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By Dean Mellor, 11 Mar 2015 Custom 4x4s


What would you build if you had an unlimited bank balance and a penchant for old Land Rovers?

Let’s assume for a minute that you’re a well-travelled Landy aficionado with a shed-load of cash and you want a rig to remind yourself of the many global off-road expeditions you’ve completed in years gone by.

You’d probably just head down to the local Land Rover dealer and pick up a new MY2015 Defender, which is likely to be the last example of this venerable off-roader that can trace its heritage directly to the original Landy of 1948. At least, you would if you didn’t live in the good old US of A, where the Defender hasn’t been sold since 1997.

You might think it’d be easy enough to import a late-model Defender into North America, but this isn’t allowed as the vehicle isn’t compliant with the USA’s safety and emissions standards. In fact, several dodgy characters who’ve tried this recently have been busted, with law-enforcement agencies seizing said vehicles and making a public display of crushing them to discourage potential copycats.

So, what’s a reminiscing Texan rancher to do? Buy an officially-imported 1993 Land Rover NAS (North American Specification) 110, slip an open cheque into the centre console and send it off to Jonathan Ward at ICON with instructions to build it into the ultimate incarnation of a modern Defender.

ICON is better-known for modernising old Ford Broncos and Toyota 40 Series Land Cruisers than it is for fettling Defenders, but now that the company has these production models under control, it’s more than happy to take on one-off jobs like this amazing NAS 110… so long as the customer has sufficient funds in the bank to pay for a hell of a lot of work.

“We started a separate crew to develop one-off vehicles,” explains ICON owner Jonathan Ward. “We call [the vehicles] either derelict or reformers. The basic idea of derelict is an as-found vintage car, usually from the late-30s to the 60s, that we’ll laser scan and re-engineer with the best modern suspension and powertrain and conveniences and comforts, but leave it looking like we did nothing – patina, rough exterior finish – but on the inside it’s engineered, the underside’s all world-class.

“And then the reformers are kind of the counterpoint to the derelicts, where the fit and finish is concours level, and the newer the car the more we re-execute it and the more redesign it entails,” Ward says.

The reason for this, according to Ward, is that car-company bean-counters became too powerful in later years. “What the original designer would have rendered of the primary body form and all of the details, like handles and lighting and all that, generally by the time they made it to production, the more they would water it down and the accounting department would tell them ‘well, we can’t afford these handles, but use these handles off another app, use the lights from another app’ and, at a certain point, you lose the vision of the original design.”

Ward reckons this is the case with earlier-model Defenders, which is why there are so many poor-quality plastic components on them, such as the dashboard and the door handles. And this is why just about every component of the Defender you see on these pages is new, from the engine to the door handles, to the dashboard to the air-conditioning system. And many of these components have been re-manufactured specifically for this one vehicle; that means old plastic components have been scanned and re-manufactured out of CNC’ed aluminium, or they have been replaced by new CAD components, made from various top-quality materials.

Jonathan Ward is somewhat obsessed with design. In fact, he reckons the look of the Defender almost saw his company head that way in terms of its next production vehicle. “I’ve always liked [Land] Rovers,” he explains. “And we were kind of thinking of doing Rovers as our next production model, but given the limitation of legal cars in the US, and the limited availability of all-new body structures, we decided, when Ford called and asked us to develop the Bronco, to do the Bronco instead.

“That being said, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the Defenders in that I think their body shape, in a front three-quarter view, is unparalleled in its focused utilitarian beauty… but I really thought that the execution of them left, shall we say, a lot to be desired; use of plastics extensively, the manner in which the body is constructed with the aluminium on steel… and then the use of the archaic [3.5-litre V8] motor… that was leftover 1960’s stuff. Bless GM’s brilliance for finding a customer for it,” he laughs.

Ironically, the engine that now lurks beneath this ICON Defender’s bonnet also has GM roots; it’s a GM “Erod” (emissions certified) 6.2-litre LS3 V8 that makes a claimed 320kW and 575Nm. The LS3 is perfectly suited to Ward’s client who he describes as “a bit of a lead foot”, as is the 2.5-inch custom-built, mandrel-bent, ceramic-coated Magnaflow exhaust system, which gives the Defender a gnarly growl.

Other than having to move the steering pump, Ward says the LS3 V8 fit neatly in the Defender’s engine bay. The new V8 is mated to a GM Supermatic 4L85E electronically-controlled four-speed auto transmission and the stock transfer case is retained, albeit with upgraded internals including a cryogenically hardened mainshaft. Completing the driveline package are new OEM axles modified by Twisted and equipped with ARB Air Lockers.

With a hell of a lot more performance now on offer, ICON replaced the Defender’s standard stoppers with Alcon front and rear disc brakes, a Wilwood master cylinder and a seven-inch dual diaphragm vacuum booster. The brakes not only offer upgraded performance, but the big calipers look the goods when viewed through the attractive five-spoke 18-inch alloys.

As with everything on this Defender, the suspension has been designed to perfectly suit the client’s needs. Ward reckons the client’s brief went something like this: “Okay, I’ve been around the world, I’ve been there, done that, but I’m older now so screw that, this is just to really remind me of those travels, but it’ll be used in Texas, predominantly on-road, on the highway, in canyons, and the only off-road is going to be when I get to my ranch.” Bearing this in mind, the suspension components supplied by Twisted in the UK are conservative, consisting of OEM high-performance springs and custom Bilstein shock absorbers.

The driveline and suspension were completed well before the body went back on the now powder-coated chassis, and other mechanical details were finalised such as the fuel system (a standard tank with an Aeromotive in-tank fuel pump, stainless fuel lines and Aeroquip fittings) and electrical system (an ICON-designed military-spec wiring harness with soldered and triple-sealed connectors).

When it came to working on the exterior, the original body of this Defender threw up some serious challenges, despite it being in reasonable nick. “This truck completed several transcontinental journeys with its previous owner before we got it,” Ward says. “It was in pretty good shape, considering; the largest offences were some silly portholes cut into the roof, and some shoddy wiring and added accessories. We ordered a new roof, fenders and various bits (all OEM), the rest we custom-built or collaborated with our friends at Twisted in the UK.”

The team at ICON, used to working on Toyotas, had to change their thinking with the Defender. “With the FJ [Land Cruisers], even the ones from the 60s, the depth of engineering priority and execution of the design is remarkable,” Ward says. “With the Japanese engineering and tooling and stamping and stuff, there are consistent right angles and consistent forms, versus Rovers, where we spent a lot of money doing laser scanning to map the body in CAD, only to find out that you replace that fender, or you do another vehicle, what is 89.7 degrees on one vehicle might be 91.27 on the next vehicle. That was kind of a unique challenge – we got a little too precise for ourselves and had to throw away some CNC work and change angles off-true to make them match the physical reality of the body.”

As you can see from the photos, the body on the ICON Defender is immaculate, and it’s finished in a spectacular Ferrari-silver paint. Custom-built exterior components include the grille, headlight housings, mirrors, top and side-functional guard vents, door handles, windscreen frame and door hinges. All of these components are CNC’ed aluminium and have been media-blasted and anodised.

ICON also custom-built the front and rear bars (the front houses a Warn winch and the rear features dual carriers) and the side rocker-panel guards, while the external cage was modified and fitted with a custom rack and ladder. Completing the exterior package is a forward-facing Vision-X high-power single-roof LED bar and two spotlights on the back.

The interior of the ICON Defender is a far cry from the plastic-lined atrocity of an early-90s NAS 110. A highlight of the all-new CAD dashboard is its ribbed stainless-steel finish and New Vintage gauges, but look a little closer and you’ll see other intricate details such as the CNC’ed alloy control knobs and air-conditioning vents. Other CNC’ed aluminium components include the door locks, door handles, grab bars and seat handles. The steering wheel is also an ICON part.

The custom seats (four buckets and two jump seats in the cargo area) are similar to those ICON uses in its production models, but they’re covered in very special leather. “We’ve done a couple of vehicles with a brand called Parabellum Collection – that’s a high-end belt and bags brand run by a good friend of mine – that uses American bison hide,” Ward says. “The client really liked that in another project that he saw us do – our Thriftmaster – so he requested the interior and door panels and seating all to be done in the American bison hide.”

While Alcantara is used on the headliner and sun visors, the floors are covered in a top-quality loop-pile carpet. “We Polyurea-coated the underside of the body structure and the inside of the floors while it was still blown apart, and then made the carpet rubber-backed, Dynamat-lined with Hoegaarden German-weave wool rugs,” Ward says. “They’re all removable if you’re really going to get muddy with the truck.”

Additional attention has been paid to keeping noise and vibration levels to a minimum. “We Dynamat-lined the entire body, doors, roof, floors, firewall, the whole nine yards, so it had a more solid feeling,” Ward says. “It lowers NVH significantly and has a more bespoke feeling inside with those higher-quality materials. Everything you touch now is aluminium instead of plastic, down to the seat paddles and all the interior door hardware.”

There are significant mechanical enhancements also designed at improving the feel of the ICON Defender, such as the fitment of an all-new Vintage Air Gen IV in-dash HVAC system, as well as re-manufactured door handles. “We redesigned the way the plungers engage with the latch to make that a more precise feeling,” Ward says. “At the end of the day it is still a [Land] Rover, so the door gaps and alignments, none of them are perfect, but it’s sort of part of the charm.”

So how much money did the ICON Defender cost to build? “Given all the one-offs and scanning and CAD development hours and stuff? Probably in the mid-$300,000s, which is just brutal,” Ward says. “One thing we’re careful to say to people is the way we do what we do is not very cost effective, but if you value the end-result enough, and it makes sense to you, and it transcends what you’ve seen available on the market, then we love doing it.

“Maybe we’re assholes, but we literally try and focus on making every project the ultimate, the best it can be, and the end-result is what it adds up to cost, to do. It’s not like we hired some firm to tell us how much we could squeeze out of each client, it’s just the realistic end-result of our lunacy and detail work.”

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