There has never been a company quite so enigmatic as Bristol Cars. For decades, it loped along at its own variable pace, producing a handful of cars every year for well-heeled, privacy-obsessed individuals and hardly ever seeking – or seeming to need – the publicity others regard as essential.
When times were tough the staff, many of whom had worked for Bristol’s venerable custodian and backbone Tony Crook for decades, turned their hand to restorations. Cars of all ages were worked on in Filton near Bristol, fettled in Chelsea and sold in Kensington, where Crook pulled the strings from a showroom so well-known that it had become a London tourist landmark.
Around 1997, things changed. And stayed the same. Bristol was acquired by British enthusiast and jet-spares millionaire Toby Silverton, who had been trying to negotiate a deal for more than a decade. But founder Tony Crook – then, as now, secure as the company’s patriarch – continued to run things in his usual idiosyncratic way from the Kensington office while Silverton operated his other businesses on either side of the Atlantic.
Then the bombshell. Late in 1999, the company announced it would produce a new 200mph-plus supercar, the Fighter, based on Chrysler Viper components, and promised delivery at the back end of 2001. Only 20 a year would be made, and the price would be a bit under £200,000.
To back up the words, Crook and Silverton showed a one-fifth scale model of a sleek-looking car rather reminiscent of a Mercedes 300SLR, with proportions quite different – higher and narrower – than those of rival coupés.
The car was a two-seater, designed to be compact and fairly light, and the dominating feature was an elegant pair of gullwing doors. It raised a huge kerfuffle for a while and, it has to be said, some scepticism, because this was the first all-new car from Bristol for at least 40 years. Could the company still do it?
There were delays, which didn’t help. But at the Goodwood Festival in 2003 the company showed a complete rolling chassis designed by the race-car engineer Max Boxstrom, whose previous work includes the creditable Aston Martin AMR-1 sports/racer, which finished 11th at Le Mans in 1989 with nothing more than private backing.
The original promise had been an all-aluminium chassis, but the reality was a massively strong box-section structure in steel, with aluminium honeycomb flooring and a couple of mighty roll hoops. This and the suspension – coil-sprung double wishbones with anti-roll bars front and rear – gave the whole thing a believable, professional air.
When this structure appeared, clad in a graceful aerodynamic skin of hand-beaten aluminium (wings, roof, bonnet) and carbonfibre composite (door, tailgate) it drew every eye. And again, when it emerged that the coefficient drag factor was a low, low 0.28, and at 1540kg the car’s kerbweight was 400 to 500kg below its heaviest competitor.
Trouble was, nobody was allowed to drive it. This car, with a 525bhp, 8.0-litre V10 engine and six-speed gearbox always seemed to be undergoing development.
The top speed was claimed to be somewhere between 205 and 220mph, the 0-60mph sprint had been timed at 4.0 seconds, a price had been set at £229,000 — or £256,000 for the S with a ‘Bristolised’ V10 under its bonnet packing an eye-watering 628bhp – but if you weren’t buying one, you couldn’t drive it. And that’s how it was, until a couple of weeks ago.
Enter Simon Draper, one of the UK’s most dedicated car collectors and boss of London-based Palawan Press, publisher of some of the most beautiful and expensive automotive titles ever produced. He’d bought a Bristol Fighter in December, and after a few teething troubles had set about running it in.
When that was done, he agreed to make it available for an Autocar test, knowing that if we couldn’t test his car (chassis number eight) we’d stand little chance when the company had just built its 10th Fighter, and several of those were prototypes.
"You’ll have to take the car as you find it," said Draper, as we opened the garage the Fighter shares with at least a dozen other cars at his place on the south coast. But it soon emerged that like Draper’s other cars, this one was immaculate.
The moment your eye falls on the Fighter, you know it’s different; it’s several inches taller than other GT cars and narrower – in fact a full 115mm narrower than the Dodge Viper which provides the most important mechanicals.
Bristol, once an aeroplane manufacturer, has always seen things differently to other fast-car manufacturers. It wants nothing to do with downforce, which brings implicit drag, but designs for stability and streamlining and an absence of lift, so the car’s performance above 120mph puts others in the shade.
The body height and its narrowness – allied with thoughtful details like a turning circle which seems miraculous on a car with such large (and uniformly sized) tyres – are all about making the Fighter a day-to-day proposition. Which Simon Draper agrees it can be. Above all, the car is beautiful. The lines are far from avant-garde, but they have a symmetry and a balance which few can match. The car looks far better in the metal than in these photographs.
What it doesn’t seem, when you raise the driver’s door, slide your rump across the wide sill and climb into the cockpit, is small. This is possibly because as you settle into the large leather bucket seat your backside is less than a foot ahead of the rear tyre’s leading edge, but six or seven feet from the front wheel. Your fairly high seating position does not mean cramped headroom, and you have a fine view over the sculpted bonnet, the kind of view which constantly conveys to an owner the value of the car.
There are aircraft allusions all over the place: modular dash fittings for the main console components, an array of overhead instruments (including an engine hour meter) overhead, and the side windows have small opening sections like a fighter plane’s.
Above all, there’s space. Headroom, shoulder-room, a big footwell with large, widely spaced pedals, a decent-sized wheel and a feeling of airiness, because there’s a wide loading deck (above a full-size spare) reaching out behind you, below that elegant, castellated rear window. It’s a fine place to be and, importantly for Bristol, it’s like no other car you know.
There’s a familiar, mighty rumble to the engine as it starts. The Chrysler V10 has lowly beginnings, but nothing can disguise the low-stressed reliability and the potential. Bristol still uses the 8.0-litre engine, which in standard tune has more power and torque than the latest 8.3-litre version.
For a mechanism that disperses such mighty torque, the clutch pedal feels light. Bites strongly, though, and with no more than a whiff of throttle the car bolts as if it were a featherweight. No doubt about the four second 0-60mph time either: the Fighter easily achieves that speed without a gearchange.
The performance is simply immense. Huge thrust is available at any speed, in any gear but sixth (which pulls around 40mph per 1000rpm) as long as the engine’s turning at about 2000rpm. The red line is somewhere around 6000rpm, but there is really no need to rev this one beyond 5000rpm, because it’s smoother down there and there’s so much urge in the next ratio that generating all that piston speed seems futile.
Bristol has improved on the standard Viper shift by making the throws shorter and inclining the lever toward you. It’s never the swiftest of shifts, and the gear-planes are so close that they take some learning, but it certainly is satisfying. I loved it.
The car is a safe handler, too, benign when cornering hard and long enough in the wheelbase to resist unscheduled tail-out stuff. There’s a stability control to make sure it doesn’t go too far, if you’re brave enough. I wasn’t. You stroke this car along, feeling the thrust and gather in mighty units of distance with every gearchange.
The ride? I wasn’t so impressed. It wasn’t dreadful, but it felt undeveloped and soft, and rolled too much through corners despite the dual anti-roll bars. Confusingly, it also seemed more conscious of bumps than I’d have wanted a car of mine to be. We drove together, and Simon Draper had been noticing these things, too, while putting the first few thousand miles under the wheels.
Back in London, as he prepared to send Fighter number 10 out the door, Toby Silverton reckoned he had the remedy for Draper’s number eight. It had been set up with comfort spring rates, he said, but standard, fairly stiff shock absorbers. Hence the lack of body control, yet trouble with bumps. Stiffer springs would better match the shocks and control the body, especially with the addition of extra front-end castor, now standard, which would cure a lack of on-centre feel in the otherwise pleasant and direct steering system (2.7 turns lock-to-lock).
Bottom line? I was sincerely impressed by the Bristol Fighter. It was remarkably capable and competent for a model of which less than a dozen have been built. Other makers build five times that number, just for the practice. This old aeroplane company really can build a modern car, and (evidently) one with enough individuality and performance appeal to attract people with car collections, who just want something entirely different.