A twist in the sale

A twist in the sale

From humble beginnings in the muddy fields of North Yorkshire, Twisted Defender is fast becoming a global phenomenon with Hollywood A-listers, princesses and kings among its customers. Andrew Mernin meets the farm lad-turned-entrepreneur behind it, Charles Fawcett, as the company plots overseas expansion and deals with the fallout from a make or break decision.

“That one’s going to royalty in Malaysia,” says Charles Fawcett, pointing at a gleaming 4x4. “And this one’s for someone in the Saudi royal family,” he adds, nodding towards another.

Parked up outside are more Land Rover Defenders with links to the rich and famous. There’s one which Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt recently loaned during a stay in England, while another was built for the superstar skateboarder Tony Hawks. Paying customers of Fawcett’s business, meanwhile, come from as far away as Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

Discussions with a potential Russian distributor have also been ongoing, although financial constraints have just put that deal on ice when we meet. Through entrepreneurial endeavour Fawcett has turned a youth spent tinkering with Land Rover engines into a multi-million pound empire.

Twisted Defender, based in Thirsk, North Yorkshire, takes the ultimate rural vehicle – and Balmoral trundler to the Queen – and turns it into something completely different. The essence of Land Rover remains, but engine wizardry and luxury additions create a vessel of comfort, performance and aesthetics. As Radio Two DJ Chris Evans put it, Fawcett has tapped into the lucrative market “for pseudo soft southern numpties like me”.

Fawcett says: “We buy them new, take them apart and put them back together as the customer wants. We could change anything from the suspension, breaks, power and panel alignment to soundproofing the interior. It could be anything; we’re just in the process of putting a coffee machine in one Defender. Another we did for royalty overseas wanted a chain saw and mount.

“Fundamentally the people that buy from us love Defenders but they can’t live with one. It’s too noisy, it’s too slow, it’s not comfortable and it doesn’t handle very well. It’s not an enjoyable experience and they are hard work.

“When we’ve finished with them they are still absolutely a Defender. They still look and feel like one, but we get rid of the annoyances.”

With a hand on the bonnet of a sparkling white machine, he adds: “This one has had so much work done to it to make it a much nicer place to be. It will drive right, it will handle well, it will be quieter, smoother and crisper. But it’s just a Defender to the outside world and people love that.”

The business was launched as a standalone firm in 2008 and has grown rapidly since, with an expectation of doubling current turnover to beyond £10m by 2020. Several market forces are driving growth.

Crucially, Defender is becoming increasingly sought after following a decision by Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) to stop its production this year. The model does not meet new European laws on fuel emissions and fails certain safety tests. Production will cease at JLR’s plant in Solihull in the West Midlands in December.

It will end 67 years of manufacturing since the first model in the style of the Defender was introduced based on a World War II Jeep. Meanwhile, blueprints for a new hi-tech family of Defenders have been drawn up. The news has prompted a shopping spree among Defender enthusiasts, keen to get their hands on the last of the British breed.

And with thousands of what became known as Defender in the early 1990s being churned out every year in the UK, fawcett insists there is no danger of a shortage of customer demand for his own firm in the future. Absence will only make the heart grow fonder, he believes, as Defender’s legions of fans look to keep the model alive.

“Defenders are more popular than ever and people adore them,” says Fawcett. “The Queen has one and you can be a rock star, housewife, farmer, mountain biker, skateboarder and surfer and Defender fits.

You can take it to the Ritz, an auction mart or Tesco and no-one has an opinion. Defender is absolutely priceless in that sense as there isn’t another vehicle like that that doesn’t have some stigma attached to it. You don’t hear people say ‘look at that flash git there in the Defender’. It’s classless and there’s never any animosity towards it.”

Twisted 02Thanks to good relations with JLR, Twisted has had a circa £8m order for 240 new Defenders rubber stamped, which Fawcett equates to three years’ worth of business at its current growth rate. The firm will also work with whatever form the next generation takes.
Twisted is also geared up for a surge in restorations, with the firm dominating the high-end of that market, away from the numerous places where vehicles can be simply “blinged and pimped up”, Fawcett says.

“The love for Defender isn’t going to just go away and I believe restoration will become a huge part of our business. Vehicles are coming out of the woodwork from all over the world and there aren’t many places you can send them to be done properly.”

But Twisted is also looking to capitalise on more recent news to come out of JLR’s Coventry press office that the Defender could live on in Asia. The group is plotting to shift production of the current Defender to India to cater for demand outside of the EU.

Fawcett says: “Although it will be built in India, it will still be seen as a very English car, and they love English products over there. There’s no reason why we couldn’t be doing exactly what we do in Thirsk over there. The foundations would have to be put in place over the next 12 months and it could potentially happen within two years.”

Twisted also has its eyes on the Chinese market as a potential base for a new overseas outpost. But higher up the agenda is America, where Fawcett has just agreed a deal to open a facility. The move, that will see a plant open in Texas, could be up and running this summer. “I believe it’s possible to have the same sized facilities in India, China and the US as we have here,” he says.

Such is the demand from export markets that Fawcett envisages a fundamental shift in the make-up of the company’s revenue streams.

Currently exports make up 20% of business, with a thriving UK market dominating earnings. But Fawcett says: “Over the next 18 months I believe there will be a complete switch and exports could become 80%. The vehicle has never been so popular and there is an awful lot of money abroad. When people learn they can no longer have a Defender they are going to want one more.”

Safety regulations in the US market mean Defenders have been banned from American roads because of a lack of airbags. Only vehicles 25 years old or more are exempt from such legislation. As a result, there is a lucrative market for the vehicles in good condition, which can fetch up to six-times their UK value, and are often sold in the US for upwards of US$100,000.

“America is a huge opportunity and is enhanced by the fact that they’ve never been able to buy Defenders new. Currently we can’t do any work on cars less than 25 years old. The Defender came about in 1991 so next year we can start working on the first Defenders.”

For all the global ambition, Twisted remains rooted to North Yorkshire. “It would be very easy to relocate to Coventry and take 100,000 sq ft and take advantage of the employment resources related to JLR. But it wouldn’t be what Twisted is all about, which is a very niche, personal business.”

The company’s HQ is the third spot it has inhabited at the same business park, such has been the pace of growth in recent years.

The personal touch Fawcett refers to is evidenced in its production set-up. Instead of a conveyor belt approach, with different employees set specific fitting and fixing roles, one engineer will build an entire vehicle.  

“Each car goes through the same man. He will build it from start to finish, other than a couple of things like the paintwork and the checks at the end. We want it to be traceable and we want somebody to put their stamp on it. ”

Sales people are a rare creature in the Twisted world. The firm does have a team officially labelled ‘sales’ to handle transactions. But those pushy types who lurk in glass-fronted showrooms are out. “I did once employ a car salesman and it’s the worst thing I’ve ever done. They try to engineer conversations to sell a car but if people want the product they will buy it.”

The business invests heavily in marketing. The result is a global brand whose fans may be surprised to learn it employs just 20+ staff on a trading estate in North Yorkshire. Marketing involves events such as the Gumball Rally which sees a pack of exotic cars travel on public roads across continents. In 2013 Twisted took four vehicles on the 10-day, 21,000 mile trans-European epic.

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“There were 16 supercars and four of ours. Land Rovers didn’t fit in, which is why we were so popular along the route. People naturally wanted to know who we were and what the vehicles were. There were huge parties in cities every night and we’d be seen by hundreds of thousands of people.

“We also built a car for Tony Hawks, the skateboarder – and he’s got 4.5 million Facebook followers. Then MTV used a Twisted Defender to go urban surfing through St Petersburg. So when all of the Land Rover people are going to the usual shows, we are putting Land Rovers where they shouldn’t be.”

Like the vehicles he produces, perhaps Fawcett himself is a fish out of water at times. Certainly, he has none of the ego you might expect from the boss of a global luxury brand. Nor does he seem the type that actually has a hotline to a network of Middle and Far Eastern royal families.

As unassuming and understated as a Twisted Defenders, he says: “All this is still just my little hobby – my little passion.”