The Bristol Fighter, top, sells for $564,000. The company expects to sell about 150 of its handcrafted cars in 2010. Photographs by Patrick Barth for The New York Times
LONDON - In the office of Toby Silverton, 52, the owner of the British luxury carmaker Bristol, hangs a photograph of a smiling female customer standing next to her 30-year-old Bristol 603 car. Mr. Silverton recounts how she bought the car from him secondhand about four years ago without knowing that its previous owner was Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2.
When she discovered the car's past, she called Mr. Silverton to ask why she was not told because she would have willingly paid more. (The company said a similar car would cost about $54,800 today.) "I told her that's not the kind of company we are," said Mr. Silverton.
As many automakers struggled with falling orders over the last two years, privately held Bristol reported an upturn - even though its top models go for more than a half million dollars.
"Everyone I spoke to in the industry said they're 20 to 30 percent down," Mr. Silverton said. "Our sales are up 25 percent since the beginning of 2008."
Bristol expects to sell perhaps 150 of its hand-assembled cars this year. The company, one of the world's last independent car makers, has a work force of about 100 people. There is just one sales outlet, in London's Kensington district. Mr. Silverton said Bristol was profitable, but would not discuss specifics.
Bristol's top-of-the-line models, like the Fighter T, sell new for $564,000. That compares with $345,000 for the most expensive Bentley, another British luxury brand. Bentley says its sales fell by 48 percent, to 4,005 cars, last year.
Paul Newton, an analyst at IHS Global Insight in London, said, "Bristol is a bit of an anomaly in the industry because of the cars' extremely quirky nature." That may be why, he said, the company prospered through the economic downturn. "Many of the people who buy Bristols are old money, and that's not really been affected," he said.
Despite their prices, Bristol cars are not ostentatious, which seems to be part of their appeal. Clients are attracted by the understated design, the craftsmanship and the attention to detail.
Turplin Dixon, a railway engineer in London, bought a 15-year-old Bristol 603 from the proceeds of selling another Bristol he had inherited from his uncle. "I used to think they were pretty ugly cars," said Mr. Dixon, 58. "But now I like them for being so unique, special and one of a kind."
Mr. Silverton attributes the company's buoyancy to a number of factors, including low operating costs.
Its sole London showroom still has the same wood-paneled offices, sun-bleached British flags and 1960s furniture as when it opened 50 years ago. There are no computers. Records of every customer are kept in a filing cabinet in the basement.
And there is little turnover among employees. Syd Lovesy, who runs the factory in Bristol, will be 91 in November.
"People last forever here," Mr. Silverton joked. "They're built the same way as the cars they make."
Bristol has its roots in the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, founded in 1910. By the end of World War II, the company had 40,000 employees. The end of the war forced the company to diversify, and the Bristol car company was formed in 1946.
Sitting at his desk in front of a photograph showing Bristol��s triple win in its class at the Le Mans racing competition in 1955, Mr. Silverton said, "The only thing I want in 20 years' time is for the company to be at least in the same strong health as it is now."
The New York Times
(China Daily 10/10/2010 page11)