Bowler Bull­dog

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

LRO (UK) - - Contents -

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.

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