How do you bring a brand back from the dead? That was the question faced by Frazer-Nash in 2011, after it acquired the assets of Bristol Cars from administration.
Its answer was to go back to when the brand was most alive – somewhere in the 1950s – and start again from there. This is a brand that, after all, many would argue is more salvageable than many others, with its heritage of aerospace engineering that found favour with motoring journalist connoisseurs such as LJK Setright.
The result of this retrospective approach – the first new Bristol for more than a decade – doesn’t seem very modern. The freshly unveiled Bullet, a two-seat speedster powered by a BMW V8, is as curvaceous as an AC Cobra and features among the most prominent tailfins seen since about 1955.
The Bullet references quite a few finned Bristols, but the most direct inspiration comes from a curious source. Engineering director Noamaan Siddiqi relates that soon after acquiring the company, the new owners found something unexpected under a dust sheet: a blue speedster that didn’t show up in the company’s records and wasn’t quite as old as it looked.
“We couldn’t figure out what it was,” says Siddiqi. “It has a chassis number from 1966, it had Colorado number plates inside it but no British plates, and nowhere to mount them.” The right-hand drive car also featured an unusual combination of Chrysler Hemi V8 and manual gearbox.
Nobody who worked at the factory in the 1960s could recall why it was built, but they did remember its name: the Bullet.
“When we were deciding how to bring Bristol back we said, well, here is something,” Siddiqi recalls. “A Bristol that was never released, that never made serial production but was, from the right angles, an incredibly pretty car.”
Today’s Bullet clearly borrows a host of cues from its old namesake, in a more compact form with more modern proportions and surfacing. The new car also resembles other Bristols, most notably the Type 404 short-wheelbase coupé built between 1953 and 1955.
At the front, Bullets old and new – as well as the 404 – share very long hoods, topped with engine intake scoops, flanked by deep valleys that separate voluminous fenders. Each of these terminates in a circular headlamp at its centre, while nose cones form narrow, pursed mouths. At the rear, slim vertical fins continue the shoulderline as the main bodywork volume drops away to small lamp clusters.
The extreme cab-rearward stance of the older Bristols was doubly functional. Putting the front axle ahead of the engine brought handling advantages, while the panel behind the front wheelarch was actually a hatch big enough for a spare wheel.
Alas there is no fender-mounted spare in the new Bullet, despite its long nose and short overhang. Instead there are gills – functional, apparently – punched into the lower fender. This panel is noticeably inset below a horizontal cut that runs aft from the apex of the wheel arch to become a crease in the door. A shorter crease repeats the pattern at the rear.
With no flare to their arches the older cars carry off these flourishes more neatly than the new car. On today’s Bullet, with a lipped arch, there’s an untidy collision of lines.
Mazda-sourced mirrors are another feature that doesn’t quite gel, with the truncated windscreen making the pair appear like outsize Shrek ears. Siddiqi says Bristol is too small to design and build its own mirrors and that their prominence is in part dictated by regulations.
Lawmakers also scotched an initial plan to mount a single driving lamp in the grille, as per earlier cars. Instead there are twin lamps jutting out at chin level – an optional feature, apparently.
The other lamps, developed in partnership with Hella, are built for the car. Production variants will employ LEDs throughout – indicator bulbs at the rear will be replaced. The extremely compact dimensions of both the front and rear clusters add strongly to the retro feel. Unique alloy wheels include the outline of the Bristol shield in their spokes.
Overall design work was done by Bristol with the help of an unnamed Italian – a styling house according to Bristol but an individual according to Siddiqi. Perhaps the culprit will step forward if reaction to the new Bullet is sufficiently positive.
The car does seem to carry off its retro baggage, helped by a gung-ho approach. There are sensuous curves everywhere, including a double-domed shoulder that’s revealed in cross-section when you open a door.
Siddiqi points out that many of the deeper sections would be impossible to form using stamped sheet metal. The convex-to-concave transitions between lamp and grille, and those slim rear fins, could only be formed by joining multiple panels or by moulding. Bodies of the older cars were made using many sections of aluminium hand beaten over a wooden buck. The new Bullet uses a carbon-fibre composite shaped in a complex moulding process.
Exterior bodywork is all carbon, bonded to a glued and riveted aluminium chassis. Both parts of the shell are made in the UK by URT Composites, a company that is part-owned by the parent company of Frazer-Nash and where Siddiqi is also a director. The fit and finish of the pre-production Bullet is impressive, with mirror-finish surfaces and neat panel gaps.
The design features two very large clamshell sections. At the front, the two fenders, nose and hood sides are moulded as a single piece without joins, while at the rear there’s an unbroken surface running from one quarter panel to the other, via the fins and rear deck.
The fins – crisply finished and neatly crowned – curve inwards at the rear, where those of the older Bristol cars were straight. Siddiqi says the shape is functional, shaping airflow around a rear that lacks a spoiler. Bristol, originally an aircraft manufacturer, was a pioneer of wind-tunnel research for racing.
Its interior doesn’t yet bear quite such close scrutiny, with a few exposed fasteners and ugly ironmongery retaining the seatbelts. No doubt these details can be finessed. There are BMW stalks, VDO clocks and some attractive machined alloy switches. A touchscreen will provide minor controls, with Wi-Fi connection and smartphone mirroring. Customers will be able to choose wood, carbon weave or a unique linear carbon finish.
Only 70 examples of the Bullet will be built and sold for around £250,000 apiece, the company says. Starting in early 2017, to mark the 70th anniversary of Bristol Cars, it will take about a year to build them all. After that, the company is planning a hybrid car with a roof that will also, Siddiqi hints, hark back to the firm’s glory years.