East Coast Defender: A Cottage 4×4 Industry Built By Family
Photography by Ted Gushue
Generally speaking any time a family does anything together in the automotive world, I get excited. There’s just something so awesome about knowing that kin are out there building great businesses around something they truly believe in. Tom and Elliot Humble are two brothers from the UK who came over to America a few years ago as the Land Rover Defender market started to expand. Their product was simple: make a Defender that could be reliably driven 7 days a week. They called it East Coast Defender.
Since then they’ve brought in Scott Wallace, a family friend to manage the business, mechanics from the UK, and are now getting nationwide recognition for the quality of their work. I recently joined them in Kissimmee Florida for a bit of off roading and a chinwag.
Ted Gushue: All right guys, how did ECD begin?
Tom Humble: I suppose it started with me when I moved out here about four years ago with my wife. We’d always kind of restored vehicles in the family and we brought a couple of trucks over with us. We didn’t really know what to do with them at the start, so we put them on eBay. They sold within a couple of weeks, and then we had more and more people asking, “Can you get me one?” Naturally we couldn’t say no. From there it just started snowballing really, really quickly.
TG: Were some of your customers who were buying the trucks from you asking if you could tweak them?
TH: Bingo. You’d have something for sale and they’d want to change the wheels or put a roof rack on it or add these lights or something like that. You got the feeling straight away that there was a way that we could make this into a really meaningful business aimed at satisfying everyone’s requests.
TG: When did you invite your brother Elliot over?
TH: I didn’t invite him…technically, he just sort of turned up [laughs].
Elliot Humble: Oh come on, I did not just turn up!
TG: Well, let’s hear the story Elliot.
EH: I was at Uni. I’d been at Uni for two and a bit years, so I was nearly finished and Tom called me and said, “Look, this is getting really busy now. We need to start and just go all in on the Defender business. Do you want to come over now?” He said he’d give me six months to, “Finish Uni. Get your degree.” Fast forward a few weeks and I just decided to leave university and do this thing properly. I told them I was deferring a year so I could go back and finish the following year if this didn’t work out, but that was three years ago. There’s not much chance of me going back and finishing my sports science degree now.
TG: Right. What good would the degree be anyways?
EH: No, exactly. I hated it. By the time I got two and a half years in, I was done anyway [laughs]. I had no interest in it. I packed two massive suitcases full of Rover parts and got on a plane the next day.
TH: He had a bike case full of tools, as well, I remember.
EH: Yeah, because you can ship sporting goods on Virgin flights for free. So if you have a bike in a box you can fill the extra space with whatever you want.
EH: Yup. I brought my road bike and I filled that spare bag with as many tools and parts as possible, so I turned up at the airport with this comical bike box. You literally had to drag it around the airport. Total nightmare. I remember I got off the plane, got my bags and dragged it from the baggage claim to the car and I was just soaking wet, just sweating profusely. It was horrendous. We then proceeded to get to work straight away.
Ted: Now how did you get involved Scott? You were over here already, correct?
Scott Wallace: I know Tom’s in-laws and Tom came around to my house one night for dinner and I saw his truck. A few beers later I said to him, “You know, you need to grab this and do it properly. Not just as a side business with your brother.” So literally the next day he calls me saying he’s just quit his job and needs a bit of cash-flow to start scaling immediately. We worked out an agreement, and all of a sudden the three of us were in the Land Rover business. Next morning I turn up and I see how these two lads were roughly winging it, so we took apart the whole process, rebuilt it and started a production line properly with a real structure. All the while maintaining our DNA of being people that were really passionate about Land Rovers. We then built that into a vision of providing an absurd level of customization for our customers.
We have no investment from outside business entities. It’s all self-funded. We don’t sit around having investor meetings or fussing over profit margins, we simply look each other in the eye every day and say, how can we make the best Defender out there. That’s led to us being able to make some pretty cool trucks.
TG: How many trucks are you doing a year now?
SW: This year, we’ve done 52 projects. That’s a combination of 32 full restoration ground-up builds and then about another 20 projects that involve restoring people’s existing Defenders. They send them to us and we make them better than new.
TG: How has the donor car market changed since you started?
EH: North American Spec trucks have doubled. When we first started, they were they about $20 grand, $25 grand for a really awful truck. Now you can’t pick up a heap for less than $50k.
SW: Yeah, but even in the rest of the world, they’re probably doubled in price too. You used to pick them up for about $6 grand, now we’re paying close to $15-$20 for solid RHD examples.
TG: Walk me through the different tiers of the product that you offer, because you have what seems like a heritage product and then a balls out custom product.
TH: It really depends on what the customer wants. Most people, probably 60-70 percent of our customers, they want something they’re driving every day. They’re getting rid of their Autobiography Rover or G-Wagon and they want something unique that everybody else hasn’t got. Then it tends to be your Puma dash, modern updated drive train, all the electronics, all the comforts of a modern car, just so it’s just a proper driver.
Some people want to keep it a bit more authentic. They want a heritage truck that just runs perfectly. They want to keep everything Rover. We love working on these. We’re always happy to make a client’s dream come true, but when someone wants to drive a bulletproof truck that looks as if it just came off the factory line, that’s when we get excited. These trucks are so iconic for a reason. We’re proud to help that heritage live on in a more functional capacity.
EH: I like to keep things sort of original underneath. I do like the LS3 because I think that’s just such an awesome upgrade. I love classic cars, but most classic cars, I get frustrated the way they drive. For me, putting the modern drive train in gets you this powerhouse underneath that you know is going to run and drive perfectly every time. Putting as much effort into perfecting the appearance of these trucks as we do gets you to a point where it feels like a crime to drop an unreliable drivetrain back in there. We realized that pretty quickly as our customers started demanding it.
TH: They want a Defender but they want to drive it every day. They don’t want it to just sit in the garage, dripping oil and everything, they want to use it. I think that’s what the LS3 gives you. It gives you an automotive icon that is actually functional.
SH: The next big thing for us is truly in house fabrication of major infrastructure pieces like the dash, and so on. We’ve just hired an Engineering director from Volvo. Experimenting with a lot of high tolerance 3D-Printing techniques to get us to the next level. That’s what gets me most excited at the moment.
TG: I would imagine that’s the dream, to move beyond 3rd party suppliers of aftermarket performance parts and to start fabricating your own.
SW: We’re in that process now. It’s exciting. Something as simple as a 130 door latch handle is a factory standard plastic part. We want that to be a special experience when you touch it, so we’re working on engineering our own for example. That’s just the beginning.
I think innovation is the only way we can build this business. If we don’t evolve, we just become stagnant, people will catch up. We’d get bored. We won’t want to come to work if there wasn’t a big challenge like that looming in the distance. A big part of that is we don’t want to be renowned for volume. We want to be renowned for the quality of what we do.
That’s why we brought paint in-house. That’s why we’re bringing exhaust systems in-house.
Ted: What’s it like trying to recruit engineering talent to Orlando?
SW: It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. Anybody that says recruitment isn’t tough is lying. People are the foundation, aren’t they? It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the UK … We’ve run businesses in the UK. It’s the same there. Finding great people is difficult. Retaining great people is even harder than finding them, I think, and keeping them motivated. That’s one of the benefits we have. We have a queue of people willing to work for us. Everyday, somebody comes into this business and says, “I can do this.”
We’re constantly working on ways to reward our team, but by the end of the year, we’re giving 20 percent of this business to our employees. Every single person, as long as they’re full time, will get an allocation of shares in East Coast Defender, free. They don’t have to give us any money for it, these aren’t options. We want to get these people rewarded as well as culturally aligned to what we’re doing. If their hard work brings success to us, they deserve part of the reward as well. That’s the kind of company we’re looking to build here.