The secret world of Bristol Cars
Just seventy years after the founding of Bristol Cars, the world’s first specialist sales outlet for pre-owned models is open for business
TONY MIDDLEHURST/SLJ HACKETT
Tuesday 24 January 2017
Bristol is a remarkable company. It has a seven-decade heritage of hand-built luxury, performance, aviation aerodynamics and fine craftsmanship. Its cars – typically four-seat coupés, occasionally convertibles, but always fast and graceful – are laden with character, rarity, and investability.
Stories and legends drift through Bristol’s history like early morning mist drifting across a grouse moor. Much of this folklorish quality has arisen as a result of the historically stand-offish PR approach taken by Bristol Cars’ founders.
Although the mutual distrust and antipathy between Bristol and the press has sometimes backfired to the car maker’s disadvantage, the overall effect has been to build on the brand’s intriguing aura of mystique, and thereby cement the relationship between the company and its loyal band of followers.
A new Bristol, the open-top Bullet, has just been launched. The bad news is that it costs £250,000. The good news is that, for less than a tenth of that amount, you can own a classic Bristol.
First, though, you’ve got to find one for sale. Some kind of retail network would be normal for a manufacturer that’s been in business for 70 years, but in the quasi-mystical world of Bristol cars, the word ‘normal’ simply doesn’t apply. So far, there has been no physical sales point where customers might choose from a selection of vehicles. As private vendors often shun advertising, tracking down a biddable Bristol can be a sleuthing exercise demanding plenty of patience and a painstaking ability to piece together clues and leads.
Now, in Bristol’s 70th anniversary year, SLJ Hackett – the world’s first and only specialist in pre-owned Bristol sales – is opening its doors. The secret world of Bristol will also be opening up – and that’s a fascinating prospect.
Who are SLJ Hackett?
The initials in the company name stand for Spencer Lane-Jones, a Royal Engineers colonel who, after leaving the Army in the late 1980s, set up a quality car restoration service in the Wiltshire barracks town of Warminster.
Back then, British thoroughbreds from the likes of Aston Martin and AC rubbed shoulders with Bristols in SL-J Ltd’s restoration workshop space, but in more recent times the company’s hard-earned global reputation for top quality Bristol work has effectively shifted its focus onto the preservation of these highly distinctive grand tourers.
SL-J’s Bristol restoration operation will run alongside its new pre-owned Bristol SLJ Hackett sales function in recently acquired premises on the outskirts of Warminster. Lane-Jones’s engineering knowledge remains on tap to customers in his capacity of technical consultant.
Who might buy a Bristol?
Bristol owners have typically been characterised as an unostentatious and quirky coterie of moneyed eccentrics, country gentlefolk and non-establishment figures linked only by their shared determination to plough a unique furrow in life.
Those old-world stereotypes undoubtedly still exist, but today’s Bristol owner is just as likely to be a tech leader, venture capitalist, rock musician or internet startup guru.
The infinite rebuildability of these high-class expresses advances the concept of car ownership to a new one of car stewardship. Reverse depreciation invests them with an enduring appeal that will resonate as strongly with sharp investors and Shoreditch hipsters as it always has with the old money set.
When Bristol Cars opened for business in 1946 as an offshoot of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, product design was strongly driven by the parent company’s background in aviation. Aerodynamic body shapes allied to overdrive gearboxes maximized the potential of the relatively small-capacity but jewel-like Bristol engines, making the cars an excellent choice for high-speed Continental exploration.
Later, the adoption of hulking Chrysler V8 engines changed the character, size and shape of Bristol’s creations. Both power and mechanical manageability were boosted, and the deep pool of American V8 parts and knowledge built up over the years means that a 1966 Bristol 409 will be much easier to run and maintain in 2017 than it would have been when it was new.
Which brings us to the key advantage of restored Bristols: they can be updated. The relentless march of progress in tyres, fuels and oils has already lifted them up to a higher dynamic level and greatly improved fuel consumption. Replacing other everyday components with modern equivalents lifts them onto another plane altogether.
Handling takes a leap forward if you replace the innards of the older cars’ complex suspension units with Koni-style adjustable shock absorber parts, and add anti-roll bars and polyurethane bushes. Drum brakes can be upgraded with modern and much more effective pad materials or replaced by discs. Ignition, lighting, driveline, oil cooling and filtration systems can all be easily brought up to 21st century specifications, adding value, reliability and user-friendliness.
This sympathetic incorporation of modern mechanical technologies strikes a chord among those who distrust the electronic handling systems that festoon (and ultimately bring down) more modern cars.
Effectively, you end up with an original classic that runs as well as a modern one – and it can all be done ‘on the quiet’. Both old and new-world Bristol owners enjoy the in-joke of quietly combining the old-school look with cutting-edge technology. Fuel injection systems are disguised as carburettors; modern alternators sit inside dynamo cases; digital radios hide behind post-war fascias; and superchargers lurk unseen in the engine bay.
Prices of ‘obvious’ classic cars from big-name manufacturers such as Ferrari, Aston Martin and Porsche have already climbed to hedge-fund levels.
Finding the next sure-fire investment target has turned into a forensic exercise for market watchers. The Bristol is yet to come under the speculator’s microscope, but forces now at play – not least the creation of the highly credible SL-J Hackett Sales outlet – are giving a strong hint to investors about Bristol prospects.
The marque passes every test of investability. The heritage is strong, the products are hand-built and expertly restored, and stocks are extremely limited. Although an accurate figure on the total number of Bristols built in the 70 years since 1946 is impossible to find, it’s generally believed to be less than 3,000. In 2013 alone, nearly 30,000 Porsche 911s were built.
The key question of restoration costs also operates in Bristol’s favour. For sellers of restored classics, the price tag must at least cover not only the original purchase price of the car, but also of its rebuild – usually a considerably larger sum. The combined cost of ‘car plus work’ means that examples of even relatively common classics like Jaguar’s E-Type end up having to be advertised at unrealistic prices that reflect an owner’s outlay rather than the car’s true market value.
Restorable Bristols stand apart from many of the big-name classics in that they are currently still affordable. ‘Buying the best you can afford’ should always be the motto for anyone thinking of dabbling in classic cars, as labour will always be the biggest cost element in any restoration.
The beauty of a Bristol is that a scruffy but basically sound example with an MOT certificate might be picked up for less than £20,000 and then transformed by SL-J into something worth four or five times that, leaving comfortable financial headroom in the deal for the owner.
Bristol: myths and reality
• The new £250,000 Bristol Bullet combines a high-tech bonded aluminium chassis with carbonfibre composite bodywork.
Older Bristols made use of aluminium too, but only in the exquisitely hand-beaten curves of the bodywork. The chassis to which their bodies were attached was conceived in an age before airbags. The safety philosophy was to create a massive steel structure that would cocoon the occupants within its width. That simple theory has been borne out in practice. SL-J’s Colin Hubert tells the story of a Bristol famously coming into hard contact with an articulated lorry. The lorry sustained significant damage; the Bristol emerged relatively unscathed.
• Nowadays, even superminis easily achieve three-figure speeds, but things were different in the 1950s. A 100mph car was special. SLJ Hackett partner Richard Hackett recalls a mid-1950s trip to the south of France in the family Bristol during which his mother was lulled into a false perception of time by the effortless cruising ability of her husband’s streamlined coupé.
“We were on the Autoroute du Soleil,” he smiles, “and my mother was expressing some concern at the possibility of us arriving late at our destination.
“When I looked at the speedo I realised she had nothing to worry about. We were doing 5000rpm in overdrive top.” Few cars would have been travelling faster than the Hackett Bristol on that particular road at that particular time.
Curate a Bristol as you might look after a piece of fine furniture and your reward will be deep satisfaction, both during ownership and when the time comes to sell it on – assuming that such a time ever arrives. Bristol owners tend to hang onto their cars. One journey in a Bristol cabin – the automotive version of a Cambridge don’s study – is usually all it takes to understand why.
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Bristol car and matching helicopter