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Bristol: The Greatest Car Company You’ve Never Heard Of

Bristol has always had one showroom, a modest building on Kensington High Street. Away from the bustling shopping of the rest of Kensington, namely Harrod’s, where its owners presumably frequent, the showroom lacks the sleek veneer of any Audi or Rolls-Royce dealership. Filing cabinets line the rear walls underneath dusty office glass. The wood panels haven’t been polished in ages. Some of the overhead lights are off—it’s a rare sunny day in London, and they’re making the most of it. Somehow, they’ve jammed five cars into the space, as well as the requisite velvet ropes that prevent the riff-raff from just climbing aboard a Beaufighter willy-nilly.

The effect is akin to a business—one that effectively only builds two cars—finding itself stretching its space to the brink, like an antiques shop that’s taken in way too many Victorian lamps. And as I found out, that’s an analogy that’s both obvious and inaccurate, in a company that may not be around much longer.


As always, click the images to view them in full size.
I met Nick, a 30-something man on the showroom floor originally from Orlando; his father-in-law just happens to be Tony Silverton, chairman and CEO of Bristol Cars. Nice guy, pretty friendly. He was here “helping out” for a month, aiding the tiny company on its way through its most recent financial “unpleasantness.”

You see, Hooniverse readers notwithstanding, you may not have heard of Bristol, just like you may not have heard of Strathcarron, Alvis, Invicta, Ronart, Deronda, Riversimple, Fenix, Murtaya, Ginetta, Bowler, Light Car Company, the Delfino Feroce, or the Connaught Type D Syracuse (named for its propensity to run on Keystone Light). All these could supply a decade’s worth of Mystery Car posts. Yet Bristol hasn’t been scooped up by former British territorialities like Lotus or the remnants of British Leyland. At this point, next to Morgan, they could be the largest fully-British carmaker—which, of course, has its ups and downs. The company was back in the spotlight not because they had bagged another celebrity owner or designed a new gullwinged supercar—but because the company was horrendously, hopelessly bankrupt.

The factory at Filton, just outside of the car’s namesake city, already employed a laughably small amount of people to begin with—just 27, less than my high school homeroom—but the company was forced to lay off 22 of them, leaving just five people to manage the skeleton crew. If Bristol survives, it will need to invest in new research and development, hire talented engineers, maybe design a new chassis that doesn’t date back to the Truman Doctrine. If it doesn’t—well chaps, it’s been quite the ride.

Bristol the car company evolved from Bristol the aircraft manufacturer, which built one of the heroes of World War II: the Beaufighter long-range bomber, which served in every major European theater throughout the war. After the war Bristol got into the car business—switching from bombing autobahns with airplanes to bombing autobahns with luxury GTs—by, ironically enough, building BMWs under license.  These early 1940s and 1950s cars featured Italian design by Carrozzeria Touring and an advanced, BMW-based inline-six engine with hemispherical combustion chambers. Curiously, Bristol wouldn’t give up the BMW kidneys until 1955 when they rolled out the 404 and 405, which was when they also rolled out the idea of storing spare wheels in the front quarterpanels. If you saw the film An Education, you would have witnessed a beautiful maroon 405 sedan, the only four-door the company has ever built.

By the 1960s Bristol cars, like American concerns over Soviet foreign policy, were becoming heavier. As such, the company sought Chrysler V8 firepower, a trend that continues today. Nick gleefully informed me that if I were to order a Blenheim today, I could customize it with my choice of engines, ranging from the 5.7 and 5.9-liter motivation all the way up to 426 HEMI crate engines that would give car-hating former London mayor Ken Livingstone an aneurysm. After all, Nick assured me, any Bristol can be customized completely—from drivetrain and transmissions to paint colors and radios and interior trim—I could even upholster the Connolly leather seats in whale penises, though chairman Toby might give me a look like a father disowning a son who’s just been caught peeing in the sink.

And therein lies the beauty of these otherwise dusty cars, long surpassed by every conceivable luxury carmaker today: the idea of Bristol as a craftsman, building one singular iconic product with care, tradition, and purpose. Every car built by Bristol since the 1940s has passed through the same Filton factory, through the well-worn hands of craftsmen. Styling updates occur at a glacial pace, and it took five years and a new chairman to complete development of the Fighter. Bristol is actually rebuilding their previous 411 model from the early 1960s, the very car the Blenheim evolved from, and reselling it with updated mechanics, as a continuation—a move that will no doubt have Carroll Shelby hankering for another lawsuit. “We have no interest in slavishly copying automotive fashion,” Silverton is quoted in official press materials. If you mention to him the phrase “Bangle Butt,” he might just punch you in the face.

There’s something refreshingly f*ck you about the whole operation—or is that sod off? —and its inevitable comparisons to other boutique makers in Britain. Like a magician or Tyson Foods, Bristol reveals little about its process. “About 150,” Nick said when I asked him how many cars Bristol built per month, “per year. So that’s, what, about 10 or 12 per month? Hold on, let me get Ben for the technical questions.” When I asked Ben, ever smiling and polite, about its production numbers, he simply smiled some more and said, “that’s part of the secret.”

The company is legendary for refusing journalists near their cars: Jeremy Clarkson was famously banned from the showroom, while even James May—the sort of man who could be the living personification of a Bristol—became guilty by association. Famous owners include Liam Gallagher of Oasis, Tina Turner, Jimmy Carter (!) and Bono, who are presumably too busy to renew their Bristol Owner’s Club dues. Chairman Silverton knows every customer personally, even recognizing them by their license plates. Three to four of the well-heeled still trickle in, every week, AmEx Black Cards ready—I didn’t run into Sir Richard Branson there, descending from the heavens on a jetpack and carried through by six Virgin maidens on a glittering, gilded sedan chair.

I couldn’t actually meet with Silverton, as he was busy talking to a client, “from Canada,” informed Ben. Most of the overseas buyers come from the Commonwealth, especially Australia, but also Canada, Hong Kong, and South Africa. They’re especially popular in Germany, where—as in London—Bentley Continentals grow on trees.

Nick was gracious enough to show me the Blenheim, already putting me a step ahead of Jeremy Clarkson. The interior smelled like opening a box of brand-new leather shoes inside a church basement. I sat in the passenger seat. The supple, cream-colored leather seats were about six inches off the floor, which angled up while the seats pointed down; I felt like I had stumbled into a kindergarten playplace. The dashboard shamelessly put the “board” back into the word: a slab of burled walnut stretched from pillar to pillar, interrupted by an oddly-placed radio and the sort of pull-out circular knobs you might see on a 1950s Japanese radio. In lieu of airbags, the passenger stared at a glovebox opened by a leather pullstring. The center console consisted of a PNRDL and an automatic shift knob I may have recognized from my Scoutmaster’s 1996 Dodge Neon that I vomited in once after consuming too much trail mix.

“Those are the bomb bay doors,” said Ben, pointing to the quarterpanels hiding the spare tires, “and I don’t mean Mumbai, either.” Price? I didn’t ask.

It’s all a bit naff, which is a problem if you’re seriously planning to compete against Benz and BMW. And it’s the sort of car both companies stopped building in 1982: which, of course, Bristol doesn’t care. But Richard Porter of EVO details a company that doesn’t take itself too seriously: their bright red neon sign—a beacon to wayward petrolheads through the fog of night—sometimes fails, and when it displays PISTOL ARS or an equally bizarre non sequitur, they leave it up for a few days. They’re very accessible to tourists and curiosity seekers, and there’s always a steady stream of passers-by who press their noses up to the window, gawking at these strange old cars. And the biggest example of their sense of humor? They let me in the showroom. And then showed me the Fighter.

The Fighter could never have happened without the transition from automotive hermit Tony Crook (he’s the one behind many of Bristol’s pub stories) to Toby Silverton, whose background is in—hey!— aviation. And the specs are pretty vivid: it features a retuned 8.3-liter V10 engine from the Dodge Viper massaged to produce 628 horsepower and 580 lb-ft of torque. This is attached to a six-speed manual, and bolted to a carbon-fiber and aluminum monocoque chassis. The swoopy body, penned by Brabham F1 engineer Max Boxstrom, derives its shape from NASA and aircraft engineering for maximum aerodynamic efficiency, and boasts both a 0.27 Cd and perfect 50/50 weight distribution. The hood is made from Kevlar; the gull-wing doors, aluminum. Inside, the Fighter has leather seats and aluminum-milled switchgear, a step up from the Bakelite plastics of the Blenheim, and each dial costs £60 a piece. Top speed is 225 miles per hour, and 60 is reached in four seconds dead—with the twin-turbocharged Fighter T model, which puts out 1,012 horsepower.

Just take a step back, and look around at the antediluvian cars in the showroom, then look at the Fighter, and try to remember that these come from the same company—a company with one factory and a workforce that could only fill half a Greyhound bus. It’s a leap as big as a canyon; it’s as if John Deere announced tomorrow that they were going to get into the spaceflight business, then built a Saturn V, then sold it in showrooms. And it’s no pretty flight of fancy, either: it’s been compulsively tested at MIRA (the proving ground that Top Gear mucks with), and during prototyping every component was weighed to see if it could be made lighter. (Curb weight is around 3,500lbs.)

They are not arsing about. Ultimately, Bristol claims that the car is capable of 270 miles per hour: it already has more power than a Bugatti Veyron. It makes you wonder that Bristol, given the chance and more funding, could promote the Fighter from a lozenge-shaped curiosity into a Veyron killer—what would be more restorative to British pride than taking down the Italian/Germans (and French!) and the Bugatti Veyron, with all of its Volkswagen-funneled  million-dollar research and development? It could put British motoring on the map; the world’s fastest production car, a title they hadn’t held since the Aston Martin V8 Vantage of the late 60s! Not bad for a company that once built a car in the 1980s with both a targa top and a landau roof.

Bristol is far too easy to mock, but they’re easily the most iconoclastic carmaker still/formerly alive today. It’s an attitude, I think to myself as I walk out of the showroom and into a crowd of black Bentley Continentals, Audis, and Porsche 911 Carreras with Turbo-look packages, certainly worthy of appreciation, and capable of the occasional 1000-horsepower supercar. If I were a rich man (and most of my sentences start off this way, in fact), I would commission a British-Racing-Green Bristol Series 6 with the massaged Fighter V10 engine shoehorned in there somewhere, hooked up to a T56 Tremec six-speed, on gunmetal slotted mags from a ’79 Aston Martin V8 Vantage, red seats, Madagascar rosewood dash trim, a Becker Mexico radio permanently wired to Flight of the Valkyries, rich Corinthian leather, a shrunken-head shift knob, rip out the twin side-mounted spare tires and replace with a dispenser of Balvenie Forty. Or I’d get a Fighter, and install machine guns on the doors.

Hopefully Bristol will still be around when I do get there.

Currently there are "5 comments" on this Article:

  1. skitter says:

    First, I'll admit to only batting .750 on your list of low-volume makes.
    Second, I love the idea of a "lifetime car" that can be brought back in and upgraded with any of the latest technical advances. It's also the opportunity for the best certified, indeed rebuilt used preowned cars.

    • Lotte says:

      A lifetime car is a great idea, but how to transition people from the throw-away culture of today to that? I'm thinking playing up on the relationship between man and machine that seems to have been lost today, and the inherent eco-friendliness of not throwing something useful out.

      I would love to see this happen, personally, and with any luck I just might :)

    • Lotte says:

      <poof>

  2. Jeremy Wilson says:

    This is the best article I’ve read online this year! More please.

  3. Jim-Bob says:

    Bristol reminds me of Tatra during the Communist days. Yes, they were all pretty much the same car but they were updated every few years and recycled into "new" models when the apparatchiks got tired of the old ones. By the time communism fell in most of the world they were hopelessly out of date and production ended.

    Sadly, this too seems to be the fate of Bristol. While the Fighter is a beautiful car, the company's strict abhorrence to promotion has doomed it. Nowadays it takes volume to financially justify production as most modern nations have safety regulations that must be adhered to in order to sell a model. The British seem to be the last hold-outs in this regard as Bristol, Morgan and the late TVR seem to prove (No airbags, etc. and yes I am aware that the Aero 8 is a modern car). They are also out of touch with a world that seemingly thrives on self-promotion and brand-recognition. The old rich that loved the finer things in anonymity are dying off, leaving a brash and vulgar new generation to take their place.

    As for me, a Bristol costs 6x as much as my house is worth post-housing crash so it is unlikely I will ever be able to buy one. However, if I was, I would definitely take advantage of their coach built nature and have one built to suit my tastes. Anyone for a Blenheim in Sublime Green with a white and black interior, powered by a twin turbo 426 Hemi breathing through Flowmasters sending it's power to a 6 speed manual trans? With a Go Wing and a shaker hood perhaps?

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