Saturday, February 05, 2005

My visit to Bristol Cars

Ever since I was a boy I remember being intrigued by the 411 in my “Observer’s Book of Automobiles.” My father told me that “it was a Bristol” and “they’re very exclusive.” I often read Setright referring to some feature of a Bristol in his many articles for Car and somehow the big friendly foursome of head lamps and the purposeful haunch appealed to a small boy fascinated by cars. It clearly left an indelible impression as, twenty five years later, my heart jumped as I realised the shape coming into view ahead of my Fireblade on the long, fast, rollercoaster straights of the A303 was a 411. As I passed, I slowed down to exchange waves and when later stopped at the roadside for a break I got another acknowledgement from the grinning owner as he came past almost silently and then disappeared into the distance.

Two years pass and my brother-in-law was looking for a Jaguar XJC and whilst reviewing classic car sources, my mind went back to Bristols and later, I found myself involuntarily surfing and looking at the (now usual) sites and guides on “What Bristol” and decided to follow the man himself’s advice and see what BCL had to offer first. Mr Crook picked up the phone sounding like he was in an aircraft hanger and a pleasurable phone call elicited a speedy response as next morning I had an envelope containing photocopies of roadtests and such of the cars I was interested in along with his own comments and notes (illegible felt-tip scrawl mostly) on spare spaces and in the margins.

And so came the day of the trip to Bristol Cars Ltd showroom. I pushed open the sticking door and was greeted by a pleasant gentleman who informed me that Mr Crook was at lunch. As I had an appointment and had appeared punctually I have to say I was a little disappointed at the tardiness. Several minutes after two o’clock, in shuffled a rather dishevelled gentleman with unkempt hair dyed black but with a good half inch of grey roots, a lot older than any pictures I’d seen of him and reminding me very much of my father in his deliberate, articulate and considered voice. In fact I later discovered that they are as good as the same age. The cars for me to see were brought up from the basement by the pleasant gentleman round to a little double yellow lined lay-by outside and we strolled out. Surrounded by the timeless ambience of London, Routemaster buses and black Hackney carriages, I felt transported back thirty years, but as I got closer, my initial impressions were not good. The paint was flaking off the body in places, the dashboard varnish was cracked, the door bins lining material was peeling and lifting and the speedometer would wave about when driving. On one of the cars the boot wouldn’t shut and on the other the door window gap to the body was a gaping half-inch…. The whole ambience wasn’t characterful so much as just plain “tired daily driver” and certainly not something worth the money being asked. When I questioned the condition, TC’s view was that doing “cosmetic” work like that was “betterment” of the cars. Hmmmm. Here was a car that was being offered in pretty tired cosmetic condition by all accounts. I will say nothing about the mechanical or functional integrity, as I was not afforded the luxury of a mechanical inspection; but let’s just assume that being a BCL supplied car that aspect was tip-top. When questioning the condition versus price from other suppliers, TC was very forthright in emphasising that “a lot of mechanical work” might be required of other cars available from other sources to get them to the functional condition of official BCL cars. Essentially he rubbished well respected Bristol specialists which did not impress me in the slightest and after the drives when I said, “I’d think about it” I was soon mentally discarded and eventually not even seen out.

Photo of a 411 from Bristols Cars website

I have to say, as you can probably determine by the tone, I was extremely disappointed with the whole experience. It would be nice to report to you that it was a charming experience and I fulfilled a boyhood dream of purchasing a Bristol from the showroom, but you can guess I didn’t and based on vehicles like that I won’t, but I continue to look for and ponder over one for the future because driving one (in particular a 6.6 litre 411) was a great and unique experience (and to put this into context let’s just simply say I have driven quite a few different cars…..)

Immediate impressions leaving the showroom lay-by: you can see the corners of the car and navigating it in tight traffic is easy; the oomph from the engine is ‘right there’, but just as soon gone when cruising is required; the ride-handling compromise is deservedly legendary; probably closest to a modern XJ (in touring trim) more Daimler Super V8 than XJR though. I would love to sample a modern Blenheim and would love to hear from anyone out there who has done so to see if this kind of DNA has carried on through to the current cars.

In this world, it would be a shame for BCL to disappear, and TC can be loved for continuing to produce unique cars, but with his attitude maybe it’s just a good job too that he has handed over to Toby Silverton.

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