For those in search of a bespoke icon, something universally admired, globally proven, impressively useful and immensely personal, UK firm Arkonik will build you the best Land Rover Defender on the road today—the best because it’s uniquely yours, whether you have the diary of an adventurer or just the soul of one
Pictures: James Cheadle
As the story goes, it began with a line in the sand. Just over three hours’ drive from where the last Land Rover Defender would be built in 2016, the first one was drawn out on a beach at Anglesey, Wales, nearly seven decades earlier by Englishman Maurice Wilks.
The engineer from Hampshire spent two years in the United States at General Motors before returning home in 1928 to work under his brother at the Rover Company, then a burgeoning car-maker. The brothers were impressed with a war-surplus Willys Jeep Maurice used on his Anglesey farm, they decided they could do better, and what would become the Land Rover Defender was born—spot welds, rough ride, pitted paint and all.
Fast forward to the 2000s and another Englishman, Andy Hayes, was drawing up plans for a Defender as well, although this one already existed. A gift from his wife, it was a project car at a time when Hayes needed a project. He stripped it down, built it up, it was seen and loved, he enjoyed the work and so he did it again, developing a talent and expertise in purchasing and restoring old Defenders. That expertise turned into Arkonik, a UK-based company that is today at the pinnacle of Defender renovation and customization. For discerning international clients, Arkonik will locate and then rebuild—reinvent, really—a Land Rover Defender 90 or 110 and then deliver it to the United States or Canada, handling all of the import logistics and details and working to the client’s specifications in terms of customization. More than simple refurbishments Arkonik’s Defenders are better-than-new manifestations, nearly every inch improved, unique to their owners, incredibly poised in terms of styling, and simply superb overall.
A Better Defender
Whatever the rough-hewn early Land Rovers’ issues (and there were plenty, acknowledged or not by owners), the vehicles developed an almost mythical aura of adventurous capability, starting with the Series 1 in 1948 and later under the “Defender” badge, from 1983. Marketed as the “go anywhere vehicle,” Land Rovers eventually began to straddle a rather wide track, becoming as appealing to posh urbanites as they were to bona fide rugged adventurers. This complementary dual appeal became part of the company’s ethos, perhaps best epitomized in the “Beautifully Poised” marketing campaign with royal/equestrian Zara Phillips, who in one ad rests on a posh settee sporting an elegant gown gilded with a fair supply of mud. The message has been clear for decades: Among VIPs or in the back country, Land Rover is found at the top—and so an Arkonik Defender climbs even higher.
Once a customer has committed to purchasing an Arkonik Defender, the company uses its extensive network to locate a suitable “donor vehicle.”
“Twenty-five years old, original left-hand drive, the original engine type and original gear box type,” says Thomas Parry, sales manager, listing the criteria. “Our network of European scouts will scour and cherry pick the best vehicles, and at this point the most important thing is the authenticity and the condition of the chassis. All other components are replaced for new, and so we’re not concerned about a dent here or there.”
Arkonik take the donor vehicle to their in-house shop (it needs to be at least 25 years old due to U.S. import factors), removes basically every piece and blasts it back to bare metal. The chassis is cleaned up and treated with a urethane coating that protects it from the toughest conditions, and then it’s built into a rolling chassis with basically everything replaced. Steering, braking, all of it is new—and then a modern suspension as well, one that in Arkonik’s default plan is more tuned to how most people actually use Defenders.
“We appreciate that the majority of our customers aren’t buying this to abuse off-road,” says Parry. “We install something called a cellular dynamic suspension. It’s road-biased, so when you go around corners or over a pothole it’s much better than the standard OEM. And of course we can do off-road packages as well—we can build the Defender to suit whatever the customer wants.”
The entire underbody is replaced, the Defender heads to Arkonik’s body shop and receives brand new panels, and the smallest details are addressed as Arkonik transforms the vehicle from an original workhorse into a thoroughly modern, elegant machine—one that’s even more capable than the original.
“Land Rover never really designed Defender to be sold for £100,000,” says Parry. “They weren’t worried about spot welds being visible or even about having straight panels. The rear tubs, the back section of the Defender, used to come with spot welds down the side, completely visible and quite ugly. We replace these panels and ensure the spot welds aren’t visible beneath the paintwork, and there’s so much more.”
The combination of roughly fashioned panels and poor prep used to sometimes result in a kind of “orange peel” paint effect on Defenders over time, Parry says. No such issues with an Arkonik Defender as every inch of the new panels is prepared, primed and painted to customer specifications.
From front to back, items replaced for new on Arkonik Defenders include: grill; wings; hood; bulkhead; doors; wheel arches; door surrounds (A/B/C pillars); floors; seat boxes; rear tub; rear door; and more, all of it replaced for new every single time. In fact, the only two main parts that are reused are the roof—“they never had issues with corrosion or anything and so there’s no reason to charge our customers to replace that; but they do receive the same prep and paint process”—and the windscreen surrounds. “It’s an all-aluminum component,” says Parry. “It didn’t come into contact with steel fixings, and that would have been an issue as Defender used to suffer from Galvanic reactions: with an all-aluminum body coming into contact with steel fixings, in a humid climate you’d have issues with paint bubbling and corrosion.”
All electrics are sorted with completely bespoke wiring done in-house by an electrical team, all of the connectors upgraded and so on, with LED lamps used throughout and custom light options available as well.
Infotainment systems are to modern spec—Apple CarPlay or Android, reversing cameras and so on, with tiered standard packages and full customization available.
For power plants, Arkonik uses the original engine types but rebuilds them down to the blocks, and they do custom options as well. “Heritage” engines include the 3.5L V8 Buick engine used from 1983 to 1997 and the 200TDI, which was used in Defenders made from 1991 to 1994. Other options include a Cummins 2.8 turbo diesel and an LS3 Corvette engine, and there’s an optional 6-speed automatic transmission for those who want it.
Heritage engines “are fully reconditioned, stripped down to bare block, re-bored and pressure tested, all internals are replaced for new: pistons, rings, shells, liners, all of it. And it’s the same with the gear box. All we retain, really, is the main shell of the engine and gear box. The only thing we outsource is the interior upholstery.”
Arkonik work with the lauded Ruskin Design firm to ensure concepts are brought to life brilliantly, and the resulting interiors are jaw-dropping.
Arkonik have done Defenders customized for hunters, golfers, adventurers and urban-dwellers alike, but the firm’s main appeal is their commitment to authentic builds that don’t pervert the unassailable original designs. That said, the entire process, from the first phone call through to delivery, is a collaborative process with the customer, says Andy Stacey, Arkonik’s Brand Manager, and that collaboration continues after the purchase is complete.
“From a customer service standpoint, we’ve got a 24-7 team here to assist our customers with servicing and maintenance,” he says. “We touch base with them to see what adventures they’ve been up to recently, and we’ve sponsored events that are a good opportunity for previous clients to meet other Defender owners, talk about their own vehicles and so on.”
As Parry and Stacey point out, Arkonik isn’t the only firm working on Land Rovers or customizing them. But they’re right when they say that Arkonik has expertise across the full spectrum, from purchase to the technical work, to the design work and then delivery. They’ve sent more than 200 of their Defenders to U.S. customers, in metro areas like Miami, as far afield as Hawaii, and to rugged areas of Washington State and Texas. It takes four or five months to go from bare chassis to “signed off” vehicle, Parry says, and the firm has a lead time of 18 months—something Arkonik is willing to put up with rather than lessen their attention to quality and detail by expanding too rapidly. The quality is impeccable, certainly, but beyond that, there’s the firm’s intangible quality of taste, which both men say is down to Arkonik’s commitment to authenticity.
“What our Defenders can present is uniqueness and an original timeless style that has never really been surpassed,” Parry says. “There are others working on Land Rovers, but maybe sometimes they don’t sit quite right or the ride height is off or there are massive wheels or something else. Taste is an interesting concept—different strokes for different folks. But you look at our previous builds and there’s a commonality, you can tell an Arkonik Defender. There’s something about it, and I’d stand by our builds that you’ve just got to look at them and you’ll see what we get right: it’s authenticity.”
If you’re interested in purchasing an Arkonik Defender or in learning more about them, visit arkonik.com and prepare to be wowed.