Theodora Ong explores the history of Bristol Cars and laments the company’s recent demise
Prying into the enigma of the apparently abandoned Bristol car showroom in Kensington, led our classic cars writer Theodora Ong to another whole cache of Bristols, and to track down one of the final new-old supercars of the decade: the Bristol Fighter. Expect to pay £300,000 upwards for a bespoke build. One is sold, one is about to sell, one is discreetly available, then that’s it.
The one solitary car has suddenly disappeared from the dusty Bristol premises where Kensington High Street meets Holland Road, and an eery ambience reflects the company’s collapse in 2011. Sadder still, on 28th February 2020, Kamkorp Ltd, former owner of Bristol Cars, lost its final appeal against liquidation in the High Court, which means the winding up of the Bristol sales and service operations. Notoriously secretive, Bristol made hand-built luxury cars and famously declined requests for publicity test drives. Customers who bought one were seduced by the company’s war time aircraft heritage, reflected in the lines and flow of its cars’ body shells.
A Bristol promised solid performance and comfort but was sometimes dismissed as stodgy and dated. Its early 400 saloon, 401, and 402 drophead had a serene ballroom elegance. Today, it’s the sporty 404 and 405 from the ‘50s, 408 or 411 from the late ‘60s and ‘70s which command stylistic appeal for our London roads. The BMW-designed engines were followed in the ‘60s by new-generation Chrysler V8 engines. From 1948 to 2011 only 2,800 Bristols were made.
Here’s what we test drove, and one we didn’t
At a chance meeting, The Steeple Times was granted its yearning to drive some classics by Richard Hackett of specialist SLJ Hackett, who was once sales manager at the Kensington showroom. Such a privilege to drive or ogle into engine bays would have been unlikely from the company’s former owner over 50 years. Anthony Crook was an ex-RAF man and racing diver with a somewhat curt and off-the-wall approach to car sales, and whom he’d sell to – Bono, Sir Richard Branson, King Hussein of Jordan, Peter Sellers and Will Young were on the ‘yes’ list.
1955 Bristol 405 drop head coupé, £199,500
This rare coupé was one of only 42 built. Buttery cream leather is finished with blue piping to match the body. The driver sits confidently high, with the aviation-inspired dials directly in front, set in the slim walnut dashboard, and a curious bakelite indicator knob in the centre. The 2-litre straight six engine gives a deep sounding, smooth assurance. Once you get used to its high clutch release, then its manual gearbox handles with ease. Nods of keen approval from passing drivers even on a rainy, hood-up kind of day convinces you that this should definitely be your ride for Summer. Road-hugging, responsive handling is enhanced by its conversion to front disc brakes.
1998 Bristol Blenheim Series 2S, £39,950 (left)
This is one of the latest Bristol models. Whilst there’s less immediate charm in its generic ‘90s body shape, its authenticity wins the day. Paintwork and grey/blue interior leather are in pristine condition, and numerous documents detail the car’s meticulous maintenance and history as a Bristol Owners’ Club prized winner. Settle in, and you immediately sense its high specification extras and spacious, loungy luxury. Cruising on our Wiltshire test drive was effortlessly serene, and fuel injection helps it achieve a comparatively economical 20mpg in town. This is a forever young, gentleman of a car (yes, gentleman). Own one of these and you know you will never be dragged kicking into the new millennium, when most things in this world seemed to be trimmed smaller and meaner.
Bristol Fighter, rare bespoke edition, £300,000 and then the sky’s the limit
Here’s the one we couldn’t drive – yet. So our thrill was surpassed only by discovering that Hackett and its restoration associates Spencer-Lane Jones bought three extremely rare Fighter chassis in 2019. They are now hidden in separate, unmarked warehouses. Only about 15 cars were completed between 2004 and 2011, and the original list price of around £250,000 is considered a steal. The low production number would indicate that each one should have had a £1.5 million price tag – if covering the concept and development costs. The three rescued Fighters will be built, tailored and released in 2020.
The Fighter was named after the Bristol reconnaissance aircraft from World War I and was the company’s first two-seater in 40 years since the type 404. It is not to be confused with its near namesake, the Bristol Beaufighter from the ‘80s with its Zagato angular linearity (the nearest that Bristol ever got to a continental playboy style).
Back to the Fighter. Its gullwing doors will appeal to Merc 300SLR through to DeLorean DMC-12 devotees. The rigid body sections are of hand-beaten aluminium, and doors and tailgate are of carbon fibre. Curious partitioned, small side windows are like a fighter plane’s. In a very egalitarian way, the Fighter was designed to fit drivers in the height range of 4’11” (1.5m) to 6’7” (2m).
Its massive 8-litre V10 engine is based on the Dodge Viper with 525 bhp and claims 0 to 60mph in 4 seconds and a top speed of 210mph. The Fighter S followed in production, but the turbo-charged Fighter T never made it.
As for your new-old bespoke Fighter, you could still commission it as a Fighter T with crazy 1000 bhp , if you must.
Diary it: 4th October 2020 for a line-up of pedigree motors and their owners. Bristol Owners’ Club Albert Memorial meet, Kensington Gardens, London W2 2UH.
Theodora Ong is an alcohol and bars consultant. At weekends, she’s often dry so she can retro-cruise around West London.
Photo credits: SLJ Hackett, Bristol Cars, Bristol Owners’ Club, Graeme Hunt, Michael Harris, Theodora Ong.
Pictured top: A light blue Bristol Fighter.
A great article – very well researched and most informative. Not a fan of Bristols myself as I think they’re quite ugly but I hear they are well engineered. A shame the company has gone under – there will be nothing left in Britain soon.
Always loved seeing that showroom, especially the board full of holes and the letters that were plugged in to give a price list or some such info which always amuses me as a child given the relative unsophisticated nature of this versus the brand ……. yes indeed goodbye Britain.
The showroom used to be on my way to work, and it was a highlight of my day to peek into their windows when I had the chance. Loved reading about these cars again. Makes me yearn to drive one even more!
The sad – and long – demise of another great British institution. Really interesting article – thank you Theodora
Sad to read that the showroom has closed. But what a great read – Theodora clearly knows her stuff!
Great article! Talking of the “yes” list I remember that Steve Howe musician, songwriter and producer, iconic guitarist in prog rock band Yes cherished his Bristol (not sure which year) along with his incredible guitar collection.
What an evocative and enlightening piece! Thank you Theodora.
Wow, what wonderful cars. I had wondered what had happened to the marvellous Bristol car showroom. It’s a shame not to see those marvellous designs on the High Street.
Fascinating and informative read, well done Theodora. So glad you had the interest and desire to have a look at Bristol cars, a British car company that bravely hung on for years.
An evocative and informative read. I look forward to the next article. Don’t be long going on your next drive Theodora.
Very informative article about a beautifully made British Classic
One was supplied to the head of El Al in Israel after the purchase of some Bristol Britannia’s
The London showroom was the place to view some beautiful models , one of the more practical and classy super cars made in Britain
Great article – such an evocative step back in time to these fabulous cars. Thank you Theodora!
Enjoyed reading this. A lot to love about classic motoring !
Bristols have always been a mystery to me but having read this, I can now see their attraction.
Very interesting and well written – Bristols have a niche in motoring history that no other vehicle manages to emulate.
How many times over the years have I looked in that showroom window….!
Lovely article. Theodora manages to evoke the majestic grandeur and sporty heritage of the old Bristol marque whilst still infusing us with just the right amount of tech and spec. It’s a real shame that this glorious piece of British heritage has gone, especially as the new Fighter looked like a real beauty, and full of the original, slightly anarchic spirit of Bristol cars. Maybe even have put the brand onto more secure ground financially. Shame, will be much missed.
Excellent article, well researched and very evocative. Makes me want to hit the open road.
Well thank you Theodora for a great insight into Bristol cars and the company. I knew nothing about them really but this article has certainly piqued my interest. Nice one.
I was on my way to nearby Jessop’s, the now defunct camera shop, when I first spotted the Bristols, shiny and sleek, imprisoned behind the showroom’s plate-glass. A fantasy moment. Did they do trade-in? What would they give me for my Datsun Cherry!? The drop-head coupé weaving down country roads, my companion’s blonde hair blowing in the wind. Poop! Poop! She would be in the driving seat of course, as seduced by synchromesh and automatic gears, I probably wouldn’t have got the old beauty into second. How skilfully Theodora Ong captures that world of the classic car and unravels the Bristol story. A work of art on wheels. My old editor banned the word “limousine” from his newspaper. He had obviously not walked to the end of Kensington High Street.