After two years of intensive development, the Bowler Bulldog is out – and it has already savaged its rivals in a major African rally. Jérôme André jumps in the hot seat
Jérôme André rekindles his Dakar dreams behind the wheel of this awesome 4x4
There’s an orange dot in the distance, kicking up a roostertail of dust as we arrive at Bowler’s test facility in deepest Staffordshire. Mark, the company’s test driver, is warming up the Bulldog I’m here to drive. It’s the latest version of the model the Derbyshire firm has been developing since 2016 – and this is the full-on rally raid version of a cuttingedge vehicle designed to be adaptable to a multitude of functions from on-road to extreme exploration.
From afar, it looks like a race-prepped double-cab Defender, but the shape is deceptive – the Bulldog’s running gear has more in common with Land Rover’s current production models than the defunct Defender. There’s a lot of current-shape Range Rover, Sport and Discovery components bouncing around beneath that boxy exterior. The only standard Defender bits are the bonnet, the rear-side and back windows, and the heated windscreen and its frame.
It’s what the Land Rover parts are connected to that forms the innovative base for the Bulldog, though – the Cross Sector Platform (CSP). This concept, conceived by racer and company founder, the late Drew Bowler, features a separate ladder-frame chassis with a modular spaceframe attached, on which to hang the engine, suspension and bodywork.
To a Frenchman like me, the bare bones of the Bulldog look like the Eiffel Tower – more see-through than metal. Surely the only way Bowler has built enough strength into such a lightweight construction that can handle the intense punishment of African rally raids is by wizardry rather than engineering…?
Leading the way
Although the bare chassis may not look dissimilar to a Defender’s, it benefits from the magic of computer-aided design and engineering (using CATIA and Solidworks software, if you’re curious) linked directly to Bowler’s in-house CNC manufacturing facilities. Unlike on Land Rover’s redoubtable utility vehicle, though, the chassis rails are straight – they don’t need to curve above a rigid axle, because the CSP has modern independent suspension on all four corners.
This aim of this design wasn’t merely to produce one of the most advanced competitive off-road vehicles in its category, though. The CSP was developed to expand
‘Range Rover Sport suspension meant Bosch’s precise electric steering system could be used’
the range of speciality vehicles that Bowler could produce. This versatile design allows Bowler to adapt it into multiple variants that can be created using mass-produced parts. In particular, the wheelbase can be simply and easily altered according to the requirements of each individual vehicle.
A wide range of modular sub-systems can be fitted to the chassis – from a base reconnaissance military set-up to complete bodies for ambulance or emergency response. The components and the design also enable common electrics, engines and drivetrains to be used. On paper, this makes it a genuine alternative to the Defender for trade customers or military applications.
There will also be road-spec Bulldogs available soon. They won’t come with the massive Fia-spec roll cage and super-beefy, ultra-long-travel suspension turrets – but neither should you expect a fully trimmed interior with massaging, vented seats. They’ll still be thoroughbred Bowlers – and just like the race-specs Bulldogs, each one will take 480 hours to build by hand.
Sport suspension – literally
You could say the Bulldog is the first ‘Defender’ with independent suspension. The majority of the system, front and rear, has been raided from the Land Rover parts bin, predominantly using Range Rover Sport L494 components. Using these offers many advantages: they’ve been tested by Land Rover over challenging conditions for hundreds of thousands of miles, they’re readily available in most markets and are significantly more cost-effective than designing components in-house. Also, they’ll continue to be produced by OEMS (original equipment manufacturers) for at least a decade after Land Rover stops using them.
However, a few parts were custom-designed to make the vehicle bulletproof. The Sport’s front lower arms have replaced by beefy, one-piece wishbones fitted with uprated bushes. The air suspension and selectable ride-height was also binned in preference for conventional springs designed by Bowler’s engineers in conjunction with Eibach, along with dedicated Bilstein dampers with internal hydraulic bump stops and remote reservoirs – much better suited to coping with competition use. Choosing the Range Rover Sport suspension set-up did mean the precise Bosch electric steering system could be used, though – fine-tuned for more responsiveness.
Another big Land Rover component also features on our Bulldog – a near-standard TDV6 engine, similar to that fitted to the Sport or L405 Range Rover, but in a single-turbo setup and with no limiter. In this guise, it’s good for 300bhp and 516lb ft. A supercharged V6 petrol engine is available; both engines are mated to the acclaimed 8-speed ZF gearbox.
Bulldog off the leash
Jumping into the driver’s seat, I immediately recognise the Defender dashboard and binnacle, the upright steering wheel and flat windscreen. But apart from that, the Bulldog oozes blue-blood racing pedigree inside, with Cobra bucket seats and a centre console with all the Sport’s electronic switches, the ‘pistolgrip’ gearlever and the electric handbrake handle. Even the aircon control is there.
The start-up ritual is racing-style too. First, switch on the fuel pump then press the start button to light up the cool Motec C125 screen. Behind me are the roll cage stays, the the sand shovels, two helmet bags and the tunnel feeding air from above to the extra radiator. There are also two hydraulic rams back there that can jack up the car in a flash for race service or repairs. There’s no room for rear passengers. Above me, the roof is a lightweight glassfibre panel.
Once I’m locked into the harness, it’s time to click the eight-speed automatic gearbox into Drive. It’s amazingly smooth – not only is there little vibration from the engine and transmission, but there’s not a rattle or clang from anywhere in the whole vehicle. That’s something unheard of in a stock Defender, let
‘The finely tuned suspension is brilliant, responding quickly and consistently’
alone a competition one. The suspension isn’t harsh at all, and you wouldn’t guess that the engine mounts are solid plastic rather than the more traditional isolating rubber. That alone is quite astonishing.
There are no flappy paddles; my co-pilot, Mark, tells me they’re not necessary with this transmission as it is so responsive and it ‘learns’ how you drive anyway. There’s an option to select gears manually, but we agree that I’ll do a few warm-up laps in auto while I get accustomed to the vehicle and the track. Mark tells me it’ll only take a lap to get the hang of it – and he’s not wrong.
Driving the Bulldog doesn’t remotely feel like driving a traditional Defender; it’s closer in feel to a square-bodied Range Rover Sport SVR. The throttle is surprisingly responsive for a diesel-engined vehicle, significantly livelier than that of an SDV6 Sport. Mind you, the Bulldog weighs only 1.8 tonnes compared to the L494’s 2.25 tonnes – that’s some 450kg, or 20 per cent, less. This helps the transmission to select the best gear all by itself. But soon enough I’m tapping the gearlever up and down with a big grin on my face. Driving the Bulldog is massive fun.
The finely tuned suspension is brilliant, responding quickly and consistently to the terrain over the dozen miles I’m able to push the Bulldog to its fullest. On this axle-twisting, chassis-wrenching track with rocky bits, deep ruts and gravel patches, the Bowler remains unruffled – this is a walk in the park for it.
The 350mm front and 320mm rear discs are first-class, as you’d expect with brakes coming from the Sport. Only a hardcore special stage on a serious rally would tell us how long they stay sharp and fade-free, but coming from the significantly more massive Sport, I can confirm they fulfil their function just fine.
The steering is one of the most surprising aspects of the Bulldog – it’s as light as on a production Range Rover, yet very precise. There’s no need to rush from lock to lock when taking corners – you can smoothly place the Bulldog precisely where you want it, gently put it back straight, then unleash the power on the way out. It’s superb.
The days when the Tomcat and Wildcat represented the ultimate Bowlers are well and truly over – not even rose-tinted nostalgia will make you want one over a Bulldog. This is a cutting-edge race car, light years ahead. I suspect we’ll be seeing it on the top step of rally podiums regularly from now on.