Bristol Cars´new owners have announced the launch of the first wholly new vehicle since the Fighter of 2003.
Called the Pinnacle, the new car is to feature a combination of Bristol hallmarks and modern touches. Carried over are the customs of making the bodies by hand (Bristol require a panel beater) and using very high quality materials. New to Bristol will be the use of battery power and range extension technology. There might even be cup-holders. Also new to Bristol is the notion of merchandising, which to spell it out, is the selling of non-automotive products branded with the Bristol logo. That´s done to promote the brand (something Bristol didn´t try hard to do) and to make money (something Bristol didn´t manage very well towards the end).
Getting on for sixteen years Bristol cars have held a fascination for me. To thank for this interest is a former student colleague of mine at university who chose Bristol as a subject for a redesign. His project was completed around about 1997 or 1998 and all I can remember was that the car didn´t look like a Bristol but might have been a plausible step between their 90s cars and the projected 2015 car.
Turning to the new car, the Pinnacle, we know that it will look different from the cars that have characterised the brand for fifty years. These amount to a few distinct series: First, the post-war 400-406 series such as the 401 two-door saloon and the 405 (1955) four door; Second the 406 cars (fitted with wonderfully made Reutter seats!) onward which are divided into the 6-cylinder and V8 periods. After 1964 change at Bristol came even more slowly, with each step carefully considered. This might partly have been due to well-based caution but was also because of the small scale of the firm and what must have been limited resources. But this combination worked well and while Jensen, Facel Vega, Monteverdi, De Tomaso and a host of other small scale makers went under, Bristol carried on turning out about a hundred cars a year until perhaps the mid 90s.
From about the early 80s Bristol´s slow pace of change became too slow to be sustainable and their cars remained jammed at 1975 though each year there were incremental improvements and the cars were always very special devices. What the new Bristol has to do is to create a vehicle that is in line with a hypothetical set of steps between 1975 and today, steps never taken. I suppose what my former student colleague was also trying to do was to design a vehicle in line with Bristol´s values but make them fit in with contemporary values. Can it be done?
So, in an alternative history, how could Bristol have got from Chrysler-powered V8s mounted on separate-chassis cars to electrically powered supercars? And all the time respecting the understated designs and highest standards? In asking this, I am asking if the Pinnacle really is a believable continuation of Bristol´s design ethos as it might have proceeded after 1975.
In 1980 our hypothetical Bristol replaced the V8 with a more efficient V6 of their own design and used it to power a car based on an aluminium box-section chassis. The power-to-weight ratio remained the same or better, depending on trim. This was initially available as a two door but a saloon and then an estate were produced in 1982 and 1984 respectively.
In 1988 Bristol hired Peter Stevens to redesign the car´s exterior while retaining the good use of space that 600-series owners would recognise. Sales volumes of the 80s cars had reached a point that mid-volume production had become necessary. The V6 engines were supplemented by turbo charged 5-cylinder engines (used under licence from Audi) and 8-cylinder engines designed by Bristol. At the same time, Bristol also created a car of the same size as the BMW 3-series which proved to be even more successful than the larger touring coupes and saloons. Customers were defecting from Maserati, Jaguar and Aston Martin.
Running somewhat against the tide of the period, Bristol pursued a policy of lower-weight cars and improved fuel consumption reasoning that their customers didn´t want to spend time in petrol stations. The 1995 Bristol Britannia two-door coupe achieved 38 mpg from its V6, for example and had a 500 mile range. However, due to steering and handling arrangements the car was noted for its agility and comfort rather than its still credible top-speed of 136 mph. People credit this success to the hiring of a chassis engineer called Mike Cross.
With sales of about 8,000-10,000 units Bristol entered the 2000s with a range of three cars: a mid-sized two-door saloon/shooting brake, a large two door saloon/shooting brake and a handsome two seat convertible manufactured by Bertone and selling well in the US. With an eye on the Californian market, and with petrol prices rising in the mid-2000s, Bristol signed up with a tech-billionaire from the US, a Bristol enthusiast. The first result was the electrically powered mid-sized car, the Brigand but in 20010 a new chassis was unveiled, one designed to suit the power storage system from the start. With a range of 120 miles, the car surprised critics by being popular among wealthy urbanites in the UK and also rich Californians. The new Pinnacle then is the continuation of this counterfactual line of development since it is in obvious ways not business as was usual.
I look forward to seeing what Bristol´s new car is like. The Bristol concept, like that of Lancia, is one worth exploring and I was disappointed by Bristol´s foundering a few years back. While I don´t aspire to expensive or powerful cars as such, Bristol´s adherence to robust engineering and their interest in comfort as well as speed really appeals. A speed-orientated Bristol is not going to thrill me, but if they can ally electrical power with good space utilisation then I think they´ll have made a Bristol for the 21st century.
The Telegraph reports that the estimated price is £200,000 which is more than double that of a Fisker.
For me the only aspect of this relaunch that strikes the wrong note is the notion of merchandising. Whether it’s done by Ford, Ferrari, Aston Martin or Jaguar, it always strikes me as a way of manipulating people who can´t afford one product to buy an unrelated substitute. An Armani t-shirt is a substitute for an Armani suit and a Ferrari umbrella is a sublimation of the desire for a Ferrari. If I could afford a Bristol I would not need to buy a Bristol fountain pen or hold-all. And if I felt I needed to buy a Bristol lighter, I would know I was not in the Bristol league.