Although most of our once mighty British motor industry
has passed through a sad and undignified process into foreign
hands, the prestigious car maker, Bristol, has survived in
private ownership to celebrate over half a century of production.
But the history of this proud and individualistic
manufacturer goes back further than 50 years. It's roots were
set in the heyday of the trams in the 19th Century, but the
organisation that was later to become the Bristol Aeroplane
Company was established at Filton in 1910 to serve Britain's
fledgling aviation market. A series of successful aircraft
designs saw rapid expansion, especially during the two world
wars. In the second, Bristol turned out over 14,000 aircraft,
including the Blenheim fighter bomber.
At the secession of hostilities in 1945, the
company, under Sir George White, decided to use some of its
surplus engineering and production capacity for the small-scale
manufacture of high performance sports cars. Naturally, something
special was expected from an aviation giant with such a fine
reputation and they certainly didn't disappoint.
Those fledgling Bristols - the first car, the
400, as well as other early models, had an engine and some
styling features (notably the radiator grille) from pre-war
BMWs - were built in 1946 and soon gained an enviable reputation
worldwide. Interestingly, as war reparations, the Bristol
Aeroplane Company had been granted what remained of the bombed
out German factory so many parts were transported back to
the UK, including pre-war 2-litre engines. These were subsequently
heavily developed and eventually built by the engine division
of the aeroplane company. To this day the cars are exquisitely
hand built with a standard of aircraft-quality craftsman-ship,
materials and engineering second to none.
The 401 followed a few years later and
shortly after that a 402 drop-head version was introduced.
A new decade saw the emergence of the 403 and 404, the former
being a more powerful variant of the 401, whilst the latter
was a short-wheelbase, fixed-head coupé in a two-plus-two
configuration of the same car. In 1954 a 405 (based on the
404) but with four doors and longer wheelbase became available.
It was the 406's shape, however, but with discreet
styling cues and face lifts, that saw the marque through to
the late 1970s, although by then the car had undergone many
engineering modifications, including the adoption of a Chrysler
V8 power unit as well as type designation changes that culminated
with the 411 which was introduced in October 1969 and stayed
in production until 1975.
By 1960 political pressure had seen the aircraft
division amalgamate with other aviation giants to become the
British Aircraft Corporation. In the same year and in order
to ensure its autonomy, the car division, Bristol Cars Ltd,
was acquired by former racing driver Tony Crook in conjunction
with the grandson of the founder of the 1910 company. In 1973
Mr Crook became the sole owner and managing director.
Towards the end of the Seventies new styling
to reflect the period had been established with the 603 saloon
and in 1980 the turbocharged Beaufighter (a name derived from
another famed Filton built aeroplane of World War 2) was launched.
The range continued with the number designation being replaced
in favour of eminent Bristol names of the past, ie., the Britannia
and Brigand, not to mention the present day Blenheim 3, with
its modern coachwork and up-to-date technical features.
Although their numbers are less than 9,000,
the cars have raced and rallied in the glare of public scrutiny,
including Le Mans in 1953/4/5. They are still built at Filton
and a model of any vintage can be taken in for complete restoration.
It's also a proud boast of the company that almost any part
is still available, right back to the earliest car; how many
other car makers can match that claim?
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