Bristol fashion...maybe not so shipshape

May 29 2021
Bristol fashion...maybe not so shipshape

Second-hand Style, with Richard Cooke

FROM 1946 to 2011, a small factory on a nondescript industrial estate behind Cribbs Causeway produced miniscule volumes of hand-built and incredibly expensive luxury cars.

Bristol Cars was based throughout its life in Filton and had just one showroom, in Kensington.

The manufacturer was a true eccentric, making long-lasting but decidedly different cars for the very wealthy and slightly eccentric.

And now, a property developer from Essex is trying to resurrect the company, with talk of ‘remastered’ versions of 1970s Bristols for half a million quid each.

He wants to hire local craftsmen and open up another factory in or around Filton, and I wish him all the luck in the world.

It didn’t work for Jensen, who have had more failed revivals than an episode of Casualty, but what do I know? Well, I do know that the market for Bristol cars is vanishingly small (they did go bust after all), and they don’t engender the same level of affection as a host of other dead British car makers.

So why not?

First up has to be the looks, because, let’s be honest most Bristol cars, from the 603 of the mid-70s onwards, have been clumsily styled.

The V10 Fighter of 2004, with gull-wing doors, was striking, but never beautiful. In the flesh it is a mixture of unique curves and unforgivable panel gaps that you could lose your wallet in (literally and figuratively).

Earlier cars, from the 406 of 1958 to the 411 of 1969, were elegant and powerful but remain a very left-field choice.

Their values are also rising now. Seeing one on the road (maybe once a year) remains an exciting prospect.

When the firm was still in business, they used to run up and down the M4 between the London service works in Chiswick and the Filton factory: twin chrome exhausts emitting a deep V8 burble. Lovely but, it has to be said, sometimes challenging in design. And that is unforgivable for what was then a hugely-expensive car.

In period Bristol cars sold for the equivalent of just under £200k today. That means they were competing with Aston Martin, Ferrari, Lamborghini, Bentley and every other luxury car maker you can think of. It would have taken a very brave soul to slap down that amount of cash to be that different. Very few did.

A used Bristol, however, isn’t such a brave choice today. A combination of those unusual looks and almost total anonymity outside of the owner’s club means that the price of entry now starts at around £30k.

That puts you in this month’s photographed car, a mid-80s ‘Brigand’ with a turbocharged 5.9 litre V8 and maybe 20mpg if you go gently (you shouldn’t).

This is a long, narrow, low car with plush seating for four adults and a large boot.

It started off as the 603 series in 1976, and was then ‘developed’ (door handles and rear lights from Vauxhall, anyone?) over the next 35 years, right up until the firm’s demise.

Each car features a large Chrysler V8 that delivers effortless lazy power.

Yes, the gear selector looks like it was taken out of a black cab, and no, the tiny period wheels aren’t from underneath a World of Leather sofa.

Later models will cost you more like £60k, but that’s for what is almost a modern car (ABS! An airbag!)

I don’t even want to start thinking about running costs, because although the mechanicals are straightforward (simple even), anything to do with the bodywork or trim is going to be crushingly expensive. Body panels were hand-made and would need to be again today – even supermarket car park damage is going to need a specialist. At least rear light clusters will be cheap…

To buy a used Bristol today is to buy in to a mindset that was always in short supply after the consumer boom of the 1980s, to the detriment of the company.

This is the principle of ‘buy once, buy well’ espoused by an older generation, often in the face of a disposable culture that has now started to look unacceptable.

A Bristol could be for life if you want it to be: the engine is under-stressed, the looks timeless (that’s being polite, granted) and the whole ethos of the car so far removed from any notion of progress or fashion.

The problem the firm always faced, and will face again if the revival happens, is like-minded punters are in short supply. The average consumer effectively rents their car today, and the very wealthy like to chop and change, partly because they can.

I would love to see a Filton factory producing wheeled anachronisms once more, though.

What to pay: 1985 Bristol Brigand, £25k - £30k