Monday, 9 November 2009

"An Education": David's Bristol Car

Watching An Education at the Watershed last night reminded me of an unusual day out I had a couple of years ago. I'd been commissioned to write something about Bristol Cars, the Filton-based company run by the secretive Tony Crook. Geoffrey Herdman, who was then chairman of the Bristol Owners Club, offered me a spin in his car, which dated from 1956 or thereabouts.

So I drove in my lowly Astra to Frome, where the car in question was being serviced by vintage car expert Charles Russell. He downed tools to take me for a spin, which is about the closest I've had to a Top Gear moment since I was eight and rode in a Rolls Royce for the first and only time in my life.
Cars and driving are not subjects I spend a lot of time thinking about, but this was something different. This Bristol 405 Drophead Coupe was one of only 43 made, and the bodywork showed the telltale swirls and ripples of aluminium that has been hammered into shape by hand. Everything about the car - from the shape of the bonnet to the door handles - was distinctive. The engine sounded like a squadron of Lancasters.

The skills and knowledge that went into the creation of this car are now almost extinct. Making a car by hand was a quaint idea even in the 1950s, and now people like Charles Russell are as rare as old-fashioned wheelwrights. Perhaps it's time to add car making and other kinds of engineering to our vision of England in Particular.
I wonder what prompted the film-makers to give David the suave seducer a Bristol. Perhaps they were aware that this was Peter Sellers' favourite marque. In 1963, with his addiction to expensive cars already legendary, Sellers persuaded the company to make an abandoned prototype 407 convertible roadworthy for him – a one-off, in effect – and it became famous as Britt Eklund’s car of choice.


  1. I like the third eye on the car. For when it's pretending to be a motorbike.

    My own imaginary England has that sort of engineering in it too. I have met and worked with refugees from long-defunct engineering companies; a bunch of them around Dursley way, who used to work for Listers, and still play in a silver band which outlasted the company... funny to think that Dursley was the cradle for so many engines scattered around the world...

  2. Hullo James,
    Could you please let me know where one could read your article on Bristol Cars? I'm sure that members of the Bristol Owners Club would be interested. Thank you. Dave Dale.

  3. Dru - when I was a kid my town had a factory that made steam engines, tractors and tea processing machinery. I saw one of these tea machines on location, in Madeira, which was a slightly odd experience. The company was called Marshalls of Gainsborough, and they used to make everything from cars to a WWI submarine. The fantastic Edwardian factory building with great arched windows dominated the centre of town... At a garage nearby, incidentally, there was a vending machine selling worms for bait.

  4. David - it appeared in Folio magazine a couple of years ago. I may have a pdf somewhere...

  5. "I wonder what prompted the film-makers to give David the suave seducer a Bristol"

    Because that's what he drove in real life, according to Lynn Barber. There's an extract from the book on the Observer website.

  6. I just watched that movie and had to Google that car. It looked fine except for those little fins on the rear.

  7. Chiming in a little late on this one, I love those dinky little tail fins !

  8. Linda
    My Husband worked for Bristol Cars for a long time, It is not every day someone would say that he loved his job even in the old factory he had been working in. When it closed he thought it would be the end of his working life. Then Stuart Culln came along, and said he would like to open a Bristol restoration workshop. Which he has now done,
    My word what a fantastic workshop he has put together. It is modern, clean and a safe enviroment, even to the toilets and tea room is smart. it is such a safe space to work in. That is not a lot to achieve up to the original Bristol Cars factory. All I can say is he still loves working on Bristol cars and he also loves going to work. All of the people who work their is a credit to their trade. These old cars are well built and lovingly renovated. You
    should check them out. If they are equal to a Dinky car my grandsons would love one. BZ to Stuart and all of his staff . There is a DVD out it is called Bristol Cars on film. It is a must he you are a car watcher.