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Adding All the Bells, Whistles & Frills, ECD Auto Design Fast-tracks Classic Cars into the New Era

Do you want a permanent picnic basket in your stylish Jag? A Mustang that roars outside, but super silent inside? Perhaps a string of blinking lights in your boot space? ECD Auto Design gets deep into the concept of restomods.

“We can even change the color of that needle in the fuel gauge,” said Scott Wallace.

“Can you make it rainbow colors?” I asked.

“Yes, of course,” said Mr. Wallace, without a pause and a confident smile.

He had my full attention.

Mr. Wallace is one of the founders and CEO of ECD Auto Design, a restomod company that specializes in Land Rover Defenders, Range Rovers and Jaguar E-Type. They have now added the iconic Ford Mustang to their lineup. And that’s why I was at their colossal, 100,000 sq ft facility in Orlando, Florida.

ECD Auto Design Mustang

The garage entrepreneurs

ECD Auto Design has three other founders – Tom Humble, Elliott Humble and Emily Humble. Mr. Wallace, a Britisher who was in private equity in his past life, moved to Orlando, Florida. Two years later, he met Tom and Emily, who had also moved from England to Orlando recently. A casual chat between Tom, Elliott and Mr. Wallace, while sipping a few beers, led to the idea of starting ECD Auto Design in 2013. It’s a classic garage start-up story.

Tom remembers: “In early life, I was a pro soccer player. I like two things, soccer and cars. But soccer ended prematurely because of, ironically, a car accident. I was into cars and in the family we’d always had classics. We had old Land Rovers, old MGs, and we’d always tinkered with them. I was never mechanical. My brother Elliot is the mechanical one, but we’d always kind of glorified these. And then my wife [Emily] and I moved to the US, and actually bought two of our Defenders with us. We eventually decided to sell one of them because we weren’t doing anything with them. So, I was in that apartment with a little garage, with a Defender in it, and people would just turn up. There were all these bikers turning up and offering me half the price!”

He continues, “Eventually we sold the first one, and then I’d have requests coming in to find one more. That kind of rolled into finding a truck for it in England, bring it here and then make some modifications, but outsourced through local garage care. And that was horrible, because nobody really cares apart from you, and you’re trying to get everybody else to care. So that’s when about two years in, I met Scott at a family barbecue, and he dared me to leave my job and do it properly. And he would invest, which he did. So we started doing it properly.”

ECD Auto Design Founders
From left to right: Scott Wallace, Elliott Humble, Tom Humble & Emily Humble

When I asked Elliott about why he chose to start ECD, he laughs and says, “I am the younger between the two, I had no choice!” Jokes apart, he does reminisce about the brothers working with their father to restore classic cars. “We did a 1967 MGB roadster with our dad. And I did that when I was about 9 or 10 [years old]. And my job was to strip the paint. All by hand. It went on for a good few years.”

From one car to a 100 cars per year, and a recent IPO in December 2023, ECD Auto Design has slowly, and steadily moved up the ladder. After the IPO, the company acquired certain assets of Brand New Muscle Cars (BNMC), an Oklahoma-based company that restores classic American cars. “The four founders of the business are still in the business everyday. It isn’t like we play golf and let the business run itself. We’re continually innovating, and today is a great example, as we add the Mustang to it,” Mr. Wallace says.

Inside the Disneyland of cars

Indeed, the passion of the founders shines through. There is no schmoozing, there is no champagne, but a gang of gasheads who truly love their craft.

Having said that, ECD Auto Design is a luxury business. Restoring classics, after all, is not cheap. They have a staff of over 100, most of which are mechanics turning over the cars into incredible works of art – all by hand. I didn’t see a single robotic arm anywhere.

ECD Auto Design software

ECD’s software allows customers to play around and create their dream car, helping them see a rendering first. It often takes customers six months to two years to finalise their perfect vehicle, but that’s fine according to Mr. Wallace. It’s a big decision worth $250,000 and more.

Once the details have been finalized, ECD starts building the car. Walking through their facility, Mr. Wallace showcases each department with a flourish, from the defabrication to the final paint touch up, as he moves around fist-bumping the workers. Each and every aspect of the build is in-house. Nothing is outsourced, thus maintaining quality control.

Each mechanic is engrossed in their work, with AC/DC’s Back in Black playing in the background. The vibe was very Tony Stark indeed. There is one department that only does doors and the electrification needed there. Another does the threading on the seats. “We said let mechanics build cool stuff rather than fix the bad,” Mr. Wallace explained.

After much trial and error, and experimentation, ECD has concocted a perfect recipe. Each department gets a maximum of four days to finish their part – except the department that restores the original panels of the Jaguar E-type – they are allowed to take as much time required.

ECD Auto Design on the floor

The mechanics have been made the center of each operation, not the founders or the management. ECD has empowered them to take decisions and ensure that the project runs smoothly. After all, they know the cars better. “As the CEO, I am dispensable, but not the mechanics. They are indispensable,” Mr. Wallace emphasizes.

Customers get regular updates on the progress of their car as it gets made. While the Defender takes almost 2200 hours to be completed, the Jaguar takes more. With the Mustang, ECD will figure out the timeline as they get orders.

Let’s talk luxury

It all starts from the fact that people want something unique – something that nobody else has. And while all luxury brands say this, not many actually execute it. “When Ferrari says ‘1 in 500’, we laugh. Here we are making one only!” says Mr. Wallace. ECD does not allow two of the same kind. Even if a customer asks them to make the same car as their neighbor got from ECD. “They can be similar, but not same. They have to change something,” says the CEO.

Beyond the engine, mechanics and the paint color, there are multiple things that customers have dreamt up, and ECD has delivered. One client wanted leather from a specific herd of cattle in Italy only. So ECD found the cattle, brought it from the farmer, arranged for it to be processed and sent to the tannery, got it dyed and then got the leather sent into the US to get it fitted into the vehicle’s seats, the roof, the door handles and more. That was an about $107,000 upgrade. Having said that, ECD sources leather from Spinneybeck and a few other companies for ‘regular’ commissions.

ECD Auto Design lineup

In another instance, a client asked ECD to customize a Defender 130 in a way to allow him to drive it up the side of a mountain in Costa Rica at 50 miles an hour, and then come down the other side to take his wife to a luxury restaurant on the mountain. Since the valets would notice the car, he wanted it to be a great off-roading vehicle, but also a custom one-on-one vehicle that could speak luxury. “This client rang us about two months ago and he’s asked for a bulletproof Range Rover Classic now,” says a beaming Scott Wallace. About 20% of ECD’s builds are by repeat customers.

The paint company that ECD uses for their automobiles – PPG – is also used by Ferrari. Mr. Wallace does not fail to bring to my notice that while any auto company offers a finite number of colorway options, ECD is happy to make colors as per the client.

A client once flew down in her private jet, carrying a box with an olive-green colored handbag. She wanted her ECD Defender to match the exact same shade as the handbag. ECD complied by making the color right in front of her. She is the owner of the color now, and no other ECD Defender can have that shade ever.

ECD Auto Design Mustang Defenders

Driving around in a customized Defender, Jules, ECD’s Outreach Specialist, told me how the particular car we were riding once belonged to a customer who got it built for a safari in Africa. Once done, he sold it back to ECD. The Defender – originally a farm car in the UK – definitely had a plush quality, low noise, upgraded tech gear, touch screen dashboard, and more. ECD knows how to fast-track old cars into the new age, while retaining their classic looks. The Mustang I drove in with Freud, ECD’s Client Services Associate, was however a testament of purity.

The times we are in

“People want more and more of old looking cars that are actually new,” says David W. Miller II, founder of BNMC. Easy maintenance is a plus side of getting a restomod. “Also because there is not the kind of workforce anymore to understand the old car mechanics,” adds Emily. Adding to Mr. Miller’s point, ECD can even build an ‘old looking car’ from scratch.

Women form about 15% of ECD’s clientele. Mr. Wallace definitely considers them better designers, crediting them for their patience and thoroughness. “They always pick a better colour scheme. Blokes will just go green,” says Mr. Wallace. “Or black,” adds Mr. Miller.

Electric vehicles have become an important category in the auto industry. At ECD, however, it seems to have dwindled. From 20-30% of their clients asking for EV batteries during the COVID period, it has now gone down to 5-10%. Elliott attributes this lowered statistic to many factors, one of them being distance. “The main difference between the US and Europe [which has more comparative adoption of EVs] is the fact that everything is so far apart. A 200 mile range in Europe will probably last you the entire week, going to work and back, and doing your normal activities. I would use that whole range in less than two days just going to work and back here [in the US],” explains Elliott.

ECD Auto Design Jaguar

The second, and technically challenging reason, is the actual fitting of the EV batteries. Elliott says, “The real sticking point is that a lot of classics you’re trying to package all this battery into has a body that was never built for it.” He alludes to an example where Mr. Miller had to cut the entire floor of a Mustang to be able to fit EV batteries into it.

Mr. Miller and Elliott also go back and forth on the fact that fitting EV batteries into a classic is also a more expensive proposition. “Like we can offer a 650 horsepower supercharged V8 for less money than we can offer a 300 horsepower EV,” explains Elliott. He does, however, say that as technology advances and batteries become lighter and more efficient, EVs in restomods will surely pick up.

The future of ECD

ECD Auto Design has big plans. After their recent IPO, the restomod company plans to open six retail locations across the United States. Calling them membership-based experience centers, Mr. Wallace explains that the retail locations will serve as a space where events can be hosted, car lovers can celebrate special occasions, and people can buy ECD cars which the company has bought back from original clients. Clients can also get their cars serviced here. Also, instead of going to Florida, clients can come to the nearest location to design their cars.

ECD Auto Design Mustang

The company has added Mustangs to its product line this year – thanks to its acquisition of BNMC. Why did they choose Mustang though? “I’ll answer that from a pure data point of view,” Mr. Wallace said. “In the US, there’s probably about 12,000 searches a month on Google for a Defender. For a specific year of a Mustang, it was about 82,000. Americans loves the Mustang. Actually I think #1 is Corvette for search volume on Google for classic cars, but Mustang just ticked a lot of boxes for us. But with the acquisition of BNMC, we’ve got the option to add Corvette.”

At ECD, you can sense the true love for mechanics that the entire team has. As they go back and forth, they seem to forget that there is a stranger in the room, drawing you into their flowing banter on wheels, horsepower and screws. And just as seamlessly, the conversation will flow towards food. In fact, they have a British food truck parked in the compound.

Mr. Miller mentioned one of his clients, who asked him to revamp his father’s old Mustang, because he had beautiful memories of them whizzing around in the car in his childhood. “It’s all about memories,” Emily said. After all, isn’t true luxury all about emotions?