The stout Defender might not spring to mind as an ideal competition vehicle, but it can be plenty of fun on the muddy forest tracks of Wales
Matt Prior
24 October 2014

It’s a neat idea, the Defender Challenge. In short, it involves applying the formula that applies to one-make, arrive-and-drive racing, to rallying.

It’s Bowler Motorsport’s idea. You might not be surprised to learn that, because the company has been doing innovative, interesting things with Land Rovers for decades.

Bowler is independent but has close links and a good relationship Land Rover. You might remember the Bowler Wildcat and Nemesis. Bowler currently makes the EXR, for road or rally. Bowler’s heart is in off-road racing.

And this, the Defender Challenge, is an easy path way into the sport. Some people have entered the Challenge just because it’s a low-hassle way to go rallying and is a right laugh. But others do it because Bowler’s experience in Rally Raids means they can move on, with Bowler, from here into grander off-road rallies than the seven-round UK Defender Challenge. Like the Dakar.

The Challenge cars, then. They start life as Defender 90 hard-tops; no rear seats, solid top. They’re registered that way and that makes them commercial vehicles - although motorsport regulations insist on the addition of a back window later. 

Then Bowler sets to work – adding its own motorsport wheels, a 170bhp engine tune and race exhaust, bespoke springs, Bilstein dampers, new bushes, anti-roll bars and steering damper; a plumbed fire extinguisher, roll cage, engine cut off, Perspex windows, racing seats and six-point harnesses. And air conditioning. 

Like that, they cost £50,000. You can spend more on other options, if you like. This is motorsport, after all. It’s all expensive.

They’re homologated for both MSA and FIA regulations, so can be entered not just into the Defender Challenge, but international rally raid events too.

Being a bright company and having spotted people might want to do just that, but are short of time or space or mechanical ability, Bowler can look after everything. Smart company.

But still, dim enough to let me have a go in round six of the UK Defender Challenge, whose seven competitors comprised a class in the Cambrian Rally, North Wales, last weekend.

I’ve raced on a circuit a few times but never rallied before. And having talked to other competitors here and at races, it’s striking how many stick to their discipline: rallyists go rallying, racers go racing.

I’ll tell you something else: rallying is hard. I’ll spare you the details of my glorious battle for the class lead, because it wasn’t glorious and I didn’t battle for the class lead, but I will tell you that these Defenders genuinely handle. 

There’s no ABS or stability control, they don’t feel as top-heavy as you’d think, and their attitude is extremely adjustable. 

If you get the braking right you can set them up on the way into a bend, Scandinavian-flick-stylee, and then, if you get back on the power correctly, they’ll drift foursquare around your given corner. I don’t get either right very often.

The problem, if you’re used to circuit racing, is that even though you can get a fair idea of where a corner goes – because there’s a co-driver telling you – you don’t really find out until you get there. Grip levels change by the metre. Cambers and gradients too. One moment you’re on dry, hard, relatively grippy stone. The next you’re under tree cover and it’s wet and muddy. 

Granted, conditions change sometimes on a circuit, too: tyres go off, rubber gets laid. But by and large a corner is in the same place you found it last time. Then, you usually regain grip on the straight, and the run-off area is not comprised of upright wooden posts with the leaves and branches still attached.

That can be quite unsettling, even though Defenders are not fast rally cars. The Challenge runs last on the road, and Defenders tend to finish towards the back of the results. Or, in my case, at the very back of the results, but let’s gloss over that. 

Still, I only, harmlessly, fall off once, by the end of the day I’m not setting the slowest Defender time, and I haven’t put it on its side or broken it. If I don’t bin somebody else’s car, it’s a decent day at work; and this feels like a hell of a lot more than a decent day at work. Seriously, if you’ve ever thought about going racing, think equally hard about going rallying.

Read the Bowler Motorsport Land Rover Defender Challenge first drive review

Read Autocar's history of Land Rover

Get the latest car news, reviews and galleries from Autocar direct to your inbox every week. Enter your email address below:

Our Verdict

Land Rover Defender

The Land Rover Defender is an institution and unbeatable off road, if crude on it

24 October 2014
That looks like something they should test the 'new' defender against. I fear LR is going to produce a new car less worthy than the model it replaces, except 'old' defenders will be around for ever.
I notice the Ford Cortina Mk2 has totally vanished but you still see Mk1s, that tells you a lot.

RogerHudson

Add your comment

Log in or register to post comments

Find an Autocar car review

Driven this week

  • Lexus LC500
    Car review
    20 October 2017
    Futuristic Lexus LC coupé mixes the latest technology with an old-school atmospheric V8
  • Maserati Levante S GranSport
    First Drive
    20 October 2017
    Get ready to trade in your diesels: Maserati’s luxury SUV finally gets the engine it’s always needed
  • Jaguar XF Sportbrake TDV6
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The handsome Jaguar XF Sportbrake exhibits all the hallmarks that makes the saloon great, and with the silky smooth diesel V6 makes it a compelling choice
  • Volkswagen T-Roc TDI
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    Volkswagen's new compact crossover has the looks, the engineering and the build quality to be a resounding success, but not with this diesel engine
  • BMW M550i
    First Drive
    19 October 2017
    The all-paw M550i is a fast, effortless mile-muncher, but there's a reason why it won't be sold in the UK