Bristol – The Dinosaur for Well-Heeled Eccentrics
Independent luxury car makers are thin on the ground these days. The cream of the crop was long ago snapped up by the big players, whilst most others have simply faded away.
Not so Bristol Cars, a make so obscure most people have never heard of it. Others have a dim recollection but thought it died out decades ago. Bristol is, however, very much still in business and claims to be the last wholly British-owned luxury car maker.
The world has moved on immensely since Bristol’s heyday back in the 1950s and 1960s, and its sports saloon competitors like Alvis and Jensen have long ago fallen by the wayside.
It has a charmingly old-fashioned company motto, “nicely understated, never overrated” which fits well with the rather homespun appearance of the vehicles themselves.
In this world of cars crammed with the latest technology and full of safety kit cloaked within aerodynamic bodies, the totally hand-built, low-tech Bristol stands out like a sore thumb.
The current staple Bristol model is the Blenheim 3, which costs over £150,000 ($300,000 USD) in its base form, and more in its slightly faster 3S version. There is even a bizarre 3G version which runs on cheaper Liquid Petroleum Gas, though it seems unlikely most Bristol customers are that bothered about running costs.
All Blenheims use a Chrysler 5.9-litre V8 and feature a two-door “sports” saloon all-aluminium body dating back to 1976 when it was first launched under the name 603. Even in the late 1970s the Bristol was not a great looker, and time has not been kind to the 603 design, although spoilers, lights and grilles have been changed in an attempt to bring it up to date.
The car’s name has been altered much more than the vehicle itself, being variously badged Britannia and Brigand before settling on the Blenheim name. The different titles reflect the names of famous old aircraft and hark back to Bristol’s aviation heritage, as the company started life in 1946 as the car division of the Bristol Aeroplane Company when its first car was the BMW-based 400.
Bristol has a single modest showroom in London’s Kensington High Street, but no dealers. It sells its cars direct, often to repeat customers.
Sales figures for the company are hard to come by. The company’s website talks of making a handful of cars a week, but this seems like rather an exaggeration. While old Bristols are occasionally spotted it is very rare indeed to see a new one.
Just who buys the cars is also something of a mystery. With two doors it is unlikely they will appeal to the chauffeur-driven crowd and they are much less conspicuous than mobile statements of wealth like Rolls-Royce Phantom or the vulgar Maybach. Whether the Blenheim itself is a tasteful vehicle is, of course, a matter of opinion.
Bristol’s rather understated website refers to “the remarkable customer loyalty our cars engender” and pitches the Blenheim as a driver’s car, noting it is “unique among passenger cars in locating the entire engine and all major masses including spare wheel and battery within the wheelbase. This is essential, as it allows us to achieve not only the ideal front to rear weight balance but also the lowest possible centre of gravity and polar movement of inertia”.
Just how much longer the Blenheim can last and what else can be squeezed out of such an old design is open to question. Bristol’s future in the 21st century could, however, be taking a new direction, as the company is now producing its first new car in 30 years, the Fighter.
This is a reasonably sleek gullwing sports car with a Dodge Viper V10 engine, and certainly looks decades newer than the Blenheim, if not exactly contemporary.
In “basic” 525bhp form it is said to be capable of 210mph, and there are claimed to be 660bhp and even 1012bhp versions. Bristol generally shuns the motoring press, though, so the ability for independent testing and assessment is extremely limited.
It seems likely the Fighter will remain an interesting niche product, selling in miniscule numbers to very rich people who let their hearts rule their heads.
So, there you have it, the strange throwback that is Bristol Cars. Eccentric? Certainly. Slightly laughable? Perhaps. But the motoring world would be a poorer place without it.
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