Guilty pleasures: Bristol 603

| 26 Jun 2019
Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Bristol 603

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It’s taken more than 40 years but I have finally, too late, reconciled myself to the shape of this car just as it goes beyond my budget.

Somehow, the charm of the Bristol 603 – like so many of life’s better things – has quietly crept up on me over the decades, to the point where it seems to encapsulate the very essence of this marque’s curious appeal.

There are prettier Bristols, rarer Bristols, faster Bristols: but I’m here to make a case for the 603 as the most interesting of the V8s, certainly the most underrated.

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Bristol 603
Strong grip gives the 603 a fine ride

A simpler and sturdier replacement for the 411, the impetus for the 603 was the search for a more modern, roomier and cheaper-to-produce body that could be built in-house by Bristol Cars at Filton, rather than being coachbuilt in London.  

Enter, at the 1976 Earls Court Motor Show, the 603, so named in recognition of the City of Bristol’s 603-year-old Royal Charter. Being superstitious, Bristol boss Tony Crook would have regarded the more obvious 413 name as bad luck. 

Much narrower than a Silver Shadow (but only 2in longer than an XJ-S) the 603 was a curiously ungainly piece of non-styling that was at the same time quietly unpretentious and which, as Crook himself liked to put it, “doesn’t cause offence in modern society”. 

It was also an engineering-led shape designed for practicality rather than beauty; a saloon with two large doors, a big, deep boot and van-like vertical sides totally bereft of the visual relief of waistline ‘tumble-home’. That allowed for more interior space in what remained a narrow, handy car for city driving and a stable, quiet, high-geared one on the motorway, with the added refinement of cruise control as standard. 

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Bristol 603
Chrysler V8 built to Bristol’s spec and gives good performance

It was still based on the same box-section 9ft 6in-wheelbase chassis – directly inherited from BMWs of the ’30s and heavily promoted as a safety feature – and still had ‘wing bays’ for the spare wheel and the battery, thus helping to keep its centre-of-gravity low and simultaneously liberate boot space. 

And it was still powered by a Chrysler V8, although a little smaller now at 5.9 litres. These 360cu in engines, with that hotter cam and stripped of the worst of their emissions paraphernalia, made more than the Chrysler’s quoted 172bhp, although exactly how much Bristol were not saying.

Whatever the case, the 603 S was said to be good for 140mph with impressive, if not spectacular, acceleration and up to 20mpg if cruised legally. 

For £703 less you could instead buy the economy-minded 5.2-litre 603E with a two-barrel carb, but the promise of 24mpg on 2-star found little favour among the sporting plutocrats that this new £30,000 model was designed to appeal to. 

The really hard-up mid-’70s sportif tycoons could in any case save themselves 10 grand and buy an Aston Martin V8 or invest in two-and-a-half Jaguar XJ12 saloons. Both these British rivals were faster; but the 603 offered great steering feel and superior finish from such refinements as 17 coats of hand-rubbed-down paint. 

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Bristol 603
Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Bristol 603
Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Bristol 603
Airy cabin gives superb visibility – cluster design a constant from the ’50s

The 603 was now entirely Crook’s conception of what a Bristol should be: partly the car his customers were asking him for, but mostly the car he thought they needed. 

He personally sorted the 603’s handling, ride and brakes, but his new 603 was more than ever focused on refinement, safety and relatively good economy in a full four-seater; a car so nondescript that it wouldn’t fall out of fashion simply because it never courted fashion in the first place.

In short, it was not an exotic car, but a practical car – which is perhaps where people misunderstand the 603. 

It also featured detail developments not normally found in low-volume specialist vehicles. Crook could not afford to take a low-volume sports car maker’s attitude to refinements such as ventilation, wind noise and so on, because he knew his customers were sophisticated and actually used their cars, racking up high mileages rather than treating them as ‘toys’. 

The 603’s big screens and slim pillars, for instance, afforded such great all-round vision that Bristol struggled to find a rearview mirror large enough to take in the view.

Tony Crook now considered his ventilation so good that he discouraged customers from ordering air-conditioning, although he had to give in to demands for power-adjustable seats.

And there were interesting details such as lockable cubby holes in the rear quarter panels and handy zips in the backs of the seats that show Crook was trying hard with this car to give it a flavour quietly distinct from the 411. 

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Bristol 603
Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Bristol 603
(l-r) The Britannia’s oblong lamps make it look wider and more modern; interstellar gearing (40.72mph per 1000) makes Blenheim a relaxed cruiser

On the road, the 603 did not have the rowdy, crowd-pleasing acceleration of the big block cars of the previous series, but rather gathered pace with the sort of remote efficient decorum that was intended to give it boardroom appeal for those who wanted something less conspicuous than a Silver Shadow.

It was a long and narrow car, its general composure never in doubt, particularly on long, fast, smoothly surfaced curves. Its ZF power steering was the equal of any in the world for sensitivity. 

The 603’s story continued for another 30 years after the arrival of the original model. Its civilised themes were first expanded on in the Britannia and Brigand in 1982, the latter packing a Rotomaster Turbocharger which put the acceleration back in the 411 class. 

I saw one at my first Motor Show at the Birmingham NEC in 1984. The Brigand had a bulge in the bonnet to distinguish it from the Britannia and I still have an image in my head of a suited-and-booted Anthony Crook esq cheerfully showing the great unwashed his cars personally on the stand. 

The first of the Blenheims appeared in 1994 – once again named after a wartime Bristol aircraft. Although evidently based on the 603, it was the first radical departure from the original concept and not really a happy one visually: the simple fact was that the basic 603 proportions had fallen so far behind modern taste that they were immune to change. 

Classic & Sports Car – Guilty pleasures: Bristol 603
Bristol 603 (left) with its Blenheim and Britannia siblings

The tidied-up Blenheim 2 arrived in 1998, with a wider front track, lighter seats, new instruments and a tighter steering lock chief among several improvements. On the Blenheim 3, meanwhile, were further attempts at softening the styling (including a splitter fairing below the grille), more roll stiffness and improved engine management.

Actually, at the time most people applauded the fact that such a car existed at all and that it could still find a few discriminating people willing to part with £124,000 for what, outside of a Morgan, was the ultimate anachronism in modern motoring. 

If you could live with the looks, there was a lot to be said for the Blenheim. With a fully managed, sequentially injected version of the 360cu in Chrysler – mated to the firm’s latest four-speed automatic – Tony Crook boasted of 30mpg at 70mph with the V8 ticking over at 1700rpm. 

Perhaps the best that could be said for the Blenheim body, with its massive Vauxhall Senator rear lights, was that it could not be mistaken for anything other than a Bristol. 

That potent sense of identity is something modern-day manufacturers would kill for; but it was not enough to keep the last of these Chrysler V8-powered Bristols relevant and saleable in the 21st century. 

The demise of the Blenheim series in 2009 seems to have brought the story of Bristol cars to a (hopefully) temporary pause, although it is hard not to feel that the momentum behind the idea of producing practical, handmade luxury cars that could be endlessly improved and repaired (rather than thrown away) died with Tony Crook.

Meanwhile, the rare, practical and distinguished 603 seems to be about to have its day at last.

Images: James Mann


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