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Archive 33
Bristol Cars

Prestigious car maker Bristol once made aircraft,
but by using surplus capacity they were also able to
produce high performance sports cars and saloons.
We look back into the history of this manufacturer
which still remains in British ownership

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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