Britain has a reputation for eccentricity, in almost every field. From persevering with a coinage based on the Roman system until 1971, buying most liquids, except beer, in litres and measuring fuel consumption in Imperial miles per gallon, driving on the left in a continent that universally doesn’t and to (maybe informally) maintaining a class system that peaks with a dynastic and unchallenged monarchy whilst having a proud history of democracy, to playing cricket, many public aspects of Britain have resisted change and conformity seemingly successfully.
The British motor industry has certainly had its share of eccentrics and eccentricity as well. And the Bristol 411, and its predecessors and successors, fill a slot in this pattern.
This was a car that was based on the same pre-war platform for over 50 years, fitted with an engine either based on pre-war German sportscar technology or a Detroit V8, with a hand crafted aluminium body with bespoke interior fittings and materials, produced in volumes of perhaps a few hundred a year at most, and sold for many years from only one showroom, in London, where the salesman (and company owner) had a reputation for not dealing with those he didn’t like. Anecdotes suggest you were as likely to leave the showroom with a riposte in your ear as with a new car.
Bristol cars were born out of the concern the Bristol Aircraft Company (BAC, and founded in 1911 as the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company) had of securing sufficient business following the end of the Second World War, as it had in 1919.
In 1919, the aircraft company first tried its hand at car making, with the Bristol Monocar, a single seater powered by a motorcycle engine, which had proved unsuccessful. Aircraft and aircraft engines remained the company’s bread and butter.
At the end of World War Two, as the aircraft business inevitably contracted from employing as many as 70,000 people building such aircraft as the Blenheim, Beaufort and Beaufighter and aero-engines including early turbine engines, BAC added building aluminium bodies for Armstrong–Siddeley cars and for buses (confusingly, also sold under the Bristol name but by a separate company in the Bristol group, and which was ultimately absorbed into Leyland in the 1960s). Bristol cars were born at the same time, almost by accident, and they could hardly be more different from the Monocar of 1919.
In 1945, the British motor industry was in a very war weary and damaged condition, but was probably also the best placed in Europe to capitalise on the requirements of a continent recovering from war, whilst civil aviation projects were strictly controlled by the government, and Bristol were tasked with the development of the Britannia and Brabazon turbo-prop airliners. Britain effectively had an option to pick and choose assets from the defeated Axis powers, and the choice made was another British eccentricity. After all, Rootes looked at the VW and the Wolfsburg plant and declared that it would collapse within two years and that to build the Beetle would “be a completely uneconomic enterprise”.
Car production by Bristol actually resulted from a fortuitous encounter between Sir George White, the son of BAC’s Founder and Chairman, and Donald Aldington, of the British sportscar business AFN. AFN, or Aldington Frazer Nash, build sports cars under the Frazer Nash brand in the UK, many with chain drive up to 1939. During the war, Frazer Nash designed and built gun turrets for Lancaster bombers (more eccentricity – top end, chain drive sports cars and gun turrets for bombers…). In May 1945, Bristol, looking for a new role in a peaceful world, bought AFN outright.
AFN were also the UK importer for BMW from 1934, who were by the mid 1930s emerging as one of Europe’s leading sports car manufacturers, and whose last pre-war design, the BMW 328, set new standards.
AFN’s status gave them some special knowledge of and access to not only the cars but also to the facilities and personnel back in Munich. In 1945, before he left the army, Donald Aldington and some accomplices made an official (as in representing the UK Government’s Board of Reparations) visit to BMW in Munich. Here, a deal was concluded for Bristol to buy the tooling and rights to three BMW models (the 326, 327 and 328) and the 2 litre six cylinder BMW engine. BMW released detailed drawings and sample components, which were then crated up and shipped to Bristol, including one of the six 328s BMW had built for the 1940 Mille Miglia. The lead engineer (and later Chairman of BMW) Fritz Fielder went to the UK as well, as a consultant to Bristol on the adaptation of the car for the UK, for around 3 years, before returning to Munich to lead development of the BMW 501 series.
The resulting car was the 400 series, so named by Fiedler to follow on from the BMW 326, 327 and 328, and was very closely based on the pre-war BMW 326’s chassis fitted with the 328’s engine and a body based on the 327 Coupe.
Originally, the plan called for this car to be named the Frazer Nash-Bristol, but before the car was launched, Bristol and Donald Aldington parted company, and Aldington purchased the rights to the Frazer-Nash back from Bristol. The 400 became the Bristol 400, and was also known as the 2 litre, and Aldington went on to produce a separate Frazer Nash, powered by the Bristol built engine until 1957.
The engine was based very closely on the BMW M328 (seen above) 2 litre straight six, with overhead valves and a cross flow hemispherical cylinder head, and provided around 70 bhp and 90 mph. The resulting car, with largely hand finished partly aluminium body work on a wooden frame and a full bespoke and traditionally British interior, cost £1853 (say £40,000 now), around 50% more than a Jaguar XK120. The Bristol offered some pretty good road manners for 1947, with its BMW heritage showing through, and not just in the styling of the radiator grille.
Bristol sold 700 of these cars by 1950, around 90% of them in the UK, despite the national exhortation to “export or die”. Dimensionally, it had a lengthy 114 inch wheelbase, with a long bonnet and relatively cramped passenger accommodation. Front suspension was transverse leaf spring independent with longitudinal torsion bars at the rear.
In 1948 came the 401. Although this had essentially the same chassis, visually it was all new, and not linked to the BMW heritage. Instead, Bristol claimed a link to the aircraft heritage, showing the car in a wind tunnel and alongside aircraft, and reporting testing on runways, to achieve a drag coefficient of .39, which was quite something in 1948.
The 401 was styled partly by Touring in Italy and completed by Bristol, and the body was now steel with some aluminium panels (doors, bonnet and boot lid) on the same A frame chassis as the 400, and had the same engine. The 401 was a decidedly more spacious car than the 400, and can be seen in hindsight as the first true Bristol, rather than a BMW copy.
There was a drophead version of the 401, known as the 402, which was produced in very limited numbers in 1949 and 1950
Customers for this car included Stewart Grainger and Jean Simmonds.
The 401 succeeded by the more powerful but otherwise similar 403 in 1953. This featured a revised engine with 100bhp and 100 mph capability.
With the 403, the trend for specialist coachbuilt body work on the Bristol chassis was stared, with Pininfarina for example building 3 or 4 (records vary) of this attractive convertible.
Other coachbuilders, in Britain and Europe such as Toring and Beutler also built bespoke bodies for Bristol and their customers throughout the 1950s and 1960s.
The 401 and 403 had some motorsport success, with class wins in various European rallies and at Le Mans in the early 1950s. This 401 is competing in the 1951 Monte Carlo rally.
The subsequent 1953 404 was the first car to dispense with the BMW kidney grille, moving to an intake maybe inspired by an aircraft engine intake, and bearing a similarity to that on the current Jaguar XF, and was shorter in length and wheelbase by 18 inches, creating a more compact 2+2, although the short wheelbase of the 404 and its long bonnet dictated a very short door.
Another first was the storage of the spare wheel in the front wing, between the front wheel and left hand door, a practice that continued until 2009. Accessed through an almost gullwing type access panel, this idea at least had the benefit of keeping the weight of the spare wheel (and the battery on the other side) within the wheelbase.
The 405 was effectively a four door saloon version of the 404 on the 114 inch wheelbase, including the use of the same short front door, and therefore a disproportionally long rear door, with predictable consequences on the styling.
The 405 was Bristol’s first and only four door car, still powered by the BMW designed engine, though this had now been subject to some development.
For the subsequent 406 Coupe, the engine was stretched to 2.2 litres giving a substantial increase in torque and a new rear suspension, based around a Watts linkage, was fitted. But the perhaps the biggest news was the new styling, a style which many consider to be the definitive Bristol style. Opinions will vary of course, but for a conservative and rather formal car, it successfully fulfilled the competing needs of elegance, distinctiveness and enduring appeal. The 406 was launched in 1958 and the style endured essentially unchanged until 1976.
Bristol also built one 406S 2 door compact Coupe, effectively a repeat of the 404 concept. The car was run by Bristol’s co-owner Anthony Crook for 80,000 miles, and other similar but differently styled cars were also built by Zagato of Italy.
Zagato also built 6 examples of the 406 Zagato 4 seat Coupe, a car that is perhaps the most sought after six cylinder Bristol. Certainly, it is an attractive and distinctive design, though even Zagato cannot hide the unusual proportions of the platform. This view shows the long bonnet, and cab-rear stance very clearly.
The effects of these proportions and cabin position are perhaps shown by the interior of the car, and specifically the rear seat. As seen here, it is sited practically between the rear wheels, with wheel arch intrusion of remarkable proportions for a car of this size and price. This layout was common right to the end of production.
The six cylinder BMW derived engine, produced by Bristol for around 15 years, was also used by other manufacturers of sports and racing cars, including by Frazer-Nash (now separate again of course), in the AC Ace, the forerunner of the Cobra, and for Lotus and Cooper racing cars.
America also had an interest in Bristol too, through Stanley “Wacky” Arnolt, who built 140 cars on the Bristol 404 chassis with the 6 cylinder engine, and a bespoke body designed and built by Bertone of Italy.
The resulting design had some limitations to say the least – for example, the bonnet was high to clear the tall engine and the wings therefore raised high to match. Although registered as a US car maker, Arnolt had the chassis shipped from Bristol to Italy for the bodywork to be fitted and then to the US for final assembly and distribution.
In the late 1950s, the British aircraft industry went into a round of consolidation, ending with two major companies – the British Aircraft Corporation (confusingly, also known as BAC) and Hawker Siddeley in 1959. Bristol became part of BAC, but as Bristol Cars did not fit with the new company’s aerospace focus it was hived off into a separate company owned by Sir George White and Anthony Crook, who ran Bristol’s leading distributor in the UK, and now became the sole distributor for the cars, based in West London.
Bristol entered the 1960s using an engine, although by now stretched to 2.2 litres, that was designed in the 1930s. Bristol had had a development programme in the late 1950s to design a brand new 2.9 to 3.6 litre twin overhead cam straight six, which sounds conceptually similar to either Jaguar XK engine or an Alfa Romeo design at this distance.
However, economics intervened, at the same time as the withdrawal of the parent company’s amalgamation into BAC and the consequent withdrawal of funding, and Bristol made the decision to buy in engines, and the choice was perhaps surprising.
The BMW derived 2.2 litre straight six was replaced by a 5.1 litre Chrysler V8 (313 cu.in. A-Series), coupled to the three speed Torqueflite transmission complete with press button control. This engine gave a significant increase in power, from around 130bhp to closer to 250bhp, and torque went from around 130 lb/ft to over 300lb/ft, which inevitably changed the nature of the car a lot. This was no longer a light, compact and aerodynamic sports saloon but unambiguously became a bespoke, high luxury (if not high feature) personal car, though closer to something like an Alvis or an Armstrong-Siddeley rather than being an Aston Martin, Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud or Jaguar E type competitor.
The resulting Bristol 407, from 1961, was visually a direct continuation of the 406, on the same BMW A frame chassis, with the 114 inch wheelbase and cab back stance. Performance was now around 125mph. The 407 finally saw a revised front suspension, with a coil spring set up replacing the transverse leaf spring.
The subsequent 408 of 1963 kept the same basic aesthetic but added a 5.2 litre (318 cu.in.) V8 and some changes to the gear box and its control mechanism. By now, Bristol were producing fewer cars – both the 407 and 408 were produced in volumes of fewer than 100 examples.
The 409 of 1965 followed the trend – some minor visual changes, including a new grille and power steering.
The 410 had a revised braking system and a conventional shift lever and the 411 followed in 1969.
This 410 was seen by Vancouver by robadr1 and also by AGuyinVancouver
The feature example is a 1972 411 series 3 with revised front styling seen in London by TheProfessor47. The big change in the 411 was the use of 6.2 litre Chrysler V8 (383 cu. in.) offering over 140 mph.
This car continued in production with occasional minor changes until 1976, and almost 300 were built. The 411 is probably the archetypical Bristol to many enthusiasts, and has a certain appeal, even when you understand the limitations arising from its heritage.
In 1973, Tony Crook bought the interest in Bristol held by George White, who retired from business. By then, car production had moved from the Filton aerospace site to Patchway in Bristol, with a service and restoration centre in west London, close to the (only) showroom.
In 1975, Bristol became a two model producer for effectively the first time (there had often been an overlap during model changes, as cars were bespoke and built to customer orders) with the introduction of then contemporarily styled, but now rather brutal looking, 412. The styling was by Zagato of Italy but certain things remained unchanged – the same chassis and wheelbase, the Chrysler 383 V8 and the spare wheel location.
The big news, though, was that this was a Targa Convertible, with a configuration similar to a 1930s laundelet – a folding roof over the rear seats, a large roll over bar and removable panels above the driver and passenger seats.
This was one of the few Bristols ever aimed at the USA, with a special 412USA variant developed to comply with emissions standards and a stronger rollover bar. In practice, these cars ended up in Europe, mostly Switzerland.
Arguably, the 412 was a very different Bristol. It was a convertible car, and with the strong statement from the styling was much less of a discreet gentleman’s express than the 411, which continued initally. Zagato had a reputation for “emphatic” styling, and this was no different.
Bristol had an answer for its more conservative clientele though – the Bristol 603.
The 603, so named for the 603rd anniversary of the founding of the City of Bristol (er, yes, obvious really), was a refresh of the 411 concept. A bespoke, discreet, two door, traditional grand tourer, built on that 114 inch wheelbase with the Chrysler V8, with an in-house styled body, and built essentially to order, provided Mr Crook accepted you as a customer.
The 603 came with an option of 5.2 or 6.9 litre engines, in 603E (economy) or 603S (sports) versions, though the 5.2 litre was later dropped. The car was progressively modified, with minor changes, until 1982 when the 603 was replaced by the Britannia and Brigand. The names were old Bristol aircraft names (the Britannia was a turbo-prop airliner and the Brigand WW2 torpedo bomber). The Britannia was basically a 603 and the Brigand a 603 with a turbocharger, raising the power to, well, a higher but undisclosed amount, and the top speed to around 150 mph.
The 412 was similarly renamed, to the Beaufighter (a WW2 twin engined fighter) and as the Beaufort (another torpedo bomber), which was a full convertible version, of which fewer than 20 were built.
In 1997, Tony Crook started to sell his interest in the company, completing the process in 2001, although he continued to be associated with it until 2007, and died in 2014, aged 94.
In 1995, the 412 series cars were discontinued and the range trimmed back to the Britannia and Brigand only. Both these were replaced by the Blenheim (the light bomber the Beaufort was developed from, and also the palace near Oxford in which Winston Churchill was born), with revised headlights and a series of bought in rear lights (Opel Senator and Skoda Fabia to name but two), multi-point injection and a four speed version of the Torqueflite gearbox. All this cost around £125,000.00 in 1999, around 20% less than a Rolls-Royce Silver Seraph. Hopefully, not too many Bristol fans will be offended by the suggestion that the BMW engined V12 Rolls (or its Bentley Arnage V8 brother) was significantly more capable as an everyday car, if less distinctive and exclusive.
Bristol had one other car to come, though only to a very small (may be as few as 13) number of owners. In concept, there was almost nothing like it, and certainly not from Bristol. An 8 litre, 525 bhp, V10 engine, from the Dodge Viper, a six speed manual gearbox, gull-wing doors, all round wishbone suspension, dramatic styling and full scale British luxury interior combined with a 0-60 time of 4 seconds and 210 mph top speed.
This needed a special name and it got one – the Bristol Fighter, no less, taking its name from a Great War biplane. For £235,000, you could have one of the most distinctive, fastest cars on the market. First shown in 2003 and in production by 2007, it was the first Bristol for many years to be made available to the press, where it got a friendly, supportive reaction, albeit without putting it up against any competitors. If there were any….
The Blenheim was by then into its fourth series, effectively the seventh iteration of the 603 saloon, with what may be harshly described as a body kit. But the end was nigh for Bristol. Increasing competition for the high net worth individuals’ dollars and pounds (pounds mostly), regulations in safety, economy and emissions and the global downturn forced the suspension of production and closure of the company in 2009.
Bristol built between 5000 and 6000 overs 60 years (production figures were not reported after 1976) and filled a definite niche for their loyal customer base. A Bristol was never the best car in the world, and indeed never claimed to be, but did offer a distinctive, often attractive and characterful, maybe sometimes charismatic, take on the luxury personal car for those 60 years. Eccentricity is, after all, just a more extreme form of individuality, and as there’s nothing wrong with individuality, I’m OK with it.
The last Great British eccentric has gone, and the world is a poorer place without it.
Oh hang on, I forgot the Morgan…..