It's several years since the discontinuation of the much-beloved Land Rover Defender, but companies such as Twisted are making sure they don't go gently into the night. James Fisher tried one out, and has been trying to wipe the smile off his face ever since.
Six months after starting work at Country Life, I was invited to a party by Land Rover that was miles above my pay grade and reputation. It seemed like a fairly serious affair. There were celebrities lurking, plus a few influencers and various company wigs.
I did the thing that people do when they are at parties where they know no one, which is drink.
I kept drinking and, in a fear of having been completely invisible for the entire night, I decided to make a stand. So, in an effort to be noticed, I approached one of the chiefs of PR for Land Rover and began to slurrily question him about the Defender. Why have you stopped making them? Why does the visual aberration that is an Evoque exist when the Defender now doesn’t? Are you going to replace them at any point? I was met with a puzzled glare and the usual press release. Not economical, not safe, not worth the money to produce etc etc. I was shooed away and not invited back.
Luckily for me, I wasn’t sacked, and I’m not the only one who misses the humble Defender. Ben Fogle wrote a book about it, Top Gear eulogises it relentlessly, and it’s a miracle we don’t have one on a bank note (the £50 is up for grabs! Start a petition or they’ll put Baroness Thatcher on it!). But, thanks to Twisted Automotive, the Defender is not going quietly. Literally.
It’s now 11am and, despite rising at 6 to get a train to Thirsk, I’m awake. I couldn’t be more awake if I had my particulars tethered to a 12-volt battery. Next to me, Charlie Fawcett, founder and CEO of Twisted, is opening up the taps on a 450 horsepower Corvette V8 engine, which when in a Corvette itself is quite eye-opening, but when it’s in the front of a 110 wheelbase Defender, borders on the realm of comedy. We go from 0-60 in instant, in a whirlwind of noise that sounds like a lion blindly stepping on a Lego. Charlie is smiling a wide smile.
‘What’s so brilliant about what we do, is that this car shouldn’t be able to do that!’ Charlie howls over the engine.
He’s not wrong. My father used to own a Defender, and my greatest memories were chugging helplessly down A-roads, barely tickling 60 mph in 5th gear as I bounced round the back, collecting the various pieces that were falling off. This machine is something else, with the throttle pick-up of an F1 car battling against the aerodynamic profile of a washing machine.
As we tear around the North Yorkshire countryside, I enquire as to what inspired him to create Twisted, an automotive engineering firm solely dedicated to turning old Land Rover Defenders into… well, into the sort of thing that we’re sitting in right now. Charlie admits that it started off as a hobby that soon blossomed into a business.
‘It wasn’t really intentional,’ he says. ‘The company quickly developed its own character, its own customers and it just became something. I realised that it deserved more attention, so I gave up on the other things I was doing and focused on Twisted full time.’
Charlie’s passion is evident. I got the feeling that I was unlikely to be the first person he’d driven round, showing off his products, but his enthusiasm was very much there to see. The smile never faded as he explained every detail about his company to me.
I focus on the elephant in the bonnet, and ask whose idea it was to strap a Corvette V8 into the front of the car, as well as who comes up with the countless other upgrades and additions that Twisted can strap on.
‘It’s fair to say that the customer became the brains,’ he muses. ‘They’re the idea-centre of the entire operation. They’d come to me and say “Charlie, can you give me a bit more power? Can you sort out my seats? Or, what do you think about adding this? Removing that? Would changing this work?”’
It all seems to work very well, as Charlie casually holds on to the wheel with one hand, gesticulating in Dolmio-advert fashion with the other, the car and himself seemingly oblivious to the mountain of power stashed under the ‘hood’.
The main focus of Twisted is engineering excellence, he tells me, reminding me on more than one occasion that they will not hand over one of their cars to a customer unless he, and his army of mechanics, are convinced that it is the best it can be.
Sometimes, he says, this can cause a dash of friction. ‘We don’t mollycoddle our customers, we don’t blow smoke up their arses, we just talk to them straight,’ he says, straightly. And then he turns to me with a smile: ‘That’s a bit of a Yorkshire thing.’
The brand relies on quality, he says, and it can never be sacrificed for the sake of production-line speed. The Twisted badge, Charlie says, is ‘a seal approval’ from the man himself, while the individual engineer’s signature adorns every Classic series Defender that they produce.
‘This is who we are. We do things in a certain way, the right way, and we make the right product,’ asserts Charlie. ‘If you want something quickly, go somewhere else, but you’ll get a quick product that feels quickly made.’
Looking around the cabin of this particular vehicle, it still feels like a Defender. The needlessly difficult to-get-to door handles are still there, as is the ludicrous handbrake, which feels like it should be used to change points on a railway.
On the surface, there are flashes of what Twisted do: a new sound-system and interface, with all the bells and whistles, as well as new leather trim, steering wheel and more comfortable seats, and, mercifully, an automatic gearbox.
Driving it, as I did for the rest of the weekend, still requires concentration. It doesn’t waft like a Range Rover, it demands your attention always, just like my dad’s Defender did. I’m surprised, and somewhat relieved, to hear that this is all intentional.
‘You can’t drive a standard Defender without concentrating,’ Charlie reminds me. ‘You’re always making adjustments. If you’re in a BMW or a Golf, they basically do everything for you. What’s wonderful about a Defender, what gives them their character, is the involvement you have to have.’
I agree, but I ask whether for the price tag (the model we’re in costs £160,000) customers would want more luxury. An easier drive perhaps? Well, that’s just not Twisted.
‘We don’t “pimp”, we don’t “bling”, and we’re not here to make a Defender something it’s not. We just make them better, we do the things that Land Rover themselves never got round to sorting out. A Twisted Defender is a nice place to be, while still having all of its original character.’
I’m sold. We pull in back at the factory, and Charlie turns to me and hands me the keys. ‘Don’t crash it’.
‘What the hell is that?’
I’d got used to this question by now. You turn a few heads driving a Twisted, most notably the ruthlessly impatient Range Rover driver on the A1 south, who looked like he’d seen a ghost when I passed him doing exactly 70 in the outside lane. It’s a question I often ask myself: How do you make the owner of a Range Rover feel less smug? Here’s the answer.
I’m down in Kent for a game of cricket, and I can’t think of a much better setting for this, the most English of cars. I park it on the boundary, where it lurks with a splash of menace behind a tree, almost primed to drive itself in and take a catch.
Before long, more and more people appear, prodding and poking the car, nodding in approval. It’s a bold strategy, re-engineering a Defender. As mentioned previously, it’s a staple of Britain, and to fiddle with it carries a risk – mess it up, and you’ve effectively drawn a moustache on the Mona Lisa.
Initial reviews from my friends, a large enough sample size that I will now extrapolate outwards to assume they reflect the views of the public at large, are positive. And that’s before they even get in it. Strangely, I get asked for lifts everywhere, and I’m more than happy to oblige.
‘The interior is a surprisingly quiet place to be – the whistling of the wind creeping in between the panels is no more, and the automatic gearbox keeps the revs low’
The drive down had been a long one, but made pleasurable by the car. Charlie was right, it still feels like a Defender, even with its immeasurable additions, but the slight and delicate touches of Twisted are easily more than the sum of their parts.
The updated suspension means that my spine was still intact, not something often said when stepping out of a Defender after 5 hours of driving. The interior is a nice and surprisingly quiet place to be: the whistling of the wind creeping in between the panels is no more, and the automatic gearbox keeps the revs low, meaning that I managed to listen to a whole day’s Test Match Special in studious comfort. And, I can tell you, if you ever feel the eyes getting heavy, a lusty tug from the V8 could inspire enthusiasm in the stiffest of corpses.
It’s big, but it doesn’t feel it, with a sharp throttle pickup to help you wind in and out of traffic if required. It’s even handy in London, happily negotiating the streets of Greenwich, Lambeth and Peckham, and it blended in seamlessly with the myriad Defenders that already roam SW-whatever.
Sitting on my sofa later that night, I wonder aloud to myself about what the readers of Country Life might make of a Twisted. I think about companies like Kahn and Overfinch, other Land Rover specialists, and how they are often snorted at by the discerning country-house owner (that’s you). When modifying an English classic, there’s always a risk of being sneered at by the Goodwood Revival elite; a long glare down the barrel of a nose that’s better suited to skiing off of, but I don’t think this applies to Charlie and his cars.
They are definitively Defenders, and every detail that has been added or taken away has been done out of a sense of purpose, not out of a sense of bling. There are Defenders, produced by Land Rover themselves, that look more garish, to say nothing of the mobile disco balls that Kahn vomits onto the streets of Chelsea.
Twisted is born out of a passion for Defenders, and a passion for making the Defender – the best off-road car in the world – even better. Given that they’re now an endangered species, it’s rather reassuring to know that those which remain on the road are in great hands.
Twisted Land Rover Defenders start from just under £60,000 to around £160,000 – see twistedautomotive.com to find out more.
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