Recent reports are suggesting that Bristol is going to return to car manufacture using BMW engines as part of a hybrid powertrain.
The photo shows one of Bristol’s earlier efforts. The new cars are going to be rather different, featuring a bought-in engine from BMW and electric power systems from Frazer-Nash engineering who now own Bristol. As a long-standing admirer of Bristol I am very intrigued by the prospect of the marque’s revival. Two things will be interesting to watch. One is how the new design will reconcile the futuristic or at least fairly modern concept of hybrid power trains with Bristol’s traditional ethos of pretty heavy and old-fashioned design.
For many a Bristol was about hand-stitched leather upholstery and proper wood trim, screwed in place and not clipped with weight-saving plastic. The engine concept was also out of the heavy-industry playbook: a Chrysler engine of five litres with stump-pulling torque. Will the new Bristol still look and feel like a Bristol? Or will they be tempted to make it look overly contemporary which is a risk in low volume cars of all stripes. Even the last Bristol, the Fighter, had a rather horrible interior of boxy-units draped with stitched suede.
The other point arising is that perhaps Bristol have picked the wrong technology. Tesla’s all-electric power system is not putting off prosperous purchasers and is in fact very much part of its appeal. Should Bristol not simply have a fully battery-powered motor, a system which provides very impressive performance and a range comparable with a mid-70s Citroen CX Turbo (rather dire by the standards of the time, it must be said)?
Of the two questions, it is the one concerning look and feel that is the most pressing. Ultimately, whether the power-train is hybrid or electric is less important than how it feels to drive the car and how it feels to sit in it. Much of the appeal of Bristol was in the idea of effortless performance allied to enduring build-quality, the idea that the car could live indefinitely rather than being a mere appliance in the manner of a 7 Series, S-class or even Rolls Royce.
7 thoughts on “Bristol Returns To Its BMW Roots”
Indeed, I was considering writing something about Bristol for this month’s theme. Bristols were indeed evolutionary, even if their rate of evolution was almost as slow as the shark’s. The Fighter was odd, since it was as willfully different as the other Bristols, but in a whole set of different ways. Apparently they have just sold the last one after 6 years (that’s not a snide put-down by the way, the car rather intrigues me).
I wish new Bristol well, but it is a difficult thing starting again. Do they use a clean sheet entirely, keeping just the badge? Or do they artificially try to suggest continuity. The hybrid thing is odd. It’s almost as if, instead of asking themselves why people bought Bristols, they asked why they didn’t. “Big thirsty engines?”. “OK, we’ll make them more economical, then people will buy them”. But will they?
I presume they imagine a hybrid can offer the same advantages as a big, fat engine but without the penalty of the fuel consumption. To be honest, I think your slant shows potentially odd thinking. I hope Bristol realises their buyers wanted ample power, rock-solid construction, good packaging and the promise of durability. For that they put up with the rather horrible final iterations of the Blenheim (I still love the car, warts and all). If the new Bristol ends up being a kind of British Tesla I´d be disappointed. So, Bristol has to remain Bristolesque to have a point and it needs to attract new customers. I don´t think the price put people off and thus I don´t think the 25 mpg fuel consumption did either. The cars looked rather sad and people with that kind of money were imagining something slick like a Bentley or Aston. In 1975 the difference in quality was nugatory: handmade cars all three. By 2012 both Bentley and Aston were offering build quality from the top drawer. Bristol has to find a workaround for that one: believable hand-made design. They need a first rate industrial designer for this. I really hope they have one, someone really good and willing to put in 60 hours a week and able to use CAD plus talk turkey with engineers and also do some good drawings when needed.
I once attempted to design a Bristol for the modern era – (well, cira-1987 anyway) – while retaining the size, imposing proportions and of course the obligatory wing mounted spare wheel. It proved a daunting task and one I never felt I nailed successfully. I have the drawing somewhere, but not to hand you’ll be relieved to hear.
My point being, how does one define and hence refine Bristol’s style? What is their styling touchstone? The 401/403? The later 404/405? Or the 1970’s 411 – widely viewed as the most elegant. Few appear to appreciate the 603 series – (although I’ll admit to having a bit of a soft spot for them).
I think Bristol’s new owners have an incredibly difficult job to pull off here. It requires an understanding and basic sympathy for what Bristol stood for and frankly I doubt the new owner’s up to it.
But my point is that few people said “I’d certainly buy a Bristol if they were better styled”. For many, their odd looks were one of the reasons for buying them – I should know, I came close to buying arguably the most challenged Bristol, the 412/Beaufighter. Does the name have enough resonance that people will buy one any more than they would if an all new brand called the … say, Cheltenham appeared. Has Bristol’s image really run its course? I certainly hope not.
Eoin: I´d say the defining character of the Bristol was effortless performance and a proper amount of space along with super steering. If the car is cramped, is not properly BMW 535 fast (at least) and has dead steering then it´s not a Bristol. After that the car can look nearly any way at all. I wouldn´t get hung up on the wheel but I would focus on the balance of the main components. If you can get away with a space saver and improve internal accomodation I would go with that. When I was at University a colleague did a modern Bristol. I can´t remember what he did with it in terms of styling.
Back in ’87 when I made my sketch, I attempted to distil what stylistic tropes I should retain that would lend my creation a certain ‘Bristol-ness’. Hence my question. While I will tentatively concede that latter-day Bristols appeared almost unstyled, this trend – (driven by Tony Crook’s eccentric management style and a chronic lack of funds) – became self-defeating. Bristol’s traditional customers didn’t care, since that wasn’t why they bought them in the first place. But other potential customers clearly did, losing Bristol sales that may have kept them in business. In addition, because Bristols were designed for long life and were only changed when absolutely necessary, there was little incentive for existing owners to update or change up. Bristol ended up in a fatal loop.
New Bristol won’t do this – there would be no rational business case for it. My suspicion is they will produce something quite traditional looking but more overtly driver-focused. It will be the sort of machine the typical well-heeled Goodwood Festival of Speed type would enjoy and will be far removed from the type of subtle light under a bushel Bristol you or I would appreciate.
I would however love to be proven wrong…
The 603 was supposed to be cheaper to make than the 411, and it does show. Possibly because mass production techniques had advanced so far by the time it was introduced, the sides of the 603 can look very home-made from some angles. But I know of one for sale and, if it wasn’t so similar in concept to my Citroen, I’d be very tempted.
I also saw the film ‘An Education’ the other night and it features extensively the only 4 door Bristol, the 405. I’d rather like one of those.