The ‘Gentleman’s Express’ hits the buffers

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Author: Roger Harrison, [email protected]

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Ask some of the most avid car aficionados to name the fastest road car in the world and they will come up with a list of names that include the usual suspects and several that sound like pizza manufacturers or exotic gelato. Very few will mention the English city from which that most iconic of British motorcars takes its name and indeed incorporates the city’s crest in its company badge: Bristol.

Bristol Cars, the company that made the “Gentleman’s Express” as the cars were nicknamed, has finally hit the buffers. This March, the ultra exclusive carmaker that is inextricably woven into the fabric of British automotive and aerospace history, announced that it had called in the administrators after 65 years with the loss of 22 jobs. Among those made redundant was Syd Lovesy, 91, the works director who, said Charles Hackett, the sole sales chap for the company, has driven every Bristol ever made.
The firm was a spin-off from the Bristol Aeroplane Company, which made the RAF Blenheim bomber, and produced its first model in 1946. Founded as the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, Ltd in 1910 by Sir George White and Edwin Henry Dyer the owner of Bristol Tramways to manufacture aircraft at Filton near Bristol.
After producing fighters — notably the Bulldog and bomber aircraft, famously the Blenheim — for the two world wars, the company went on to produce a series of famous aircraft, both military and civilian. The cars are still built on the original site at Filton in Bristol where Concorde was assembled and first flew from. The Bristol Aircraft Company finally morphed via the British Aircraft Corporation into British Aerospace.
Eccentric, immensely powerful and built by aircraft engineers to aircraft standards, the Bristol appealed to the well-heeled, dedicated driver who shields away from the ostentatious statement made at one end of the scale by Rolls Royce and the other by, perhaps, Pagani Zonda or Koenigsegg.
The last marque of this 65-year-old company, the Bristol Fighter, built a model ‘T’ that looked remarkably ordinary to the casual eye. It had, however, lower wind resistance than the Bugatti Veyron (0.25 as opposed to 0.33) and not a bling wing in sight. It was also more powerful at 1012 hp as opposed to 1001 hp and would just see the Veyron off at 436 km/h as opposed to 434.20 km/h (officially a world record). It was absolutely typical of the company that they never bothered with setting or crowing over world records — not the company style at all. The road cars were governed to what the company described as “a perfectly adequate 225 mph,” but there was a second engine management chip available for people whom Bristol thought could handle the huge power. Very, very few were fitted.
The cars were built with the strict injunction of the founder, Tony Crook, former RAF pilot and Grand Prix driver who was the owner for decades, that they should be able to take occupants of 6ft 7 inches and a couple of week’s luggage in the boot. Allegedly, he insisted on personally vetting all potential Bristol buyers to ensure they were the “right sort of person.” To the company’s eternal credit, it banned BBC Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson (or any of the “third remove” team at Top Gear) from driving one and even the company’s sole showroom in Kensington High Street (it’s a long story!) Noble potentates have also been turned away; these cars are not for wealthy collectors or the self-promoting, but for serious drivers and genuine enthusiasts.
That discriminative approach to clients obtained right through to the Fighter T, a large two-seater and thrillingly powerful car driven by a 1012 hp 8.3 liter twin turbocharged V10 engine with water-cooled intercooler. Yet, this beast of a car would burble chummily through Chelsea traffic in second gear its immense bottom-end torque evident only with a clumsy right foot. Released onto a clear road, its blistering acceleration tries to rip the skin off your face. It is Jeeves when domestic duty calls and a thug in a Saville Row suit when let loose. Fortunately, the Fighter and the Fighter-T are likely to stay in production assuming a buyer for the company can be found.
Toby Silverton, a jet spares entrepreneur and the current owner of Bristol Cars, commented that: "It has not been possible for the company to continue to trade in its present structure. While the decision has been taken regretfully, I am confident that a future for the business will be found."
Joint administrator Tom MacLennan is hopeful that the carmaker will eventually find a buyer, although the famous Bristol Blenheim model is likely to be axed.
MacLennan said yesterday: “Unfortunately, while there have been a number of immediate redundancies, we are maintaining the sales and service operations so customers will continue to be supported.”
One can only hope that the shade of Tony Crook will quiz any potential buyer to establish whether he is the “right sort of person” to continue the production of this subtle and quintessentially British institution: Bristol Cars.
 
 
 
 

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