Concepts and prototypes : Aston Martin Bulldog DP K.901 (1980)

The world was shocked in 1980, when the William Towns-styled supercar-slaying Aston Martin Bulldog was unveiled. Was it good enough to beat the likes of the Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari BB? Sadly, we’ll never know…


Giving it a bit of the old Bulldog spirit

Aston Martin is on something of a high with its current reinvention centred on the DB11 and DBS Superleggera. However, the cars which have really caught the headlines recently are the Valkyrie hypercar and its AM-RB 003 cousin, which blow the company well into the modern age, with a technological platform to die for.

It’s a sign of Aston Martin’s confidence that the company feels assured enough to go for the throat of the ultimate car on the market. Aston Martin had, though, been there before 40 years ago – producing a car designed to fight the then dominant Lamborghini Countach and Ferrari Berlinetta Boxer.

The company was in a very different place in the late 1970s, when its Chairman, Alan Curtis, came up with the idea of introducing a car to outshine its then range-topper, the Oscar-India V8 Vantage. This was a shire-horse of a car – big and brutish and packing a 437bhp punch. Most importantly, it was Britain’s fastest car, sprinting from 0-100mph in 13 seconds.

Britain's Lamborghini: the Aston Martin Bulldog concept

However, the new Aston Martin supercar for the 1980s, codenamed the DP K.901, was going to be so much more than capable of bloodying the nose of the Italian opposition. It was an advertisement for the renaissance of Aston Martin (unofficially ‘backed’ by Pace Petroleum’s Victor Gauntlett) following its rescue (by Curtis) from bankruptcy in 1975, showing off the capability of the company’s new external engineering facility at Newport Pagnell.

Curtis said at the time of the Bulldog’s launch on 27 March 1980 at Aston Clinton, that Aston Martin, ‘can build the ultimate roadgoing supercar.’ In terms of styling drama, it was will beyond the six-year old Countach and Boxer, but also its compatriot and rival supercar, the Panther 6. It was styled by William Towns and, like his then recent Lagonda saloon, majored on straight lines and dramatic angles.

The Bulldog project kicked off in 1977, under the guidance of Chief Engineer Mike Loasby but, when he left for DeLorean in Northern Ireland in 1978, the programme was put on hold. It was only for a few months, though, as Projects Manager Keith Martin took over DP K.901 and pushed forward with the launch of the car, which became K9 before becoming Bulldog.

Drama in an Aston Martin-sized package

The dramatic proportions were emphasized by its 1092mm height and drag co-efficient of 0.34 (way better than any of its rivals). Its piece de resistance was those gullwing doors. Unlike those fitted to the Mercedes-Benz 300SL or De Lorean DMC-12, these doors didn’t include roof panels (rather like the Lamborghini Marzal), making entry and exit somewhat awkward – still they certainly added drama, and tucked under and into the sills.

The Bulldog was powered by a 600bhp twin-turbo version of Tadek Marek’s impressive Aston Martin V8 and, unlike any of its production counterparts, was mid-mounted in true supercar style. The car was performance tested before launch and, although it didn’t hit its hoped-for top speed of 200mph, it did manage to top out at 191mph – probably far in excess of where the Countach and Boxer were at the time.

Unfortunately, the Bulldog’s arrival coincided with a downturn in its maker’s fortunes. The post-1979 recession hit Aston Martin’s sales and, as profits tumbled, plans to build between 15 and 25 Bulldogs never happened. So the ultimate late 1970s supercar, including LED interior and dash and five lights hidden under the bonnet never went into production.

Meanwhile, Chairman Alan Curtis together with fellow shareholders American Peter Sprague and Canadian George Minden looked at closing the company, but a chance meeting with Victor Gauntlett brought about a rescue plan – without the Bulldog being written into it. As for the one and only example, it was sold in 1984 to an American enthusiast for the sum of £130,000 in cash.

It’s back in the UK now and regularly goes on show… as for its value now? Reckon on it being worth something over a million quid.

Keith Adams

26 Comments

  1. I reckon that, if a live action version of one of the Gerry Anderson animated series was planned (or a remake of UFO), then surely this would be the car of choice…

  2. I have seen the Aston Martin Bulldog in real life, so to speak, and it is impressive – the ultimate 1970s wedge!

  3. Those five square headlamps behind a folding panel looked awesome to the 1970s teenage car-nerd.

  4. I have a love/hate relationship with William Towns’ work. I never liked the DBS but, over time, I’ve grown to appreciate it more and more. I think the Hustler is fantastic – it’s full of character – especially the six-wheeler.

    The AM Lagonda was fabulous at launch and still stunning in its original (albeit flawed) form, but got successively more and more ugly as time went on.

    The Bulldog was and is probably the finest example of the ‘origami’ school of car design, beloved of the Italians in the 1970s and yet it doesn’t quite work for me.

    I think the Gerry Anderson references sum it and my dilemma with William Towns’ work up – the cars never seem to be fully resolved and a certain amount of gimmickry is evident.

  5. I believe the owner is a very rich guy who lives somewhere outside Epping. I saw the Aston Martin Bulldog at a car show a few years back and it is rather passe now – it has not grown old gracefully.

    Oh, and the owner said it has a major flaw – the doors leak when it rains so you get wet when you exit!

  6. I think that, out of all the design themes throughout the decades, it’s this low wedge design which horribly dates cars.

    However, at least it wasn’t a post-modern design, a design for its era!

  7. I worked (as a gap year Student) for Aston Martin when this car returned to the workshops in the summer of 1984. It had some glitches which need to be fixed.

    I recall one was the two doors rarely opened to the same height making the car look lopsided if both were open. These are very early photographs as the car now has two “door” mirrors.

    Why no number plates? Apparently the first owner never registered it, he just drove it on UK-style plates which said “BULLDOG”.

  8. I love it! The five headlamps across the front are, for me, the best feature. They would really light up the road on a dark night or be great for flashing at one of those irritating drivers who have their fog lamps on at the merest hint of a bit of mist in the air!

  9. There are some viewing angles which make the Bulldog look very reminiscent of the Esprit S1 (but lower, of course).

  10. Some of the flanks and angles suggest stealth technology at work. The interior is amusing with a very dated looking radio.

  11. Simon Hodgetts :
    I have a love/hate relationship with William Towns’ work. I never liked the DBS but, over time, I’ve grown to appreciate it more and more. I think the Hustler is fantastic – it’s full of character – especially the six-wheeler.

    The AM Lagonda was fabulous at launch and still stunning in its original (albeit flawed) form, but got successively more and more ugly as time went on.

    The Bulldog was and is probably the finest example of the ‘origami’ school of car design, beloved of the Italians in the 1970s and yet it doesn’t quite work for me.

    I think the Gerry Anderson references sum it and my dilemma with William Towns’ work up – the cars never seem to be fully resolved and a certain amount of gimmickry is evident.

    That’s a bit weird because it’s as though you have just ‘Cut and Pasted’ all my thoughts on the Bulldog – it must be a Simon thing because I agree with all that.

    I love all these 1970s wedges. The Italians design houses produced reams of them in the 1970s and some very good ones like the Stratos.

    Another great oddity from that period was the Panther Six by Bob Jankel. I managed to see that at the NEC a couple years ago – it’s just so very 1970s!

    William Towns may have thrown away the compass after he designed the DBS in preference for a set square but I am glad he did because we wouldn’t have had cars like the Bulldog or Lagonda – they are both just as controversial now as they were then!

  12. I do sort of like the Bulldog – but it’s very, very dated in the worst way.

    I used to work near a restoration company which did some work on two Italian concept cars from I think 1960-something. They were amazingly uncomfortable to sit in – and there were enough gauges to scare the living daylights out of a 747. They were very much of their era, but oddly looked more up to date than this machine. It looks a lot like an IKEA supercar.

    I’d also hate to imagine spare parts prices – a shiver runs down my back when I think about how much something like a trackrod end for this would cost me.

  13. @Tim Collis
    …or turn their fog lights on when they think they’ve turned on something else, like the HRW.

    Anyway, just to confuse matters further, I saw this car on a car transporter in South Kensington circa 1979 and it had ARABIC number plates!

  14. The Bulldog looks like something the producer of Doctor Who would have designed, though probably with two extras pedalling away underneath, in the early 1970s if the episode was to be set in 1990.

  15. What are the chances of AM producing such a modern looking vehicle again? The current range looks great, but doesn’t have the jaw dropping abilities of the Bulldog and Lagonda saloon!

  16. I remember working on this in it’s early days. I think we might have run some emission tests on it at Millbrook. Certainly rememeber doing something with it when I worked in the Emissions Lab there. I agree with Ken Strachan’s comments about the Arabic plates. I always understood it was sold to a ‘Arabic gent’ who turned up at the factory with a case full of notes. Don’t know how true that might be, but has a bit more to it now someone else mentions the Arabic number plates

  17. Madness, but so was the Panther 6. It’s odd as mainstream British car manufacturing seemed to be doomed in the late seventies, you had these low volume manufacturers creating these very unique cars that cost a fortune, would probably sell next to nothing here, but were aimed at newly super rich buyers in the Middle East. It’s likely the far more successful Aston Martin Lagonda made its money appealing to Arab oil sheikhs, rather than over here, where it was considered an expensive oddity.

  18. I heard the Lagonda sold well in the Gulf States.

    Supposedly the gull wing doors had a habit of dripping dirty water onto passengers getting in or out of the car in the rain.

    • That probably was its intended market, ultra rich oil sheikhs who could marvel at all the technology in the Lasgonda as they raced along the desert highways in air conditioned luxury. No wonder the Bulldog was rumoured to have gone east, I’ve heard stories of wealthy Saudis in the early 80s always wanting the most expensive and most exclusive cars they could find to outdo their neighbours. ( Bit different from over here where it was the latest Escort).

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