Over the last 70 years, few automakers have been more exclusive or shrouded in secrecy than Bristol Cars, Ltd. of England. Since the 1970s, the first step in buying a Bristol was to dress in your finest, go to the company’s lone showroom on Kensington High Street in London, and earn the approval of company owner Tony Crook. The cars were not advertised, production numbers were kept secret, road tests were refused to journalists, prices were not made public, and test drives were rarely permitted. If Crook didn’t think you were the Bristol type, then you were cut off, and stuck buying a more common car, like a Bentley or an Aston Martin.
The enigmatic company changed ownership and shut its doors in 2011 after building just a handful of its Bristol Fighter, a 200-plus mile per hour gull-winged coupe that borrowed its engine from a Dodge Viper. Since then, the company has been mothballed, with workers quietly maintaining the London showroom and restoring older models in its Patchway factory. But big things have been happening behind the scenes, as the company has launched a new website, and announced that a 70th anniversary model is on the way. Working under the name Project Pinnacle, Bristol is returning to its roots in a big way – by working with BMW.
In many ways, Bristol is the last holdover from the gentleman’s automakers of the early 20th century. Born from the Bristol Aeroplane Company, it reached its peak during World War II, employing over 70,000 workers and manufacturing the iconic Bristol Blenheim bomber. When the war ended, the company switched to cars, buying the rights to the pre-war BMW 326 and 328. In 1946, Bristol launched the 400, which closely followed the original German design right down to its inline-six engine and dual-kidney grille. But with Bristol’s aerospace experience and engineering skill, the 400 became one of the most formidable and best handling grand tourers of its day.
In short order, Bristols became the ultimate status symbol for well-heeled British gentlemen. They harked back to the pre-war idea of ultra-exclusive hand-built motoring in a way that even Rolls-Royce or Ferrari couldn’t compete with. But Bristol never had the resources Rolls or Ferrari did, and that put the company at a severe disadvantage. Each successive model was more of a revision, with new cars inheriting the BMW-derived chassis from the 400 (though the pre-war inline-six was replaced with a V8 in the ’60s). By the time the all-new Fighter came along in 2003, the company’s most popular model was the Blenheim, which was last face-lifted in 1993, had its direct roots in the 1976 603 coupe, and was still built on the chassis designed in the 1930s.
Needless to say, the Pinnacle won’t be built on the 80-something year old platform. But following in the footsteps of Morgan, another British automaker whose DNA runs back to the early 20th century, the new Bristol will be powered by a 21st century BMW engine, a move that will take the company back to its post-war roots.
In a strange twist, Bristol’s parent company Kamcorp also owns Frazer-Nash, a major automotive research and development firm that designed the modern London taxis. But Frazer-Nash also has an impressive history; it built some of England’s first sports cars, imported BMWs to England before World War II – and was once owned by Bristol. Its contacts with the German automaker were instrumental in Bristol winning the rights to the pre-war designs, and its car building experience helped Bristol make the transition from fighter planes to sports cars.
Frazer-Nash will be contributing its hybrid technology to what Bristol calls its “Range-Extended Electric grand tourer.” Other technical and design details on the car are scarce, but with Project Pinnacle, it looks like the company is entering an era of openness unseen since the 1960s.
Along with the new car, the company has bought space across the street from its Kensington High Street office, and is building a new showroom for Pinnacle and future models. The original space will remain largely unchanged, and serve as a center for classic sales and restoration. It also opened a new restoration shop in London, and has launched a line of merchandise with the help of fashion designer Paul Smith to raise the company’s profile. It may be early, but it appears that the closed-door days of Tony Crook’s Bristol may be over – and that’s a very good thing. For decades, Bristol owners have sworn that their cars are the finest in the world. It’s about time the rest of the world gets to have a look too.