The original Land Rover Defender is now hot property among modifying and restomod firms. Yorkshire-based Twisted Automotive have been doing it longer than most – what does it take to build up a reputation like theirs?
When Charles Fawcett set up Twisted Automotive in 2001, the original Land Rover Defender was generally one of two things: an unapologetically basic, utilitarian workhorse, or a hugely capable platform for serious off-roading. The idea of using a Defender for normal car things hadn’t really reached the mainstream yet – it was just too noisy, too uncomfortable, too much of a pain to drive in normal conditions.
By the time Twisted delivered its first modified Defender to a customer in 2006, this was starting to change. The Defender was taking on a new status as a design icon – representative of a deeply aspirational lifestyle – and popping up kerbside in the swankiest neighbourhoods of cities around the world.
Today, there’s no shortage of companies that will take a classic Defender and refine it. They’ll blanket the interior with sumptuous leather, drop in all manner of drivetrains and tweak the exterior to meet every design brief from ‘vintage beach cruiser’ to ‘the Chelsea-est of tractors’. Twisted, though, was one of the very first to tap into this market.
While the Defender demographic has grown and shifted exponentially in the 21 years since Charles established Twisted – in what he refers to as his garden shed – he believes some things are constant: “When we began, we’d go to Land Rover shows, we’d hang out with Land Rover enthusiasts,” he says. “The reality is, we still do. The people that buy our vehicles don’t buy them to replace another car; they are a Land Rover enthusiast… just a different sort of enthusiast. You can modify a Defender from so many catalogues now, and a lot of enthusiasts would buy the bits and do the work at home, because that’s part of the pleasure. We’re supplying that enthusiast vehicle, but for a marketplace of very busy people who possibly don’t have the time or desire to do it themselves.”
All the available evidence suggests that this is a very large market indeed. Twisted cars are now on every continent (the usual ‘except Antarctica’ caveat applies), something that’s made more remarkable for a company that steadfastly sits far away from the heartland of Britain’s automotive industry. Headquartered in the unassuming North Yorkshire market town of Thirsk, sandwiched between the twin National Parks of the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors, moving away was never an option for proud local Charles. As with many people who hail from this part of the world, Twisted’s Yorkshire home isn’t just a mere place of birth, but a fundamental part of its identity.
This relative remoteness has led to occasional difficulties in finding the right people for the company, admits Charles, but it also has its upsides. Despite the opening of a showroom in 2021 in the uber-swish Radley Mews, Kensington – part of London with an unsurprisingly dense customer base – most Twisted buyers still make the trek up the M1 to visit the factory in Thirsk during the build process. “We seem to have become a very solid, trusted brand that knows what it’s doing,” says Charles, “and I think the Yorkshire roots help with that. Yorkshire is trusted.”
Even a relatively small firm like this isn’t immune to the changing automotive landscape, so Twisted Defenders now come with four drivetrain options. There’s a 2.2-litre diesel – a breathed-on version of the Ford-based unit fitted to the Defender from 2011 – a 2.3-litre four-cylinder petrol derived from Ford’s EcoBoost engine from the last Focus RS, a 6.2-litre Chevrolet LT1-based V8 and, most intriguingly, the option of a full electric conversion – the TVE.
A passenger ride in the TVE confirms that it’s a curious experience. The familiar Defender surroundings are propelled forward with more pace and less noise than you’ve been programmed to expect. Still fundamentally an old Defender, it lacks the effortless fluidity of mass-produced EVs, but in the increasingly ICE-hostile city centres where many modified Defenders now spend their lives, it seems to make perfect sense.
Crucially, the TVE not only retains the off-road chops of the donor car, but features a ground-up drivetrain rather than batteries and motors repurposed from another EV. This is one area in which Twisted is fastidious – sourcing the very best parts available, or fabricating them in-house where engineers feel that off-the-shelf stock won’t do.
This attention to detail defines so many of the current crop of independent firms overhauling cherished classics, and it’s something that takes time and money to achieve. As senior technician Nick Wilkin explains: “When you do builds like this… it’s pretty much one build per person. You’ve got to know a bit of everything – electrical work, mechanical work, upholstery work.”
Nick is Twisted’s longest-serving employee. He’s been with the firm for 11 years, but didn’t arrive there through a traditional automotive career path. “I was manufacturing UPVC windows, and before that, farming,” he says. “I’ve learned everything since I got here, from different people and just through experience.” This willingness to take on those who don’t necessarily have an automotive background but have a certain mindset is something Charles seems to strongly believe in.
Twisted’s growth is reflected not only in the packed Twisted factory and the Kensington showroom, but in the Old Cinema. Just up the road from the factory in the centre of Thirsk, this is exactly what it sounds like – an ex-cinema, maintaining much of its art deco splendour, converted into a showroom-stroke-lifestyle destination.
This place, too, is rife with neat little details, but most importantly, it houses a fleet of unmodified, almost-new Defenders. These are special vehicles – a selection of the very last of the original run of cars, hand-picked as they rolled off the production line in 2016. That Twisted is the custodians of these cars, and plans to offer them up to customers, is testament to the firm’s dedication to the Defender.
While there are plenty of others in this crowded corner of the market, only Twisted had the foresight and the ability to secure these significant pieces of automotive history. It speaks of a devotion to the cause that very few other brands could lay claim to.