(first posted 1/17/2015) 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, built 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 Fiedler 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 Granger and Jean Simmons.
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 started, with Pininfarina for example building 3 or 4 (records vary) of this attractive convertible.
Other coachbuilders, in Britain and Europe such as Touring 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 initially. 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…..
Long overdue article and splendidly presented, Roger. I recently captured a Brittania and was informed by its elderly and debonair owner that Australia, with around 200 examples, has the second highest population of Bristols in the world. Which surprised me as his was the first I had ever seen on the road.
My personal favourite is the Beutler 406.
A few years back I saw a lovely 401 on Deviation Rd. in Geelong (a good informal hillclimb route!) early one Sunday morning when the speed trials were on. I trust the driver wasn’t a participant.
The gentleman driving the Britannia was everything Roger described of the Bristol customer in this wonderful article, but he was still happy to chat.
I saw my first ever in the flesh at the Motorclassica this year. Double reverse CC effect. hehehe
Very nice piece on a company I knew pretty much nothing about.
I like the looks of the 411, but do think it would look better with a wider grill and only two headlights. On the other hand it is kind of a throwback to the 401.
What engines did they use after Chrysler dropped the big block V8 in ’78?
Didn’t they lay in a stock of big block V8s? With the handful of cars built each year I could imagine them stored in a cellar like fine wines!
Maybe they used crate engines, as post 1976 American engines would have met most Euro emission controls for many years afterwards with little modification.
383s with a 4 barrel,later cars had a 360 late models had fuel injection(not sure if this was a Mopar or Bristol addition)
The fighter was a bargain .
FINALLY, a comprehensive history of Bristol’s cars, which I have been waiting for since the 1980s. I first heard about the BMW-powered early Bristols from British classic cars magazines, then saw the occasional fragmentary mention of Bristol’s newer offerings in the automotive press in the years since, but have known very little about Bristols other than their early use of BMW’s prewar straight six, later use of Chrysler V8s, and long-term use of aerodynamics and the same chassis. The various models over the years, the connection to AFN, and almost everything else, I knew nothing about. All that I knew was that I loved the concept of a limited production, classically proportioned, American V8 powered grand tourer, so Bristols were always intriguing. Thank you for providing a comprehensive history of Bristol; now, if I ever actually see one for the first time, I can refer to this article and know what I am looking at.
Bristol cars are still alive and kicking restoring and servicing their back catalogue in Brentwood near London and still have their showroom In Kensington
in the West end. Noel Gallagher Oasis front man swore… by them!”.
Superb article – very informative and enjoyable.
Thank you, for a wonderful article. The automotive world is definitely a poorer place with Bristol being gone. I can only hope that Morgan can keep the flag flying for the long term future.
“Brigand” is a wonderful name for a luxury sports coupe. I don’t think it would fly on this side of the Atlantic (it’s not a word Americans use very often or, typically, know how to pronounce), but it has the perfect flavor for a Bristol.
It would have suited the character played by Peter Saarsgard in the film adaptation of An Education, who drove a Bristol, albeit a 405 (I think), not a Brigand.
Thanks Roger for another splendid read on my all time favourite car.Later Bristols were named after their aircraft(Beaufort,Beaufighter,Blenheim etc).A sad day when they closed but the factory still repairs and restores Bristols.At one time prospective owners were sent for an interview to see if they would be suitable to keep oiks from driving them.
I was hoping you’d be OK with it!
Beautiful looking car. Fascinating story. I’ve heard of the Bristol car, but I never saw one in person, not even when I visited England several years ago. The early Bristols had a front end that reminded me of early BMWs.
It would’ve been fitting if BMW had bought out Bristol.
Britain has had some underappreciated female eccentrics:
•Ada, Countess of Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron whose ideas made her perhaps the first programmer;
•Lady Houston, a strident nationalist who financed the Supermarine Schneider Trophy winner (ancestor of the Spitfire) when the gov’t baulked;
•Gertrude Bell, a polymath Middle East expert (contemporaneous with T.E. Lawrence) who helped draw its post-WW1 borders in an Imperial Conference, founded the Baghdad Museum, & helped establish the Hashemite Dynasty there. Her observations about the Arabs are still useful today.
•Beatrice Shilling, engineer & motorcylist who invented a vital carburetor improvement to the R.R. Merlin.
It would be an interesting parallel-universe history if BMW had made Bristol their “Cadillac” in the ’60s, along with Glas as their “Chevy” and the BMW marque itself in the “Buick” position…
I rather resent that the Germans have ANY interest in British manufacturing.
In my opinion, the treaty of Versailles should have been re-imposed after WW2, and
the Germans forbidden any significant economic independence.
It was the Americans who thought these silly Europeans should shake hands and let
their bygones be bygones. But how long did it take for the Germans to become the most powerful economy in Europe again. Britain’s automotive industry fell apart in the 1960s and 1970s – admittedly it was killed by British socialists and trades unions, rather than by the new Reich in Bonn/Berlin. But I am none the less extremely sad about it.
The American attitude to Germans may have changed somewhat, now that the Germans have concluded a gas and pipeline deal with the Russians (our strategic enemy, in case any of US had forgotten). And also now that BMW, Volkswagen and Mercedes are competitors to Ford and GM on American soil. The Americans will, of course, rue the day the allowed Joe Biden to cheat his way into the White House. But that is another story.
Wonderful piece and thanks. I think the really square lights are from a Bedford CF (late model) van. I spoke to Mr Crook about the pale blue car (I’m fairly sure it was that one) at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the late 1990s. I was fairly tongue-tied as ever in the presence of greatness – he told me it had >400,000 miles on the clock, had only ever been serviced (not restored) and that he told his customers that the cars would easily outlive their owners by over 100 years (I think he thought they were built for 200). I’ve read elsewhere that the ‘styling’, if it can be so called, of the 603 (and relatives) in particular was intended not to draw attention to the car -and the owner’s substantial wealth – (by being so plain / frumpy) and the near-vertical sideglass let the driver place the fairly narrow car easily in a busy unplanned city like London. The cars were otherwise designed to be driven in comfort, flat out, with unstressed reliable US of A motors, four people and their luggage. What Car? magazine tested a 603 against a Merc SLC (another personal fave) and possibly an Aston V8 – and it wore a numberplate ‘MPH 100’. I was a very excited 10-year old when we were stuck in trafic one time behind another bearing the same number. Oh and finally – LJK Setright – the UK’s greatest ever motoring writer – loved them
I’ve been trying to place those rear lights for about 3 weeks – thanks!
Speaking of Setright, this is the first authoritative piece I’ve seen on Bristols since I read some of his short pieces on them in Car & Driver a good many years ago.
Edit: I could well have read to the end of the thread before I posted, but I’ll let it stand….
I wondered how long this could goon before someone mentioned LJKS.
Terrific article, Roger. You are providing a very much appreciated education on the British automotive industry.
I’m looking forward to what you report on the Morgan.
This is a wonderful article on an amazing carmaker who beat the odds against boutique manufacturing for much longer than would have been thought possible. Sad day when the phrase “There will always be an England” lost its automotive corollary. Every time an English cottage car producer goes, the world loses a bit of color.
Eccentrics attract eccentrics. One piece of Bristoliana you didn’t mention was the unique British motoring journalist LJK Setright, who was famous for his incredibly dense prose (pompous, you say?) and large beard, and who had an unnatural passion for Bristols, even when the rest of the world regarded them as antiquated. Never did figure his affinity out, as, truly, the engineering achievements and aviation heritage of the early cars had clearly long since dissipated by the time he was extolling Bristols’ virtues in CAR in the 70s.
Just noticed that Osella did mention LJKS above!
I was actually tempted to use LJKS and his love of Bristols as a theme for the piece but couldn’t see it working for a predominantly US audience; however, I did use his book “The Designers” for reference
I think there may be more of us LJKS fans over here than you realize. The man was quite amazing and is probably worthy of an article all by himself. I’ve been reading his columns at least since the mid-80’s until he passed and (having kept my old issues of CAR for a long time) I at one point re-read them again with a greater appreciation that comes with age (or maturity I suppose).
Actually the same thing could probably be said for the UK motoring press as a whole. While the US (and Germany) has no shortage of magazines, in my opinion Britain really did (and still does) provide a far greater variety with generally excellent writing and even better photography presented in a high quality format. Just the fact that there two top-notch magazines devoted to classics (“Classic Cars” and “Classic and Sports Car” that cover the same subject matter says a lot.
As far as Bristol goes, this was yet another fantastic article and research piece of yours. I’ve known and admired Bristol for many years but was not very congnizant of the entire history. I love the idea of the owner producing as and for whom he pleases, a wonderful thing to be able to do. Great story, Roger!
+1 on the British classic car mags. A large proportion of my automotive education comes from the two titles you mentioned.
And Octane. That’s the only British mag I regularly buy these days.
LJKS had a regular column in Car and Driver magazine for some years.He was quite widely known (and appreciated) here.
The links between CAR and C&D in the 70s were quite numerous. There was a great CAR feature by Mel Nichols in 1978 (?) driving with David Davis from LA to NY in a 450SEL 6.9 and using the CB radio, under the call sign Silver Trashcan.
The feature was called Road America and the Silver Trashcan, and I read and re-read it for it weeks.
Did C&D have Phil Llewellyn as well – he was great fun!
LJKS was also a motorcycle enthusiast and wrote for many motorcycle magazines.I first read his articles in my brother’s Bike magazine in the 70s(back then it was actually a pretty good magazine but then became a me too same as the rest rag).Not sure on this but I think I also came across his work in Classic Bike and Back Street Heroes.
I’m about a year late Roger, but the Silver Trashcan story was also run in Australia’s Wheels magazine – Mel wrote for Wheels, and I’d always assumed the article was written for them! But then again, quite a number of Car’s journalists were ex-Wheels so doubtless there were strong links between those two titles too.
Yet another American LJKS reader here, from quite a young age (early teens). And a like a few others noted, despite some of his personal habits, I also had trouble reconciling his appreciation of sophisticated automotive technologies with his Bristol ownership. By the way, am I the only one who sees something of the Malibu Maxx in the roofline of that Zagato-bodied 4 seater?
Allow me to add to the chorus of thanks and congratulations on this splendid article. I have done some shorter Bristol posts in the past, and knew a proper history was inevitable. My own To Do list is very long, so I suggested it to Roger, and he ran with it. And the result has surpassed my expectations.
A few years ago Bristol’s assets were purchased by Kamkorp which also owns the Frazer-Nash Group. They have a website, http://www.bristolcars.co.uk, where I found this:
“Career opportunities at Bristol. Bristol Cars Services Ltd would like to recruit a full time Panel Beater to work from their Brentford service and restoration facility.”
And here’a snap of Setright and his Bristol.
I was aware of the Kamkorp Frazer Nash link, but there is limit to how much of the story can be told in one feature. I wanted to focus on the cars, their heritage and production lives.
But I might get my resume (CV in English!) checked
Of course he had to have one of those ultra rare Zagatos. I thought he had a Britannia, but perhaps he had several…
LJK Setright was a great Honda a Prelude fan as well in the days of the four wheel steering model. I also remember his often-made comment that a “gentleman’s car has six cylinders”.
Finally! Thank you so much for this comprehensive essay on these wonderful cars. I recall seeing that ratty 410 around Vancouver in the late 80s/early 90s, and there is at least one other 410-vintage Bristol in Vancouver, a silver one in great condition, that I saw cruising down Robson at some point around 1999 or 2000. Both LHD so must have been part of some valiant effort to sell them in Canada.
Given the calibre of these magnificent cars, they remain one of the last classic car bargains out there, and I have a particular interest in the Chrysler-engine cars both from a penchant for “hybrids” (as they used to be called before the word got hijacked) and that you can actually keep one going feasibly here in North America without breaking the bank. Bristols are, IMO, on the very cusp of discovery. Once slightly dismissed because of the Detroit engines, all these cars are increasingly being seen for the gems they are. Look at Facel Vega or Iso prices in recent years to get a sense of where Bristols will soon go….
And, yes, while as a kid I knew these from my World Car Catalogues and so forth, I came to “see” them via the great Leonard Setright. Like many here I was raised on LJKS’ grandiloquence. I can remember showing my Grade 12 English prof, a Jesuit priest (and wonderful man) who did not drive, an LJKS essay from Car on, of course, the Citroen DS, as proof that automotive writing could be “great writing”. To his shock he agreed!
I think LJKS’ enthusiasm for these cars was founded on three pillars. First, there is probably no greater manifestation of the pure, uncompromised English car out there, despite the provenance of the later models’ engines. Second, the aviation connection and dedication to building to aviation standards was impressive if quixotic, in that it no doubt made it very hard to ever make any money. Third, he loved the philosophy of the gentleman’s express in which you can drive across, say, France all day and emerge fresh, a concept that was and remains appealing (and, if you think about it, universal – heck, it is the idea (if not the reality) behind the various American “personal luxury” cars we so enjoy on this site – look at the period advertising for the first Avanti or Grand Prix).
Again, thank you for this great article.
You make three points, each with validity, and use hypotheses within hypotheses to achieve this laudable aim.
Very LJKS, except there were no Latin phrases
If it weren’t for the RHD, I’d be quite attracted to one. That would bug me some, I think.
Were money no object for me, I have no doubt a Bristol would provide a viable option to today’s ever more unpleasant air travel; I can certainly see myself driving from Vienna to visit my English friends in one. Having done Vienna to Calais in 10 hours in a “normal” car, I have no doubt I could reduce that considerably with any of the Chrysler-engined Bristols, driving over the German Autobahn at night, when traffic is no factor and keeping a constant (and relaxed) 100-110 MPH is possible. What I would lose time-wise in comparison with a flight would be more than counter-balanced by not having to go through the stress of getting to the airport, going through the usual security checks, sitting next to some common pleb for the hour and three quarter it takes to get to London, the fear of a terror attack/bomb, landing and then a repeat of public transport travel in an England which has become – to an extent – more dangerous than some parts of the US (and certainly Austria)…
Comprehensive article, which doesn’t claim the original 400 model was actually a new prototype BMW hidden away during the war. That was the story I always believed.
Very rare cars, I have only seen maybe half a dozen in 60+ years of car-spotting.
Allegedly there will be a new Bristol model launched this year….
Maybe LJKS deserves his own write-up – I never understood him and rarely bothered to read his articles.
The hidden prototype theory is completely new to me. As Fritz Fielder was involved again, the intellectual content of any prototype may have appeared in the 400.
An LJKS write up – challenging but interesting, even without considering his use of language.
Just thinking about my last comment…..
… would BMW have expected to continue with a wood framed body for the next generation of cars after the 328?
The Jag XK120 launched with a wood framed body – Riley were still building that way in 1955 – but perhaps WW2 had something to do with it, perhaps…..
It’s a bogus theory. The facts are all too well known and documented.
Wow! I have never seen these cars before. I LIKE THEM. A LOT! I think the 603 is the closest yet to the imaginary perfect car I’ve had in my mind for over 30 years. I would shorten the trunk just a little bit, make the rear window and the rear quarter windows smaller, and then give it a huge straight six motor. I absolutely love the looong distance between the front wheel and the door. That is something that is very rare in American cars. The 65 mustang had it a little bit. As did the 75-79 Chevy Nova.
After the bespoke elegance of the 408 – 411 the styling, regrettably, became rather eccentric, but the materials and craftsmanship were never less than superb. And Leonard Setright always knew what he was writing about.
Materials and craftsmanship were always high on Bristol.
And LJKS was a craftsman as well
Another Bristol and LJK Setright fan from the U.S. here. I’d love a Blenheim, and I always felt the Fighter was the modern day Imperial coupe Chrysler should have built.
Thank you Roger… I’ve always appreciated Bristols. So very unique. Unfortunately I’ve only seen them on Masterpiece Theater on PBS. Better than nothing.
Great write up on a very rare car, here anyway. Amongst the exotica parked at the repair garage at the end of our street when I was growing up was a 401 in maroon it stood out amongst a couple of SS Jags and an Alvis that were also in the lineup, the owner of the place seemed to collect oddball sporting cars so I guess a Bristol wasnt entirely out of place, despite the grass growing around all his collection they all went and were driven regularly and it seemed a shame when the place got sold and ordinary cars began being parked there.
I’ve looked forward to CC article on Bristol!
Here’s a Dutch article with some pictures of the showroom and, at the bottom, a piece of press copy that suggests new models for 2015…
The Bristol 410 got television exposure on the “Inspector Lynley Mysteries” series. Lead character Lynley, played by Nathaniel Parker, was a British nobleman (the fictional Eighth Earl of Asherton) who was also a police detective. He drove a Bristol 410 both on and off duty, much like the famous red Jaguar Mk II driven by “Inspector Morse” (John Thaw).
Yes, remember the Bristol from the series well.
iirc in the first season Lynley had a contemporary Peugeot. In the second season he had a 70s Jensen Interceptor. Then the Bristol in the third season.
I didn’t make it to the third season. Didn’t much care for the TV series years ago, and the books were worse. I thought I’d try again on BritBox, but the actor is unwatchable after seeing him as Mr. Skimpole in Bleak House.
Just saw Jay Leno talking about his Bristol last week. They were off my radar before that.
“Inspector Lynley” and Bristol 410
Count me as a fan of Bristol, especially the 411. Imagine my surprise when, during my last visit to London (December 2014) a driver condition example outside of my flat in Belgravia. I gawked at it every day, hoping to hear that V8 rumble down the street.
I have no proof, but my notion is that most Bristols are bought by very dedicated owners. It’s just not a car that is bought on a whim. They are bought by inspired people with a lot of interest in the brand and their own cars. And it’s a car made in the old traditional handcrafted mechanical age. Besides the handbeaten aluminum body, I can’t think of anything that couldn’t be fixed in your nearest garage. And they are bought by people who intended to use them. These are not garage queens, they aren’t even to any interest for collectors. They are bought as practical classics intended for everyday use. They are the practical mans Aston Martin. Therefore many of those cars have survived, to a larger degree than many other cars.
Amazing article. Now I have an education on the Bristol cars. I do remember reading the LJK Setright articles in C/D back in the day, now I actually can appreciate the cars he often mentioned and wrote about in his articles. Another home run, Roger.
Excellent Article! You’ve dug up photos I’ve never seen before on any of the Bristol Enthusiast sites.
I was visiting Britain with my family in August 1978; we saw our relatives in Leeds and also stayed for a few days at the London Tara hotel, which I see still exists under that name. The hotel happened to be a very short distance from the Bristol location on Kensington High Street. I presume that not very many people first heard of Bristols by wandering into the one and only showroom, as I did. Thanks for a very comprehensive article.
Thank you so much for this complete history of Bristol. I was never sure where some of the models fitted in. Great writing makes excellent reading. Many thanks, Roger.
I’ve been waiting for so long to the Bristol article. Thanks for posting!
Another great history Roger. Bristol still has a showroom on Kensington High Street, where you can buy reconditioned cars. I got a snap last time I was in London:
Did anyone notice that in the current film The Imitation Game, with Benedict Cumberbatch, that Bristol Automotive is listed as one of the producers? I wonder what the story behind that is?
Zooming in on the first picture, we can see that the Bristol is parked in Ebury St outside the home of another Great British Eccentric, Dame Edith Evans.
I suspect that a Rolls-Royce or pre-Docker Daimler would be more Dame Edith’s style, but there is at least room for “A Handbag!” in the back of the 411.
Incidentally, a good place to spot Bristols used to be the Holiday Inn car park next to the Bristol dealership in Kensington, as Mr Crook kept his surplus stock down there. You could have a good peer without your bonafides being challenged! Make mine a 408.
Roger, thank you for the great in depth history of Bristol. The only examples I’ve ever seen in person were Arnolt-Bristol at a concourse and museum. I like the idea of the more understated elegance that doesn’t shout “I have money” (as loudly) as an RR or Bentley does. I also remember enjoying LJK Setright articles in C/D.
Great article Roger. My exposure to Bristols has been a friend’s ownership of a 401 plus regularly seeing the local Bristol club at car shows such as last weekend (a 400 and 2 403s). Later model Bristols are rarely seen though, I am not sure I’ve seen a 603 but have seen a 412 and 406 Zagato – the photo of the latter is from film so I will have to scan it.
That 410 in Vancouver: I could *swear* I saw the exact same car (or one with very similar paint rot) in Petrolia, Ontario last fall, in the driveway of someone I know to be a collector of odd cars (he has a Series 1 Alpine A110).
Yes indeed, a very good potted history of Bristol cars. The first one I saw was a 403 in downtown North End Portsmouth England as a schoolboy, about 1957. Purple in color and in those days stood out like a spaceship. Unfortunately, they never got any better looking as new models came out, so despite LJKS’s later professed love of them as a gentleman’s motor carriage, I never thought too much of the things. The Jensen Interceptor leaves them for dead in the looks department.
I have a couple of observations. You state, “From persevering with a coinage based on the Roman system of 12 pence in a shilling and 20 shillings in a pound, buying most liquids, except beer, in litres and measuring fuel consumption in miles per gallon, driving on the right in a continent that universally doesn’t”.
The decimal money system came along in 1971, so no perseverance is required. Also, it wasn’t difficult the old way. As a newly- minted Canadian back in England for graduate mechanical engineering work, I was there at the changeover.
Driving on the right? No, they drive on the left.
Attributing the Hillman Imp engine to Coventry Climax is one of those old saws that never goes away. The similarities are aluminum block and overhead cam, and some advice on general layout from CC to Rootes. The reason for my pedantry on this point is that it entirely overlooks the actual design by Leo Kuzmicki, a genius of a Polish engineer who escaped from Poland to England during WW2. He designed the Norton racing motorcycle engine dominant in the 1950s, then the Vanwall F1 engine made famous by Stirling Moss before moving to Rootes and designing the Imp engine. You can get the SAE paper on this, but here is a link to the original presentation:
Any resemblance to the 750 cc fire pump engine, not fork-lift – you don’t need 38 hp at 6000 rpm for that – is in general layout only. Kuzmicki went on to become a Chrysler engineer. Google him, amazing guy.
Curbside Classic seems intent on getting things correct, a noble goal. That is my excuse for being so pedantic. Plus, in the summer of ’65, every day after lectures at summer school in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, my new pal taking the same physics course and I went bass fishing. Miles down dirt and gravel roads to the best fishing spots during a glorious summer in his new Hillman Imp driven at ridiculous speeds with more than a “dab of oppo”. That engine was a little gem! I doubt a Bristol would have kept up!
Bill, I had intended to do a bit of editing in the opening paragraphs, but it slipped by me. That’s no excuse, but I’ve gone back and done what I should have in the first place. Thanks for the motivation 🙂
The Vanwall engine could be thought of as 4 Manx Norton engines.
Wonderfully comprehensive writeup on an underappreciated series of cars! Though I’ve still never seen a Bristol “in the metal”, as a child I was given several volumes of an automotive history series published in England in the mid 70’s, called “The World of Automobiles”. One of the volumes I had covered “B” and had quite the nice article on Bristol, and introduced me to a car I became fascinated with. Of course, I knew nothing of what became of them after the 70’s (when the book was published the 411 Series IV was the current model) until I found them again in a tiny writeup in CAR magazine, which I discovered in 1999. How did we ever know of such things before the prevalence of the Internet?
Just located that volume of the World of Automobiles and noticed that the writer of the Bristol article was one L.J.K. Setright himself! Wonder if I’d be committing all sorts of copyright infringement if I were to scan and post the article?
I’m sorry to hear that the Bristol Fighter is no more.
A couple of years ago I was on a business trip to London. On the taxi ride from Heathrow to my hotel we passed the Bristol showroom. As my hotel was not far away and I always had a soft spot for Bristols (inspired by LJKS’ writing for CAR, by the way) I decided to give the showroom a visit. Entering the premises, Tony Crook’s secretary came to me and told me that Tony wouldn’t sell a car to someone from the Continent anyway, so I might leave the showroom just as well. That is true character…
I found it fascinating that Bristols had fixed seats without any form of adjustment. Seats, pedal position and steering wheel location are tailored to the individual needs of the buyer, thereby rendering any means of adjustment useless. This is what I call a bespoke car.
I can assure you the seats in the Bristol are fully adjustable, every which way except sideways! I own a 603 and among many odd quirks I enjoy the little white-on-black aviation style warning sign attached to the gear lever box cover. It states:
Front Seat Adjust
Keep feet and hands clear when operated’
Although I have really appreciated your quite complete “orbituory” on Bristol Cars, I have missed any mention of the restart of the company, which actually has never collapsed, but has been in administration for a short period. Now, after 70 years of its initial launch, a new exiting model will be launched in 2016 and Bristol Cars Ltd. is alive as never before …please view their website at http://www.bristolcars.co.uk … and watch the motoring news the New Year .. Happy Holidays !
Went by the showroom in Kensington last month. Wish I had more time to check it out
Fantastic read, well done. My father was a contemporary of Tony Crook and knew him a bit through the motor trade. I remember as a kid going to the Kensington showroom with my old man one day, Tony took us to a pub for lunch, kept calling my dad ‘dear boy’ It wasn’t riff raff he wanted to keep out, it was what he called ‘spivs’ Apparently he checked the shoes first, old, well polished brogues meant you were halfway there, loafers or slip-ons, no chance. If the rest of you passed muster, if he liked the ‘cut of your jib’ you were in. Proper old character.
BMW’s own efforts to continue building cars based on their pre-war products weren’t all that dissimilar, although this particular car doesn’t have the same engine used by Bristol. The 501s, identified by their lack of fog-lights in the front fenders, shared the old 328 engine with Bristol, while 502s(and 501 V8s for added confusion) had a new OHV V8 with wedge shaped combustion chambers.
I didn’t have time to comment when this was first published, but what a superb article Roger. One of the best I’ve read, thank you.
Wonderful article, thank you.
What happened to Bristol.
Good to see a comprehensive article on Bristol Cars . Shame the writer didnt get some one in the know to proof read it as the article is full of errors
Here is a video of what remained of Bristol six months ago.
The 411 subject car was Bristol’s stylistic peak. Even the grille insert is awesome. Later models looked like kit cars.
Wonder why Bristol took so long to get rid of the BMW kidney grille.
The accounts on the Type 160 Twin-Cam inline-6 project by Christopher Balfour and others claim the Jaguar XK6 was indeed used as a benchmark.
So, Bristol’s motivation for getting into the car business was more or less the same as Saab’s.
I always had a soft spot for Bristol cars, and it was my hope if I ever got to London to have visited their showroom. It struck me that Avanti was kind of like the “American Bristol”, likewise suffering(?) from an outdated platform. I was told that one of the reasons for the struggles Avanti had beginning in the 1980’s was the imminent end of their (stored) supply of Studebaker Lark frames, and hence the need to develop a new chassis – odd because Excalibur had the same difficulty and DID develop a new chassis, to expire before Avanti did. It would have been fascinating if Avanti and Bristol (and perhaps Excalibur, whatever you may think of their stylistic excess) could have combined forces somewhat to keep each other alive.
I was told somewhere else that Bristol’s (extraordinarily) low production and minimal development was partly on purpose, as Mr. Crook had found that refurbishing older customer cars was more profitable than new sales, so it made sense to change as little as possible so that old cars could easily be brought up to “new spec”.
I have a large amount of those oval tail lights, Now that they are Bristol tail lights the price to buy has risen accordingly.
Another wonderfully informative CC essay. And, lo and behold, a competently-styled Bristol at last: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/93/Brummen_2008_Bristol_Fighter_%2835014661104%29.jpg
No room at the inn (or in the fender) for the spare, here—but maybe enough space in front of the engine block ? Beautiful car, and a complete surprise to me. Thanks (and for all the preceding matter) to Roger Carr !
I didn’t think there were any Bristols in New Zealand, but we had a lawyer staying with us (we own a boutique lodge) last week, and he was chatting with me about the old Renaults he owns. Out of the blue he then said “Of course my favourite car is my Bristol 411 which I’ve had for 20 years…” Sadly he was driving his Porsche Cayenne, but one hopes he might bring the Bristol next time he stays! The CC-effect is alive and well!