Silent Running – 1976 Bristol 603

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.

1976 Bristol 603. Image: only-carz
1976 Bristol 603. Image: only-carz

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.

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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.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

16 thoughts on “Silent Running – 1976 Bristol 603”

  1. The intrinsic Bristol concept may still have been viable if Tony Crook had understood the value of an industrial designer. The later Bristols had too many ugly corners and there weren’t enough no-nonsense old-school aristos to buy them. It’s no use having a good product if the shape is putting off customers.

  2. I also have long harboured an unspoken desire to own a Bristol. The Blenheim’s styling probably is a step too far, especially it’s droopy rear. They are certainly discreet(which I like very much) but even someone with no interest in cars would, I feel notice something different about them. You can’t have a bonnet that long and go completely unnoticed!

    1. Fair enough Richard. The way the pieces of metal and glass and plastic have been put together certainly leave it with a droopy rear. I would still take it for a spin given even a half chance!

  3. Great article Eóin,

    I too have a soft spot for the Bristol brand and its unique ethos.

    In my imaginary ‘money is no object’ garage, the Bristol Brigand would have a habitual place, like the Fiat 130 Coupe. For me it exudes understated elegance and harks from a time when attention to detail and quality was the ultimate priority over the now ubiquitous bottom line focus.

    I’d agree that the Blenheim requires an aquired taste in all its iterations, especially those parts bin Vauxhall Senator tail lights!!!

    I do however have a strange atttaction to the Zagato penned Beaufort/Beaufighter (412), not so understated with its set square biased design cues.

    All in all, the world would’ve been a much less interesting place without this esoteric car manufacturer.

    1. Bristal are like Lancia, old Lancia. They did their own thing and hoped customers would appreciate the refinements. They are also a marque that captures the imagination. I could easily imagine a modern Bristol and I don´t mean an electric car but a BOF vehicle with contemporary clothing. It would be a good theme for a student car design project. The Zagato Bristols were wilfully provocative. That bonnet with its huge chamfer is plain strange. I´d have to avert my eyes walking to one of those.

  4. Mick: I agree. Despite the horrid appearance I really do like Bristol´s later cars. And yes, I´d personally be very happy to own one. I could easily live with the questionable appearance.

    1. I am assuming you’ve all seen the forthcoming Bristol Bullet? I’d be interested in understanding how you feel about its design. Does it meet with your BOF specifications Richard????

      For me it does seem to carry some of the design individuality Bristol are known for. The Fighter was much the same with its gullwing doors and intricate rear screen.

  5. Sanjay: Eoin sent me a link to the bullet and I am meditating on a full and formal reply by means of an article here. So I would not like to steal my own thunder by revealing what it is I think I will think about it. Good question though. I hadn´t heard about it until 20 minutes ago.
    I´ll probably churn out some text this evening.

  6. The Vauxhall Senator rear end is bad, but the version with rear lights from a Sherpa van was offensive.

    I did see a Bristol Fighter in the metal this time last year, and it was glorious… it’s delightfully narrow and has aged well. More of that, please, Bristol. The new Bullet is a backwards step… but perhaps an expedient one.

    1. I avoided mentioning the Bullet on the basis that I was certain our resident Bristol fancier (ooh-matron!) would do so, but he was too busy gallivanting around Germany to notice – the layabout. Bullet puts me in mind of a big Healey or Cobra. It doesn’t put me in mind of a Bristol, even if you can see certain cues from the 1950’s.

      Jacomo, of course you have every right to be offended by the Britannia/Brigand’s tail-lamps. However they are not sourced from a Sherpa – those of the Sherpa’s are narrower – (earlier models of course had bumper mounted units of a different design). In fact they’re off a Bedford CF van – again later generation. I’d imagine they’re generic aftermarket fare – it’s not as if Bristol could afford anything bespoke. By the way, I didn’t actually know this – I had to look it up. Things I do for this site…

  7. The final iterations had Audi A4 wagon tail lights. Perhaps some motor factor in north Bristol was having a sale.

    1. Bristol rear lights seem so arbitrary, that it didn’t worry me that the 412 that I seriously considered buying a few years ago had been fitted with taillights (and, conveniently, a model badge) from a Ferrari 412. They suited it very well.

  8. In the name of Jesus!

    In my contra-factual moments, I have a notion of Bristol, Alvis, and Armstrong-Siddeley combining some time in the late ’50s to make an effective and profitable British high-end carmaker to fill the gap between Jaguar and Rolls-Royce Bentley.

    Trouble was all three had parent companies making far more money out of aviation and machines for killing people, and the car-making activities were becoming vanity projects, whose main relevance was “visibility”.

    We can but dream…

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