Bristol Bullet: Why some things are better in small batches

Story highlights

  • British carmaker Bristol creates handmade luxury vehicles
  • Bristol has revealed the Bullet, a brand new open-topped luxury sports car

John McIlroy is Deputy Editor of Auto Express and Carbuyer.

(CNN)In a world where factories can churn out a car per minute, and where huge brands employ tens of thousands of engineers, the launch of the Bristol Bullet is like the automotive equivalent of a microbrewery -- made in tiny batches but, its makers claim, all the more potent for it.

In simple terms, the Bullet is an open-topped luxury sports car.
    It has a 4.8-litre V8 engine sourced from BMW, lightweight carbon fiber and aluminum construction, and performance figures to match many supercars; it can reach 62mph from rest in just 3.8 seconds.
    But the Bullet is about much more than numbers.
    Its styling represents a polarizing mix of different eras of motoring; at the front, you have the gaping grille and round headlights designed to echo one of Bristol's old models, the 402.
    At the back, there are a pair of tailfins above the rear lights that wouldn't have looked out of place on a huge 1960s Cadillac (they're actually a nod to another vintage Bristol, the 405 Drophead).

    Made in Britain

    Inside, it's all about British craftsmanship, with a ranch-full of quality cow hide on the seats and dashboard, traditional instruments and the ability to customise colors and materials to your heart's content.
    But there's some room for technology, with a touchscreen and smartphone connectivity. It's all open to the elements, too, because this is a pure roadster, not a convertible; there is no roof.
    The cabin mixes traditional craftsmanship and high-quality leathers with the latest touchscreen technology and smartphone connectivity.
    The Bullet also marks the return of the Bristol brand, surely one of the most idiosyncratic marques in the history of the car.
    Originally part of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, the firm has existed for the best part of 70 years -- although how much it has actually been doing during much of its life has been the subject of intense debate.
    The cars themselves have generally been relaxed GTs and convertibles - powered in the early days by Bristol's own engines, then from the 1960s onwards by modified Chrysler motors.
    But the production figures have always been more of a mystery; you need to go back more than 30 years to find any, and even then, 1982's tally of 106 vehicles would be barely a single day's work for the factory that spits out Porsche 911s.
    That's because Bristol has always existed on its own terms.
    Instead of a network of thousands of dealerships and salesmen around the world, it has one showroom - a landmark corner plot just off London's super-rich Kings Road.
    Not that turning up at the place has ever guaranteed your place as a customer; more than one of Bristol's previous owners had a habit of flicking the 'Open' sign in the door to 'Closed' if he didn't like the look of a potential buyer standing outside.

    Word of mouth

    This has always been a company that has refused to actively hunt out buyers; its reputation, such as it is, has been founded on word of mouth among enthusiasts and, yes, wealthy people with an eccentric streak running through their character.
    Bristol's last production vehicle was the bizarre gullwing-doored Fighter; the company claimed some incredible performance figures but it sold a little over a dozen examples of the car in eight years (yes, you read right).
    This alone would not have been enough to stop Bristol -- it has long been used to drip-feeding its cars onto the market, after all -- but the global financial crisis hit its quirky but well-heeled client base in a more serious fashion, and the entire firm went under in 2011.
    It is returning as part of the larger, more stable Frazer-Nash Research group, and the new management has big plans for the brand.
    The Bullet, we're told in a distinctly un-Bristol-like act of transparency, will be built in a run of 70 examples, priced at around £250,000 ($330,000).
    It certainly will not appeal to everyone, and no Bristol ever should. But in the current market for high-end roadsters it is likely to have little trouble in finding buyers.