Nowadays, if you think about manufacturing a car, what comes to your mind? Probably a big factory full of robots working autonomously, right? Well, if we're talking about the classic off-roader you see here, a 1991 three-door Defender, you can forget all that.
Thankfully, there is still space for small artisan workshops like Defender & Friends, a tiny Spanish company whose work focuses on restoring, preparing, and installing modern components on decades-old Land Rover models. In other words, they create unique restomods that still maintain the essence of the original vehicles.
Each project starts with a name, which always refers to the place where the original vehicle was found. In this case, it's Lleida, a city in Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region. These exotic place names are especially interesting considering most of Defender & Friends’ creations end up in the United States.
Ermengol Molins is the co-founder of the company and we met in quite an unusual way. We were introduced by a good friend, Miguel Quintana, at the 2021 Spain Classic Rally. I could not imagine back then, when we were talking next to his stunning Toyota Celica GT-Four (ST205), that a few months later I would be driving one of his creations.
Gallery: Defender & Friends Lleida
The first meeting eventually led to the D&F workshop in the province of Barcelona, where I was able to get a better look at how the restoration process works.
Of course, there are several levels of updating and modernization of the vehicles, with different prices and timeframes for each. The point of entry is the equivalent of about $35,000, with a timeline of roughly three and a half months. However, most projects are frame-off restorations, which can take up to a year. Such was the case with the Lleida on this test drive.
It’s striking to see models completely disassembled in the workshop, with the chassis on one side and the bodywork on the other, as if it were a 1:24 scale Tamiya kit.
In cases like the Lleida, (a model priced at $150,000), modern technologies are added and contemporary materials such as carbon fiber or natural leather are also used, along with exquisite restoration work. For example, we are talking about a three-spoke sports steering wheel, a multimedia system compatible with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, air conditioning, and heated sports seats, just to name a few. That’s in addition to welcome lights or ambient lighting systems in the rear, which has a double side bench specification.
Obviously, the engine, transmission, and transfer case are completely overhauled, while improvements are made to the brakes, steering, and suspension. The latter, for example, has four different stiffness settings on the Lleida.
On the road, the model is nowhere near what an original Defender offered 31 years ago. And this is an important point: to enter the U.S. without problems, cars must be at least 25 years old and keep the original engine.
In the case of this model, the engine is the more than proven 200 TDI diesel, which delivers 112 horsepower and is linked to a five-speed manual transmission. Also, as a proper off-roader, it has a four-wheel-drive system and a proper low-range gearbox, all to keep Lleida moving when the terrain gets tricky.
It's all complemented by BFGoodrich off-road tires, which are mounted on black multi-spoke alloy wheels, made by renowned specialist Kahn Design.
In addition to its off-road capabilities, buyers also want to have an exclusive product, tailor-made and full of personality. To drive a unique car that your neighbor can never have, shall we say.
This is why D&F works hand in hand with the buyer, who can choose every last detail about the car. This is something that can be taken to the extreme, as we saw with another model in the workshop. It was being completely restored, but the rims retained the original rust. Why? The customer wanted the car to continue to show part of its history.
Back to the Lleida: it feels nothing like a 30-year-old Defender. The engine runs extremely smooth (for an old diesel, at least), and operating the gearbox is a delight thanks to the action of the shifter.
In general, the soundproofing of the cabin is much better, due to the use of insulated glass. And the good work carried out on the suspension is noticeable after just a few kilometers of driving. In short, the car has been built to be fully usable on a daily basis.
The driving position is still quite peculiar. In fact, you might remember that it was typical on this model to keep hitting the driver-side window with your left elbow. But everything is now surrounded by a more luxurious atmosphere, due to the care that has been put into the choice of materials.
And so, little by little, you gain more and more confidence in it. Each time you go through the gears, you begin to discover that the engine still has a lot to offer (even though 112 hp is almost unthinkable today). You can also see how the level of steering precision and stability has improved compared to what the original models offered.
Gallery: Land Rover Defender Restomod Defender & Friends
And that's the end of our test with this very special car. Born from the passion of a small group of enthusiasts, Lleida will soon be crossing the ocean to meet the American buyer. That lucky person has something truly special, a one-of-one vehicle to drive and fall in love with.