The Bristol Fighter and Marcos TSO were bold attempts to inject new life into two fading British marques. Ultimately they failed, but what a way to go. Words Daniel Bevis. Photography Charlie Magee.
THE LAST HURRAH BRISTOL FIGHTER vs. MARCOS TSO
Last gasps from two great British manufacturers
When we sell our business, you should buy me one of these.’ The words of Nick McGarvey’s wife back in 2006, as she laid a copy of The Sunday Times on the office desk and casually pointed out the Electric Blue Bristol Fighter spread across its crinkly pages. Fast-forward to 2013 and the McGarveys found themselves buying that very car, the one featured in this very article.
Fate loves to offer up these moments of serendipity, doesn’t she? Indeed, both of the cars here prove the gentle (if somewhat mercurial) whims of fate: cars that rose phoenix-like in the mid-2000s from the ashes of two revered British marques. This was a golden age of madcap supercar/GT concepts, with showgoers the world over being wowed by such bizarre trinkets as the Peugeot 907, Toyota Alessandro Volta and Cadillac Cien, but the Fighter and the Marcos TSO were the two that slipped the net and made it to production. Well, sort of… The total number of TSOs produced was a slender eight. Fighters? There’s a little malleability in the reality here, but the common consensus is that nine were built.
‘DRIVING THE MARCOS TODAY REVEALS JUST HOW CORRECT THE ORIGINAL FORMULA WAS. THE PACKAGE HAS STOOD THE TEST OF TIME INCREDIBLY WELL’
Each car represented a bold move on the part of its respective maker. Much in the same way that when a band gets a new frontman and releases the first album with the fresh line-up (Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast, say, or AC/DC’s Back in Black), there was always going to be a push-back from the faithful. Such things can never stand alone, there’s too much precedent, too much weight of history. Would dyed-in-the-wool Bristol enthusiasts baulk at the idea of a gullwinged supercar? After all, logic surely dictates that Bristol owners don’t want supercars, and supercar owners don’t want Bristols. How about the Marcos fans: would they rail against something with so much TVR DNA (the team that created the TSO having included a number of refugees from Blackpool)? As it turned out, such questions were largely moot, as events conspired to stymie both cars before they’d really got started. But did they deserve a wider audience? And how do they stand up today as rare and characterful super- GTs? That’s what we’re about to find out.
‘THE FIGHTER WAS MARKEDLY DIFFERENT FROM EVERY BRISTOL THAT PRECEDED IT’
While the Fighter was markedly different to every Bristol that preceded it, the notion of building cars with little regard for broad market appeal was a very Bristol way to behave. That stemmed from Tony Crook, the racing driver and motor dealer who became part-owner of Bristol Cars in 1960 and took full ownership in ‘1973. His prickly nature was the stuff of legend – he famously flipped the showroom sign to ‘closed’ when he saw Michael Winner looking through the window. He also loathed journalists, maintaining a position that the only way to road-test a Bristol was to buy one.
To the relief of Bristol fans, Crook’s successor, Toby Silverton – who became part owner in 1997, then chairman and proprietor from 2002 – was cut from much the same cloth. It speaks volumes that the Fighter’s lack of a drivers airbag was cited as being due to the belief that most buyers would be pipe-smokers. This was not rational, focus-group-driven car-making.
Silverton, however, was also a progressive and was determined to carry the marque into the 21st Century. The Fighter project, then, was ambitious and audacious – not least for its astonishing 8-litre V10 engine sourced from the Dodge Viper, its cylinder heads, valvegear, ignition and fuelling re-engineered to be more Bristol- like. The body, too, is more than just a set of zany doors.
A box-section chassis with twin tubular steel rollover hoops is swathed in aluminium panels, with carbonfibre doors and rear hatch, the whole thing remarkably bereft of aero appendages for a 200mph supercar and boasting a drag coefficient of just 0.28.
Meanwhile, similarly seismic happenings were transpiring at reborn Marcos. A clean-sheet design, the TSO was true to the spirit of the firm’s V8 sports car heritage but brought things howling into the modern age. For a marque whose history was plagued by financial crises, it was the arrival of Canadian tycoon Tony Stelliga in 2002 that kickstarted the TSO project. Picking former owner Jem Marshs brains to form Marcos Engineering, Stelliga’s vision for the TSO was to build an affordable (c£50k) and thoroughly useable coupe, with a Chevy LS6 V8, a chassis honed by Prodrive, and styling by TVRs Damian McTaggart. And while it may not have gullwings, the doors are still pretty nifty: a hidden button pops them open with a solenoid, providing amusing drama before you’ve even entered – and causing momentary anxiety when you come to exit, as the door release buttons inside aren’t labelled. Again, very TVR.
The car we have here is the original development mule, the GT2, as tested by Richard Hammond on Top Gear. It sports a 6.0-litre LS2 rather than the 5.7-litre LS6 found in other TSOs – which means that instead of the standard 422bhp it’s packing closer to 500bhp. Owner Mike Andrews is a long-time Marcos enthusiast, having bought a 1600 in 1976 when he was 24; in the decades since, he’s owned most models in the oeuvre, and at the time of acquiring the TSO GT2 he had two other Marcoses in the garage – a Mantis and a Mantara. ‘This TSO was developed in 2005, and I actually drove it a couple of weeks before its appearance on Top Gear,’ he recalls. ‘I remember loving it at the time, and when the receivers were called in in 2007, the company’s assets were scheduled for auction in April ’08. My son went to the sale to bid on my behalf, and I couldn’t believe it when I actually won the car!’
Reality hit when he went to collect it. ‘They should have told me to bring a trailer,’ he recalls with a grimace. ‘The driver’s door wouldn’t shut, the clutch didn’t really do anything, the engine was only firing on six cylinders. It was a 270-mile journey home, and I spent the entire trip furious that I’d spent £25,000 on an absolute dog.’ The buyer’s remorse soon lifted though; after three or four weeks of DIY repairs he had it all ship-shape, and it’s been fabulously reliable since. In 11 years of ownership, it’s only let him down once, and that was due to a blown fuel pump fuse. Given that the car was built as a concept showpiece and testbed, that really is remarkable.
Driving the Marcos today reveals just how correct the original formula was, because the package has stood the test of time incredibly well. Tony Stelliga’s brief to the TVR-sourced team had been to ‘build the sort of sports car you’d want for yourself’, and the touchpoints are all here, the Blackpool DNA apparent from the beautifully machined tailgate hinges to the swooping dash and semi-circle of warning lights above the tiny steering wheel. The cockpit’s pretty cosy: your legs disappear way beneath the dash in the style of a single-seater, your hand on the wheel just a flex of the fingertips from the screen and A-pillar, but it doesn’t feel constricted; it feels focused, enhancing the sense of being at one with the machine.
The hefty mechanicals are reassuring – the Tremec gearbox doesn’t like to be rushed, but the shift action is pleasingly solid and the perfect accompaniment to the brawny LS2 motor. The V8 doesn’t bellow like a muscle car, the sound muted and refined – until you reach 4000rpm, at which point the greater part of hell breaks loose and you find yourself going to catch another gear almost instinctively. Don’t, though: the higher the revs, the more compelling the power delivery becomes.
Shimmering through curves with balletic poise, then monstering the straights on a wave of brutal American torque, this feels every inch the modern sports car, and yet the interior appointments remind you that this is a vision of the old-school.
The Bristol is an entirely different affair, and in some ways a surprising one. On paper, you’d expect it to be an absolute thug. The V10 motor is a brilliantly silly idea that could have come straight from the Spinal Tap movie – if a V8 is good, then a V10 has to be two louder – and those party-piece gullwing doors and whacking great exhausts reinforce the point. (In fact, owner Nick informs us, the exhaust tails are dummies on this car, the real outlets exiting below the car so as not to dirty up the rear.)
But no, if anything the Fighter is almost absurdly refined. Not fighty at all. The interior is nicely detailed and free of creaks and rattles, sumptuously crafted and clearly made with love. The switches have satisfyingly firm clicks. There are also reminders of the marque’s aeronautic heritage; much as the exterior exhibits laminar flow with its absence of spoilers and diffusers, so the interior is packed with an improbable number of gauges in the dash binnacle, below the steering wheel and in the roof. There’s even an engine-hours gauge: a nod perhaps to the original 1916 Bristol Fighter.
While the engine is undoubtedly muscular, it purrs rather than rumbles, and the extra space in the cabin – combined with the colossal glasshouse, which affords excptional all-round vision – makes for a very different proposition to the Marcos. The Fighter is a car you could happily cross continents in, and get out without wincing at your brutalised spine.
But what really characterises the experience is the V10’s torque. It’s little short of incredible. The gearbox is precise and short of throw, but its six ratios seem largely redundant as this car simply picks up its skirts and hares for the horizon in any gear, at any speed. It feels almost supercharged, the power is so immediate.
It doesn’t handle with quite the agility and precision of the Marcos, and it has a tendency to tramline, perhaps partly because the front tyres are the same width as the rears. But once you’ve made peace with the fact that it’s a physical contraption to steer, you can simply file that under ‘technique’ and sit back and waft. It’s so cosseting, you almost stop noticing that everyone’s gawping and taking photos… because that’s what happens with cars as rare and special as these.
‘We call the Bristol “The Unicorn”,’ grins Nick. ‘If I had a fiver for every time someone told me they’d never seen a Fighter before, I’d be able to afford two more!’ Both cars are masters of the unexpected. Most people will never see one, but that doesn’t mean they’re dusty relics or that they’re challenging to use: a decade-and-a-half on, both of these machines are reliable, engaging, fast, poised and refined. Endearingly, both have gained the odd personal touch here and there, too; the Fighter, for instance, has a champagne cork for a washer filler bung, presented by the head of the House of Taittinger when Nick took part in the Beaujolais Run. Such details go to prove that these cars aren’t museum pieces, they’re just, well, they’re cars, built to be driven and enjoyed. Just as fate can be kind, however, so she can be cruel; Marcos was losing money on every TSO, and Bristol wasn’t faring much more brightly with the Fighter. In both cases the numbers simply weren’t sustainable. So today these cars are visions of what might have been. A 21st-Century future for two thoroughly 20th-Century brands that didn’t quite happen. But the cars themselves deserved better. The production numbers may have been tiny, but each in its own way is a winning blend of form and function.
THANKS TO Nick McGarvey, Mike Andrews, Greys Court and the National Trust; and to Robin Harman at Hagerty Insurance for extending the Marcos’s mileage limit for the shoot!
Below and right: Both cars are unashamedly old-school front-engine/rear-wheel drive; just that the Bristol happens to be packing an 8-litre V10, a mildly reworked version of the Dodge Viper unit (and a Champagne-cork stopper for the washer bottle!).
Clockwise from left: Gullwing doors eased access to Fighter’s airy cockpit, complete with engine-hours gauge; new interpretation of Marcos name featured Chevy V8, boasting up to 500bhp.
Left and below: Shades of 1990s TVRs in the Marcos are no coincidence: the project team included a number of ex-TVR employees, and the car was conceived to attract the sort of buyers that previously bought Gnffiths and Chimaeras.
2005 Marcos TSO GT2
Engine 5665cc V8 (this car 5967cc)
Max Power 422bhp @ 5400rpm (this car c500bhp)
Max Torque 470lb ft @ 4200rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted
Suspension Double wishbones, coil springs over dampers, anti-roll bars
Brakes AP Racing calipers, vented discs
Top speed 186mph (claimed)
0-60mph 4.2sec (claimed)
Price new £49.950
2006 Bristol Fighter
Engine 7990cc V10
Max Power 525bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque 525lb ft @ 4200rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, rear-wheel drive, LSD
Steering Rack and pinion, power-assisted
Suspension Double wishbones, coil springs over dampers, anti-roll bars
Brakes AP Racing calipers, vented and cross-drilled discs
Top speed 210mph (claimed)
0-60mph 4sec (claimed)
Price new £229,125