Dirt in our eyes: Cross-country rallying in a Bowler Defender Challenge

It isn’t alone. At times the makeshift service park feels like the oil refinery in Mad Max 2. There are modified Defender pick-ups stripped almost to the bone and open-wheel Can-Am buggies whose 1.0-litre turbo engines spit the hyperactive, long-travel suspension over torn terrain like a daddy longlegs fired from a blowgun. People speak with some awe about the Lofthouse, a similar idea to the Can-Ams but with a 450bhp BMW S54 engine and just 1200kg to hold it back. You can buy a basic Lofthouse chassis for around £15,000 or they’ll build you a turn-key version for quite a bit more. With several classes to compete in, though, it’s possible to field a competitive BXCC car for as little as £5000. And now that traditional rallying is so expensive, that’s a big part of the appeal.

We’re here with Bowler. You’ll know Bowler from the Wildcat and other worldclass Land Rover-based off-road specials. But the Derbyshire company also uses the BXCC as a jump-off point for customers with their sights trained on longer, tougher, more exotic events such as the six-day Rallye du Maroc and the Dakar, now moving to Saudi Arabia, because learning how not to smash up your hardware in Dorset and Dumfries, and in a relatively modest £60,000 Defender Challenge, is preferable to learning on sand dunes several thousand miles from home.

As sales director and ex-Honda man Charlie Davis explains, it’s at the BXCC that those customers also learn to embrace the unpredictability of rally-raid racing and to remain determined when it doesn’t quite go to plan. With Bowler you’ll pay around £2500 for a two-day arrive-and-drive event like this one at Bovington, but when the competition takes place abroad, customers not only tend to own the car but the support costs also rocket. You’ll have a team of spanners prepared to bang your £160,000 Bowler Bulldog V8 back in shape while you sleep. Davis’s message is therefore simple: know what you’re letting yourself in for.

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Would I have known. The parade lap on Saturday morning smashes home the fact this is the furthest I’ve ever been outside my comfort zone on four wheels. Even at pedestrian speeds the brutality of the lumps and the vertigo-inducing chutes that plunge our Defender through narrow sections of forest induce considerable anxiety. I wonder whether I’m going to get hurt or be quick enough to avoid embarrassment, although I couldn’t tell you which feels more important right now. In the passenger seat John Tomley mentally logs the course in detail and will shortly regurgitate it at speed, but he also offers advice: be committed with the throttle but don’t over-do the steering. Get a wheel on the berms that will form so you don’t clonk the diffs. Don’t get cocky or you’ll roll it.

‘Roll it’. We should talk about the car. If something as honest and likeable as Bowler’s Defender Challenge can have a dirty secret, it’s that they like to roll over. Or go to sleep, as the mechanics put it. Rolling a Challenge is easy and presumably quite unpleasant, though it’s unlikely to end your weekend because injury is rare and, assuming you weren’t carrying delirious speed, once set right these Defenders tend to plod on. Still, as someone with claustrophobic inclinations, the idea of hanging upside down in a five-point harness, far away from the nearest marshal’s post, doesn’t fill me with wonder.



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