I meet up with farmer Chris Bowler at his Cambrian 4X4 Farm.

Malcolm Whitbread introduced me to Chris Bowler when he took me up to his farm whilst I was at Whitbread off-road having my cage fixed to my king cab in May 2010. (see the June 2010 issue) Chris impressed me with his enthusiasm for all things Land Rover and I added him to my list of people to interview when we could arrange it, and so in October we met up again at his Cambrian 4X4 Farm and spent some time together. Chris left school where he had been in the army cadets and after a couple of years joined the army at 21 and went to the Officer Training College at Sandhurst. On passing out he joined his regiment of choice the Royal Corp of Transport later to be attached to 4 other regiments in 1992 which then became the Royal Logistic Corp. Chris told me “I wanted a job outside and I couldn’t bare the thought of being permanently desk bound and I had always been passionate about driving. I got quite a shock early on though when I was told officers don’t drive in the army they are driven, and wasn’t that sad? Army logic is that if an officer has an accident it's a major problem, but if a soldier has one it's not so bad. Later in my career I actually had to get written permission sometimes to enable me to drive because I needed to have the hands on experience owing to some of the jobs I was given to do. I went to Germany and I was a Troop Commander with 8 Transport Regiment and I was a Second Lieutenant in charge of a Nuclear Support Convoy troop in Munster, and  I was there from 1989 to 1992. I worked with  American, Dutch and German forces and it was a multi national type of job. It wasn’t quite the cold war at the time but it was right on the edge, and I don’t think back then that nobody was aware that the cold war was about to finish. We would go on exercises towards the border and we knew where our crash out positions would be, and what routes we would take and it was definitely cold war thinking. But thankfully when I left the Berlin Wall had been dismantled and the arms treaties were put in motion and it was a time of great change. But as far as I was personally concerned it had been an ideal time for me as I was able to cut my teeth and develop my soldiering and management skills, and one night in a bar I had met my future wife Judith who was a Lieutenant in the Queen Alexander Nursing Corp.”  

Army Off-Road

The British Armed Forces Motoring Association was set up to encourage driver training for officers and soldiers and Navy and Air Force personal, and it was split into two groups, motorcycling, and the night navigation and Land Rover driving side. Soldiers can attend up to 8 events in a year and they are run as weekend driving and navigational exercises on army land. They are designed for a crew of two in a totally standard Land Rover and the soldiers undertake a range of off-road activities including pure navigating, compassing, map references, and grids. When Chris came back to the UK he was heavily involved in this and he went on to tell me “the idea was that it wasn’t seen as a sport as such, it was a professional training activity. These exercises were designed to teach our soldiers to map read, drive off-road, and to be confident in a Land Rover and to work as a team. As an off shoot from it the British Armed Forces Rally Team came into being, and what that strove to do was to take the best from the night navigation exercises and put them in a rally orientated environment where they are still navigating and working as a team but they were in a fully blown stage rally situation. Teams became involved in the British Rally Championship, and the Rally of Wales and the Rally of Scotland, and the Jim Clark Rally, the Tempest and the Isle of Man and I’ve done all of them, and the culmination of all this was to enter teams to go to Iceland and do the Rally Reykjavik. As far as the Army was concerned these were still classed as legitimate exercises and they were not classed as sport, but they were using the sport as a tool from which to train from. Unfortunately there was a bit of grumbling about wasting tax payers money but I cannot tell you how many young people came up to us at events and told us that they were dead keen on rallying and car mad, and now that they were aware that they could do things like this in the forces they would consider joining up. It wasn’t a huge expense as such and it was good training for the soldiers, and it was good for recruitment. There are 6 Wolfs with 12 back up crew so that’s 24 soldiers with a small officer management team, so it wasn’t a big deal and it had a fairly healthy rotation, because every three years you hung up your keys and walked away from it. I was lucky enough to meet Royal Engineer Corporal Mark Burton as my navigator and we still compete together today now we are both no longer in the army. I must say that in my 18 years in the army he was the most impressive bloke I ever met with a map. If we were out on exercise in the pitch black dark at Otterburn or on Salisbury Plain, he could put me right where we had to be every time. One of the best jobs I was given was when I was responsible for vehicle trials and testing at the Trials and Development Unit at Long Valley ensuring that military vehicles and equipment were built and designed to enable the soldier to carry out his task without being affected by the vehicles design.

Coming Home

In 2006 Chris was a Major and he left the army and settled down back at the farm that they had bought in 2001 so that the family had a base, as Chris and Judith were now married and had two young sons. In the last 6 months of his career he decided that as well as having sheep on the farm he would also use his knowledge  and have a Land Rover based business as well, as he had been constantly around them since he was 15 years old. It was obvious to Chris that technological systems ECUs and complicated wiring in modern Land Rover products was here to stay, and as he had completed a degree course in related army based technology, he decided that was the way to go. He told me “ I was looking through LRM one day and saw an advert for the Autologic diagnostic system. So I rang them up and spoke to Mike Cullen the MD. I never even had my workshop at the time so I went to see Mike 3 times and mulled it over, and at £8,500 at the time we thought it was a lot of money. But I had a bit of pension money coming so I bit the bullet and bought one and Malcolm Whitbread built the workshop for me and to tell you the truth I have never looked back. If it wasn’t for that computer I would just be another garage with a flat blade screwdriver and a pair of pliers, but as it is I do diagnostic work for all the local garages and second hand car dealers for miles around here. OK so if you are a decent mechanic and lets say you get a TD5 in and its got a misfire, you apply the same diagnostic thought process. Why has it got a misfire, well one of the cylinders isn’t firing right? So from then on by a process of elimination you eventually may get there. But plug my computer in and it tells me straight away what is wrong, and when it comes to things like ECU coding, setting things up, and manipulating the software its invaluable to me, and I have got everything here in the Autologic that the main dealer has”.      

Back of Beyond

Cambrian 4X4 Farm is in Cefnbys Mawr (yes exactly) and it really is in the back of beyond, so to get the business off the ground Chris made up some A6 sheets with a tasteful shot of a Land Rover on it with details of services available on the back, and he and Judith drove around for miles dropping them off. Five years later the business is going strong with a range of regular customers doing MOT prep work, servicing, welding repairs, and restorations. When I was there a bobtailed Range Rover was  under way, and a Series 2a was being re-chassised and if Whitbread off-road get a customer who orders a turn key car, its brought to Cambrian 4X4 and they wire it up, put all the switches in it, and do the brakes and suspension and get it started and return it. Around the place there are a lot of Land Rovers in various states of repair including an old Series that Chris had when he was 15 and his current competition truck. Chris did comp safaris since he was 17 years old in various self built Land Rovers and the family holiday every year was the ARC Nationals.

Purely by Chance

After the 60th ARC Nationals Chris decided to have a change, so he joined the All Wheel Drive Club and started comping with them. Logistically it was perfect for him as last year 5 out of the 8 events were held in Wales. This year the first Comp safari was held at Sidbury Hill on a Saturday and they were having one of these new XTC events on the Sunday. Chris went on to tell me “ we were staying in a Travelodge so we stayed over and decided to give it a go. All I knew was that the AWDC had come up with this idea to try and bring comp safari drivers, trialers and the extreme guys together in one event. Although its speed orientated and MSA rules effect different vehicle designs and builds that is what they were trying to pull together. Six months previously in the magazines people were writing that they were going to build purpose built trucks to do XTCs but we just turned up and blow me down we won it, and Mark and I were both gob smacked. We walked off with some nice protection shirts each etc, and I thought right its a Land Rover built for comping but we shall have a go at the series. There were 4 rounds but 1 was cancelled because of low entries. So the next round was at West Harptree and we came 5th in that one but we felt we had done all-right, and I thought to myself there is more to this than meets the eye so we put a bash plate underneath and a second winch on it, and now I am turning a comp car into a challenge car and I am thinking how far do I want to go with this. To my mind XTC is a severe off-roading at speed with navigation because all you get is an aerial view of the site with the punch points on it so with Marks navigational expertise its right up our alley. The final round was at Kirton off-road centre and my lads said Dad you got to go. So we loaded up and stayed at a friends house and on the Saturday night I went over to have look at the site and I was a bit disheartened as I think that Kirton is quite a rough site and its nothing like anything I have ever comped on before. But we were there and committed and we came first overall and we were the 2010 AWDC XTC Champions which was OK. But to me though its about having a go, doing your best, driving and developing the car, and most of all having fun”.