Written by Aaron McKenzie, Photographed by Greg Bodene
Mar 16, 2023
In 2015, Tim Scully found himself in the middle of California’s Dumont Dunes – way out in the Mojave Desert, southeast of Death Valley, miles from anything – training a group of US special forces soldiers in the nuances of off-road driving when the driver of one of the group’s Toyota Tacomas came off a dune with just a little too much giddy-up. The truck landed hard, and wrong: the impact not only blew the lower ball joint off the left side, it also broke the motor mount off the frame.
If Tim Scully were anyone else, this – an engine floating free from its moorings in the middle of the desert – would have been cause for concern. Fortunately, Tim Scully is Tim Scully, one part MacGyver, one part Bear Grylls, one part All-American hot rodder. He knows that panic never solved anything. With the help of some 3/16” plate, a mini grinder, and three Tacoma batteries daisy-chained together as a power source for his mobile welder, he improvised some repairs and had the vehicles back in service within a few hours. That ad-hoc motor mount, incidentally, is still holding strong as of this writing.
All of which begs the question: how the hell does one become Tim Scully?
Scully: Growing up near Greenville, South Carolina, where I got into off-roading, we didn't have the money to pay somebody to work on our trucks, so if we broke them, we had to figure out how to fix them. I failed miserably most of the time, much to my parents’ disgust. My evolution was like that of a lot of off-roaders: buy a stock Jeep, put a V8 in it with more lift and bigger tires, which leads to broken parts on smaller axles. Well, now we've got to change the axles to something bigger so that we can have the strength that we need. That’s how I started modifying things beyond their original capacity and trying to make them suitable for the types of adventures I wanted to have.
A Jeeper through and through in his youth, it wasn’t until Scully was a student at Greenville Technical College in the late 1990s – where, by his own admission, he was an unenthusiastic student – that Land Rovers entered his consciousness when he undertook an apprenticeship at the local Land Rover dealership.
Scully: As a kid, I used to watch the old Camel Trophy videos, and I'd watch the movies that had the old Land Rover Series out on the African savannah. If you love the outdoors at all, you can't help but wonder what it would've been like to have competed in those environments, to have driven across a place that didn't have a road, and to build bridges and to float cars across a raging river. I didn’t really know anything about Land Rovers at the time, but everybody that worked at the dealership had to go through an immersion program for the brand, and this was not only technical training to make sure we understood the vehicles but also an immersion in what the Land Rover brand was all about, so they'd send us up to Maryland and we'd be driving off-road with some of the Camel Trophy guys. These were guys who would become my heroes and whose careers – the stuff they got paid to do – was just mind-boggling to me.
Little did Scully know that his own life would soon come to echo that of his heroes. By the early 2000s, Scully was hooked on both a career in the automotive world and on the Land Rover brand. In 2000, he and a small team took part in the Land Rover TReK competition, a Camel Trophy-inspired event that tests its participants in off-road driving, navigation, and teamwork. Scully and his team won their event in West Virginia, earning them the right to compete in the global competition in South Africa, where they placed third overall. Soon thereafter, the US military contacted Land Rover for help in teaching their Special Forces soldiers to drive Land Rover Defenders in less-than-ideal conditions. Land Rover tapped Scully for the job. They found the right guy.
Scully: Special Forces soldiers endure the suck as much as they have to, no matter the toll it takes on them, and for really crazy long hours. These guys are very trainable. That's all they do for a living: they train, they train, they deploy. That's their cycle. So when they come through our training, there's no “crawl, walk, run.” I get to put them straight into environments where they’re extremely uncomfortable and help them learn to solve problems and get through situations like fixing the cars that break in the field, winching in a sandstorm, skills that I've honed over the last 20 years.
I'm a problem solver by nature, so I love little puzzles, whether it's out on the trail or in a competition or building something in the shop. And for some reason, the worse the environment is, the more we like it. There's a point in any situation where you recognize that there's a solution in here somewhere, that we can figure a way out of this. But this only comes from experience: you have to be in enough of those environments so that you learn to not let stress overtake you. Now I get to share that experience with the military guys that come through our training, and it's been one of the most fulfilling things that I've ever been able to do.
By 2015, Scully was on the road more than 200 days a year, driving for Land Rover and training military teams, getting paid to embody the adventurous life, just like his Camel Trophy heroes before him. That all came to a halt when Scully was diagnosed with lymphoma, which, in turn, necessitated nine months of chemotherapy and three months of bone marrow transplants. The experience forced Scully to rethink his approach to life – a life that, up to that point, had been pretty swell.
Scully: I've always been a guy that has my hands in a bunch of different baskets, but going through a situation like that in my forties forced me to take a look at what my priorities were, what my desires were in life. We also had a baby in the middle of that, which was incredibly stressful, but I came through that situation with a desire to be home more, to be present. And that experience shaped my desire to build the shop up more, to take on bigger Defender jobs, and to be home every night with my family, to see my beautiful girls and my wife and spend time with them.
If, as Tom Stoppard put it, every exit is an entry to somewhere else, Scully came through this adversity to find himself in a pretty good spot, and he did so at an opportune moment, just as the market for high-end, vintage 4x4 builds (think: Icon, Legacy Classic Trucks, etc.) was taking off. Scully’s intimate knowledge of Defender mechanicals and his experience with them in harsh environments stood him in good stead as he set about building his own business. He now spends his days with his team of mechanics at Scully Offroad, his shop near Sacramento, Calif., where he guides customers through their own bespoke Defender builds.
Scully: There's a compromise in every move that you make. I talk a lot with my customers about what they want to do with a vehicle, and I put it in terms of a "90/10 Rule". What are you doing with a car 90% of the time? What are you doing with it 10% of the time? You might be driving on pavement 90% of the time, but if you set up the truck for the other 10% of the time you might ultimately make it undrivable on the pavement, so our goal is to find a balance that gives you the ability to do what you want to do but not have as many compromises on that 90% side.
A frequent first step in making these Defenders more drivable on American roads is an engine swap. While Scully acknowledges that the Land Rover diesels are a solid engine that can be tuned for acceptable performance, they ultimately “lack a little luster when it comes to climbing big grades” like the ones that sit just out Scully’s back door in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. Sorry, purists, these rigs were made to be used and sometimes that just means that a heart transplant is in order.
Scully: The engine swaps give folks the ability to go 80 miles per hour, whether that's in a Cummins R2.8 diesel or a Chevy LS motor. Plus, I can find Chevy parts anywhere, whereas finding an alternator for a Land Rover 300 TDI Diesel is a little bit more of a chore. We always talk in terms of "smiles per gallon." If you want to smile every time you hit the gas pedal, then the LS is the way to go. If you want to go on a long trip through Mexico, then the diesel might be a better option for you. Most people come in after doing their research and already know what they want and what suits their goals.
First, however, those customers have to get their hands on a Defender. Though Land Rover produced the model from 1983 through 2016, the company only sold around 7,000 Defender 90 and 110 models in the United States between 1993 and 1997 before they were discontinued due to changing safety and emissions regulations. Fortunately, Land Rover produced nearly 2 million of these trucks worldwide during that three-plus-decade run, and many of these are now eligible for import under the “25 Year Rule.” The challenge, of course, is in finding the clean ones.
Scully: The more money you spend out of the gate, the better your chances are of starting off with a solid vehicle. You can buy a $25,000 Defender, but it's probably going to have some rust in it, it's probably going to have a few holes in the floorboards, and it may not have a great drivetrain. Now, if your plan is to do a full restoration on the vehicle, then none of that stuff really matters, but the better bones come from the drier climates.
We've had a lot of luck out of Portugal lately with really solid one-owner, left-hand-drive vehicles. Those are the ones that you want to go after, and that's a car that you could buy, do a little maintenance, and just drive it. You don't have to take that car and do a full restoration on it today. If you're more suited towards overlanding and camping with your family, then you can jump into that vehicle and do some maintenance on it, get it dialed, and hit the trails.
We've also had a good run lately of helping customers find vehicles to do restorations on from around $40,000 to $45,000. We fully strip them down at the shop, and then they're all bespoke. So we can build the vehicle to whatever level of off-road capability you want or level of luxury that you want, depending on your needs, all the way up to a 700-horsepower LT4 supercharged motor. Our philosophy is to figure out what you're going to do with the vehicle and then cater everything that we do to suit that.
Far from being the chef who never eats his own cooking, Scully’s own personal Defenders are a reflection of his devotion to purpose-built rigs, to creating machines that do more than just toodle down to the coffee shop or the local Cars & Coffee event. Scully’s Defenders, in short, are expected to earn their keep and he preps them accordingly.
Scully: I've had my 1995 Defender 90 since the early 2000s and it’s been back and forth across the country with me multiple times. I built custom rock sliders for it and they're welded to the frame because I was expecting that thing to do some arduous work and wanted the sliders to be able to handle the weight of the vehicle on trails like the Rubicon. It's got a mild lift, probably two inches, but I’ve had that truck through the Rubicon on 33-inch tires numerous times. I've got really good shocks on it and an ARB air locker in the rear with an onboard compressor.
The 90 was my workhorse until about two years ago when I built my 1995 double-cab 110, which is on 37-inch tires. We have three kids, so I needed an off-road vehicle that could fit the whole family. That truck's pretty much got it all. It's got a really nice 4.6-liter V8 in it, an automatic transmission. I've done the gears and it's got air lockers both front and rear. It also has a doubler on the transfer case – an "underdrive" in the Land Rover world – that gives me a 9:1 overall ratio when both transfer cases are engaged, a ridiculously low crawl ratio that can do some pretty hard work.
Certainly, there has to be an easier way to earn a living than all this – all this improvising of motor mount repairs in the Mojave Desert, keeping pace with Special Forces soldiers, and building a business (all of it interwoven with a life-threatening illness). Scully, however, would not trade his life for anything.
Scully: Being uncomfortable, being in an environment where you're wet and tired and you don't know how you're going to get through the situation – all that has given me mental fortitude, it's given me a positive mindset to be able to withstand and go through and endure those tough times. If you can endure the suck of the moment, you'll figure out a solution to get yourself through.
My life has been amazing. I'm truly blessed. If you had told me, back when I was a teenager driving my Jeep around in the mud in South Carolina, that I would have had the opportunity to see what I've seen and go the places that I've been able to go, I would've never believed it, never would have imagined that I’d get to make a living out of building cool trucks and going on adventures. It's an American dream.
And that, folks, is how one becomes Tim Scully.
A California-based writer and photographer, Greg Bodene has been a Land Rover fanatic since he first stumbled across the Camel Trophy Series one late night in the mid-1990s on the long forgotten “ABC Wild World of Sports." You can follow his latest adventures on Instagram (@jeth_rover).
Aaron McKenzie is a Los Angeles based writer, photographer, and producer with an eye for all things automotive. You can see more from him by checking out his Instagram (@aaronwmckenzie).
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