Bristol. Here is a city down in the south west of England that has many historical areas. It houses HMS Great Britain, that leviathan of British engineering from a bygone age. The docks, once renowned for an area of the city you wouldn’t venture after dusk, has now become a hip and trendy place to see and be seen.
It is also a city that is synonymous with a small, plasticine creature by the name of Morph. He was an original stop-motion creation from two young guys who have gone on to create many more cartoon classics at Aardman animation who also happen to be one of the largest employers in the region.
With characters such as Wallace and Gromit and Sean the Sheep, they have been entertaining us with their wrong trousers and dastardly antics in chicken sheds and have ingrained themselves in not only the area, but also the British psyche. Walk around Bristol and you will soon come across life-sized statues of these characters dotted around the city. It’s a vibrant and happening place, tinged with a West Country twang in the accents of locals that rubs off easily and soon has you referring to people as your ‘babber’ and replacing all the letter s with a z.
A shame then, that to the older generation, Bristol was not only known as an airplane manufacturer and sometime colloquial reference to women’s breasts, but also a manufacturer of cars. These however, were the preserve of the wealthy as they had astronomical price tags and today, we’re going to try and understand why. For here, in all its quirky design, is the Bristol Blenheim.
Approaching it from the front, I was intrigued to see what lay beneath the four headlights facing me but then I came alongside this machine. My God, this thing is slab sided. It has achieved a level of squared off side panelling that you would expect of a brick wall not a car. The bonnet is seemingly quite a distance from the rise of the windscreen but then, quite suddenly, you are at the back of this thing where it all tails off quite rapidly. Hold on, I’ve seen those lights before. Aren’t they off an old Vauxhall? A Carlton perhaps?
Upon closer inspection, you start to notice that some things on this car don’t seem to add up. Firstly, it has parts from other cars. Secondly, it has some low lines that start at the rear wheel arch but then just stop at the front wing. Who signed that off? On one side there appears to be a stowage area. Checking the opposite side, there’s another one. I check to see what’s inside. Oh, that’ll be the battery then. The other had a spare wheel. Unexpected.
This thing must have some huge power unit under the hood if there isn’t room for its battery up there. And it does. The engine powering this cathedral is one that was originally found inside an American Chrysler. A 6.2 litre, gas guzzling thing. Better take a look inside the main cabin.
Oh dear. It would appear that they might very well still be designing this car somewhere as it is a mess. The seats, while comfortable, are set quite high so you’re not sitting in this car, but on it. Laid out in front of you is a dashboard that seems to be made mainly of three cumbersome sections. In one is squeezed the steering wheel, speedo, some dials and stalks. On the opposing passenger side is a slab of wood, glove box and air vent and in the middle, well, in the middle, here is something that looks like it has been added as an afterthought to house the stereo that they forgot about. It sticks up three inches above the top of the dash. Why?
This is a very weird car. It doesn’t flow, it isn’t good looking and it feels unwieldy to drive too. You can feel that weight it is lugging around so much so that it seems to have one thing in common with the SS Great Britain. It must be a boat. It handles like one. Turn in to a corner too aggressively, even at low speed, and you feel that you need a few friends leaning out over the opposite side of the thing to make it jibe.
The brakes appear to be made of Victoria sponge as you depress the pedal, you feel like you’re at the helm of a supertanker beginning its ten mile stopping distance. Perhaps it was favoured by the upper classes because it’s better in the back? I climb in. No. I may only rise to a meagre five feet seven inches from the floor, but even to me, back here is claustrophobic. I go to get out and realise I’m trapped. I pulled the seat in front of me back and now can’t reach around it. Bugger.
Fortunately being this height, I worm my way around the wing back in front of me, lower the window and open the door from the outside to escape.
Walking away from this car, I look back at it, with its quirky lines, it’s narrow yet bulky frame sitting there all weird when I realise something. I quite like it. I don’t know or understand why. It’s not terribly well built. It’s used rejected parts from other mass produced cars and they’ve been cobbled together to make something that surely wasn’t designed on paper, more made up as they went along. It handles like a slinky, is smaller on the inside than it would appear it should be and seems to defy logic on where all things are normally found on a car. But it does have a certain charm.
Apparently, when new, this thing was selling for £170,000.00. And still the company didn’t make any money.