exotic sports cars, while young women prefer adventure vehicles.
ECD has built 160 vehicles in its short history. The company is currently preparing a vehicle for one customer to drive off-road to their Boston home.
For most owners of a 30-year-old Land Rover, the idea would be unthinkable. To Humble, it’s validation.
“What old-school Defender would anyone have the guts to drive from Florida to Boston?” Humble said.
“That’s the level that we aspire to.”