If you’re a fan of the Bristol Balloon Fiesta, you’ll know how many hundreds of special shapes have graced the skies above Ashton Court; Fire extinguishers to Liquorice allsorts men – we’ve had it all! But which are the best?
The first ever special shape was the Golliwog built by Cameron Balloons in 1976 to advertise Robertson’s jam, which appeared at events all across the UK. During the 1980s special shape balloons became increasingly popular with many companies splashing the cash to bring these weird and wonderful creations to life.
Although they are great to look at, it comes at a cost. Hot air ballooning is not cheap, and a special shape can easily cost in excess of £100,000. They can take hours to set up and inflate, as well as pack away. Most of the larger special shapes which are a lot of work have a sponsor who would pay for the build and pay the operator for the tethering or flying of their balloon. Although some don’t have a sponsor and are paid for by the owners themselves.
Special shapes can be simple ‘add-on’ balloons such as the panther or much more complex like the Piper and some are built around a standard round envelope or racer with sections added on, such as Churchill. The larger and more intricately detailed the special shape is, the more recognisable and popular with the public they become. They require experienced pilots to fly them and are a great advertising tool for TV and social media.
It wasn’t easy, but we’ve come up with a list of the top ten special shapes ever to attend the Bristol Balloon Fiesta! Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and which would be in your top ten.
10. Churchill Dog
First up at number ten is the Airship & Balloon Company’s Churchill dog. Built by Lindstrand in 2003 and often seen alongside the G-MSTR monster special shape, this loveable character was a firm favourite and attended every year until 2012. Although it didn’t fly too often, Churchill was seen at most launches over the years, looking on as others flew over this great city.
9. Tesco Trolley
Commissioned in 1998, the Tesco trolley was operated by the Virgin Airship & Balloon Company and features many other brands as well as Tesco. The late 90s was the best time for special shapes in hot air ballooning and visitors to the Bristol Balloon Fiesta had a real treat every year.
Once its commercial jobs were finished after returning to the 2006 fiesta, the Tesco trolley was bought by Linas Mastis in America. Info on Linas is extremely limited these days but he has an awesome collection of old special shapes including George the Hoffmeister bear, Bradford & Bingley, Radio One FM and the UFO that visited Bristol in 2004.
Photo: Matt Cleaves
8. Michelin Men
Three Michelin man special shapes were built by Cameron Balloons in 1997, all of which were test inflated one morning at Ashton Court together. The characters, known as Bibendum for tyre manufacturing company Michelin, were very popular with the public and G-PNEU returned to the 2018 fiesta for the 40th anniversary celebrations. This one is in storage with the British Balloon Museum & Library (BBM&L) but does still come out on special occasions. G-GRIP is still in the UK.
7. Jaguar Car
The Jaguar XK8 car is one of our all-time favourite hot air balloons and we’d like it higher on the list! It was owned locally by Muir Moffat, created by the team at Cameron Balloons in 1996 and without doubt is a fiesta classic. It attended special shape launches and mass ascents from the 90s until its last appearance where it tethered late morning on Saturday of the 2012 fiesta.
Since then sadly it’s not been seen and its whereabouts nowadays is unknown; was it destroyed or has it been secretly hidden away somewhere?
6. George White Superbike
The superbike was built by Lindstrand in 2010 and attended the Bristol Balloon Fiesta for two years before returning under new ownership. It was originally sponsored and built for George White Motors and Lindstrand Media operated it along with JLL and the Palletways dragon. It’s one of the largest special shapes in the world and has stolen the show each time it’s come to Bristol.
In 2012 George White went into administration. The artwork was removed and was put up for sale. The new UK buyer then sold it on again around a year later to Dreamflights based in Holland, who tour the world with the Superbike attending meets in Joure, Leon and the Midlands.
5. Mr Bup
Number five is Mr Bup! It was owned in Belgium along with the F1 car special shape and built by Cameron Balloons in 2006. You may remember Mr Bup appeared at the fiesta in 2006 on Sunday evening; this was because everything was completed in the factory just as it was fiesta time in Bristol. Three years later in 2009 the team brought him back and flew him several times right across the city in the marvellous weather that greeted us that weekend.
Mr Bup is now owned in China and sadly not seen anymore, but maybe he will pop up somewhere one day!
4. Bertie Bassett
When you think of Bristol, balloons and the fiesta, the Bertie Bassett special shapes are often some of the most memorable of all. They were created right here in Bristol; one in 1997 and the other in 2001, operated by Phoenix Balloons. Along with the superbike and many other older favourites, the liquorice allsorts men returned in 2018 for the 40th anniversary and stood tall over the fiesta once more!
Both Berties are now owned by Andrew Kaye in this country, who also owns Aston Martin, the Orange and the Barclays House.
3. Action Man
Operated by the Virgin Airship & Balloon Company, Action Man was built in the most exciting era for special shapes in 1997. On a few rare occasions on take-off orange smoke was deployed from the smoke cannister, which was quite a sight. After three years attending the fiesta, Action Man went away for some time before switching owners and a quick afternoon tether at the 2007 fiesta.
In 2012 it was announced that Action Man would be making a special comeback to Bristol along with Babybel, which was also owned by the German team of Gaby and Karl Grünauer. They flew on Thursday and Friday night and what a sight it was. Seven years later it doesn’t inflate as good, which is always going to happen with these old special shapes, but after ten minutes stood up with lots of burning, the legs, hands and other details look just as impressive. We hope to see it in the UK again sometime soon, but who knows…
2. Rupert Bear
Ahh Rupert Bear! He’s our second top special shape. Hang on - second, don’t you mean top? Well, no, to us there is one balloon that even tops Rupert, but we’ll come to that in a minute.
From 1991 to 1995 Rupert attended the Bristol Balloon Fiesta operated by Flying Pictures, who operated most of the special shapes at that time such as the Kiwi, Agfa, Unipart and Fosters. Seeing Rupert was the highlight of the fiesta for many and he was the best special shape.
After sitting in the bag for around twenty-three years and hearing tells of the dreadful condition of the envelope, we were walking down the field at the 2018 fiesta and noticed something being prepared to tether… Yes, it was Rupert back at Bristol and he looked great!
People were saying it wouldn’t be able to stand up before this, so who is to say another special shape won’t pop up in a few years that was supposedly ruined? Let’s wait and see!
1. Scottish Piper
Our number one fiesta special shape is the Scottish Piper. This is our favourite balloon and grew up watching it fly and loving it as a child. It’s just incredible; the height, the detail, everything.
‘Pipy’ was purely built for fun and to put a smile on people’s faces by Muir Moffat who also owned the Jaguar car we looked at earlier. Featuring his family’s own tartan and standing 156ft tall, the Piper was a regular at Bristol and Château-d'Oex in Switzerland. It was always inflated at the end of fiesta mass ascents and often the finale to the event. Our favourite moment was when it flew with the Jaguar car and Mr Bup to close the 2009 event.
It was donated to the BBM&L some years later. After that the Piper wasn’t seen in Bristol until the 40th anniversary where pilots on behalf of the museum tethered him twice over the weekend.
We hope you’ve enjoyed reading about our top ten fiesta special shapes. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below and which are your favourites!
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