For decades it was a no-go area – a private enclave ruled over by one of motoring’s most enigmatic figures. But now Goodwood Road & Racing is the first to see inside the secret basement underneath Bristol Cars’ famous Kensington showroom.
To enter, you descend a set of dark, steep and twisting stairs from a door at the back of the showroom, one of the great motor industry heritage buildings of London and itself little changed since the 1960s (apart from the small addition of a Hilton Hotel above it!).
It is more cellar than basement: A large, windowless space with exposed brickwork and bare concrete lit by fluorescent tubes. This is certainly not where its ruler, the late Anthony Crook, brought the kings, presidents and Hollywood stars that favoured Bristols in the company’s heyday.
And the famously picky Mr Crook certainly didn’t allow any journalists down here.
When he opened the Kensington showroom in 1962 (becoming sole distributor in 1966 and chairman and owner in 1973) the former distinguished wartime pilot and racing driver knew the value of publicity – and, with V8-powered cars like the 411, he got plenty of good write-ups.
But as he battled to keep Bristol alive with an ever-characterful, but increasingly outdated, model range, Britain’s most eccentric car company chief retreated from the world into this Kensington basement, often refusing point blank to talk to journalists – let alone lending them a car.
He was just as picky about who he’d sell a car to. One story (of very many) that is often recounted is the time he hurriedly put up the ‘Closed’ sign in the window when he saw the late Michael Winner approaching the showroom. In contrast people like Peter Sellers, Jimmy Carter, King Hussein of Jordan and, in more recent decades, Sir Richard Branson, Sir Paul Smith and Noel Gallagher were very welcome visitors to the Ken High St showroom.
Today half a century of dust has been removed and great wooden filing chests from the old factory at Filton have take up residence, but otherwise Bristol’s secret basement has been largely untouched for 50 years. Anthony Crook retired in 2007 (and died in 2014) but this is clearly still his place.
Pictures of him racing (400 wins, two starts in Formula 1 grands prix in the 1950s) rest on top of filing cabinets and there are models of Bristol cars all over the place, along with every kind of Bristol memorabilia, including several of his favoured 100MPH numberplates. The basement was his office, repository and meeting room – his rather tatty brown vinyl chair still sits at the head of the table.
And inside the chests? That’s the complete history of Bristol, more or less, with everything from factory dispatch notes for each of the 2,800 cars made between 1948 and 2011 (when the company went bust) to hand-drawn illustrations of new models, like the wood-bodied 400 (just one made).
There are drawings too of targa-roof versions and aerodynamic bodies done by aerodynamicists who only a few years previously had been designing Bristol Blenheim bombers for WW2. Blueprints, build sheets and brochures – some pristine, others that crumble in your fingers or have fed generations of mice – are everywhere.
It all amounts to a very handy archive to have in what is officially Bristol’s 70th anniversary year – not to mention its comeback year. Now under enthusiastic new management, comes the rebirth of the archetypal British gentleman’s express. The company says it will be a ‘celebration’ of all the many (often much acclaimed) Bristols that went before it, but with a modern twist. It will launch first with petrol power, but a ‘range extender’ electric version, developed with partner-company, Frazer-Nash Research is in the pipeline, too.
Along with the new car and the new management there will be a new heritage centre – in this basement of course, so at last everyone will be able to visit – and, just across the road, additional new showrooms are currently being fitted out for the new model. ‘The Bristol Cars showroom has been a landmark in this part of Kensington since 1962 but soon it will be an entire Bristol Corner here,’ says the company’s head of marketing, Ian Wallace.
And this time everyone will be welcome. As GRR was when we spent a day for a Bristol 70th anniversary catch-up, driving an early 400 – just like the one Freddie March drove around Goodwood Motor Circuit for its official opening in 1948 – and inspecting the busy new restoration and service workshops in Brentford.
So lots more Bristol stuff coming soon!
Photography by Tom Shaxson