Thursday, 11 September 2008

Classic - Bristol 603

The British car industry. (Insert generic ‘lead balloon’ analogy here.) It’s a cliché, but clichés exist for a reason – once it was great, then it became, er, rather less good. Blah blah, heard it before.

It’s easy to make jokes about how the rub strips fall off Rover SD1s and the Wolseley Hornet couldn’t hold its oil, but we mustn’t overlook what a marvellous back catalogue we, as a nation, have to be proud of. The obvious example is the Mini; no words necessary on that subject. It was revolutionary. But scratch the surface and look at what else British Leyland were up to - in the seventies alone they churned out countless acres of Triumph Dolomites, Morris Marinas, Austin Princesses, Triumph Stags, all very sought after models in the 21st century. There was also the aforementioned SD1, the Jaguar XJS, the Range Rover… OK, the workforce were constantly on strike, the company had a ludicrously convoluted structure that led them to compete with themselves and, yes, there were more than a few Friday afternoon cars, but nevertheless the 40-odd manufacturing plants across the country powered through the ’73 oil crisis, the three-day week and some insanely disorganised management to mass-produce these icons in the face of near-insurmountable odds.

Well done, Britain of the seventies. Top work. The man in the street had a broad selection of stylish and affordable motors to choose from. But what about the well-heeled chap who required something more special, something unique? Forget Bentley, forget Rolls Royce. What you require, sir, is a Bristol.

One could argue that Bristol is the last bastion of quintessential British motoring. Hand-built, deliberately un-flashy, opulent to an absurd degree, and genuinely hard to source – the company has never had official distributors or dealerships. They have one showroom in Kensington High Street and an assembly centre in Filton, and that’s it. If you want one, you have to ask nicely. And be honest with yourself, when’s the last time you saw one on the road? Probably not recently, I’ll wager, although you may well have spotted one and not noticed simply because of Bristol’s peculiar design strategy. Take the Type 603, for example. Big and imposing if you’re up close, but if you didn’t know what it was then it probably wouldn’t catch your eye. This seems deliberate. It’s not exactly ugly, it’s just… unremarkable.

Don’t misconstrue this – it certainly isn’t holistically unremarkable. What it lacks in visual fizz, it makes up for in Rolls-shaming quality. The company bloodline trickles back to 1945, at which point you can imagine a cheery and victorious young whelp thinking ‘Gosh, that was a jolly caper. What does an industrially depleted nation require now?’ – bespoke luxury cars may not have been the most obviously viable solution at the time, but they must have done something right. Quality endures, and Bristol is all about quality.

The 603 is the archetypal Bristol, the one that you visualise when you hear the company name. Forget their modern attempts at Veyron-beating big-power leviathans with flappy doors and bad attitudes – the 603 is what Bristol means to the seven or eight people who’ve actually heard of them. The desire for luxury and the pursuit of quality course through the car like pure warm heroin through junk-starved veins; the sheer level of class that the car represents suggests that everybody at each stage of the design and production process was some sort of snotty tweed-clad eccentric. The engines on offer act as charming proof of this: the standard unit for the 603S was a 5.9-litre Chrysler V8 (not installed to deliver muscle-car hooligan thrills, of course, but to be Rolls Royce-esque in its lazy ‘adequate’ power). However, since the energy crisis was making the purchase of fuel quite a pricey business in the mid-seventies, there was also an economy version. The 630E merely had a 5.2-litre V8…

Fundamentally, the 603 is a series of dichotomies. It’s silly and staid in equal measure. The notion of a car that’s five metres long and only has two doors is peculiar – see the Bentley Brooklands - but it still manages to be understated despite its monstrous size. It whispers where it should shout. It sneaks in the back door and settles in front of your fireplace in your slippers and dressing-gown while the Bentleys and Rollers prance around on the lawn. The evolution of the 603 only served to further blend it into the highway scenery; the 603 S3 (otherwise known as the Brigand) looks strangely like a large Morris Marina from behind.

The fact that most people wouldn’t recognise a Bristol 603 if they saw one is testament to the company’s keenness to adhere to their original values. They are a great British marque for great British citizens; cars for people who are used to the best but feel no desire to demonstrate that fact to the general populus. Bristol is, if you like, the ultimate anti-bling – a Rolls in BL clothing. And remember – Bristol still exist, and they’re still British. Something we can all be proud of.

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