I’ve always been aware of Bristol Cars, but it was only in this century that I started looking at them more closely.
Until then, they were an oddity, but one that, for some reason, seemed to engender goodwill rather than antagonism in me. Bearing in mind its scant production over the past decades, there is a surprising amount of goodwill felt towards Bristol in the world of the motoring enthusiast, though often not accompanied by much actual knowledge.
I guess that people view them in the same way as their stereotypical owner – a British gent, dressed well but discreetly, aged but sprightly, always dignified and with excellent manners, yet a touch eccentric. I might question whether such a creature ever existed, except I did once know someone exactly like that – though he drove a white Toyota Crown Coupe. But they are a dying breed, which is possibly why Bristol died in 2011. But someone would have you believe that it didn’t.
From what I know, Bristol owners are actually a reasonably disparate bunch and, just like many 2CV owners didn’t wear sandals knitted from muesli, so many Bristol owners don’t wear tweed and smoke pipes. But I would say that wouldn’t I, since I came within a whisper of Bristol ownership a few years ago.
I was looking at the lower end of the market and tried two of the Zagato designed targa-topped cars. One was a 412, the other a Beaufighter from which the turbocharger had been removed. Both these cars were ‘realistically’ priced for Bristols, being in the negotiable £15K bracket. Bristol had cleverly kept up the prices of their cars, and the less controversial models, such as the handsome 411, commanded much higher figures.
My fondness for odd looking cars, as well as the attraction of targa-topped motoring, attracted me to a car that most people find aesthetically challenged. I can’t disagree with them, but I still like it. I drove them both and liked them both. The 412 had been uprated with a 4 speed auto, and felt effortless but, in the end, I decided that I had one old car in my life, I wasn’t changing it and a second would be a stupid indulgence. But nothing else dissuaded me.
Back then, I followed the consensus that several of us here had, which was that Bristol Cars had somehow found a way to survive and prosper outside the normal vagaries and conventional wisdom of the automobile industry. Tony Crook had run it is his own eccentric and secretive way, never revealing production figures, scaring off journalists as well as ignorant potential customers, yet engendering a great amount of loyalty.
Then, with Toby Silverton gradually taking control backed by Tavistock Group, a hard-nosed investment company, the idea seemed to be to put it on a more commercial footing, updating the old models, introducing a new one and pushing the idea of a Bristol For Life with their factory upgrading of existing cars (restomods to the rest of us) such as the 411 Series 6.
In principle the two-seater Viper engined V10 Fighter was a fine idea. I was shown over it by Toby Silverton and his enthusiasm for it was infectious, even though he knew I wouldn’t be buying one. It was comfortable, with pleasing engineering details, relatively practical and would have made a far better car to blast down from Köln to La Spezia for that business meeting at your new shipyard than any contemporary Lamborghini.
Except, generally, the days of cross-country motoring for the wealthy for anything other than recreation purposes have disappeared and, if you want to eat up the miles, the average upper spec German saloon offers more than enough speed and more room on today’s congested roads. So the Fighter was seen as too sporty and flash by the old guard, and perceived as too staid and dowdy by the new guard, who often just need something to look good and sound noisy when they park up in Knightsbridge.
In 2011, we were robbed of our illusions to find that Bristol’s magic had finally deserted it, as it went into administration, disposed of its Filton factory and saw the departure of Silverton. But brand is all in motoring now so, even with no production facility, the company was purchased by Kamcorp to add to its existing ownership of the Frazer-Nash label.
In July 2016, after a few years waiting, a new Bristol, the Bullet, was finally revealed. Known before launch as Project Pinnacle, it was first touted as a hybrid. This seems to have had more to do with Kamkorp’s experience in building EVs than a perceived market need. Although producing a hybrid supercar concept under the Frazer Nash badge, their production electric cars have mainly been urban runabouts of various types. But, powering a hybrid, high-performance production car is a different matter and, with huge displacement V8s and V10s as standard fitment for the past 40 plus years, when did a Bristol owner last worry about fuel consumption? So, dumping the hybrid seems a pragmatic move, but what exactly is left?
Heritage by numbers it seems. The Bullet takes the Speedster of a few years back, adds a few tweaks, moulds it in carbon fibre and combines an engine that is both a V8 and a BMW, as an obvious nod to the two different power sources that have fitted into Bristols for the past 60 plus years. Looking at it, I guess it will be a fun drive, but this is no Businessman’s Express. It’s possible, and for Bristol’s sake I trust it’s definite, that the Bullet is just a stopgap release to keep interest going. If not, what has been going on for the past few years?
It’s a meandering story, but Bristol Nouveau’s tale of them finding an old prototype under a dustsheet expediently condenses recorded history. As said, the Bullet is a reworking of the 2003 Speedster, and that, in turn, came from an earlier Tony Crook era prototype called, internally, Bullet that Toby Silverton actually found under a dustsheet, rejuvenated and fitted with a 4 speed manual for his own use.
The Speedster followed its pattern and was based on a Blenheim chassis. I saw the unregistered car for sale in Bristol’s showroom years ago and thought at the time of the AC Cobra – apposite since the Ace that it was derived from was offered with a Bristol 6 cylinder option. The Speedster in the showroom had a half screen, but when sold was fitted with a more practical looking full screen and hood, so you could, at a stretch, imagine Bristol’s traditional client base considering it in a moment of late-life crisis, though I imagine that it was always viewed as an amusing sideline by the factory. Maybe the production Bullet will end up with weather protection too but, with its half screen and lack of any obvious hood, who would the current Bullet appeal to?
It’s an alternative to an Aventador Roadster, and compared with an Ariel Atom it is sheltered but, at £250,000, would the people who’d buy the Lamborghini actually understand the Bullet? Bristol plan a run of 70 cars and promises that some sorts of hardtopped EVs will follow next.
We at DTW love an underdog. Lancia, Citroen, Borgward, Saab, etc. They’re all in various degrees of being not quite what they were, yet still we keep rooting for them. But why? There comes a time when the people who used their talent and energy to give those cars the qualities they once possessed are gone. The people who have taken their place frequently seem to have no clue what gave those companies such enduring reputations. Do they deserve our support? Does the bit of metal on the front with a once cherished name deserve our support? Probably not, but all the same I’m sure you’ll read the name Bristol here again in the future.
Despite never buying an actual car, I have, in fact, profited from an investment in Bristol. A few years back I bought Christopher Balfour’s fine book, Bristol Cars – A Very British Story, and have used it here to check a few facts. Although no hagiography, it is written by a marque enthusiast, so it tries to see positives in many of the odd policies of Bristol Cars over the years. Currently, the book seems to be out of print – it doesn’t deserve to be – and should you now want to buy a used copy, you will find them offered at surprisingly high prices. Rather like the cars.