Bristol Cars - Memorable Motors
Gerry Brooke takes a look at a new book about Patchway based Bristol Cars
Bristol Cars are, without doubt, exclusive.
Their motors, both old and new, can only be bought from one exclusive outlet – a Kensington showroom just down the road from Harrods.
And prospective purchasers who ask how much their latest model, the prestigious two-seater Bristol Fighter, costs, probably can’t afford one.
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There is, however, a Bristol Owner’s Club magazine which they can drool over.
Once smitten, they say, Bristol Car drivers remain fiercely loyal to the brand.
Although the company stress that there is no one, stereotype owner, Richard Branson, Bono from U2 and Liam Gallagher from Oasis have all owned Bristols.
Each vehicle, handmade, is lovingly put together by a small team of craftsmen at a factory in Patchway.
The latest model, the Bristol Fighter, which takes three months to build, is ten times more powerful than a 1.6 litre Ford Focus.
The twin turbo-charged eight-litre V10 engine goes from nought to 60mph in less than 3.5 seconds.
It has a maximum speed of 270mph – and a hefty price tag of £350,000 to go with it.
And let’s not forget the striking gull wing doors so reminiscent of the ill fated De Lorean.
You don’t hear much about Bristol Cars – they’re quite secretive – but the company has a solid pedigree.
With World War II finally over the BAC directors, led by George White, became interested in producing a high quality car.
The opportunity came as plant, machinery and surplus skilled labour freed itself from wartime commitments.
The first model to come out of Filton’s Car Division in the 1940s was put together in the very same workshops as the Blenheim, the Beaufighter and the Beaufort.
In 1955 it was renamed Bristol Cars Ltd., a separate subsidiary of the airplane company.
The firm decided to base its design not on UK classic models, but on the engineering excellence of BMW, whose German factories had been decimated by bomber command.
In fact an engine designer from BMW, Fritz Fielder, soon arrived at the Filton works to offer his expertise.
The first car, the Bristol 400, was designed as a high-grade, four-seater saloon which appealed to drivers who wanted something sporty.
These early cars, which cost around £2,400, had a maximum speed of 94 mph and an acceleration to 60 mph in under 15 seconds.
The company also produced a one off tourer which looked something like the popular MG model.
A combination of robust quality and top performance resulted in a number of competition successes – in 1948 a Bristol 400 won the 14th Polish International Rally.
The car also took third place in the 1948 Monte Carlo Rally – the first British car to finish.
Throughout the 1940s other honours were garnered and in 1954 and 1955, a Bristol 450 sports car was top of its class in the 24 Hours of Le Mans race.
About 700 of the Bristol 400 were sold before it was withdrawn in favour of the 401 which had a new streamlined body made entirely out of aluminium.
Then two events transpired which were to change the company’s fortunes forever.
In 1959 Bristol Cars was transferred to a new parent, Bristol Siddeley Engines Ltd.
Then in 1960, with BAC under government pressure to concentrate on aero engines, Sir George White decided to buy the company.
He had a strong family connection – his father had been MD and, later Chairman, of Bristol Cars as well as a director of BAC.
And it was his great – grandfather, another Sir George White, who had founded the aeroplane company in 1910.
Bristol Cars leading distributor, Tony Crook, took up two fifths of the shares and became a director.
Crook was very familiar with the Bristol’s – he had, after all, been both adapting and selling them since 1948.
And in the 1950s he had also raced them at Silverstone and Brands Hatch, with a Cooper-Bristol being particularly successful.
White, it was decided, would manage the Filton end of the business and Crook the sales and showrooms.
Over the years the cars became more luxurious and less sporty, and in 1963 the Bristol 407, which had a powerful US made Chrysler V8 engine, was introduced.
Later models, in the 1980s, would be named the Beaufighter, the Britannia, the Brigand and the Blenheim.
In 1966 the duo signed a partnership agreement and from now on Crook would handle all UK sales.
Then in 1973, after he and his beloved Bristol 410 had been involved in a road accident, Sir George decided to retire from the business,
Tony Crook bought his shares.
A former RAF pilot and racing driver, the new owner threw himself into the company with gusto.
Without shareholders and no board to answer to, he was able, he said, to make instant decisions.
But still based in Kensington Crook now had to fly down to Filton several times a week.
In 1985 the company, now making the aircraft named cars, finally moved away from Filton to a factory unit in Concorde Road, Patchway.
And in 1995 the Service Division, which included Bristol cars of all types and ages, as well as a skilled and dedicated workforce, moved to Chiswick.
Some two years later, Crook, who had admitted his was a lonely job, was joined by a new business partner, Toby Silverton,who took a half share in the company.
In 2002, with financial backing for Bristol Cars now coming from Tavistock, an offshore company, Crook decided to sell off his half of the shares.
Silverton, it was decided, would become chairman, with himself as MD.
All went well until 2007 when Crook was dismissed from the company by letter, which said there was no longer a role for him.
Bristol Cars is unique – one of the very few car company’s that is still solely British owned.
It’s true, as some critics say, that the company has built essentially the same car for half a century.
But there is no change here just for change’s sake
As Sir George White says, “the company is a remarkable survivor from a remarkable age.”
Body styles may have altered but the cars remain true to their heritage – fast, sporty, long distance tourers.
Today the Patchway firm continues to make luxury cars for the upper end of what is, in truth, a very select market
But they do so with a care, precision and human touch rarely seen in production today.
Workplace loyalty is tangible in the product.
Sid Lovesy, for instance, who started out with the company as an electrician in 1945 is still working, but as a director, at the grand old age of 89.
And wisely, there is no stock of new cars – Bristols are now build to order.
For those who want the complete story – one that will take you back 100 years – then this has to be the 432 page definitive publication.
And the early photos, many by the late Ted Ashman, are a treat too.
Just for good measure there is an interesting appendix of owner’s comments, from the early Bristol 400 to the present Fighter.
Perhaps it goes without saying that author Christopher Balfour, as well as his wife Anne, has been a keen Bristol owner since the 1960s.
Bristol Cars – a very British story by Christopher Balfour is published by Haynes and costs £50.00