Paul Horrell04 March 2011

Bristol Cars goes bust after 65 years

Eccentric British car maker is placed into administration. Paul Horrell asks: ‘Where did it all go wrong?’

Bristol Cars has gone bust. The administrators have taken over. They say they might be able to salvage something, but as of now, bang goes another slice of the expensive and the oddball in Britain's car tradition.

Bristol was so eccentric it made Morgan look positively mass-market and mainstream.

Its top-end car was the Fighter T. Powered by a turbocharged Dodge Viper V10, the spec sheet shows more than 1,000bhp. It's got gullwing doors. But no driver aids. Or airbag.

But the company was so secretive we don't quite know how many they built. If any. They did sell a few of the original non-turbo versions of the Fighter, which was probably quite fast enough anyway.

A car this outlandish was the bitter end for the company. It was trying to build ultra-fast gentleman's GTs, but that put it in head-on competition with the might of Mercedes AMG, with the SLR and SLS.

OK, in contrast with AMG's brashness, the Bristol gave you a nice throwback British reserve. But in return for that you had to pay a huge sacrifice in actual ability and equipment. Anyway, there's always Aston and Bentley if you want to wave the Union Jack.

The press was almost never allowed to drive Bristols. Or visit the factory. They didn't have any dealers, but dealt with customers from a single factory showroom in Kensington, London. The idea was, presumably, that the enigma would increase everyone's curiosity. But in the end it just looked like they had something to hide.

Eventually TopGear magazine did get a go in a Fighter. There were some clever ideas, like giving it good visibility and making it narrow so it's easier to drive on B-roads. In the end, though, it was absurdly expensive and not very well made. To want one, your main concern would have been to own something different from anyone. Different but not better.

Bristol's best era was the 1950s and 60s, when its luxury V8 GT cars were well in contention. And they really were beautifully assembled, to last a lifetime. Those are the era of Bristols that still attract high-profile drivers, including Liam Gallagher and Sir Richard Branson and Sir Paul Smith.

The Bristol Car Company grew out of the Bristol Aircraft Company after the war. It first cars were heavily based on pre-war BMWs, and its aircraft heritage - light weight, streamlined aero - served it well.

But you can't keep denying the modern world for ever, and the cars, like the company itself, just kept backing themselves into a corner.

You can also read James May's 2007 Telegraph column about the eccentric Bristol Cars here

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