As I start my third donut, wheels locked and clutch popped, I start wondering at what point this massive hunk of metal’s going to tip over. But it never does. It simply squats into its custom-tuned Bilstein suspension and sits there, kicking up copious amounts of limestone quarry dust that gradually waft into the cockpit, because I was dumb enough to leave the window open.
In no time, this monstrous 4×4 has gone from all-black to multiple shades of dusty brown, but I’m having too much fun to care — after all, it was built for shenanigans of the wildest kind. Welcome to the Bowler experience.
If you’re new to Bowler Motors, we’ll educate you. Back in 1985, the late Drew Bowler started building competitive off-road racing cars from his home in Derbyshire, in the East Midlands. He soon started taking orders, and before long, Bowler Motorsports was a legitimate business with a focus on Land Rover Defenders. The company is still based in Derbyshire today, but they’ve covered a lot of ground — and stacked up an impressive collection of accolades — since the ’80s.
In 1991, Drew won the British ARC National Comp Safari. Nine years later, Bowler entered the Dakar Rally for the first time; by 2005 they were the second largest factory Dakar team, with the highest finishing rate. Since then, Bowler Land Rovers have claimed victory in the British Hill Climb Championship, the British Baja National Championship, the French Baja and the Tuareg Rallye. Little wonder then that Bowler Motorsports was eventually acquired by Jaguar Land Rover, and now forms part of their Special Vehicle Operations.
Bowler knows the Defender inside out — and they know how to make it go faster, turn harder and stop better. Their race-spec cars are built to cross deserts, take knocks, and even get airborne when the occasion calls for it. But the Defender I’m driving here treads a different path. Called the Bowler Fast Road Defender, it shoves all of Bowler’s rally racing know-how into a burly package that’s optimized for road use. And that makes it perfect for our needs on this trip.
Their race-spec cars are built to cross deserts, take knocks, and even get airborne when the occasion calls for it.
We’re headed from London to Lincolnshire to attend the Malle Mile motorcycle festival at Grimsthorpe Castle. Loaned to us by the good folks at Bowler, our Fast Road cuts a menacing profile on the A1 highway out of London. Built using a 2014-model Land Rover Defender 110 Utility, it’s unapologetic and utilitarian, murdered out from head to toe, with a blacked-out Bowler logo the only clue to its provenance.
The look is everything you love about Land Rovers, distilled. A Bowler grill does duty up front, with a set of LED lights embedded into matching headlight surrounds. There’s also a Bowler bumper, along with a special guard to protect the steering arms and linkages, and a pair of red towing eyes. The cockpit’s surrounded by an external cage, while high grade aluminum side rails and upgraded step treads run below the doors. Proprietary alloy rims, bonnet vents, aluminum door hinges and a full set of stainless steel bolts; if you can dream of it, the Fast Road Defender probably has it fitted. The Malle Mile might be about motorcycles, but our car drew its fair share of admirers.
It’s just as well-specced inside. We sit in Recaro SVX seats, as fitted in the 60th anniversary Land Rover Defender SVX. They include heated bases and backs, and are mounted on special risers to allow more room for adjustment. Still, the Fast Road isn’t too plush inside, and still feels decidedly Land Rover-esque. The Alcantara-lined Momo steering wheel is all business, as are the beautifully crafted gear selectors — which not only look good, but feel good, too.
The cavernous load area doesn’t complain when we indiscriminately toss luggage, cameras, and supplies into it. It’s kitted with a modified Defender 90 rubber mat, and MudStuff side panels for storage. The entire interior is soundproofed, too.
Lurking under the Fast Road’s hood is a stage two engine tune identical to Bowler’s desert racers, plus a modified ECU and a race spec intercooler — so it has the go to match its show. Depressing the accelerator is a tactile experience; the Fast Road growls and surges forward, frustrated at the prospect of having to adhere to speed limits.
On the Malle Mile’s “Scramble” course, which runs around the Grimsthorpe estate, the Fast Road makes short work of wide open gravel roads, sandy twin tracks, and rocky inclines. It’s still a 4×4, after all, and one that boasts an impressive suspension setup, too. Working with Bilstein, Bowler has developed a kit that matches custom-tuned Bilstein dampers to Bowler’s own springs. The setup also uses upgraded anti-roll bars and bushes, and a steering damper. Bowler’s “big brake package,” developed in collaboration with Alcon, includes four-piston calipers and bigger brake discs all around, and works with the standard Land Rover ABS.
Blasting along the Malle course, with my passenger mildly suggesting I slow down lest we need to cough up for an insurance excess, it all starts to make sense. The Bowler heritage is tangible in every press of the accelerator, every gear shift, and every turn of the steering wheel. It might be tweaked for the road, but it was born of dust.
“Go mental, it’s a rental,” I quip back. After all, the Fast Road can take it.