Historic Car Brands
During World War II, the Bristol Aeroplane Company was already making plans to enter car production when peace was restored. Initially, it intended to take over one of the smaller, high-quality car brands, so in 1945 Bristol took over Frazer Nash and utilised its pre-War BMW marketing links.
Bristol had learnt a harsh lesson after World War I, when its busy factories that had been churning out warplanes and engines became drastically under-utilised. Bristol’s managing director, George S M White, was with the company during both World Wars and was determined that a Bristol Car Division would keep the company busy in the post-War years.
Unlike many UK manufacturers, Bristol could see the benefits of taking over German designs, in the aftermath of the War. From that perspective, Frazer Nash was a perfect fit, because its owners, the Adlington brothers, had been importing and rebadging BMW models in the UK since 1934.
However, the combined board of Bristol and Frazer Nash fell out in 1947, after the first Bristol Cars had been produced and the Adlington brothers went their own way again, retaining the rights to use the Bristol/BMW engine in post-War Frazer Nash cars.
Bristol 400 – Ferenghi
With all rights to pre-War BMW models and the services of ex-BMW designer, Dr Fritz Fiedler, the first Bristol car was launched in 1946. The Bristol 400 employed the BMW 326 chassis, the 327’s bodywork and the 328’s famous two-litre, six-cylinder engine. This engine achieved hemispherical combustion chambers with inclined valves and cleverly designed, cross-over pushrods, rather than overhead camshafts.
The Bristol 400 2+2 coupe was built on a separate frame, with a lightweight aluminium body fitted over steel framing. Because the design was refined using Bristol’s wind tunnel – advanced automotive technology in those days – It was aerodynamic and performed and handled like a competition car of the period, so sales success was immediate, with some 700 being produced. Unfortunately, that was about as good as it got for Bristol.
The larger, but still lightweight, five-seat 401 was released in 1949. Being slipperier than its predecessor it could achieve 107mph, from the same 85hp engine. The drophead 402 version was a limited-production model, with only around 25 vehicles being produced.
In 1952, Bristol’s racing endeavours were rewarded with the success of the Cooper-Bristol single-seater. Many of John Cooper’s customers were eager to move up the racing ladder and that meant Formula 2 – two-litre.
The Bristol engine in race tune produced 130-150hp and, although this was less than the competitions’ outputs, Cooper devised an uncomplicated and lightweight front-engined chassis. The resulting car was the Cooper T20, also known as the Cooper-Bristol MkI. The car was given a four-speed manual gearbox and traditional Cooper suspension with transverse leaves over tubular wishbones.
At Goodwood’s Easter Monday meeting in 1952, newcomer Mike Hawthorn won the F2 Lavant Cup and Formula Libre Chichester Cup before finishing second in the Non-Championship F1 Richmond Trophy, only beaten by Jose Froilan Gonzalez’s 4.5-litreFerrari 375.
At the Belgian GP, it was driven to a spectacular fourth place finish; a third place finish in the British GP; another fourth at the Dutch GP, which combined earned Hawthorne a fourth place finish in the World Championship and launched his Formula 1 career.
The Cooper-Bristol T20 often outclassed more powerful cars, though they were still no match for the Ferraris of Ascari, Farina and Taruffi.
The T20 was Cooper’s first Formula 2 car and was replaced in 1953 by the T23, also known as the Cooper Bristol MKII. Jack Brabham made his mark in Australian single-seat racing in a T23.
The Bristol engine had proved itself in Formula 2 and became popular with other sports car makers, including AC, Arnolt, Lister, Tojeiro, Lotus and ERA. The ERA Formula 2 chassis became the basis of Bristol’s 450 sports car racer. It had a stiff, tubular chassis, De Dion rear axle and unusual detachable-rim wheels. However, the engine and transmission were straight-Bristol.
Bristol 450 – Mitchell Motors Restorations UK
The 1953 Bristol factory Le Mans entries were fitted with experimental crankshafts that broke during practice. However, the streamlined 450s were seven seconds per lap quicker than any other two-litre cars. When refitted with standard cranks these cars managed three class wins in other events.
The 450 development included a new 12-port cylinder head and a detuned version of that engine was fitted to the Bristol 404, short-chassis coupe in 1953.
This model was expensive and only around 40 were produced.
It was notable for introducing a concealed mudguard-mounted spare wheel on the left side and the battery and electrical kit on the right hand side. (Martin Pettit photo)
In 1954 the 405 was released, with a four-door body or drop head coupe and overdrive on the four-speed box.
1956 Bristol 405 Drophead Coupe
The 406 was released in 1958, with a bored-out engine that produced 115hp at 4700rpm. The 406 also boasted four-wheel disc brakes and a rear axle controlled by Watts linkages. Six tuned 406s were fitted with Zagato bodywork.
Bristol 407 Zagato – Barrett Harrison
Throughout the late 1950s Bristol had been experimenting with engines to replace the aged in-line ex-BMW six. One the favoured power plants was the Armstrong Siddeley six that powered the Sapphire sedan.
Against this background was Bristol’s decision to join with other British aircraft companies in 1960 to create the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC), which later became part of British Aerospace. As result, the car division originally merged with Bristol Siddeley Engines and was marked for closure, but was bought in September 1960 by George S M White, the chairman and effective founder.
White retained the direction of the company, but sold a forty percent shareholding to Tony Crook, a leading Bristol agent. Crook became sole distributor.
Any plans for Bristol’s own engine production were shelved in 1960 and so the 407 of 1961 introduced Chrysler of Canada’s 5.2-litre pushrod V8, complete with automatic transmission.
1968 Bristol 410
Purists decry the V8 models, but they certainly were performers and carried the marque through to 2004, when the well-styled Bristol Fighter was released, with V10 Viper power. Only a small number of Fighters were produced before Bristol Cars went into liquidation in 2011.
Bristol Fighter – Brian-Snelson
A revival of the brand in 2015, with the ironically-BMW-powered Bullet concept car, ended with the final demise of Bristol in 2020. Only eight Bullets were produced.