Tough Stuff: (Mis)Adventures in the Land Rover Defender

You find me in something of a situation. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, on a strikingly hot day in Scotland and I’m on the Glendearg Farm Estate, around 50 kilometres south of Edinburgh — just a stone’s throw from the English border. There’s a recovery team close by, surveying my situation with winches primed and shovels in hand. I’m in the driver’s seat of a heavily modified Land Rover Defender 90, a car customized by British-based rally specialists Bowler. The front window, due to a stroke of bad luck, is currently pointed skywards and, through it, I can see only a smattering of wispy white clouds.

Land Rover Defender hops as it cruises down the hill

Let me explain. Moments before, I had lined up at the start of a rally stage here in the Anglo-Scottish countryside. Bringing the full might of the Defender’s turbocharged four-cylinder to bear, I’d mashed the throttle, spun all four BFGoodrich tires and coughed the dry, dusty earth beneath me up into a smokescreen. I’d accelerated fast toward the first bend — a gentle right-hander — and grabbed the right paddle shifter for second gear. Then, everything went sideways.

The Defender understeered toward a precipitous drop-off — causing everything to go even more sideways. The car pitched 90 degrees off the course and down an embankment, coming to rest on the side of a steep hill. Only a huge rock prevented my Defender from barrel-rolling into the valley below — a lucky break, all things considered.

Land Rover Defender

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Land Rover Defender

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Land Rover Defender

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Land Rover Defender

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Some context, for those of you wondering how I got myself into this situation. The name Bowler, if you’ve ever mixed in off-road circles, should already ring a bell. For close to 40 years, the company (which was founded by engineer and blacksmith Drew Bowler in 1985) has created rally vehicles fit to tackle the world’s toughest competitions, including the Dakar Rally. In 2012, the brand formed a partnership with Land Rover, and was integral in launching the Defender Challenge competition in 2014. Bowler himself passed away in 2016, leaving his legacy on uneven ground — until the Derbyshire-based company was acquired by Land Rover in 2019.

Which brings us back to Britain. The Defender 90 P300 SE in which I’m currently stuck has been specially modified for competition by Bowler, and made available to any budding racers with all-terrain, adrenaline-fuelled ambitions. For roughly $185,000, customers can pick up the rally-spec Defender, along with driver training sessions, technical support, and entry into all seven races of the Defender Rally Series. The championship, which takes place on hill stages and remote gravel roads across England, Scotland, and Wales, provides drivers with a full support package at every event, including hospitality with fully catered meals, spare parts, and technical assistance.

Land Rover Defender parked with mountains in the background

Before clearing the cars for competition, Bowler outfits each Defender with a bespoke suspension system, aluminum underbody skid plate, a full FIA-spec roll cage, and race seats with five-point harnesses — all of which, presently, I’m particularly grateful for. Thankfully, no one has been hurt by my misadventure — not even my slightly bewildered co-driver (I’m later told that the car suffered a cut tire, courtesy of an errant rock, on the start line). Yet, miraculously, our unscheduled lurch down the hill and sudden rock-enforced stop caused virtually no damage to the car. This isn’t some divine intervention, though — it’s expertise; the combined and complete off-road know-how of Land Rover and Bowler.

And, once my Defender is winched out of harm’s way, all that’s needed is a quick change of tires before we’re ready to rumble once again. Kicking up yet more dust, it’s difficult not to marvel at this machine’s ability and sheer fortitude. It’s as tough as a tank, takes hits like a heavyweight and flattens obstacles like only the most sturdy of steamrollers can. Plus, it’s so fun, it feels almost improper.

Land Rover Defender

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Land Rover Defender

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Thankfully, the third season of the Defender Rally Series by Bowler is set to get going in early 2024. This time, there will be an unsurpassed 16 competition-spec Land Rover Defender 90s available for erstwhile rally drivers to thrash around the British countryside. And, even though I may have hit the dirt, I’d still wholly recommend the experience. Just buckle up, trust the car — and drive.