Bristol used to build aircraft - and it shows in the company's latest 210mph missile

Bristol Cars is one of Britain's last independent manufacturers. Based in the city of Bristol, it is also one of the smallest and most secretive of car-builders; nobody outside the firm is ever allowed into the factory at Filton airport, and its long-term figurehead Tony Crook (who ran the firm singlehanded until recently) never releases details of sales figures or owners, many of whom are tycoons and celebrities. Famous American customers of Bristol are said to include Tina Turner and the former president Jimmy Carter.

Essentially, Bristol has been building the same car for more the 50 years with occasional changes of body style, model name and engines, which, since 1961, have been supplied by Chrysler. Styling has become increasingly odd over the years, but customers are loyal; they buy into the mystique of the current Blenheim and its undoubted appeal as a dignified, luxurious and essentially very practical four-seater coupé.

The Fighter, however, is something genuinely new from Bristol, a two-seater gull-wing-door coupé that's good, Bristol says, for 210mph. At 200mph, they claim a "supercharge" effect thanks to a carefully designed front grille that boosts power output and gives you the last 10mph.

Power is still by Chrysler, but now in the form of the Viper's V10 rather than a V8. Interestingly, Bristol makes no mention of the origin of the power unit in its promotional material, merely stating that it produces 525bhp and has been "specially developed".

And what of that 210mph? As Bristols are never officially released for full road-tests (we borrowed this one, the eighth made, for impressions from the collector Simon Draper), it's unlikely we'll ever verify this, but if the firm has got its sums right, it could be possible. At 3,310lbs, the Fighter is surprisingly light for this kind of car, very high-geared (it does 60mph in first) and has clearly been styled for aerodynamics (they claim a 0.28cd) rather than for muscle-car appeal.

Although the platform chassis and wishbone-and-coil-spring suspension are all new, certain Bristol traditions are maintained. The body is mostly aluminium and the car is relatively narrow, with a commanding driving position. It is perhaps uniquely easy to see out of by supercar standards, with a large glass area and a small panel in the tail for reversing.

Combine this with a nifty turning circle, and you have a 200mph car that's easy to park. There is ample luggage space, despite the fact that Bristol have insisted on a full-size spare wheel rather than a space-saver.

The gull-wing doors work well, swinging up to leave a deep sill but a large aperture - it is easy to get in and out. The seats are substantial and there's ample head and shoulder room; Bristol says the car will accommodate people up to 6ft 7in tall. An "engine hours" gauge in the roof alludes to Bristol's beginnings in aircraft manufacture, as do the opening sections in the door windows. Inside it's luxurious and pleasing, with nods to tradition, such as a steering wheel that is an updated version of Bristol's 1950s style, with serrated spokes.

The straight-line urge of the Fighter is epic. The V10 revs to 6,000rpm but 5,000rpm is usually more than enough and feels smoother. In fact, you can caress the car along maintaining high speeds using no more than 3,000rpm, flashing up to three-figure speeds on colossal torque. Bristol claims it hits 60 in four seconds, and 100mph is a mere 2,450rpm in top.

The steering requires more attention than you'd expect, as it follows bumps in quite a pronounced way. Simon Draper has had some significant but not radical changes made to improve this. You learn to let it do its thing and simply enjoy the flat neutrality of the cornering (Bristol was obsessed with 50/50 weight distribution when creating the Fighter) and the grip.

There has been no attempt to give the Fighter a macho exhaust note; it just sounds powerfully gruff and rumbly. The drive train feels a bit shunty at low speed, but Bristol has improved the Viper gearshift with shorter throws, matching it to a light clutch. The car looks better in the flesh than in pictures. The sides and floor are smooth (the exhausts are in the sills), and the roof is teardrop-shaped for reduced drag.

The Fighter isn't beautiful, but it is intriguing. It couldn't be mistaken for anything else - and at £200,000 you wouldn't want it to be.

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