August 11, 2020

Buying Or Building Your Dream Car? Case Study: Land Rover Defender 200 TDi - Updated!

Chris was introduced to me by a friend, as an admirer of Land Rover Defenders. After some chatting it was a classic case of “a friend of mine had one in high school and I thought it was the coolest ride ever, I always wanted one“… However it was something he never really thought about doing something about, not knowing enough about the car, if it was feasible for him, and how to get one.

You could argue that it’s as easy as getting on Ebay and finding one you like, but that’s an oversimplification of the greatest magnitude: of course there are people that just have a need to scratch an itch and go for it, but when said itch runs from $15,000 (for a project) to $150,000 (for the most custom built Landys), most people will want to think about it, especially as they look very similar but are worlds apart.

This is a $15000 truck on eBay:

And this is a $200000 truck on eBay: while it’s clear it’s nicer, can you explain why it’s almost 14 times more expensive?

So I explained that I could help, should he be willing to share a little more about what he was looking for into the car, so we started talking, both live and via email to help him narrow down his requirements. He wanted a “toy” that could double as a useable car in a metro area. He wanted some things a Landy does generally not have (4 wheel disc brakes, air conditioning, nicer interior), to make it more comfortable. He also liked the idea of getting to pick colors, materials etc…

At this point there would be 2 approaches: find him a car currently for sale, close enough to his requirements and then modifying it to his liking, or finding an appropriate project truck (a donor if you want) and building it from the ground up. The chances of finding a good truck in the US for a good price were slim to none, especially considering some of the upgrades he wanted, so I decided to find and build a custom truck for him in Europe, where I can have it built quicker and cheaper than in the US, and he agreed.

Before we start talking about the build itself (which I’ll leave for other blog entries as the process advances), I want to recap what it entails to go one route or the other:

a) Build Your Own

Pros: you get to have the car sit and look exactly as you please, budget being the only limit. You also get to learn a great deal about your vehicle and since decisions about it’s build are made step by step, you have plenty of time to ponder about the final result to ensure it is indeed YOUR car. You get to spend the money over time as the build progresses and it’s put where it matters to you.

Cons: depending on what you start from and how much work you want done to it, you’ll be waiting months, sometimes more to have a finished product. If you don’t have the experience and expertise to follow the project closely it can often get derailed and end up costing much more than anticipated both in time and money. (That’s why you let an expert take care of it).

b) Buy A Finished Car

Pros: you get it as soon as you find one you like, no waiting time once you decide to buy. You know how much it will cost you barred any surprises. If it is highly modified, you get most of those modifications for little money, as they rarely increase the value of the car.

Cons: you can’t be too specific about colors and options, and the rarer the car, the smaller the pool to pick from becomes. You MUST factor in that the car will need at least a full “once over” by a trusted mechanic. Hopefully you did your homework first (hiring an expert is money well spent) and already know what to expect in that department. If you have to have the car modified to suit your liking, you are still going to have to wait for it to some extent. You have to come up with most of the money on the spot.

In the end both approaches are feasible and both can get you what you want, it’s just a matter of choosing wisely based on your requirements.

Back to Chris’s story: I found a perfect donor truck, a 1991 Land Rover Defender 200TDi, old enough to be imported in the US as a classic car, but modern enough to have the legendary 11L 2.5 litre engine that gives it more than enough power to keep up in modern traffic, and also enough umph to run services like power-steering and air conditioning without breaking a sweat. It is mechanically very solid (it was owned by an Italian Defender specialist) with some nice upgrades already in place, amongst which upgraded Range Rover axles (note the Range Rover wheels on it) that just so happen to have disc brakes all around, one of the requirements for this build. A lucky chance that made this truck the perfect candidate!

It has provisionally been named “The Hulkster” for obvious reasons

After acquiring it, it was swiftly brought to the shop where it is being built, where I had it inspected for any damages not apparent on my initial assessment. Luckily it passed that with flying colors: the seller had been truthful and I didn’t miss anything. The truck is healthy mechanically speaking, but otherwise is a blank canvas having tired paint and tired interior that need to be redone. Make no mistake, I still planned on something to go wrong with the build at this point. It’s just cheap insurance to look at things that way: hope for the best, plan for the worst.

picking it up
the teardown starts
no surprise so far
almost done
Ready for the bodyshop

After compiling a comprehensive list of parts that were needed, I ordered a pallet worth of goodies coming from the UK and per the customer's specs, I also placed the order for a custom built air conditioning unit by Logan Air, made specifically for this model. An expansive approach for AC (it would be cheaper to source parts and build one with some fabrication), but one that ensures the long term operation of the system and assistance down the road should it ever need servicing. And this is an important part of the build: there are things you can do without, things you can get cheap, but there are things where you do NOT want to have issues with, this being one of them.

body off the frame to paint every part of the car
prepped for paint
smoothing out 30 years of dings
the "wings" after polishing
starting to look like a car again
Body is back on the painted frame
new interior in place
AC radiator in place
Ac vents and controls in place (notice the high tech provisional wood supports!)

The interior was sent out to a specialist to get redone, along with the headliner that is a bit of a headache on these machines as it's one big piece of compressed cardboard holding it all together...

new interior in place
All new interior installed

Lastly the Landy was put back together, tested, some electrical gremlins were corrected (it's something to expect when you do a job this big) and after some successful test miles it was loaded onto a ship and sent across the world to its new owner in the Nation's Capital!

upgraded wheels and tyres
updated LED lights all around
Just missing decals
looking good!
being loaded to leave
on it's way to the port
at the port, ready to leave
at it's new home in the USA!