In the early 1990s, having already conquered Europe, Land Rover decided to bring its distinctive Defender SUVs stateside. Between 1993-97, the company sold approximately 7,000 NAS (North American Specification) Defenders complete with lefthand drive, fuel-injected gasoline engines and other amenities designed to appeal to an American audience.
When they arrived, no one had to tell high school sophomore Stephen Ogletree how special they were. He spotted one at a basketball game in Alabama in 1993 and was immediately hooked.
“It was a ’93 Defender 110,” he recalls. “I walked around it and saw the numbered badge and it affected me. From that point on I was like, ‘I want that car.’”
He took a visual approach trying to convince his parents to buy one.
“Land Rovers were heavily advertised in National Geographic at the time. Their ads were everywhere,” he says. “We looked at National Geographics for book reports and things like that in high school, so I ripped those ads out and I’d put them in my dad’s briefcase or under his pillow as subtle hints. But we couldn’t afford it.”
Stymied but not defeated, Ogletree later earned a degree from Auburn University and took a job in Miami. He scrimped and saved and triumphantly returned to the Birmingham area a little over a year later to purchase his first Land Rover.
But then something unexpected happened. A stranger saw his Defender and asked to buy it for more than Ogletree had paid. He said yes.
“I sold it, bought another one, the same thing happened, and then eventually it was like, ‘What if I could play with house money?’”
As one became two became three, Ogletree’s father-in-law, who had recently retired, recognized a pattern and a business opportunity. He agreed to front the money if Ogletree would go in 50/50 on a new business.
So, at nights and on weekends for the next few years they would buy, clean up and sell Defenders at a pace of about 20 per year.
In 2004, Ogletree stepped away from his day job in construction to become the founder of Adventure Motor Cars.
Fast-forward to 2015, when Ogletree bought out his father-in-law and stepped out on his own. Last June, the company opened a new Birmingham facility that spans 30,000 square feet and accommodates close to 30 vehicles.
SAVING THE SPECIES
With only 7,000 NAS Defenders in existence—minus those that have been totaled, parted out or otherwise removed from the market—Adventure Motor Cars plays in a very small sandbox.
“I have 21 years of my life in these NAS Defenders, and I still get excited about them. They are still awesome,” says Ogletree. “The thought of a car getting parted out and there being one fewer in the world, that drives me crazy. We say we are saving the species.”
To keep his predominantly high-end clients happy—think buyers in Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket or Aspen—Ogletree strives to make dealing with Adventure Motor Cars “ridiculously easy.” One of the company’s core values is treating people the way they would want to be treated.
“Character is more important than making a profit,” says Ogletree. “Don’t misunderstand, you can’t make it over 20 years in business without making money, but that is not our primary objective. We aim to do the right thing and let the chips fall where they may, even if that means going the extra mile at our expense.”
Adventure Motor Cars searches for Defenders throughout the U.S. and Canada, bringing them back to the new shop for a teardown and clean-up before listing. In other cases, clients will bring in their vehicles for a refresh. The company also offers a consignment program.
“If I find a Defender that I think is worth the money, I’ll buy it,” Ogletree says. “We’re pickier on the projects we take in, because if we control the project, we can make any Defender nice.”
He points to a shiny black Defender on his showroom floor.
“It was terrible,” he notes. “But, after $100,000 it was back on the road. The more of these we can save, the better.”
Crisscrossing the country in search of Defenders, Ogletree will sometimes post about a vehicle he’s picking up on Instagram (@AdventureMotorCars) and have it sold before it even gets back to the shop.
“In that case we say, ‘OK, what would you like to do with it?’ It’s now a blank slate. And they’ll say, ‘I know it’s white, but can you make it blue?’ Or ‘I’ve got three kids, can you put the four seats in the back?’ They get to design it the way they want it.”
The talented AMC crew can make most Defender dreams come true, but Ogletree often cautions clients looking to take their projects a bit too far.
“We have a self-imposed moral responsibility to ensure our customers are wisely investing their Defender dollars,” Ogletree explains. “It would be easy to add a lot of expensive modern options in line with current trends, but those never leave a good return on investment. We want to guide our customers to spend money in a way that will lead to a positive financial experience.”
On average, the vehicles appreciate between 3% and 5% annually, he says.
“My favorite scenario is when we can buy a Defender back for more than the customer paid years prior. Inversely, my least favorite scenario is when a customer has invested tens of thousands of dollars in the wrong places and ends up losing big.”
‘WHAT I DO MATTERS’
The search for new workers with mechanical aptitude and a positive attitude is never-ending. The shop’s five full-time employees all came via word-of-mouth-referrals.
New hires start with what Ogletree calls a “two-week paid interview.”
“Hop in. I might love you, I might hate you; you might love me, you might hate me,” he says. “It’s a two-week paid interview. Just hop in and let’s see how you do.”
Particularly proud of his crew, Ogletree lists the three things his workers have in common:
- Jack of all trades. “You have to be good in multiple roles.”
- Willing to learn. “Always be willing to learn and seek new ways to get better at your craft.”
- Works well with others. “The synergy of two people working closely together can be more productive that three people working separately.”
Shop workflow is handled through Apple notes, text chains and checklists, and everyone is constantly on the lookout for ways to improve processes and save time. Ogletree enjoys rewarding employees for jobs well done.
“I love presents. If I see the guys doing something above and beyond, I love to reward instantly with knives, flashlights or cash,” he says. “We give Christmas bonuses, and we have a nice Christmas dinner at a steakhouse. We’ll also work a little longer on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and then Friday you’re off at 2 p.m. to get the weekend started early.”
Ogletree also studies the work areas of companies he partners with, including painters, powder-coaters and parts suppliers, in search of good ideas he can incorporate into his own facility.
“One place that does our undercarriages, they have racks at every single bay, and I said, ‘I like that.’ And they have trashcans everywhere,” he says. “So, now we have trashcans everywhere and rolling racks at every bay.”
Every year the whole crew attends the annual 30A Sand Rover Rally in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida, where visitors can get an up-close look at the company’s vehicles and employees can enjoy some outside attention.
“It’s a time when strangers get to walk up to every technician and say, ‘Wow, y’all built this?’” Ogletree says. “They’re not hearing it from me; they’re hearing it from strangers. For the technicians, it’s a reset. They think, ‘What I do matters. Other people can’t believe what I do, and we take it for granted.’ (Employees) get to see that and it makes a big difference.”
THE UNSELFISH SPORTS CAR
Aside from some significant price increases on tires (BFGoodrich was the original OE supplier) and other rubber products, Adventure Motor Cars has managed to navigate recent supply chain challenges without many issues.
Business remains strong, as Ogletree says NAS Defenders have natural charm.
“I don’t have to spend a great deal of time on sales, because our finished product sells itself,” he reveals. “If I have to explain to somebody why they’re awesome, they are the wrong person. Our customers see themselves doing something outdoorsy in these cars—going camping or mountain biking or to the beach. It’s like an unselfish sports car, because there are backseats, and they can take their family. Kids and dogs love these cars.”
They also appeal to low-key executives.
“They can drive it to the office and their employees will say, ‘Cool Jeep, boss.’ It’s not like buying a $150,000 Ferrari.”
While not flashy, classic Defenders certainly attract their fair share of attention.
“I think it’s cool that they are understated,” says Ogletree. “If you take one to a country club, they are going to park it up front. If you go to a valet, they are going to park it up front. They may say, ‘I don’t even know what that is, but that’s really cool, I’m going to park that in front.’”
And sometimes that attention comes from people who are kind of a big deal in their own right.
“We’re close to Nashville. I grew up in Alabama. Country music in the ’90s was Alan (Jackson) and Garth (Brooks),” Ogletree recalls.
So, in 2014 when he received a call from someone claiming to be Jackson’s secretary, he was skeptical, yet excited.
“I was thinking ‘no way,’ but I said, ‘Sure, put him on.’ And sure enough, he came on and his voice is very distinctive, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is really him!’”
It turns out the country star had seen a Defender in Wilmington, North Carolina, that he wanted to buy, but Ogletree had beaten him to it.
They soon negotiated a deal on the vehicle that included some upgrades, prompting Ogletree to request Jackson visit his facility in advance of the sale to make sure everything was to his liking.
“I was just nervous, and I didn’t want to mess it up,” Ogletree laughs.
Jackson, who announced in 2021 that he has a degenerative nerve disease, ended up buying about half-dozen cars from AMC over the years.
“That was very cool,” says Ogletree. “From about 2014 to 2020, you’d get that call with no caller ID. That was fun.”
Another memorable project involved a customer who called one April and said, “I need this car done by Memorial Day.” When Ogletree started to explain why it couldn’t happen, the customer said two more words:
“There were certain things we couldn’t do—we couldn’t get him a full paint job, there just wasn’t enough time—but it was our ‘shut down the shop’ rate, because we couldn’t get it done unless we shut down the shop. So we had to tell every other customer ‘I’m sorry,’” Ogletree remembers. “What we learned was that, when you shut it down and just work on one thing, it’s amazing what you can do in six weeks.”
Ogletree spends about two hours a day, and a little more on weekends, posting on Instagram to get the word out about the Defenders he currently has available.
“For years we’ve made great vehicles, but I haven’t always done the best job showing the world what we can do,” he admits. “People like looking at Defenders, so you can’t really mess it up.”
As technology progresses, he’s working hard to keep pace.
“Social media constantly changes, and we have to change with it. You have to show your followers what you do with a picture, or maybe a short video (Reels). We want our followers to feel like they have been to our shop and seen our Defenders after viewing our content.”
Whatever he’s doing seems to be working. From about 10,000 followers in 2021, Adventure Motor Cars had grown to 34,500-plus as of March.
The work is important to keep the company moving forward.
“With only 7,000 cars, the question is, ‘Where can you grow?’” he asks. “But there are people that this is their dream car. Probably once a week I hear from someone who says, ‘Man, I had one in the ’90s and I wish I never sold it.’”
He also plans to introduce them to an international audience.
“The next thing to happen will be for these NAS Defenders to become recognized internationally,” he predicts. “Once the world comes to appreciate the fact that Land Rover made 7,000 hand-numbered vehicles in the ’90s that were different than any other Defenders worldwide (soft tops, V-8s, automatic transmissions, numbered badges, etc.) prices will explode. Right now, NAS Defenders are only special to U.S. buyers, but if the international market takes note of these rare vehicles, it will open up a completely new buyer and they will be more popular than ever.”
It all harkens back to that first high school encounter.
“We talk about it all the time: ‘We have to save these things.’ To get one out of a garage that was rotting and make it nice is a very rewarding feeling.”
Stephen Ogletree, founder of Adventure Motor Cars in Birmingham, Alabama, shares the business advice he’s picked up over 20-plus years in the industry:
Know your numbers.
“If you don’t know your numbers, you don’t know your business. You have to know where you’re making money and where you’re losing money, and generally it’s in different areas than you may think.”
Always do the right thing.
“Don’t be afraid to lose money or break even if it’s the right thing to do. If you have to redo something on a customer’s car, do it. There aren’t enough people who do that. A lot of what we do at our shop is undo what other people have done.”
Have a system in place.
“Systems are a big part of controlling workflow and remaining profitable.”
“Have daily, weekly and monthly goals for your technicians. If you can create those little goals, it’s amazing what can be accomplished.”
Give technicians input.
“They are on the floor and know what’s going on. You definitely need their input.”
Maintain a constant dialogue.
“Let technicians know why you’re doing what you’re doing. You’re not bothering them; you’re making sense of what they’re doing.”