The things we learned from importing Land Rover Defenders in our first year

We’ve been researching, buying, and importing classic Land Rover Defenders for the past 7 years (or so) at the time of this update. We’ve learned quite a bit and we’re excited to share some additional thoughts and answer some of your questions.

Be Willing to Lose it All

Importing a Land Rover Defender for the first time can be really expensive. It’s a fun experience, but any mistake along the way can be expensive. Before anyone considers attempting this process themselves, I always tell them: “Be prepared to lose your entire investment and be ok with that.” That’s not to scare anyone off, but rather to say there are certainly some pitfalls. Logistics, paperwork, and time are all big factors. There’s also the slight chance that US customs could reject your vehicle at the border.

In addition to the purchase purchase price of the vehicle, it can cost between $2,000 – $5,500 USD to ship the car from the UK to the east coast. That cost doesn’t include port delivery charges, export charges, and having an agent on the side of the ocean. Once your Land Rover makes it to the US shores, there are a few taxes and fees you need to pay (mostly based on the value of the vehicle). This could be between 10-20% of the purchase price. If you’re not located at the port of entry, you’ll need a customs broker to help you with your paperwork and getting your vehicle released.

Once you get your Land Rover to a US port, you will need to get her home. The domestic overland car shipping business is a whole other disaster waiting to happen. Expect to pay between $.60-$2.00 a mile, depending on who you use and how you ship. For first time importers, expect to pay around $5,000 USD per vehicle from door (UK) to door (home). Some can get that down to $4,000 if they’re lucky.

Inspections + Repairs

We make a point of being honest about the condition of the 25+ year old cars we put on the market. Not all sellers are going to be quite so honest. This goes for both domestic importers and sellers/brokers/dealers in the UK. It’s amazing what creative cropping can do to make a Defender look like it’s fresh off the assembly line.

You could get lucky.  We have.  But we’ve also been not-so-lucky a few times, as well. The above photo is from a white Land Rover Defender 110 2.5L TD that looked amazing on the outside.  We knew there was some rust at the bottom of the door panels due to the slightly bulging of the frame, but we were certainly surprised to find the extent of the damage once we opened the door for the first time. Since it’s not economically viable to repair all of the rust, we will likely need to replace all 4 doors and do a respray to make her worthy of the Bishop+Rook brand. That’s likely to cost between $3,000 – $4,000 more than we were expecting. If you’re looking for a good source of parts suppliers, we’ve compiled a list here of the places we turn to. Land Rover Defender Restoration Resources.

She does look pretty, doesn’t she?

RHD vs. LHD Markets

We get a lot of questions about importing from other countries other than the UK, specifically to get a LHD car.

  1. Part of the fun of owning a vintage Defender is driving a RHD vehicle. While we understand some may be nervous about driving on the right side, you will get over that quickly. It’s perfectly legal in all states (we think).
  2. LHD cars cost at least $10,000 – $15,000 more per vehicle, which most people — if they’re trying to save money importing them directly themselves — are unlikely to want to spend that extra money.
  3. Read my follow-up post on Adopting A Land Rover Defender for details on what to expect from driving a vintage Land Rover Defender.

Starting an Importing Business

We also get a lot of more specific questions about people wanting to start an importing business:

  1. I’ve grown Bishop+Rook from a small film documentary about the Land Rover Defender culture into a passion project that includes importing. To sustain the project, I partnered with a couple friends to restore and sell a few Defenders from time to time (at a very reasonable price). We’ve probably spent thousands of hours learning the business, getting things in perfect order, and making our share of mistakes.
  2. If you always had a dream of owning a Defender, I’d love to help you out.  If you come to me and ask me to teach you everything I know so you can do it as a business yourself … um … well … see above.
  3. If you just want a Defender, it’s cheaper just to buy one from us, or one of the handful of guys who are bringing them over already. When you add up all the time, energy, money, and potential pitfalls of making a mistake, it’s not worth it to go solo. We lost money on the first 3 cars we imported.
  4. The last point isn’t a pitch just to sell you a car, it’s more to share with you some of the simple economics of importing. If you want the story and the experience of doing it yourself, that’s a different story.  If you’re trying to save money, it’s possible, but only by spending a lot more time than you realize.
  5. (May 15, 2018 Update) I have thought about this one a lot, as I get a lot of questions/requests: at this point I’m not willing to share with you my contacts for shipping in the UK, trucking in the US, customs at the port, insurance, or other stuff I’ve spent a lot of time and money figuring out.  I hope that doesn’t make me sound like an ass.  I just figure I’ve given as much free stuff over the past year in terms of information and helpful pointers that I’d rather not give away the core of what makes this venture exciting for me.  I will tell you this: finding reliable partners is the only way to make this work.

Have a Toolbox

25% percent of the vehicles we’ve unloaded from the shipping truck have not started. Transport takes time and most batteries go dead (especially up here in frozen Minnesota). Be prepared to sort out what’s keeping them from starting while it sits in the middle of the road.  Or be willing to tip out your delivery driver to help you push it up the hill into a proper parking spot. In the case of this one, there were a few issues: dead battery, no fuel, and a secret kill switch.


Have Questions or Comments?

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What’s Next?

We’re adding this extra note after being in the business for a few years now and earning a reputation as a quality builder. The shift from being a hobby to a profession came from dealing with too many sub-standard Defenders that were flooding the markets – both in the UK, but also with US sellers, as well.  The Spanish, French, Italian, and EU Defenders were not immune, either.  Being a LHD truck doesn’t make it any safer, just a lot more complicated and risky due to the various countries and languages.

In terms of next steps, if you’ve made it this far in the series, we have another guide that might take you to the next level.  We’ve come to develop a language around finding the perfect Defender and we call it “The Unicorn Hunt.”  For those of you in the second, third, or fourth year of searching for the perfect Defender, I will simply say that it might not exist.  Part of that, well, mostly that, is that the expectations of the final results rarely match up with the mental budget allotted to the exercise. For some, the hunt for the Defender is just as exciting as pulling the trigger and buying one.  For the rest of you who want to move on to the next step, here’s the “Unicorn Defender Hunting Guide.