In 2016, after 67 continuous years of production, Land Rover ceased production of its iconic Defender causing CAMRA members to wail into their beer as though they’d lost a childhood pet. Men with beards and rubber shoes will tell you the car’s likeness should have gone straight onto a banknote. Land Rover recently launched a new Defender and it’s very good. But – and the real ale drinkers are right about this – it’s not a real Defender.
One tends to view the Defender with rose-tinted hindsight. It was slow, clattering, vague, unsophisticated, unwieldy and terribly uncomfortable. Especially my step-father’s early ‘90s example. He drove around a bend too fast while carrying a load of cacti. So, we had to sell it, because no one could perch on the rear seats anymore without suffering posteriorly.
Had he held onto it, savage hidden prickles notwithstanding, he could probably flog it today for what he paid for it, such is the demand to cling onto the utilitarian remnants of what seems like the Victorian age. As soon as it was declared the Defender as we know it would cease to be (hastened by Euro NCAP pedestrian crash safety regulations), eagle-eyed investors started to squirrel them away.
Charlie Fawcett was one such chap. A straight-talking Yorkshireman, he’d grown up with Land Rovers through his dad, who fettled them professionally and ran a 4×4 driving centre. Charlie set up his own engineering company, Twisted, in 2000 and soon concentrated solely on the after-market modifying of Defenders old and new, making subtle improvements in all the areas the Solihull factory hadn’t had the time or resources to manufacture. In 2015, when he knew the death of the Defender was in sight, he raised £7.2 million and bought 240 straight off the production line.
Right now, a bunch sit in an undisclosed location in North Yorkshire, untouched. The rest have already passed through his workshop in Thirsk and been ‘Twisted’. These are brand new Land Rover Defenders that have had their performance, comfort and handling expertly enhanced. Unlike some other customising firms that shall remain nameless, these are not dripping in bolt-on accessories. If Charlie doesn’t think your paint choice or specification demands are in keeping with the Defender’s DNA he’ll tell you to sling your hook. Twisted Defenders are a celebration of the car’s heritage, but with tweaks that ensure its longevity. And they’re amazing fun.
Charlie lent me the company demonstrator, so I set off for the wilds of Northumberland and Cumbria in search of mediaeval monasteries, ancient forts, unspoilt beaches and rugged moorland. The kind of landscape this machine had been made for, with an itinerary fit for its reimagining.
The car I’d been loaned was number ten of 20 ‘Classic Series II’ cars that Twisted have produced. It’s short-wheel-base, sat on extra-knobbly BF Goodrich all-terrain tyres and 18-inch black five-spoke alloys. The grey paint, powder-coated accoutrements, LED lights and revised radiator grill make it look mean and contemporary, but not outré. Under the bonnet is this car’s factory-fitted 2.2 turbo diesel block, but it’s had its ECU fiddled with to produce 170bhp rather than 122.
The windscreen is steeply raked, there’s almost no room for your near-side elbow, and the handbrake is like a railway points lever. In this sense, it feels vintage. But the leather and Alcantara re-trim is good quality, handsome and cosy. The custom Motolite steering wheel is chunky and sporty. Behind the seats it’s utilitarian, with two short parallel bench seats and some heavy-duty dog netting. To own this car and not a working hound would be a terrible dereliction of duty.
Twisted can fashion you a case for your shotguns and shooting juice, which would be handy for my first destination. I was to engage in my first pheasant and partridge shoot, and borrowed a chum’s gun and related canines. The rolling hills led the Twisted to the Beaufront Estate near Hexham. Firing in the shadow of the Gothic revival castle and the valley of the River Tyne, I bagged two accessories for the Twisted, which would hang proudly until they were plucking-ready. I watched them swinging in the rear-view mirror as I chucked the Defender around the fast and glorious B-roads that sink deep into the North Pennines.
As this car is a piece of English heritage, I’d chosen suitably rustic-chic accommodation befitting an £80,000 (yes, you read that right) off-roader. The Lord Crewe Arms is nestled in the honey-hued village of Blanchland, protected from high winds by a cloak of hills and forest. Its beauty has drawn poets including WH Auden and Philip Larkin.
Built in 1165, this 21-bedroom bolthole began its life as the guest house for the newly-formed Blanchland Abbey and was lauded for its hospitality for 400 years until its dissolution in 1539. It passed through different private ownerships and from the 1720s, as the Lord Crewe Arms, served pints to miners after their shift. The pub part is now housed in the vaulted crypt. Food is worshipped upstairs, either in the Bishop’s dining room or beside a fireplace big enough to toast the toes of his entire flock. It’s so large that Tory politician, landowner and rebel ‘General’ Tom Foster hid inside it during the 1715 Jacobite rising, and the hotel is said to be haunted by his sister, Dorothy.
The public areas remain true to their millennium-old roots, with flagstone floors, heavy studded doors, deep mullioned windows, and thick stone archways, large medieval portraits and suits of armour; very Game of Thrones, but not in the slightest bit twee. The menu is seasonal, local and robust, brimming with flavours, and they’ll butcher your own birds upon request. Mine still required a bit more hanging. The following morning, having emerged from my one-bedroom two-storey cottage, I jumped back in the Twisted armed with a map of regional ruins.
The undulating tarmac that leads through the villages of Slaggyford, Sinderhope and Spartylea go some way to explaining how what started as a humble Defender 90 has become an £80k plaything. This car has a light level of performance enhancement compared to Twisted’s V8 machinery, but at its core is its dramatically improved suspension.
Twisted have worked with masters of the art Bilstein, Eibach and engineer Rhoddy Harvey Bailey to create a unique, progressive suspension system, with a switch of bias on the anti-roll bars that reduces understeer and improves traction. The dampers are custom valved to suit the spring rates, for greater ride comfort. The result is that this Defender is much grippier, predictable and communicative than a standard Defender. It doesn’t feel like a 2,200kg utility vehicle, it feels like a high-sided go-kart.
You can’t come to Northumberland and not walk along one of the stretches of Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman fortification that cut across the country from the Irish sea to the North sea. Much of the stone was repurposed for other buildings in the centuries that followed Roman rule, but there remain stretches, one of the longest of which can be found between Hare Hill and Steel Rigg. This section is also handy for Lanercost Priory, founded in 1169, which survived the War of Independence, and most of what the weather has thrown at it, and is still an operational church. Robert the Bruce is said to have committed ‘infinite evils’ here and various kings ransacked it, but this Augustinian priory remains one of the most romantic holy sites in England.
There is something ecclesiastical about the Defender and I’m trying to put my finger on it. Maybe it’s because it has the aerodynamic profile of a church organ. Turn on the taps, though, and it goes like Bishop Michael Curry reading a sermon on speed. I take the heath roads across the Kielder Forest and Northumberland National Park towards the pretty east coast hamlet of Alnmouth, noted for its wide sandy bay. Stick a surfboard on the top of the Twisted and it would look just the part.
Whipping past the verdant sheep-grazed moorland, one’s mind starts to wander to matters of displacement. This 2.2 TDCi Ford engine has had some electrodes attached to its gonads, sure, but the car I’m driving is the entry-level amuse bouche of the Twisted range. In both 90 (short-wheel-base) and 110 (long-wheel-base) form, Charlie and his team will install the mighty LS3 6.2 litre V8 lump from a Corvette, which unleashes the wrath of God – all 430bhp of it. It’ll head-butt the air from standstill to 60mph in a smidge over six seconds, which is insane for a 2.5 tonne car that was basically designed in 1948. With all the bells and whistles, prices can go as high as £180k.
While the sticker cost is madness, if you’re the kind of millionaire who enjoys country pursuits and finds Range Rovers and G-Classes boring, gauche or for softies, this is essential equipment. It’s a resurrection. We thought the Defender had demised, but as the Twisted Defender it has risen in its boldest and most messianic form.
• Twisted can build you a brand new (old) Defender, sell you a used one, or modify one that you bring them. www.twistedautomotive.com
• Cosy rooms at the Lord Crewe Arms start from £159 including breakfast: lordcrewearmsblanchland.co.uk