Gateway: News

Gig Harbor Land Rover restoration shop finds unique market niche

Defenders Northwest customer Nathan Napolitano works on changing the brake cylinders and seals on his 1966 Series IIA Land Rover at the company’s Gig Harbor workshop.
Defenders Northwest customer Nathan Napolitano works on changing the brake cylinders and seals on his 1966 Series IIA Land Rover at the company’s Gig Harbor workshop. tyler.hemstreet@gateline.com

Brian Hall’s venture into self employment started with a violent collision.

About seven years ago, Hall was tearing down a dirt service road in rural Nevada on a motorcycle as part of a training excursion for the Dakar Rally, a legendary off-road endurance event.

A deer stepped onto the road and Hall collided with it at about 60 miles per hour. He had to be air evacuated to a hospital in Reno, where he spent several days recovering from a concussion, cracked ribs and six screws implanted in his arm.

“All sorts of fun stuff,” Hall recalled with a laugh.

Although the hospital stay was quite the stressor for his wife, Michele, and the couple’s 1-year-old son at the time, it gave Hall, a Peninsula High School graduate, some time to reflect on his future. Yes, he had a well-paying and secure job working as a marketing director at Black & Decker, but was he really pursing what he wanted to professionally in life?

With his aspirations of racing in some form as part of Dakar crushed thanks to injuries suffered in the collision, Hall turned his attention toward something that had also interested him while training: the effort he put into building/restoring a chase vehicle to trail and support him on off-road training rides. That vehicle was a Land Rover 110.

“Once I started making it driveable, I realized everything was broken,” he said.

While restoring the 110, known more commonly as a Defender, Hall immediately built an affinity for the brand. He loved how the part numbers never changed despite the evolution of the vehicle.

“It’s like a giant Lego kit,” he said.

However, the 45-year-old Hall quickly discovered that there were no parts suppliers on the West Coast, only the United Kingdom.

After stints living in both Southern California and Phoenix over a 13-year span, and armed with a new idea and a desire to be closer to family, Michele and Brian decided to move back to Gig Harbor and give going into business themselves a try. The couple started Defenders Northwest six years ago.

Based out of a small unit nestled inside a Gig Harbor business park across from the Tacoma Narrows Airport, Defenders Northwest is a combination parts supplier, repair facility, and training headquarters — all based around the Land Rover Defender model.

The British manufacturer Rover Company built Land Rover Series I, II and III starting in 1948, and have built more than two million since the last one rolled off the production line in January 2016. Defenders were built with an emphasis on agricultural use, and were very popular in markets such as Australia, Africa and the Middle East.

Defender 7
A trio of Land Rover Defenders parked outside Brian and Michele Hall’s Defenders Northwest shop in Gig Harbor. Tyler Hemstreet tyler.hemstreet@gateline.com

Although it didn’t officially acquire the Defender name until 1990, the brand’s venture into the U.S. marketplace to compete against the Jeep Wrangler in 1993 didn’t go very well.

“They were terrible sellers,” Hall said of the Defenders sold in the U.S. from 1993 to 1997. “(The U.S. market) never got what I considered the best of the trucks.”

Brian is the parts and labor expert while Michele runs the books and once in a while helps “reel in some of (Brian’s) ideas,” she said with a laugh.

The business uses a formula that caters to Defender owners who want to fix their vehicle themselves but might not have the know-how or confidence to perform the task. Owners can schedule an appointment and work with Brian to do it themselves.

We want customers to know to fix it so if something happens when they are out (off-roading), they can fix it themselves.

Brian Hall, co-owner of Defenders Northwest

“We want customers to know to fix it so if something happens when they are out (off-roading), they can fix it themselves,” Brian said.

With Defenders being a unique vehicle that was mostly manufactured overseas and not imported to the U.S. for very long, one can imagine the mechanical support locally when it comes to repair and restoration. The Hall’s business is one of a handful of shops on the West Coast that services Defenders.

In the days before YouTube repair tutorials and car-centric online chat rooms played a key role in how people fix their cars, local clubs provided a place where owners could get together and swap ideas in person.

“We’re dealing with the kind of (mechanical issues) you couldn’t deal with unless you joined a (Defender) community,” Brian said. “We’re selling that kind of community service.”

The shop also performs full restorations of client’s Defenders as well as finding project cars in the UK for customers. Defenders Northwest also stocks in its Gig Harbor warehouse most of the parts owners can’t get domestically.

Defenders seem to attract a unique kind of enthusiasts, Michele, 41, said.

“These trucks draw people who are interesting,” she said.

Michele, a Gig Harbor High graduate, drives a 1987 Defender 130 around town and routinely runs out of business cards.

“Almost every single time I go out, I have a conversation about it,” she said.

Brian and Michele, who’ve been married since 1995 and met while in high school, also put together group functions for Defender owners encouraging them to get out and interact with other owners. The outings might include a scavenger hunt through rugged terrain over 300 miles or a beach drive with sand rescue training.

“That’s where the truck shines — once you get off pavement,” Brian said.

And since most Defenders have spent years and years abroad, the fact that most are still running make give them great provenance.

“Every single one has a story,” said customer Nathan Napolitano, a proud owner of a 1966 Series IIA who on a recent weekday was in the shop working on changing his truck’s brake cylinders and seals.

Jaime Stevenson, whose daily driver is his 1997 Defender, says there is just something about the brand.

“It epitomizes adventure,” he said. “People recognize it as an iconic shape.”

Defenders Northwest does no advertising, but is active on social media and enjoys repeat business from many of its customers. And Brian is constantly coming up with ideas to help customers interact and build the local Defender community.

“I’ve been impressed with the growth and following we’ve had,” Michele said.

Tyler Hemstreet: 253-358-4150, @gateway_tyler

Defenders Northwest

Where: 915 26th Ave NW, Suite C9, Gig Harbor (by appointment only)

Phone: 888-970-6409

More info: defendersnw.com, facebook.com/DefendersNorthWest/

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