One of the perks of this job is the loan cars. Manufacturers keep press fleets of current models for launches and for loans to motoring writers to try out and write about. When the cars leave the fleet, they are usually sold into the dealer network, from where they are sold to you, as demonstrators. They’re a good buy: well maintained, immaculately cleaned and, if — perish the thought — the hacks have knocked them about a bit, properly repaired.
Most loans are for about a week, like the BMW X5 I’m awaiting today, just in time for Badminton. Bentleys and Aston Martins tend to come in anonymous covered lorries or trailers, most others are driven to your door with a full tank by gentlemen of a certain age and reliability who have retired from other careers and now work for the manufacturers or (increasingly) car-delivery companies. They travel throughout the kingdom, from Caithness to Cornwall, usually returning by train once delivery is made. They work early and long hours but often not a full week and are invariably polite, punctual and helpful. It’s a career option I sometimes contemplate; it would help to live in the Midlands.
But there are loans and loans. Specialist motoring publications and some journalists get cars on extended loan for long-term testing. Envy is a sin, of course, the avoidance of which calls for a Jamesian delineation of emotion when recalling the day I discovered where I really stood on this matter. I had taken delivery of the old model JaguarXJ — the last whose design was directly influenced by William Lyons — and was ferrying the driver to the station. He told me he’d delivered one of the same to that Mr Clarkson the week before. ‘So he has a week with one, too, does he?’ I said, beginning to warm with the glow of professional identity and fellow-feeling (if not fellow-earnings). ‘No, he gets his for a year,’ said the driver.
Well, now I’ve got something for what could be a year and will certainly be a few months. I’ve mentioned before the 1968 Bristol 410 belonging to a friend who is temporarily over-wheeled and wants me to put some miles on the rebuilt (by Bristol) Chrysler 5.2 V8 and to wear in the new red-leather seats. I had it for three months last year, then returned it while a medical man failed to persuade his wife that it was the route to domestic bliss, and so now it’s back again. And I’m loving it.
For me, these and the 411s were the last really attractive Bristols. They don’t have the swooping curves of the breathtaking early models but nor have they succumbed to the ugly angularity of 1970s styling. Instead, they have a svelte, understated elegance, a combination of flat surfaces and gently curved lines that gives them poise and an unassertive but undeniable presence. And they go, too: 130–140mph was something in the 1960s, probably the equivalent of a 200mph-plus car now, yet you can potter about sedately and reliably without feeling any need to burn rubber. With its big, unstressed, naturally aspirated (single Carter carburettor) V8 and three-speed Torque-Flite transmission, it epitomises what Ian Fleming liked in a car: American muscle and European styling.
A serious motorist, Fleming wrote about his 1950s Ford Thunderbird for The Spectator:
True, it isn’t a precision instrument like English sports cars, but that I count a virtue. The mechanical margin of error in its construction is wider. Everything has a solid feel. The engine, a huge, adapted low-revving Mercury V8 of 5-litre capacity, never gives the impression of stress or strain. When, on occasion, you can do a hundred without danger of going off the edge of this small island, you have not only the knowledge that you have 20mph in reserve, but the feel of it. As for acceleration, when the two extra barrels of the 4-barrel carburettor come in, at around 3000 revs, it is real thump in the back.
His wife, Ann, complained to Evelyn Waugh that it gave her ‘Thunderbird neck’. The Bristol 410 would be more considerate.
My friend the owner would sell his but the market for Bristols is rarefied and slow. I’d buy it if it weren’t for the usual detail but meanwhile will happily warm the engine and put some shine on those seats. It occurs to me, though, that this mutually beneficial arrangement could be extended: in the absence of Jaguar pressing a little something on me for a year, even if it’s Clarkson’s cast-off, I could invite Spectator readers embarrassed by too many old and interesting cars to put them in livery with me. I’d keep your car clean and ticking over and you could have it back as often as you want. Discretion guaranteed: ’er indoors or the old boy needn’t even know you’ve bought it.