Many European aircraft-makers ended up dabbling in automobiles. Most started said dabble after the First World War – legendary names such as Armstrong Siddeley, Farman, Maybach, Salmson, Voisin and, most famously of all, BMW. Fewer aircraft manufacturers tried this diversification strategy in 1945. There were Heinkel, Messerschmitt and Saab, but they generally aimed at the lower end of the market. Only one aimed high: Bristol.
It’s fair to say that Bristol did not exactly plan the birth of their luxury car branch, but it’s also fair to say that Bristol’s ground transport are at the company’s actual roots. The Bristol Tramways Co., founded by the original Sir George White in 1875, went from horse-drawn trams to manufacturing their own buses by 1908, which turned out to be excellent. These were only made for Bristol, initially: the first Bristol bus was sold to another operator only in 1914. Bristol buses (and trucks) were powered by Bristol’s own petrol engines – Diesels were usually Gardners – and proved very successful, though they are often overlooked in Bristol’s history due to the firm’s more glamorous aircraft, car and military output.
In 1910, the British and Colonial Aeroplane Co. was created by White and his close associates. It was a sister company to Bristol Tramways, but soon outshone it. The aircraft were widely referred to as “Bristols” during the war so that, by 1920, the firm officially became the Bristol Aeroplane Co.
The bus side of the business carried on and Bristol even bodied a few cars (for the company directors, no doubt) while they were at it. But the aircraft branch was the most successful branch. Bristol established their dominance in aero engine production, launching successful radial designs such as the Jupiter, the Perseus and the Hercules, which were widely produced. Bristol continued making their own airframes, with a focus on military designs during the inter-war years, which culminated in the mass production of designs such as the Beaufort and the Blenheim during the Second World War.
By 1944, it was clear that the war was soon going to be over and Bristol’s flourishing works would soon become underutilized. Switching to civilian airliners was a risky venture – launching a car line might prove a wise move. In October 1945, a Bristol executive (serving as an officer in the British forces) somehow managed to get permission from the American and British military authorities to “liberate” some blueprints and a few prototype engines from BMW’s Munich plant and ship them home to Blighty. This was done with BMW’s full knowledge and they were compensated in some small way, but it wasn’t exactly your standard licensing deal.
The Bristol Aeroplane Co. now had detailed plans to build the car they now owned. Initially, they teamed up with Frazer-Nash, who had long-standing links to BMW. Bristol’s Filton works were to manufacture the engines, a 2-litre 6-cyl. so Bavarian it only lacked a white and blue roundel. Said sixes would then be used by both Bristol and Frazer-Nash. All that was needed was to convert everything into Imperial measures.
In early 1946, the first prototype Bristol 400 was tested on the hills of Somerset. Mechanically, it was like a pre-war BMW 328 (6-cyl., 1971cc, 85hp) on a 326 chassis with a revised 327 body. Hence the double kidney grille: it was part of the design, and BMW were not in a position to resume production then anyway. From the outset, Bristol cars were frighteningly expensive machines, but were also built to last. Each unit was hand-made, so special requests were numerous and no two cars could really be alike. Improvements on many small details could be retrofitted to most of the fleet – and very often were – by Bristol themselves. This set the template for all future Bristol cars.
In a very logical way, the next Bristol model, launched in 1948, was named the 401, soon joined by the ephemeral 402 convertible. The 401 was much bigger than its predecessor, as Bristol’s clientele demanded, and more modern-looking. Production began to reach fairly significant numbers and Bristol Cars’ reputation in Europe was starting to become established. They were rare, but they were there – even across the English Channel.
The proof is in the specials. While most people were quite content with Bristol’s in-house design, a few early Bristols got custom-bodied by some of the best Continental houses in the biz. Clockwise from top left: 400 cabriolet bodied by PininFarina in 1948; 1949 401 coupé by Touring; Beutler’s 1951 cabriolet; 403 coupé made by Ghia-Aigle in 1953.
The 403, made from 1953 to 1955, was a modest technical update of the 401. The engine was upped to 100 hp, the gearbox was improved and the brakes were better, but the body did not change. The 401 / 402 / 403 generation of Bristols was the marque’s most successful, in terms of absolute sales, totaling 893 of the 401 / 403 coupés and 23 402 convertibles.
With the 404 coupé arriving in late 1953, Bristol changed their strategy – as well as their styling. Now that BMW were fully resurrected, Bristol cars gave up the double kidney grille for good. The 404’s chassis was shortened from 114 to 96 inches, the body was made of aluminium (though still wood-framed) and the engine could be boosted to 125 hp, making the two-seater 404 the fastest 2-litre car in the world. The 404 also ushered a new Bristol attribute: the spare wheel and the battery were now to be located in a special compartment behind the front wheels. This helped with weight distribution, but it also guaranteed that Bristols were going to keep their long schnozzes for the rest of time.
To accompany the sporty 404, Bristol launched the 405 in 1954. Based on the 114-inch chassis and fitted with the 105 hp engine, it was to be the only four-door Bristol ever made. The reason why Bristol chose to forego any variants and focus almost exclusively on coupés after these could well be related to the criticism levelled at the 405’s cramped cabin.
Only 50 Bristol 404s were sold; the 405 saloon, along with its cabriolet version made by Abbott of Farnham, managed just under 300 units. After the 404 / 405 era, Bristol reverted to a single-model policy and kept to it until the mid-‘70s.
All Bristols still sported the 2-litre six that had been Bristol’s mainstay since the beginning. It was a popular engine in its time: we know from yesterday’s AC post that the Thames Ditton boys also came a-knockin’ at the Filton works to help give their Ace a bit more grunt. John Cooper also used Bristol power for his sports cars and even his F1 and F2 racers, as did Lister and several others. For their part, Frazer-Nash, who co-owned the blueprints and helped bring Bristol Cars to life, also used the Bristol six extensively and won several races with it throughout the ‘50s, often competing against AC and Cooper – and Bristol themselves, naturally.
Even as AC became an ever more important client, Frazer-Nash and Bristol were drifting apart, with AFN making more business through distributing imported German cars than selling their precious racers. Manufacture of Frazer-Nash branded cars ceased in 1958, but the company survives to this day. Making engines for other manufacturers and exporting a few cars here and there kept Bristol Cars well in the black, but there was always room for improvement.
Thus came the Arnolt roadster – proof that Bristol could find new markets if they wanted to. Stanley H. “Wacky” Arnolt, a Chicago-based importer, thought of marketing an exotic sports car under his own name. Initially, he used MG TD chassis, which would go to Bertone to get bodied and then shipped across to the States. But MG pulled out of the deal in early 1954, after about 150 cars were made. Arnolt then made a deal with Sir George White (grandson of the founder and Chairman of Bristol Cars) for a supply of the 404 chassis with specially-tuned 130 hp engines. Built until 1959, Arnolt-Bristols were often raced with great success. Being over twice the price of the Arnolt-MGs, however, only 142 were made, of which a dozen perished in a warehouse fire.
By the late ‘50s, there were changes afoot within the Bristol conglomerate. It had started in the late ‘40s with the bus / truck branch, which was sold off as Bristol Commercial Vehicles to a State entity (i.e. nationalized), which sold it in turn to Leyland in 1956 and was thus re-nationalized as part of BL in 1975. Bristol-branded buses were built at the Brislington works until 1981, two years before the site’s closure.
The British government started fretting about the state of the nation’s aircraft producers. There were far too many of them, which was deemed as dangerously inefficient. Financial and PR disasters such as the Comet, which almost sank De Havilland, were also urging action. In 1958, Bristol Aero Engines were split off from the company and married to Armstrong Siddeley – eventually becoming part of Rolls-Royce. In late 1959, Bristol Helicopters, based in Bristol’s wartime “shadow factory” in Weston-super-Mare, were merged with Fairey and Sauders-Roe into Westland, which survived until the year 2000. In 1960, the planes took off: the unification of Vickers, Hunter, English Electric and Bristol gave us the BAC. Filton became the British production site for the Anglo-French Concorde, originally a Bristol project. The historic Filton works, by then part of BAe, closed down in the early ‘90s and were turned into a museum.
For their part, Bristol Cars were also at a crossroads. In 1958, the three-model range gave way to the one and only 406 coupé. There were promising signs that Bristols were morphing into something a bit more substantial. Chassis-wise, the front and rear tracks were widened by two inches, the rear suspension was given a new Watt’s linkage and disc brakes were fitted all around. Body-wise, the “gaping maw” grille of the previous generation stayed, but the rest was new – and the frame’s last remnants of wood were finally replaced by steel.
Engine-wise, however, there was little that could be done except a modest increase in displacement to 2216cc. Power remained the same as the “base” 2-litre (for which several outputs were available), but the 406 was a heavier car, so it really needed the extra torque. Still, the 406 was clearly becoming an anomaly. Given its price range, the Bristol needed something a little more impressive than a pre-war 2-litre six. This was true on the domestic market, but it was even truer on Continental ones, where Bristol were still present.
AC and Bristol really stick out of this lot, don’t they? Who in their right mind would pay more than a DB4’s price for a slow weirdo like the Bristol 406 (ditto for the Facel versus the AC Greyhound)? Bristol were well aware of the problem. A completely new 6-cyl. engine was in the works – designed in-house. But the dissolution of the Bristol conglomerate had changed the marque’s prospects: there was no parent company patiently bankrolling its fledgling automobile branch any longer. Sir George White remained as chairman of Bristol Cars, but a new executive director was found in Anthony Crook.
Tony Crook was one of Bristol Cars’ top British concessionaires (though he also sold Abarths, Aston Martins, Fiats and Simcas), having been involved with Filton’s finest since the late ‘40s. An amateur driver himself, Crook was of the “race on Sunday, sell on Monday” school of car dealers, using every local event to promote his marque’s products. Crook’s success in promoting and selling Bristols got him Sir George’s benevolent attention. When Bristol had to continue on after going solo in 1960, Crook became the Managing Director and one of the main shareholders.
An in-house engine was deemed too risky and too costly, so the prototype six got the chop. Perhaps looking at Facel-Vega, Bristol turned to Chrysler. Bristol wanted the famous hemi, but by 1960 these were no longer in production. However, Chrysler posited that their Canadian-built Polysphere 313, mated to a push-button TorqueFlite, would do just fine. And indeed it did, once modified by Bristol’s engineers. In late 1961, the 407 (basically a 406 with a 250 hp V8 and a new coil-sprung double wishbone front suspension) was launched. Now Bristol had a fighting chance.
The ‘60s and early ‘70s were the marque’s Indian summer – it wasn’t quite the salad days of the ‘50s, when yearly production could top 100 units (it was more like 50), but still reasonably decent. Models 407, 408, 409, 410 and 411 followed in quick succession, with minor trim and grille changes.
The big Chrysler V8 (a 318 (5.2L) after 1965) allowed for Bristol owners to better enjoy their car’s refined appointments – leather seats were now accompanied by a burr walnut dash, unlike the more sporty ‘50s cars. There was no need to make the cars as light as possible, so the Bristols, already reaching middle age, started gaining weight. ZF power steering became standard on the 409, to help with the added bulk.
By the time the 411 came around in late 1969, the Bristol coupé was a well-known quantity. This quantity was high in pounds (both avoirdupois and Sterling), low-key in terms of styling, minuscule in units made and therefore incalculably great in snob appeal. Chrysler now furnished Bristol with the larger 383 (6.3L) V8, which was partially rebuilt at Filton and given a few Bristol parts and tweaks (camshaft, exhaust manifold, compression, etc.), producing 335 hp. However, instead of greeting every grille change with a new numeral, Bristol made the 411 last for five series – and dared to devise a companion model, too.
In 1975, Bristol took the world by surprise and finally announced the 412, which was a very challenging-looking Targa-top coupé designed by Zagato. Tony Crook, alone in the driving seat now that Sir George White had sold him his shares in 1973, really started running Bristol Cars in his own way. He was adamant that Bristol should attempt a return to the American market, which in his view required a convertible, or at least something that might pass for one. This dream of US sales withered very quickly, but alas the car was still launched.
Then, in 1976, the real successor to the 411 arrived as the Bristol 603. The new four-seater coupé used the same chassis (Bristol never went monocoque) as its predecessor and what seems to be identical front wings, doors and windshield, but made one concession to the ‘70s in turning its hitherto upright greenhouse into a semi-fastback. There were two Chrysler V8s available – the 603 E (for, I swear I’m not making this up, “Economy”) made do with the 5.2 litre, while the 603 S got the 5.9 – but power ratings were now deemed unworthy of being communicated. Prices remained as mad as ever, though the Zagato was even more outrageous.
But Bristol, by this point, had changed considerably. The company was pared down to the absolute minimum in many ways. Dealerships disappeared, leaving Bristol with only Tony Crook’s showroom, located on High St. Kensington in London’s West End – pretty much where most of the marque’s clients lived or shopped. Exports, which were flourishing in the ‘50s, were now very rare. Adverts were becoming infrequent and Tony Crook had such a deep distrust of automotive journos that he very rarely allowed any of them to take a car out. In fact, Crook was even like that with clients: if you dared ask for a test drive, odds were he would show you the door. Elusive about their cars’ horsepower since the mid-‘70s, Bristol became cagey about prices as well.
For Bristol were more than just a producer of fine hand-made cars. They also became the number one dealer in second-hand Bristols. They remained rare and valuable cars, so their maker, being in possession of all the blueprints, parts, experience and know-how for fixing older Bristols, bought up as many of the ones being put up for private sale as possible, refurbished and fine-tuned them back to life and sold them on with a warranty (and a juicy premium) to another well-heeled connoisseur. This also ensured that the new owner, if the time came, would consider selling the car back to Bristol. The company could restore any of their own products back to original spec down to the nut and bolt, or add modifications (e.g. adding disc brakes, a newer engine or power steering) specified by the client.
This ingenious recycling scheme is how Bristol managed to survive against all odds for so long. Instead of having to rely on manufacturing and selling a handful of cars per year, they relied on a fleet of a few hundred cars that could still be squeezed a multiple times for profit. The only real side-effect was that Bristol Cars sort of self-mummified. The 603 was the last big Bristol ever designed, yet it carried on until the early 2010s: if part of your business revolves around dealing in used cars, the incentive to change the design is next to zero.
That’s not to say that Bristol never made any changes, but they were very subtle. They changed the 603’s name (it became the “Britannia,” coupled with the turbocharged “Brigand”), the grille, the wheels, the rear end, the dash, the mirrors, the side trim – but the chassis and the body underneath remained fixed in 1976, itself a mild restyle of the 406 launched in 1958. The Zagato 412 also morphed into the Beaufort, now a fully-fledged convertible, and a vainglorious effort was made to try to export these. But all in all was just another brick in the wall that Bristol were inexorably creeping toward.
The ex-603 / Brigand / Britannia was (badly) facelifted yet again and became the Blenheim in 1994 – another name shamelessly pilfered from Bristol’s aircraft glory days. By this point, Bristols were seen as dinosaurs, albeit rather cool ones. That Oasis guy bought one. Even back then, car nuts and the motoring press were looking at Bristol’s continued existence as something of a weird “only in Britain” miracle, not unlike Morgan or Reliant.
In a belated and long-delayed effort to change their image, Bristol finally launched a completely new high-performance car in 2003, though Blenheim production continued. The gullwing-door Bristol Fighter was powered by the Dodge Viper’s 8-litre V10, with a few modifications from Filton to bring it to a minimum of 525 hp. It’s unclear what the Bristol boys were aiming at here. Bristol didn’t need a halo car – the marque was a halo unto itself. Could they really compete with Koenigsegg, Lamborghini or McLaren in the super-risky supercar field?
No, they could not. The £235,000 Fighter didn’t do very well. Production numbers, with later Bristols, are always a matter of faith rather than science, but it seems only a dozen were made. The Blenheim was still around, but a mere handful were being made per year, if that. The Fighter had cost a pretty penny to develop and its failure put the firm into a precarious position. The final straw was the 2008 financial crisis, along with the fact that Tony Crook, who was only semi-retired (meaning he only worked 12 hours a day, no doubt) since he sold his Bristol shares in 2001, was unceremoniously barred from the Kensington showroom by the new owners in 2007.
The Bristol 603 was a Deadly Sin of the slow-killing kind, one must say. The original car was fine for the ‘70s, but it was allowed to bloat up and wither well past its relevance. It took 35 years, but Bristol finally halted all chassis production in 2011. The facilities are still in use, as the Bristol repair / reconditioning side (and the showroom) are still operating, but no new cars are being made. There was a blip in 2016, when the Bristol Bullet roadster was announced, but it seems only one was ever made so far. Some describe the marque as dormant. Perhaps it is. But the longer it stays motionless and silent, the easier it’s going to be to call it dead.
The curse and the gift that turned Bristol into a caricature of itself was the marque’s self-appointed proprietor, chief salesman and all-round supremo, Mr Anthony Crook. Here was a man who had a vision, and the limited means at his disposal were enough to continue making a few more Bristols every year. Crook knew that scarcity was its own reward, as the only competent Bristol specialists were Bristol themselves. He reportedly barred BBC Top Gear co-presenter James May from penetrating the Kensington showroom due to May’s association with Jeremy Clarkson, who had dared criticize Bristol. Tony Crook was a living legend, but he should perhaps have tried to devise a new Bristol model rather than having the 603 produced ad infinitum and kicking out potential clients.
It’s unfair to say that “Bristols had a ‘40s chassis with a ‘70s body.” Though its wheelbase remained identical (114 inches / 289.5 cm) throughout (except for the 404), nearly every chassis component did change: the suspension, the engine, the wheels, the brakes, the steering, the transmission, the track – it was a constant evolution. But that evolution stopped and the firm’s future was, in the long run, compromised by this. The misfire of the Fighter put Bristol on the edge of the precipice and a wisp of economic headwind (and the 2008 crisis was more like a typhoon) was all it took to kill off the marque.
Phew! That was a long one. Hope that didn’t get too boring, towards the end. Or from the very start. Let’s kick things into full Deadly Sins overdrive for Jensen. See you tomorrow!
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