Bristol. A creature so rarely spotted that were Sir David Attenborough ever to switch his attentions to the mechanical world, it would surely merit an hour-long special.
Mind you, the great man specialises in life on planet earth, a place you could be forgiven for thinking Bristol long ago vacated. Never before seen on the pages of Top Gear, we really only know two things about the Fighter – effectively Bristol’s first genuinely new car for about 35 years – and they are that 1) its top speed is allegedly 210mph and 2) it costs £235,000. Both pieces of information do nothing to dispel the deep-rooted idea that the chaps at Bristol are, in fact, bonkers.
History tends to support this thesis. Stuck for something to do post-War, the Bristol Aeroplane Company began building cars in 1946. The first model, the shapely 400, was basically a facsimile of the BMW 327, and until 1961 Bristol used a modified version of BMW’s six-cylinder engine. With the arrival of the 407, the switch was made to the big Chrysler V8 lump which is still used by Bristol today in its curiously appealing Blenheim.
It was around this time, too, that former racing driver Tony Crook assumed part-ownership of the company, whereupon Bristol began its gradual disconnect from the real world. A man of legendarily unique tastes, the impish Crook apparently employed tramps to sit on rival car makers’ stands at motor shows.
If he was in a certain mood – and he usually was – he’d refuse to sell a car to a customer until they had beaten him at Scalextric. One client, on the verge of buying two cars at a not- inconsiderable cost to himself, decided against it when Crook refused to throw the leather key-fob in for free.
Not that Bristol attracted what you would call a conventional clientele. The cars’ stately mien appealed to barristers, QCs, MPs and city types. The showbiz connection was and remains strong, too. The actor Trevor Howard owned several. Peter Sellers dropped by the Kensington showroom so often to complain about whatever piece of highly strung Italian exotica was annoying him that day – cars and girls – that Crook became his de facto ‘arranger of motoring affairs’. That must have been a meeting of minds.
These days, Liam Gallagher, Sir Paul Smith and Sir Richard Branson are all keen Bristol advocates. All of which thickens the plot somewhat. The plot is changing, too. Since 2001, a Toby rather than a Tony has been in charge. Toby Silverton, a highly accomplished engineer and jet-spares millionaire, bought the company off Crook, and set about developing a new car.
Silverton bristles at the plucky ‘Freds-in-sheds’ tag and insists that the company is highly innovative. But Crook and the quirky by-ways of the Bristol story remain critical to the appeal of a product that doesn’t so much stand up to rational analysis as evade it altogether.