I write this in the small hours, the morning after the final sale of Bristol Cars’ assets. And for me it’s a sad moment – I like Bristols, and though I know I’ll never own the 412 I so deeply desire, it feels sad to know that one of the most eccentric bastions of the world of motoring has slipped away almost without a whimper.
Bristol made cars for people for whom the mainstream wasn’t enough. Well designed for the comfort of four, yet narrow enough to cope with the most Victorian of London Mews. Big American V8s and lazy autoboxes dominated during the latter decades, though the company was initially known for its lightweight sporting GTs in the mould of post-war BMWs, an Aston rival for the intellectual. It was only when the pre war BMW six became inadequate for the weight of the car that Bristol looked Stateside for its engines, a move which GT cohorts from Gordon Keeble and Jensen were subsequently to embrace.
After the Viper engined Fighter and the more basic Bullet of the latter years, it felt like Bristol might actually be embracing a new modernity. But it wasn’t to be. And it’s my sad task as an ardent admirer of the brand to tell you that the surprise isn’t so much that Bristol went bust – but that it lasted so long in the first place.
You see, Bristol in the 21st century was about as relevant as a stovepipe hat or a thatched roof. Not since the turbocharged models of the 1980s has the company produced anything even remotely relevant to the world of the grand tourer. Its insistence on adhering to the basic architecture of the 1976 603 meant that, effectively, a successful dot com tycoon could buy pretty much the same car brand new that he had been returned home in from hospital as a newborn. There were no airbags, no ABS, indeed, the only real concession to modernity was a stereo system which played those funny plastic discs rather than a good old eight-track.
Moreover, our dot com tycoon could only buy the car if the MD of the company liked him. Tony Crook is often regarded by enthusiasts as a bit of a card, an eccentric, someone who was Bristol to the bone. But I’m sorry, a man who will eject people from his showroom on a whim and who refuses to sell cars to scores of interested parties is not a man who has the interests of the company at heart. You might point to his many achievements but the continued success of Bristol Cars was not one of them. This was one of the many reasons production never rose above a trickle – during the last ten years the highest number of Blenheims known to the DVLA was seventeen. Bristol produced Blenheims for fifteen years. Ten Fighters are known to the DVLA, from an eight year run. Compare these figures to the 23 411s left (1969-1976) and you can see that certainly since the 1990s the firm has been on borrowed time. Its death was a foregone conclusion, its timing the result of artificial life support.
Let’s look at one of Bristol’s contemporaries – Aston Martin. Because their move in the 1990s was exactly what Bristol would have needed to stay relevant – a smaller, lighter model which harked back to the early sports GT days, something at a more attainable price point to attract new blood to the company. There are still 582 six cylinder DB7s on the roads of Britain, and another 400 or so SORN. Even if Bristol had enjoyed a third of the DB7’s success, they would be far more prevalent than they became. That would increase exposure and desirability among new generations, something Bristol was sadly lacking. At the age of 29, few of my contemporaries are aware the marquee once existed, let alone harbouring secret desires of ownership. And it’s that lack of interest from younger clientele, I reckon, that ultimately saw the company off.
I’d say that other marques could learn from Bristol’s mistakes, but the facts are plain. No other company made mistakes so big. And few are small enough that such errors can make a difference. The car world has lost something really rather special in Bristol. But Bristol brought it upon itself
This article was originally published by Classic Car Mart in its October 2020 issue