I was born a car guy. In the late 1970s, my father worked for Alfa Romeo, opening up dealerships; my mother served as vice-president of the local Alfa club. Dad enjoyed an Alfa Duetto and later a TVR Vixen. Me, I bought a ’75 Porsche 914 project that I could not complete until 1999.
In 2003, my brother and I opened our shop, Eurotech Classics, where — you guessed it — we wrenched on anything vintage and Euro. Eurotech became my second home, spending more than 20 years there. Then came an opportunity from the Discovery Channel, on which I co-starred in the reality show Garage Rehab. Our three-person team traveled the country advising and rehabbing struggling auto shops. Every town seemed to have that one place, or one person, that still holds onto those vehicles we all daydream about driving one day. I witnessed many stalled project cars sitting — especially some super-tempting Land Rovers just waiting for my rescue! To me, a Land Rover or Range Rover strikes the perfect balance of design and capability, with the full capacity to create memory-makers within a family.
Time spent in Garage Rehab taught me many lessons. One was that project vehicles take up a lot of square footage and volume, and it’s unlikely that the shop will recoup the lost income; the money it’s costing you in lost space might not make money later upon the sale of the vehicle.
I tried to keep this in mind when, last year, I purchased a $500 ’89 Range Rover Classic. I shared the look, smell and feel of an inexpensive project car with Jocie, my then-girlfriend (now wife) and her daughters Finley (10) and Mila (7). I wanted them to see the process of what could be done with a little money and a ton of passion.
Over the next couple of months, I would have fun adding my own touches to the Range Rover and finishing just in time for the 2023 Christmas season. With the headliner reupholstered, the dash restored during heater core replacing and of course lots of metal work on the floors, it was finally starting to look classy once again.
Just before Christmas, we attached a festive wreath to the grille, grabbed some hot chocolate and shot family photos in “Santa’s Red Sled” around covered bridges in nearby Thurmont, Maryland. The girls’ faces showed amazement as they rode in their first vintage automobile. Mila expressed her bafflement when she held up the first tape cassette she had ever seen — my old favorite Huey Lewis and the News. This brought out a “Dad moment” as I narrated a history lesson about my childhood years.
During the time I was wrenching on “The Red Range,” we made the decision to expand the family — and tell the girls a new baby was on the way! You know what that means… time to sell the Range Rover to a new owner — I know, very sad but I was familiar with this process of restore and pass on until the next one finds us.
Unfortunately, and far more seriously, at about that same time, we learned that the girl’s biological father had passed away suddenly. Jocie and I had planned to marry anyway but we kicked it into high gear. We picked up the broken pieces and started rebuilding. A courthouse wedding took care of the legalities. Now I had the two girls full-time and the responsibilities of a stepdad and husband — as well as a father-to-be.
Restoring a family is much more difficult than restoring a vehicle, but both require great levels of extreme dedication, passion and drive. Mila, the youngest, found me a small book on the history of Land Rovers and wrote on the inside cover (just like I do for all her books), “Keep the dreams rolling.” She knew I really wanted to build another Rover with them helping along the way and that I would entertain her with stories of non-running Rovers. Indeed, our Rover stories help both of us keep our focus during the tough times in life.
Another history lesson — eight years ago, I had caught a glimpse of a Defender in front of a storage unit, while peering at it through a fence 100 feet away. Back to the present, I found myself at the same storage facility moving my daughters’ old lives of toys, dolls and keepsakes into a new space while the adults searched for larger quarters. That same storage facility housed the elusive Defender and we finally saw the beauty up close — a ‘94 NAS Defender 90 in AA Yellow, plaque #640!
I was no stranger to the process of acquiring old cars and the need to respect the owner’s memories. I figured that since 5,000 people a day likely saw the Defender, I’d have little chance of acquiring it. The gatekeeper at the storage facility told me that someone had offered a large sum of money for it. But the whole recitation sounded bogus to me; I got the impression he would have loved to own the truck for himself. The next step was to identify and deal with the owner of record.
Mila and I decided to get up close and photograph the Defender. While I tried to decipher the old parking permits on the vehicle, Mila crawled around inside and discovered two old-school credit card receipts, the type that used a carbon transfer paper. They gave us a name — sadly, a very common one — but with the help of the parking permits and social media, we believed we had found the owner and sent him a hopeful message.
Two months of silence followed our inquiry. A week before I planned to vacate our family storage unit, I received an email — it’s a match! It turns out that the storage facility demands that vehicles stored there must soon get registered and inspected. This is where timing and the magic of the universe really work sometimes. Stay positive and never give up the dream of owning that vehicle you want to have. Surely we’ve all heard an owner affirm, “I will never sell it because I’m going to restore it.” All you can do is check in once in a while. When they change their minds, that’s when the real nervousness kicks in, when phone conversations agree on a price and/or conditions but no money or keys have changed hands. The deal can fall through at any point; for example, the owner could reminisce about all the good times and change his mind.
This time, it worked. The owner acknowledged the Defender would involve too much for him to complete the refurbishment, and he knew about my love for Land Rovers, so he said, “I want you to own it.” I’d be that someone who would love the Defender and bring it back to life, not chasing after a profit but after the dream. It was all really happening; I couldn’t wait to tell the girls the good news. Now it’s a family affair and they would all be a part of the entire process. Before I had the flatbed pick up the Defender, the owner mentioned to me that he had some NOS door tops, still in their shipping crate. Seeing the tow truck in front of me with the beautiful yellow vehicle on the bed, and me following it back to my shop – it now felt so real.
The process started immediately with some huge help and advice from Zack Griswold at Rovers North. I would go on through this summer raising a baby, playing with the older kids, moving to a new place – and rebuilding the Land Rover. The gas tank cradle had rotted away, the fuel pump had seized, several brake lines had leaked and a disintegrating radiator all battled with my plans. On the bright side, the BFG MT tires still had lots of tread – they were original to the Defender! With only 44,000 original miles, I was not shocked to see many factory Land Rover markings and decals on engine components. We sought to keep the truck fairly stock, but I couldn’t resist two-inch lift suspension components, 33-inch tires and some interior seating upgrades. Before even starting the Defender, I replaced the water pump, belts, radiator and upper gaskets. I also decided to replace the steel hinges with stainless steel parts to stop the bimetal corrosion.
That’s not our only Land Rover; it’s joined by our LR4, perfect for family travels. Jocie’s birthplace is the town of Arundel, next door to Kennebunkport, and that’s where we headed this summer for a vacation and the chance for our five-month-old daughter, Kennedy, to see her mother’s birthplace. We also wanted to stock up on famous local foodstuffs: 100 doughnuts from the famous Holy Donuts, Maine Potato Chips and of course, cases of Moxie. [An acquired taste, it’s a soft drink that separates Mainers from the rest of the country –ed.].
After all, we have a wedding to celebrate and a family to raise.