Bristol launched the 603 in 1976. They were still making a derivation of it right up to their demise in 2009. We chart its languid progress.
Considering the fact that Bristol used a variation of the same chassis for half a century, it might seem a little pointless discussing the 603 as a stand-alone model. Especially so when one considers how much the end-of-days Blenheim 4S owed to its 1976 forebear. However, it did mark one of those rare evolutionary shifts in Bristol style – one which saw them through the next thirty-odd years, although in retrospect that may have been unwise.
A replacement for the well-regarded 411 series, the 603 was designed by Bristol’s chief stylist, Dudley Hobbs, his final design for the marque. One of the chief aims for the 603 model was ease of build, utilising flatter body panels which would be easier to form.
Other considerations included improving passenger space and refinement, Bristol pointing out the 603 had more head, leg and shoulder room than any previous model. This did lead to one of the 603’s more striking visual oddities; the tumblehome effect of the canopy viewed rear-on gave the most curious appearance of the glasshouse being broader than the body itself.
It did however provide occupants with panoramic visibility. Like the 412 that was sold alongside it, the 603 was intended to be discreet, even self-effacing in appearance; Bristol owners not being the type to make a statement. Naturally, styling is subjective and while to most eyes the 411 model was a more handsome looking car, the 603 has a jolie laide appeal all its own.
Bristol’s aviation heritage has often raised eyebrows, critics querying the synergies between both entities. However, with most of Bristol’s personnel ex-aircraft employees, the standards of design, production and inspection were of a very high order. For example, each Chrysler 5.9 litre V8 engine that arrived at Bristol’s Filton plant had its sump removed and the engine bearings inspected before being fitted with gaskets to Bristol’s own specification.
Engineers also altered the characteristics of the Torque-flite transmission to aid smoothness and allow for the lower weight of the Bristol car. Similarly, the ZF power steering fitted was painstakingly re-valved to ensure the action was consistent at all speeds and temperature ranges, commensurate with owners’ tastes.
Every new Bristol was submitted to a series of road tests, (80-miles in total) before being fitted with the customer’s choice of seats, wheels and tyres. These were craftsman-built machines, built to last a lifetime.
The 603 was launched in 1976 in two versions, the standard 5.9 litre or a more economy-minded 5.2 litre variant. This latter model wasn’t a success and was quietly dropped. Intended to be more luxurious than the 411, the 603 came with electric seats and air conditioning – another innovation was a solenoid actuated internal boot and fuel filler release.
A series-2 model arrived in 1978 which featured minor revisions before giving way in 1982 to a facelifted third series. Now named Britannia and Brigand, (the latter fitted with a Rotomaster turbo providing 150-mph potential), it featured a new nose, tail lamps and bumpers. Autosport managed to get hold of a Brigand in 1984 and concluded; “There is nothing quite like a Bristol… It represents a blend of quiet, under-stated good taste allied to a high level of equipment, impeccable finish and dramatic performance.”
This model saw out the eighties, being replaced by the clumsily redesigned Blenheim in 1994, a point at which the style could no longer support the contemporary addenda applied to it. However, Bristol hadn’t the resources to do much else, soldiering on through four distinct series before finally losing the battle in 2009.
As one of my Driven to Write colleagues once wrote, “Bristol is a foreign country – they do things differently there”, and certainly they are not to everyone’s taste. But whatever one’s view, the 603 (until 1994 at least) represented a unique, quixotically British, gentlemanly take on the Gran Turismo template. I quietly covet one.