Bristol is one of Britain's most venerated carmakers. For over thirty-five years, Brits "in the know" have considered the obscure automaker's products to be the embodiment of English hand built quality and understated exclusivity. Unfortunately, motoring journalists need not apply. In fact, Bristol actively discourages any sort of publicity for its current cars. A test drive is "out of the question".
A few weeks before the end of my English adventure, I gave Bristol one last try. I immediately recognised the cut-glass accent on the other end of the phone: Tony Crook, former RAF pilot, racing driver and the undisputed Emperor of Bristol Motor Cars. Luckily, the octogenarian and self-professed "living legend" didn't recognise my voice. Mr. Crook agreed to a "five-minute chat".
Discretion being the better part of valour, when my turn to speak finally arrived, I tried to establish a few simple facts. How many cars does Bristol make? "We don't quote production figures," Mr. Crook replied. "We always build fewer cars than people want." How many craftsmen does Bristol employ to build this indeterminate number of cars? "Not stated." How much does a new Blenheim 3 cost? "One hundred and thirty nine thousand pounds." (Approximately $250,000) How much for the more "sporting" Blenheim 3S? "Considerably more." What sort of improvements does that include? "Bigger camshafts. That sort of thing."
And there you have it. A test drive was still impossible. Thank you and goodbye.
I would love to tell you how I got my hands on a Blenheim. It's a story that involves some truly Dickensian characters: quick-witted, long-suffering mechanics labouring in dark garages; a short-tempered multi-millionaire who believes that anyone who can't afford a Bristol is in no position to judge it; a motoring journalist whose florid prose poems to the marque are proof positive that love is blind. Suffice it to say, everyone I contacted in my quest for some Blenheim wheel time either refused to speak to me or laughed (guffawed?) at my request to drive their car.
Luckily, one brave Blenheim owner decided to step out from Tony Crook's long shadow. I eventually encountered a Bristol Blenheim in front of a sturdy brick manse in northern England, bathed in afternoon sun. Suffice it to say, the car's design did not complement it salubrious surrounds. It's angular aesthetics were a far cry from the organic, streamlined forms of Bristol's earlier models. As for the way the Blenheim was put together…
"What are the two things that can be seen from outer space?" the owner asked rhetorically. "The Great Wall of China and the panel gaps of a Bristol." True enough, despite the fact that this particular Blenheim had recently enjoyed a body-off restoration– to eliminate rot. Which was discovered after the car's paint had cracked (necessitating a total re-spray). Whereupon the owner's mechanics addressed a veritable laundry list of mechanical ailments: inoperative air conditioning, "inappropriate" shock absorbers, a failed exhaust system, two blown window motors, axle whine, insufficient engine cooling and more.
This tragic tale of mechanical malfeasance was easily eclipsed by the horror lurking inside the Blenheim's cabin. To call the combination of wood, cheap rocker switches, tiny mirror controls, gigantic air conditioner, fiddly Japanese stereo and seemingly random assortment of switches, buttons and knobs "unattractive" would be like calling a drag racer "quick off the mark". The Blenheim's interior is such a hideous concoction of styles and textures the snooty millionaire mentioned above felt compelled to redesign and rewire the entire dash.
Once underway, the much-repaired Blenheim handled better than you'd expect– for a car whose chassis dates back to 1946. At the time, it must have been a revelation. By today's standards, Group A rental cars offer better ride and road-holding. As for power, the 5.9-liter V8 felt decidedly reluctant. When I asked if the odd sound under throttle indicated some kind of problem, the owner told me to drop the subject.
All in all, as my father would say, "another myth exploded". The Bristol Blenheim offered insufferable build quality, questionable reliability and appalling aesthetics. Yet it cost twice as much as a top-of-the-line Mercedes, BMW or Porsche. Tony Crook will disagree to the point of apoplexy, but the only possible justification for buying a Blenheim lies in its rarity and its connection with Bristol's famous heritage. For some wealthy owners, a handful, it is enough.
But is it enough to keep the Bristol Car Company going? Probably not. Which is why, under new co-ownership, Bristol has produced a new car built around a Chrysler V10 engine. As test drives are still strictly verboten, one can only hope that the Bristol Fighter signals a return to the company's glory days of meticulous build and innovative engineering. If not, no amount of badge snobbery can sustain this manufacturer of overpriced, under-engineered automobiles.