Bristol Cars is officially past tense, and that’s sad. While the cars may have been something of an acquired taste in some cases, the fact remains that Bristol took a huge amount of pride in what it did. The cars were, and still are, exquisite in terms of drive and build and because of that, Bristol Cars truly was one of the greatest British car-makers we ever had. It truly is a shame the company has gone.
We covered the history of the Bristol Car Company in our ‘What Could Have Been’ piece last year, and subsequently, we learned of SLJ Hackett, which exists today as a hub for the restoration and preservation of Bristol cars. They also, in the name of keeping the brand alive, carry a great deal of Bristol-shaped stock. This is good, because by having these cars it has afforded us the chance to drive some incredible cars like the Bristol 402 drophead. An incredible car from bumper to bumper.
However, as lovely as the 402 is, we were left wanting to drive a more modern Bristol offering. Happily, Richard at SLJ Hackett was more than happy to accommodate us, and suggested we go for a drive in this 1998 Bristol Blenheim Series 2. Never ones to pass up an opportunity to drive a rare classic, we loaded up the camera and headed out to Warminster. Plus, we felt, given the recent sad news about Bristol, that to drive one now would perhaps be somewhat more poignant.
Arriving at SLJ Hackett, the first thing we saw was the Blenheim. There is no other way to describe it than to say it’s an imposing machine. Intimidating almost. It’s impossibly long; the bonnet is easily big enough for a game of five-a-side. The doors are massive, the trunk lid too. Yet curiously, this giant beast sits on tiny 15-inch alloy wheels. Try describing it without any visual aids and it wouldn’t work, the mind’s eye wouldn’t be able to balance out the proportions. In reality though, it seems to work. The traditional ‘three box’ design is perfectly proportioned, despite being bigger than the Exxon Valdez.
The Blenheim didn’t start life as you see it here. It’s actually an evolution model, and as such, we can trace its mechanical genealogy back to the Bristol Type 603 of 1976. It was built to replace the 411. It was an altogether more ‘period’ car, with a design that heavily relied on huge, flat expanses of metal. It was angular to say the least, but, as we said, it was very ‘of the time’. Initially, it was powered by a 5.2 V8, though that would grow over the years.
Over the years, the 604 evolved into the 603S2, then the 603S3 (known as the Britannia and Brigand – these were the first Bristol models to have names from the company’s aeronautical past, not just numbers). The Britannia was the main model, while the Brigend featured a Rotomeister turbocharger, which gave the car a potential top speed of 150mph.
Then, we arrive at the Blenheim. Again, in Bristol tradition, this was not a new car but was in fact an evolution of the models before it. Though to Bristol’s credit, it was heavily re-worked. Multi-point fuel injection was added to the 5.9 Chrysler V8. The turbocharged option was taken away, but only because the newly improved V8 could match the top end performance of the Brigand. Other changes included the styling, which was ‘softened’ with Vauxhall Senator rear lights, and twin circular headlights.
In 1998, we were presented with the Blenheim S2, which is the car we have here. More improvements were added, including a four-speed automatic transmission with overdrive, the engine was once again reworked resulting in a healthy output of 260hp and the wheel track was widened which improved both stability and turning circle. Designers at Bristol also changed the face of the car by fitting bigger headlights and creating a larger grille opening.
Admittedly, even with the evolution of the model, it remains a strange-looking machine. The generous proportions are unlike anything else on the road, and as such, it has enviable presence. It’s not hard on the eyes, though. The ‘three box’ nature of the design is, after all, a tried and tested formula.
However, one doesn’t buy a Blenheim to look at it. You buy it to drive it, and man alive, what an experience that is. The first thing you encounter is the door, which is akin to opening the door of a bank vault. At this first interaction with the Blenheim, you instantly know it’s a solid, old machine. Slide in behind the large, three-spoke steering wheel and you could be forgiven for thinking you had actually taken a seat in a luxurious gentlemen’s club. There are acres of leather and walnut, the carpets are deep, the seats are outrageously comfortable and despite the car being the size of an airbase, it actually feels quite intimate. It’s also built well, very well, in fact. Looking at the detail of the leather and other fittings, you can tell a craftsman has laboured over them for hours. You can tell it was built with a real sense of pride. And it’s well-designed, too. The switches are all comically large, and all operate with a pleasing ‘thunk’, the dash is large and forthcoming with information. It’s a lovely place to be.
Crank it over and that big Chrysler V8 barks into life without hesitation, but also without drama. The Blenheim has a V8 because it’s a big, old machine, not because it wants to shred rubber. Knock the shifter into D and away you go. The throttle is remarkably responsive, which is pleasing as it helps to give a sense of control. The revs build and the shifts from gear to gear are effortless. This is a relaxing car to drive. While we have no doubt it can hustle along if asked, it’s not what this car is about.
Out on the road the cabin is serene. The work done to this model to improve the suspension is evident, as it swallows up the bumps and other imperfections with aplomb. As we meander through Warminster’s narrow streets, we can’t help but notice how honest the Blenheim is in terms of its proportions. And by that, we mean you soon become familiar with the size of the car. Visibility is excellent, and so you know where all four corners are. There’s no grimacing as you squeeze through traffic – the joys of a boxy design.
As we clear the town and press on to roads with a faster pace, we lean on the throttle. The Blenheim takes the input from the pedal and gently, but quickly delivers the message to the rear wheels. Revs increase, but there is no drama, no urgency. It’s serene and relaxed. As we hook into sweeping bends we can’t help but be impressed by the control the Blenheim has. There’s a bit of body roll, but nowhere near as much as you would expect. Back on a clear, open straight, we push the pedal further into the deep carpet and the big Bristol rewards us with an impressive increase in speed. There is a lot of torque at play here, it’s clear.
This is the kind of car you pack your bags into before heading off to the South of France, and when you get there, you don’t feel drained or achy. It’s a big-mile cruiser, a car to eat away at the miles whilst making them feel like meters. It has the perfect balance of feel and feedback, while also taking any extra effort out of the drive. It reminds you with every input that it very much needs you, but it’ll make it as comfortable as possible. It’s quite magnificent.
Back at the SLJ workshop and we’re left to ponder our drive. We can’t help but be saddened a little by the demise of Bristol. However, what has happened has happened, and that can’t be helped. Instead, we have to be glad of companies like SLJ Hackett that take so much pride in these cars. The Blenheim we drove is arguably one of, if not the best out there, having been lavished with £30,000 of work over the last decade. And that’s testament to how far SLJ are willing to go to keep the marque alive.
This Blenheim in particular is the perfect representation of how Bristol did things. With only 56,000 miles on the clock, it’s barely broken in. We might not be able to get a new one, but cars like this will get us close. And this award-winning car could even be yours, and for just £39,950, which is tremendous value for something of such significance and rarity. And trust us, if you take it for a drive like we did, you too will fall for its charms. Now, to the South of France…