All images by Terry Shea/Hemmings
Land Rover is pretty much killing it in the U.S. these days. With several different Land Rover and Range Rover models for sale, the company is perfectly prepared for a market shifting more and more to SUVs and one that seems to be favoring luxury-car makers. But there is a glaring hole in that lineup: the original-style Land Rover, identified by its simple-style aluminum body and known since the Eighties as the Defender.
Though out of production since early 2016, the Defender was only offered for four brief model years officially here in the U.S.—and not even in consecutive years (1993 to ’95 and 1997). A few hardy, enterprising folks imported cars individually when the gray market for European autos thrived in the Eighties before the government changed the rules. There were also plenty of people who tried to skirt the rules in more recent years, to varying degrees of success. The best-case scenario was that your state’s DMV gave it a legit title and you went on your merry way. The worst-case scenario was that the Feds came to your door unannounced with a flatbed and dragged your beloved Defender off to the crusher. Yeah, they do that.
With the so-called “25-year import rule” that allows most 25-year-old vehicles to legally enter the U.S., more and more used Defenders have begun hitting the market. But what if you wanted, say, essentially a new, long-wheelbase 1990 Defender 110 four-door model? Enter Arkonic.
The Somerset, England-based Arkonic restores and remanufactures Defenders in a variety of guises. You can choose an all-original setup that essentially gives you a brand-new vintage Land Rover, but with some upgrades done for reliability and longevity. Arkonic calls these models their “Origins” line, which includes both the two-door, short-wheelbase Defender 90 as well as the Defender 110. Given the thorough restoration process that Arkonic undertakes, you can choose from a variety of exterior finishes, interior colors, and wheel-and-tire combos.
At the next step up the Arkonic ladder, you will find their “Editions” models, which are based on vehicles they have created in their past seven years in business rebuilding 150 Defenders. The Editions line also incorporates 90s and 110s, but also includes various design, color, trim, off-road, and on-road upgrades. In addition to the wheelbase options, Editions Rovers are classified as “Adventure,” “Classic,” or “Urban,” in terms of how Arkonic outfits the vehicle for its intended use.
The top rung in the Arkonic lineup is their “Bespoke” line, which is exactly what it sounds like. As with anything bespoke, these don’t come cheap, but Arkonic will make you a Defender in almost any way you can imagine one. They include a relatively wide range of options to get you started in making your custom vehicle, but seem ready to do just the sort of custom work that might be expected of their well-heeled buyers.
Arkonic doesn’t simply “refurbish” the Land Rovers that come through their doors; they truly rebuild them from the ground up. The company seeks out and purchases the vehicles that will become customer cars throughout Europe. With most of their sales in recent years to U.S.-based customers, the company has sought clean left-hand-drive examples from climates where the steel frames were unlikely to suffer from too much corrosion, places such as southern and eastern Europe.
At Arkonic’s shop, their technicians tear down the vehicles, which includes removing and then replacing or restoring virtually every nut and bolt on the vehicle. They also install upgraded versions of the original engines (even 25-year-rule cars imported to the U.S. must have the original-type engines under their hoods no matter how much more reliable, cleaner or powerful a more recent powerplant may be), either the Rover 3.5-liter V-8 (born as the Buick 215 in 1960) or the 2.5-liter Rover turbodiesel. Rebuilt engines are part of the regular menu. Body panels are removed and stripped to the bare aluminum before being refinished. According to the multi-step process described by Arkonic, their body preparation and refinish process sounds similar to what any decent restoration shop might carry out, in terms of primer coats and finish paint.
When the Muddy Chef Challenge came to Vermont recently, Arkonic provided title sponsorship and offered us a chance to drive a recently completed Defender 110 from their Bespoke line. And bespoke it was! Finished in a Fiat blue, the hue that you might find on a 500 or Multipla from the Sixties, this Defender had been outfitted with some very sporting seats covered in a unique distressed leather with center inserts inspired by (or actually from) a woven Mexican blanket. The interior, indeed, had a custom feel to it. The look and feel of the both the exterior finish and the interior materials seemed top notch to us.
This example came outfitted with the original-type 3.5-liter Rover V-8, an engine not particularly noted for producing too much power and torque. Then again, Defenders were almost always geared for off-road use, be it in the most remote desert or just around the back forty. Even with a five-speed manual and relatively low gearing, the more than two-ton utility vehicle couldn’t exactly be described as sprightly. Despite the oh-so-cool factor of the Defender, we shouldn’t forget that these machines were originally designed solely for their capabilities off-road and on farms and country estates. Measured 0-60 MPH times and other acceleration tests were never a consideration.
There is a surprising amount of leg room in what is not a particularly deep first row, in terms of front-back-measurement. But that leg room is not long and low under the dashboard like a sports car. Rather, with the upright seating position, the passenger space is higher and easily accommodates the driver and right-seat mate. Practically the opposite of sliding behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo, the driver’s feet in the Defender need to shift far to the left, where the clutch pedal is almost up against the side of the car. It’s not uncomfortable nor awkward by any means, just different.
We are given the caveat that this car, to be delivered to the U.S. customer that ordered it, has an engine not quite broken in, so we keep the revs to under 2,500 rpm. Clutch and shifter action are precise enough for such a capable truck, but the steering is as vague as any 25-year-old truck. Given the leisurely speeds and off-road intentions, the less-than-precise steering is not at all disconcerting. More likely, it’s part of the feel of the Defender experience and very much in the spirit of driving a vintage utility vehicle.
And that experience should not be confused with a modern Land Rover or Range Rover, some of which are equipped with supercharged engines putting out more than 500 hp, with interiors using materials that you could expect to find in a Bentley or Mercedes-Benz. Those modern cars are built for modern SUV buyers who rarely venture off-road, if ever, despite the baked-in capability. No, this Defender is the real deal, with a harsh, if forgiving ride, and an authentic country feel.
The Arkonic experience does not come cheap, with the least expensive vehicle in their lineup just a hair under six figures. But with their complete tear-down process and customizable builds, you’re paying for the experience of an almost-like-new vintage Defender, built the way you want it.