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Not Just a Restomod: How Blackbridge Motors Reengineers the Land Rover Defender

by multimill
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Driving along Manhattan’s 9th Avenue in Scott Gilbert’s vintage 1994 Land Rover Defender, I’m stunned not by the woven leather interior, the digitized analog gauges, the functioning defroster, or the effortless power, none of which were hallmarks of the rugged yet agricultural Defender, the core design of which dates to 1948. As a long-term aficionado of vintage British SUVs, and long-suffering owner of a 1990 Range Rover, I’m amazed that I’m not afraid of breaking down.

This is because the car we’re driving is not a typical, or even highly restored, Defender—of which the original model line was first officially sold stateside in 1993. This vehicle is one that has been modernized by Gilbert’s Connecticut-based company, Blackbridge Motors. After Gilbert gives me a tour of his 34-person shop—featuring on-site body, paint, interior, fabrication, and mechanical workrooms, and churning out several dozen Defenders annually—I ask him if there’s any part of the vintage trucks he sources that he doesn’t significantly alter.

“A lot of times, the windshield surrounds usually end up being in pretty good shape,” he says, smiling, “and there’s no reason to replace them.”

The D110 Mark X, one of the reimagined Land Rover Defenders from Blackbridge Motors.

The D110 Mark X, one of the reimagined Land Rover Defenders from Blackbridge Motors.

Blackbridge Motors

This defines Blackbridge’s ethos. It’s not the kind of restomod shop that finds a decent old Defender in Europe, rattle-cans the undercarriage and engine compartment, ensures most of the switchgear works, adds fresh paint and upholstery, and slaps a $100,000 premium on top. “You can fix a couple of things, but whatever you don’t, will still provide a hassle,” Gilbert says. “We wanted the end product to be both worth the investment and a fun, really cool journey, where you get something that you actually use.”

Scott Gilbert, founder and lead designer of Blackbridge Motors.

Scott Gilbert, founder and lead designer of Blackbridge Motors.

Blackbridge Motors

Blackbridge has thus, over the past seven years, carefully examined and considered every aspect of these robust but often delinquently assembled and maintained trucks and painstakingly crafted bespoke, proprietary solutions. Instead of beating dents out of old body panels, it installs new sheet metal. Instead of rebuilding the old Rover drivetrain, an all-new GM crate engine and transmission go in, as does a tuned four-wheel-drive system. And instead of media blasting the creaky old frames, Blackbridge can install an American-fabricated chassis of its own proprietary design, or one modified from a contemporary Jeep Wrangler. Gilbert compares these structures to our human underpinnings. “It’s like a skeleton in your body,” he says. “If you get it wrong, nothing’s going to really work.”

Part of the 25,000-square-foot facility belonging to Blackbridge Motors.

A section of Blackbridge’s 25,000-square-foot base of operations in Norwalk, Conn.

Blackbridge Motors

The result, he says, “is not a restored effort. It’s a complete reengineering of the vehicle that looks period correct.” This best-of-both-worlds scenario endows customers with the confidence and capabilities to actually drive. “Most consumers in this corner of the industry buy cars and put 500 miles a year on them, if they’re lucky. Our cars come back with 5,000 miles. Guys are taking off to Maine,” Gilbert says. “I think that usability is important, not only because that should be the intended use for the dollars spent, but because it’s cool when you can put a package together like that, one that honestly solves for things like reliability and performance and functionality, that ends up being a really strong push for our customers to go ahead and pull the trigger and use the car like they would a regular modern car.”

Reimagined Land Rover Defenders from Blackbridge Motors.

Over the past seven years, Blackbridge has carefully examined and considered every aspect of classic Defenders and painstakingly crafted bespoke, proprietary solutions.

Blackbridge Motors

While full-bore custom builds, like the one I drove, run toward $300,000, one of Gilbert’s goals is to apply his shop’s knowledge and skill set to a lower-priced product. “I think offering a really great value in the mid $100,000s, I think that’s going to be a game changer,” he says. “And I think the market really needs to start standardizing itself. We have built ourselves a really great business on customization and having customers come in and build and design everything. But I think the next iteration is to take all the smart stuff that we’ve learned, and package it into digestible products that people can buy, pick a couple options, and then it’s in the driveway.”

This sounds like a great plan. Though, during my drive, it starts to rain, and as soon as I turn on the wipers, the one on the driver’s side falls off. Gilbert points to the windshield surround. “I told you, that’s one of the few original Defender parts we use,” he says. I feel certain he’ll be back in his shop engineering a solution before day’s end.

Click here for more photos of Blackbridge’s Reengineered Land Rover Defenders.

The D110 Mark X from Blackbridge Motors.

The D110 Mark X from Blackbridge Motors.

Blackbridge Motors



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