Bristol Cars: what went wrong?
The eccentric British brand has been fully liquidated. But how did it happen and what does the future hold?
Usually when writing an obituary to a deceased car manufacturer, it’s a sad tale of how great the company once was and a paragon of tales and insider stories of how the company came to meet its eventual axe. The axeman is usually a bigger corporation such as General Motors or maybe in TVR’s case nearly 15-years ago, it was shoddy business and a lack of care for quality control.
We are yet to see what TVR have tucked away in their sachets, despite the Cosworth-powered Griffith being unveiled over three years ago. But perhaps delays and unpredictability is common ground for small-volume British car manufacturers. Before an infamous global pandemic swept in and brought businesses to their thighs, there was one small-volume British car manufacturer that went out of business even with a strong internal fanbase. The one being referred to, is the little-known firm, Bristol Cars.
A 406 - the last of the six-cylinder Bristols (Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).
Founded in 1945 as an arm of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, Bristol Cars continuously produced a long portfolio of aircraft-influenced grand touring cars and enthusiasts of the company will remember them as an eccentric manufacturer with a wilfully traditional taste of luxury and craftsmanship. The story started when Bristol acquired a patent from BMW to produce the 2.0 litre 6-cylinder engine used in the 328 Roadster to power the 401-406s constructed with inspiration of an aeronautical aura. By 1969, Bristol Cars was no longer an arm of the Aeroplane Company and sourced Chrysler V8s to power the 407-411s, 603s, Beaufighters (the list goes on…). Most, if not all of the cars are well-favoured amongst Bristol enthusiasts.
Over the course of history, Bristol has had brains behind some of the most revolutionary engineering projects; such as the Concorde and various First and Second-World-War aircraft such as the Blenheim, the Beaufighter and Brigand (fans of the firm will also point out that a number of Bristol cars were named after their historic aeroplanes).
However, many motoring enthusiasts – even if they are keen into their V12 Ferrari 250s to 365s and the plethora of old Porsche 911 variants – may never have caught wind of the Bristol marque. The brand withholds such a small space in the minds of motoring enthusiasts, yet those who are aware tend to spare a cosy place in their hearts for them – many of whom prefer a more traditionalist approach to the motor car.
A 404 (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
Helping keep the passion alive are the dedicated teams from the Bristol Owners Club and the Bristol Cars Heritage Trust. Since news of Bristol’s liquidation came in, they vowed to save as many assets as humanly possible and ensure a secure future for Bristol enthusiasts. I interviewed a chap called Peter Campbell: a trustee from the B.C.H.T and the Managing Director of a Bristol works and restoration specialist, Spencer Lane-Jones based in Warminster, Wiltshire. He owns an early example of a Bristol: a 1952 401 and regularly works on historic models in the workshop.
During the interview of this feature alone, he was surrounded by a dozen of old the old things including a 401, 403, 404, a 405 going in for full restoration and about five or six of the V8 cars including a 410 and ‘various marques’ of the 411. The line-up also casually consists of three examples of the Fighter gullwing supercar – one of which being a mere shell!
A later 411 (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
Given that Bristol used to build the cars in such little volume by hand, they used the traditional method of panel beating aluminium on wooden body bucks shaped to represent each model and marque. Included in an auction organised by the liquidators, Wyles Hardy & Co, some of the original body bucks came up for sale. The B.C.H.T worked tirelessly and managed to acquire several of the bucks and Peter believes they can be displayed in national museums for the public to lay their eyes on.
“A number of body bucks came up for sale in the auction. The heritage trust feel they were worth preserving: they are very unique, they are historic, they are of their time. We haven’t got the bucks for all of the Bristol cars – maybe seven or eight of them. They are a challenge though; they are incredibly heavy and were never designed to be moved around. Some of them are a bit distressed: woodworm has got into some of them and the plywood has started to delaminate. So, they need to be preserved and a lot of car museums display cars, but very few of them display bucks. And how interesting would it be to see a Bristol car displayed next to the buck that it was built on?”
A 401 (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
Me: “Do you also think the bucks could be used for restoration purposes?”
“Probably, but nowadays with C.A.D, with 3D and rapid forming of metal skin, there are probably better ways to do it. You could use the bucks as they were intended, but equally you can 3D print a buck and generate it electronically and have it produced for under ten grand. The bucks could be used, but their time has probably expired.” How technology has changed overtime!
Some notable lots from the assets auction hosted by Wyles Hardy & Co included some examples of cars: most were in dire need of restoration. The lots consisted of two six-cylinder examples: a 405 and 406, among various Chrysler-V8 era cars which was made up of four 411s, a 603 and a Brigand. All of which needed a full restoration. However, an early 1949 Bristol 400 in solid condition was up for grabs alongside the original 1964 Bullet Speedster test prototype. Chassis 000 of the gullwing Fighter was up for sale too, albeit just the bodyshell without any running gear, as it is the original prototype car.
The Bullet prototype and other chassis' and bits that came with the sale of the brand and IPR. (Image: Wyles Hardy & Co)
A later event in November by Wyles Hardy & Co was the sale of the Bristol Cars brand and the IPR. Included with the brand and IPR was what's left of the 'Project Pinnacle' - otherwise known as the prototypes, chassis and some experimental body panelling of the Bullet supercar which was supposed to go on sale before the liquidation. No auction was conducted, rather a private negotiation and sale.
“They all (the car lots) went to private buyers, yes. And we actually have three Fighters at Spencer Lane-Jones at the moment anyway. All of the cars up for auction would’ve commanded high prices.”
The Fighter (Image: Bristol Cars LTD).
A rather intriguing aspect about this story is that the B.C.H.T previously stated in a press release that they could foresee Bristol’s fate coming for a number of years. Naturally, this waved an ocean of curiosity and it led me to ask what Peter and enthusiasts of the marque saw in Bristol that made them believe this was inevitable. Were operations at the company considerably lesser than other niche carmakers to the point where they couldn’t survive, perhaps?
“Because most members of the Heritage Trust owned or know a lot about Bristol, most members of the Owners Club know a lot about what’s going on in the Bristol world and they could see the cracks beginning to appear. There were cars being serviced at Bristol Cars with things not getting done properly, they were promising to do this or that and it never happening. People know the workers, and some are friends with them, and stuff gets out, and it was fairly obvious that not much was happening. It was fairly common knowledge that the former Managing Director, Kamal Sadiqi was taken to the High Court and 19 out of his 24 businesses were liquidated. So, it was pretty clear from any angle that the firm was struggling and that it would eventually get sold or liquidated.”
From the looks of it, things were looking bleak within the company. On 23rd August of this year, an employee who had access to Bristol Cars' website log-in wrote a rouge statement which did no other than completely bash Sadiqi for operations within the company. Naturally, the statement was promptly deleted.
The 405 Drophead (Image: Wikimedia Commons).
But had the company been running on smoother ground, production of the Bullet – known in the development stage as ‘Project Pinnacle’ – would’ve been well underway. The ethos of the Bullet is inspired a little-known story of a 409 saloon in which the owner took his car back to the headquarters in Filton due to corrosion problems. After being deemed too uneconomical to repair, the car was parked up in a storage field for a number of years before the idea of a new coach-built speedster sprung to mind. Bristol then dragged out that 409 and constructed a new, 404/405-inspired streamlined body and re-named the ‘Bullet’. It was then found that the market for such a car existed and it was but into storage once again.
But during the 1980s, former Chairman, Toby Silverton liked it so much, that he decided to keep it for private use. The original 5.2 litre Chrysler V8 (318ci) was taken out in favour of the larger 6.3 litre (383ci) unit mated to a 4-speed manual gearbox (not the usual 3-speed automatic as in most V8 Bristols). It can easily be theorised that Silverton must’ve had a long-term romance with the Bullet as he racked up over 25,000 miles on it and used it extensively over in Florida.
The one-off 1964 Bullet Speedster that was up for auction earlier in the year. (Image: Wyles Hardy & Co)
The car was then returned to the factory and stored until it was sold to a private buyer at this auction. The new Bullet draws direct parallels from Silverton’s car and like many one-off supercars, it had the potential to revitalise the Bristol marque. But perhaps it was the fact that so little ‘Bristol’ existed in the car that turned people away, as it sat on a Morgan Aero 8 skeleton and used exactly the same 370bhp BMW-sourced V8 engine. In many ways, the only notable bit of ‘Bristol’ in the new Bullet was the bulky bodyshell inspired by the original 409 Speedster. Peter agrees.
“There was a lot of interest, but I think the majority – who are traditionalists in the owners club – felt it was a wonderful idea, but the execution was probably flawed. In the sense that did anybody want a rather odd-looking two-seater with no windscreen, no all-weather equipment. And then it was discovered that actually, the base of the car was the Morgan Aero 8; chassis, engine, running gear etc. So, all that was Bristol was the body. You could buy the Morgan for £100,000 and Bristol intended to market these (the Bullet) at something like £250,000-£300,000. And you have to ask yourself: why?”
The new Bullet based on the Morgan Aero 8. (Images: Bristol Cars LTD).
You can easily notice how the new car was supposed to hark back to Silverton's original.
Perhaps the fate of the new Bullet was a curse stemming from the original in the sense that the market was simply too much of a niche? Or maybe the only running prototype could also endure a busy life over in the United States and enjoy some Florida sunshine? Only time will tell! But one thing any motoring journalist could understand is that after conducting some extensive research on recent events of the Bristol marque and forever being fascinated by the past models, it’s hard not to desire at least one of them. I said to myself after the interview with Peter that I really could do with a 405 Drophead at some point, or maybe one of the V8 cars from the 408-411? Hmm.
The Gordan Murray T50 (Image: Gordan Murray Automotive).
But nevertheless, the Bristol saga isn’t necessarily a great detriment to the genre of niche British manufacturers; because the oxygen molecule building & premises in Windlesham - where Bristol’s former headquarters was - has now been bought by Gordan Murray Design where plans to build a £50 million headquarters are in place. Perhaps this represents a corporate metaphor of the old chestnut, ‘out with the old and in with the new’.
Because let's be honest: Mr Murray's successor to the McLaren F1 is a wildly different animal to anything Bristol have ever made.