I know the late, great LJK Setright is the uncanonized patron saint of Bristoldom, and I too certainly have enjoyed a goodly share of his work, straight from way back when I should have had my nose in schoolbooks instead. But personally, I still think he has a lot to answer for. You see, I can’t help thinking that if it wasn’t for the brilliant and oh so erudite writings of dear old Leonard, many of us wouldn’t have this subconscious image of the typical Bristol owner as a rather sombre sort who sees the cars as the One True Religion. Then again, had it not been for Setright’s livelong trumpeting of the tiny, fiercely independent, and otherwise oft-overlooked brand, we might not have any image of Bristol at all, so one supposes it all washes out.
It is nevertheless something of a surprise to wind up spending our first half-hour with devoted Bristol owner Simon Draper discussing the comedy of Andy Kaufman, and to find the man has such a generous sense of humour he will laugh at my imitation of Jim Carrey’s imitation of Kaufman doing Elvis. And although he has about a dozen assorted Bristols lined up in this garage, including the sole surviving Type 450 Le Mans car (yep, they did, and they were very successful there, too), he also has Aston Martins and Lancias and a tastefully tweaked-out purple 240Z, and his road transport for today is a Ruf Porsche. So much for stereotypes.
But busting stereotypes is part of what the Bristol we’ve come to see is all about. Named as per longstanding tradition after a notable aircraft of the founding firm, the Bristol Fighter isn’t what you’d expect from a company whose vehicles of late have been closer in concept to ‘70s Mercedes SLC than contemporary Lambo Gallardo. That is, more in the way of luxury sporting tourers than fodder for teenage fantasies.
The Fighter, on the other hand, is a bona fide 200 mph, horsepower-drenched, fat-tired supercar. Introduced in 2004, it is the first product of Toby Silverton, financial partner in Bristol since 1997 and from 2002 to 2011, chairman and proprietor.
Which is in itself an indication of the change happening at Bristol. For years, previous boss Tony Crook maintained a decidedly adversarial relationship with the press, especially those non-Setright types who questioned Bristol’s place in the cosmos and Mr. Crook’s running thereof.
In a way, it was understandable; ever since their establishment in 1946 as the automotive arm of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, Bristol Cars, Limited have emphatically done things their own way, and more so following their autonomous spin-off under Crook in 1960. Having reached a design formula that filled their chosen niche—upmarket, hand built cars that emphasised functionality above either styling or outright speed—they stuck to it rather faithfully.
Unfortunately, not only was it an uncommonly focused and blatantly iconoclastic niche, the mere fact the company steadfastly remained out of step with the rest of the industry was sufficient to draw critical scrutiny from journalists of all sorts. Most were of course honest professionals genuinely looking to tell a s