Tony Crook’s Finest Hour. The greatest Bristol? Martin Buckley reckons that the underrated 603 deserves the crown. So says Martin Buckley as he argues in favour of the once-maligned Bristol 603 and its siblings as the best V8 models produced by the company. Photography James Mann.
There are prettier Bristols, rarer Bristols, and faster Bristols, but I’m here to make a case for the 603 as the most interesting of the V8s, certainly the most underrated, and maybe the most accomplished. If the targa-like 1975 412, styled by Zagato, was a slight distraction, the 603 from the following year was Bristol getting back to what it knew best: a V8-powered, two-door saloon providing ‘dignified express travel for four people and their luggage’.
The two most formative dates in Bristol’s history are 1947 – the year in which it started building cars – and 1960 (when Bristol Cars became a separate commercial entity from the aircraft building firm), but what about ’73? That was when Tony Crook bought out Sir George White’s shares in the company. By then able to take full control of Bristol Cars Ltd’s future, it was in that year, in the teeth of the three-day week and the fuel crisis, that Crook instructed his faithful chief engineer Dudley Hobbs to start work on a simpler, sturdier and roomier replacement for the 411. The aged model was in its fourth incarnation and had a visual lineage that could be traced back 15 years to the 406.
The significance of the 2.2-litre 406 was not only that it was the last of the six-cylinder Bristols, but it was also the first with a body built by an outside coachbuilder, Jones Brothers. When Chrysler power arrived in ’61 (in the 407), Park Royal Vehicles took over production but the basic shape remained, its 16-gauge alloy panels laboriously hand-beaten and wheeled. Periodically updated, it was still selling steadily 12 years later in 6.6-litre 411 form at Bristol’s selfimposed limit of no more than two cars a week.
Crook must have been feeling quite bullish about the future of this tiny firm. With Aston struggling and Jensen about to die, Bristol was a rare bright spot in the British specialist car industry circa ’73. The impetus for a new model was twofold: firstly, even Bristol customers were beginning to ask for a more modern-looking car than the 411. More significantly, the contract with Park Royal meant that new bodies had to be taken and paid for even when demand dropped. Park Royal, whose main activity was building bus bodywork, closed down in 1980 anyway, so remaining tied to the company would have stored up problems for the future.
Ever the rational businessman, Crook saw that, by bringing body production in-house again, he could control costs more effectively and, at the same time, offer a ‘new’ model for the mid-’70s with several important improvements. Enter, at the 1976 Earls Court Show, the 603, so named in recognition of the City of Bristol’s 603-year-old Royal Charter. Being superstitious, 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, this was a curiously ungainly piece of nonstyling 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 ‘tumblehome’.
The 603’s body sections were not only easy and cheap to press out (by the Adwest Group on simple tooling), but also allowed more interior space for the company’s increasingly prosperous, increasingly middle-aged clientele. The 603 had a useful 6½in of extra cabin breadth 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. It was still based on the same box-section, 9ft 6in-wheelbase chassis – directly inherited from BMWs of the 1930s, and heavily promoted by Crook as a safety feature. It also still had a ‘wing bay’ on each side for the spare wheel and the battery, thus helping to keep the centre-of-gravity low and liberate boot space.
And it was still powered by a Chrysler V8 (although a little smaller at 5.9 litres) with the quiet American hydraulic tappets that Bristol had once so mistrusted, plus its own high-lift camshaft. These 360cu in engines, with that hotter cam and stripped of the worst of their emissions paraphernalia, made more than the Chrysler-quoted 172bhp, although exactly how much Bristol was not revealing.
Whatever the case, the 603S 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 have 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 the new car was designed to appeal to at £30,000.
The really hard-up mid-’70s 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 of those 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. That said, I would stop short of making too many flattering comparisons with ‘aircraft quality’; that Bristol ideal really ended with the 2-litre cars.
By that point, the 603 was entirely Crook’s conception of what a Bristol should be: partly the car that his customers were asking him for, but mostly the car that he thought they needed.
Working his 65-hour week, flying between the factory at Filton and the showroom on London’s Kensington High Street, the indomitable Mr Crook personally sorted the 603’s handling, ride and brakes, although it was telling that most of the ageing owners left the adjustable Koni shock absorbers on the ‘Max Soft’ setting.
Crook had no interest in producing bird-pulling muscle cars: his 603 was more than ever focused on refinement, safety and decent 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. It was not an exotic car but a practical one, which is perhaps where people misunderstand the 603. The Bristol featured detail developments not normally found in small-production 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 that his customers were sophisticated and actually used their vehicles, racking up high mileages rather than treating them as toys.
The 603’s big screens and slim pillars, for instance, afforded such outstanding all-round vision that Bristol struggled to find a rear-view mirror large enough to take in the vista. By then, Crook considered his car’s ventilation so good that he discouraged customers from ordering air-conditioning, although he had to give in to demands for power-adjustable seats.
This 603S, furnished by long-term specialist SLJ Hackett (along with its successors the Britannia and Blenheim for comparison), was delivered new in January 1977, so it must have been one of the first customer cars. The dark grey paint flatters the awkward shape (but the later alloys look out of place) and goes nicely with the dark grey leather interior, which has that level of well-loved usage that reminds you of a favourite pair of comfy crumpled shoes.
The plethora of British Leyland switchgear grates – particularly the ignition with that miserable-looking key – but it’s hard to fault the driving position, those great all-around views or the classic Bristol instrument nacelle, first seen on the 404. It’s still one of my favourite dashboard designs and Crook saw no reason to change it on the 603, but there are also interesting details such as lockable cubbyholes in the rear quarter panels and handy zips in the backs of the seats, showing that he was trying hard with this car to give it a flavour quietly distinct from the 411.
On the road the 603 does not have the rowdy, crowd-pleasing acceleration of the big-block cars from the previous series, but gathers 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. The Torqueflite gearchanges flow through imperceptibly and, with the throttle levelled, there is only a hint of the guttural firing pulses that are distinctly V8.
It is a long and narrow car, its slenderness tending to emphasise the body roll on roundabouts and slow, tight corners, but its general composure is never in doubt – particularly on long, fast, smoothly surfaced curves – as is the excellence of the ZF power steering, which was the equal of any in the world for sensitivity.
These civilised themes were expanded on with the Britannia in 1982. The first Bristol model to be named rather than numbered, it outwardly shared only the roof, doors and glass with the outgoing 603 and seems to have been an attempt to answer criticisms of the previous car’s styling, with slimmer bumpers, a tidier nose (with rectangular headlamps) and a rounded profile to the rear wings where the roof flows into them.
Looking at the Britannia in the metal, you still want to take some tin snips to the rear roof pillars and pinch them in – and then find a more graceful solution for the rear lights, which appear to have been nicked off a late-model Bedford CF van, stocks of the old Hillman Hunter-type found on the 603 having, presumably, run dry. The Jaguar XJ steel wheels with ‘blazer button’ hubcaps suit it much better than the alloys, though, and the oblong lights look more contemporary.
Naturally enough, the Britannia performs much like the 603; you can tailor a perfect driving position on the six-way power-adjustable seats, and inhale the aroma of the Connolly hide (cloth was available, but I’ve never seen it). Then you can just sit back and enjoy the quiet authority of the smoothness and power, only slightly spoilt on this example by a noisy rear axle.
There are more luxuries inside the Britannia: Crook was under pressure, at the £46,000 mid-’80s price-tag, to standardise air-con (it looks an afterthought stuffed under the middle of the dash) and fit door mirrors that were both power-adjustable and heated. The dampers – by Spax rather than Koni – could still be adjusted to customers’ tastes, yet, like the other cars here, the Britannia has a pleasingly taut but comfortable ride that is in keeping with the car’s character, the back axle being located by a Watt linkage and sprung by self-levelling torsion bars.
It could easily cope with more power, and for those customers Crook offered the Brigand with its Rotomaster turbocharger, which put the acceleration back in the 411 class.
I saw one at my first Motor Show at the NEC, Birmingham 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 Esquire cheerfully showing the great unwashed his cars personally on the stand. There is an interesting note in a press release from that show saying that Bristol Cars would not be doing the rival Motor Fair at Earls Court that year because it had ‘sufficient orders… and our showrooms are in any case a few minutes’ walk from Earls Court’.
The Blenheim appeared in 1994 and was once again named after a wartime Bristol aircraft. It was the first radical visual departure from the original 603 and not really a happy one in that respect. No matter how many times, through 13 years and four different series, its creators played with headlamp arrangements, body mouldings and Kevlar bumpers, the simple fact was that the basic 603 proportions had fallen so far behind modern taste that they were immune to change.
The tidied-up Blenheim 2 arrived in ’98, with a wider front track, lighter seats, new instruments and a tighter steering lock chief among several improvements. On the Blenheim 3 were further attempts at softening the awkward styling (including a splitter fairing below the grille); it also benefited from extra 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 £124,550 for what, outside of a Morgan, was the ultimate anachronism in modern motoring. At that money, the Bristol was by no means the most expensive car among its contemporaries. The £68,000 being asked for this S3 – first owned by Bristol and Aston Martin collector Simon Draper – suggests that these last-of-the-line V8 models have held their value quite well compared to the Silver Seraphs, Virages and 456GTs of this world.
And if you can live with the looks, there is a lot to be said for the Blenheim. With a fully managed, sequentially injected version of the 360cu in Chrysler motor – mated to the firm’s latest four-speed automatic – Crook boasted of 30mpg at 70mph, with the V8 ticking over at 1700rpm in top. That gives the Blenheim a restful, modern feeling on the road, although the gearing is so high that it tends to run away with itself if you don’t press the ‘off’ button on the overdrive at the appropriate moment. The fascia still features the Series 2 XJ switchgear, but the chunky wheel looks out of place in this sober cabin – as does the radio plonked on top of the dash.
The steering is one of the Blenheim’s main charms. The gearing is fractionally quicker than the earlier models, the assistance tweaked down and with enough going on to keep you involved yet with the distractions filtered out. Hooning half-sideways through roundabouts is beneath the dignity of the capable, sorted Blenheim, but you feel as if it would do so safely, if reluctantly, had we slipped away from our chaperones.
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, although it was not enough to keep the last of these effortless Chrysler V8-powered grand tourers relevant and saleable in the 21st century.
The demise of the Blenheim series in 2009 brought the story of Bristol Cars to a temporary pause, although it is hard not to feel that the momentum behind the ideal of producing practical, hand-made luxury conveyances that could be endlessly improved and repaired (rather than thrown away) died with Tony Crook.
Meanwhile, the once-unloved 603 seems to be about to have its day. Richard Hackett (see panel), who worked alongside Crook at Bristol, tells me that interest in the various models is increasing and, inevitably, prices are rising as the values of the earlier cars become increasingly out of reach. “They are also much rarer cars than people generally realise,” Hackett points out. “Production figures are about half what you might imagine.” Crook kept all of that info to himself, and it has only recently come to light.
So once again I have missed the boat. 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 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.
Thanks to SLJ Hackett, which has three Blenheims for sale: www.sljhackett.co.uk
Tony Crook gave the young Richard Hackett (on right) a job as a salesman in the mid-’60s and he worked for Bristol until 1976 when he joined Maranello Concessionaires. “I was aware of the 603 and saw a few photos before I left,” he recalls. “It was made in much smaller numbers than the 411s; we had an 18-month waiting list for those in 1969, and were making them at the rate of one a week – the ‘no more than two a week’ rule only applied to the ’50s cars. As few as 10 a year of the 603 and its successors were made; they are really rather underestimated.”
He says that people are starting to spend more on them, but it is an entry-level model – for a Bristol that runs and drives – at about £20,000: “The market is pretty small because there just aren’t that many and, to be honest, they don’t sell easily. Out of the 18 cars that we’ve sold since SLJ Hackett was launched last year, only one was a 603 – actually a Brigand.”
Peter Campbell, MD of sister firm Spencer Lane-Jones, says that the carb pre-Blenheim versions make up to £40,000 – “but you can easily end up with more than that in one” – whereas the best 411s are about £60,000.
Blenheims are still young enough to be valued on mileage: the featured S3 is being offered at £68,000 and, with its high gearing and fuel injection, is still a working, usable daily driver: “The nice thing about these cars is that all of the parts are available from Bristol or specialists like us – even body panels.”
Tech and photo
‘CROOK SAID THAT THE CURIOUS NON-STYLING “DIDN’T CAUSE OFFENCE IN MODERN SOCIETY”’
‘IT LEANS, BUT THE COMPOSURE IS NEVER IN DOUBT – NOTABLY IN LONG, FAST CORNERS’
‘HOONING SIDEWAYS IS BENEATH ITS DIGNITY, BUT YOU FEEL AS IF IT WOULD DO SO SAFELY’
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS BRISTOL 603S (603E); BRITANNIA
Sold/no built 1976-’1982; 1982-’1994/64 (all)
Construction steel chassis, alloy body
Engine all-iron, overhead-valve 5898cc
Chrysler V8 to Bristol spec (5211cc), four-barrel carburettor (two-barrel)
Max power not disclosed
Max torque not disclosed
Transmission three-speed Torqueflite automatic gearbox, driving rear wheels
Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar rear live axle, torsion bars, Watt linkage
Steering ZF power-assisted recirculating ball
Brakes Girling discs all round, with servo
Length 16ft 1 ¼ in (4909mm)
Width 5ft 9 ½ in (1765mm)
Height 4ft 8 ¾ in (1441mm)
Wheelbase 9ft 6in (2896mm)
Weight 3935lb (1785kg)
0-60mph 8.6 secs (10.9 secs)
Top speed 140mph
Price new £29,984; £46,000
Price now £20-40,000+
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS BRISTOL BLENHEIM (where different)
Sold/no built 1994-’2009/34
Engine microprocessor-controlled, sequential, multi-port fuel injection
Transmission four-speed automatic
Length 15ft 11 ¼ in (4858mm)
Weight 3884lb (1761kg)
Price new £124,550 (’1998)
Price now £50-70,000