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The Defender Project: How Don MacDonald Built Rovalution from the Ground Up

The Defender Project: How Don MacDonald Built Rovalution from the Ground Up

We caught up with Vancouver's Don MacDonald to talk Rovalution, overlanding trips, and the restoration of a 1994 Land Rover NAS Spec Defender 90.

The Defender Project: How Don MacDonald Built Rovalution from the Ground Up
Photograph courtesy of Rovalution Automotive


Photograph courtesy of Rovalution Automotive

In North Vancouver, there’s a place on West 3rd Street that stays open after dusk. Under the garage lights, a dozen picture-worthy Land Rovers wait in queue. From everyday drivers to decade-old projects, Rovalution has become a sanctuary for Land Rover enthusiasts across the country. It’s a place where, since 2007, founder Don MacDonald and his team have been turning out quality Land Rovers with hand-built craftsmanship.

With pure joy and appreciation for the product, I was eager to learn more about Don’s story and his world of Land Rovers. We connected for the first time in May while I was in Mexico City, and over the next few months he would share pictures and stories that he had collected over the years. It included overlanding trips to rural British Colombia, his personal collection of Land Rovers (18 and counting), and updates from recently completed projects.

I would soon learn that Don got his start with Land Rover at an early age. His first feel for them was when he was bouncing around in a topless 1964 Defender on a family friend’s rural property. It was before he knew what Land Rover really was, or what it meant to have one, but the admiration for that experience extended long into his teenaged years. Before he was legally allowed to drive, Don had already purchased his first Land Rover project. He was 15 at the time, and spent the entire year working on it before he finally got his license. By the age of 17, he became the President of a local Land Rover Enthusiasts Club and started helping other local owners build out their own projects.

Photograph courtesy of Rovalution Automotive

When Don tells me these stories, it all seems predestined and ordained. The reality, though, is that he has executed a one-of-a-kind business from sheer thrill and passion, something that has paid off well in the world of automotive entrepreneurship. It’s hardly surprising that twelve years later he would later become one of Canada’s most sought after Land Rover specialists.

But before the gears started to turn, Don had a stint in forestry and tourism. While sustaining his Land Rover passions, he finished college with a diploma in renewable resources. He worked in Whistler for a time as a tour guide, driving foreign adventurers on days-long expeditions through the mountains. It was during this period of his life that he found and solidified his love for something much bigger: the outdoor lifestyle. Meanwhile his career in tourism, he knew, was something if not a building block to something much bigger.

There’s one story in particular that Don comes back to. Before one of his expeditions, one of the vehicles (a Land Rover, no less) had broken down before departure. Being the only one who knew his way around the truck, Don repaired it with ease while his colleagues encouragingly announced: “If you keep this up, you’re going to be the biggest Land Rover guy in the country!” In retrospect, this might’ve been the sign that Don needed because not even a month later, he was back working with Land Rovers again. He landed a job at Land Rover Richmond as a parts specialist and committed to a trades diploma at the British Colombia Institute of Technology. Whether he knew it or not, his career in the automotive industry was undeniably underway.

After completing his training, he spent six years at MCL Motor Cars, an automotive group specializing in Land Rover, Jaguar, Bentley, and Aston Martin. He continued perfecting his chops on a variety of new and old Land Rovers, and in February of 2007 he officially opened doors to his own shop, Rovalution Automotive. As a fully-trained Land Rover specialist, Don slowly but steadily grew the outfit into one of the largest independent Land Rover shops in the country.

Photograph courtesy of Rovalution Automotive

Having been around the iconic brand since boyhood, I had to put my curiosity out in the open. After all these years, I wanted to know what projects still excited him. And as someone who had worked on virtually all models, what model did he drive himself?

To answer the latter question, Don’s daily driver is the 2020 Land Rover Defender 110 P400. “It just makes the most sense for today’s busy urban life,” Don told me. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t drive his 1995 Defender 110 to the office when he feels like it. The driving experience is louder, more authentic and uneven. It’s a pure form and reason on why so many people gravitate to the Defender lifestyle in the first place.

As far as favourite projects go, there’s one that comes to mind for him. That would be the 1994 Land Rover NAS spec Defender 90 that he began in 2007. The infamous and multi-phased project saw many upgrades over the last decade, the latest being in the spring of this year. When asking about the process of how clients approach him for projects, Don brought me through a trip he had taken with a client on a Rover-Landers Off-road run to Hut Lake. He would occasionally do this with clients in order to see what the trucks were capable of. For Don, there’s no better way to get a feel for a potential project than by taking it on the trail.

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After the trip concluded with the 1994 Defender NAS 90, Don suggested certain improvements and modifications. On Monday morning, the client came to the shop elated. He gave Don the go-ahead to undergo any and all modifications as Don saw fit.

To begin the project, Don repaired, rebuilt and upgraded all mechanical and driveline components. This included the ARB Lockers, heavy duty axles and CV joints. During the same year, he partially disassembled and prepped the bodywork to sublet it for repainting and other cosmetic upgrades. By the end of the year, he added new accessories like Hella Rallye 4000 roof lights, a stainless steel exhaust, checker plate, and a new soft top. In between each phase, the client enjoyed the vehicle before it was time for something new.

In early 2012, the Defender was fitted with a new ARB bumper, a new Warn winch upgrade, lifted Heavy duty OME springs, and HD shocks. In 2017, he replaced the Hella Rallye 400 roof lights with auxiliary ones and added J.W. Speaker LED headlamps. He began the LS conversion and added a galvanized chassis in 2019 and finally, in the spring of 2021, he delivered the new LS3 GM 6L80 6-speed automatic conversion with its new frame, refreshed interior and audio system to the client.

Photographs courtesy of Rovalution Automotive

Another NAS spec Defender Don has worked on is his own 1993 Defender 110, a project that he bought shortly after launching Rovalution in 2007. It’s #4 out #25 sold in Canada and due for a full restoration. Whether or not it’ll undergo the same treatment as the 1995 NAS 90, one can never be sure.

For now, Don’s happy with how it feels on the road. He’s got plenty of other projects to keep him busy, including his two sons’ Land Rover Discoveries. Being roughly the same age Don was when he had bought his first Land Rover, it seems that the Land Rover-MacDonald legacy lives on. The family driveway is sure to be an enviable one for years to come.

Photographs courtesy of Rovalution Automotive

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