When Bristol Cars went into receivership on March 3, 2011, it looked as though one of the longest-running British independent car manufacturers would be closing their doors. Only Morgan would remain to prove there’ll always be an England and yes, there is honey still for tea.
But in a surprising turn of events, Frazer-Nash, Bristol’s partner in the immediate post-WWII years, has bought the company. The names “Bristol” and “Frazer Nash” were closely associated in the late 1940s, when both used the BMW-based straight-six engine. Frazer Nash was the British agency for BMW (until 1959) and then Porsche until 1988, when the Stuttgart company bought the remaining shares.
The now fully hyphenated “Frazer-Nash” group’s Director of Operations, William Chia, said, “Bristol Cars is a British institution and an important part of our national motoring heritage. Over the next few months we will reveal the details of our plans to combine Bristol Cars’ tradition and iconic marque with Frazer-Nash’s pioneering technology.”
In 2009, Frazer-Nash produced the Giugiaro-styled Namir, claimed to be the “fastest range-extended electric car in the world with a top speed of over 187 mph (300km/h) and acceleration from 0 to 100km/h (62 mph) in 3.5 seconds.” The fate of Bristol’s factory and Kensington showroom is unclear.
Bristols make an interesting choice for collectors with a contrary mindset. At the end of WWII, the Bristol Aircraft Corporation considered getting into the car business. The company’s skilled workforce had spent six years building aircraft and the firm approached the Aldington brothers of Frazer Nash about a joint program. The brothers had sold BMWs under license before WWII and the two companies agreed to collaborate.
In 1945, H.F. Aldington was still in the British Army. He visited the bombed-out BMW factory in Berlin and came away with plans, engines, and Chief Engineer Fritz Fiedler. The factory was in the American zone and everything was supposed to be sent to the U.S., but the plans and materials were declared war reparations, and stayed in England.
Bristol and AFN parted company in 1947; the Aldingtons continued to build sports racers, while Bristol took a higher road. The 1947 Bristol 400 was basically a continuation of the pre-war BMW 327 coupe, powered by the 80-hp, 6-cylinder motor, which appeared to be a twin cam, but actually had an ingenious system of crossed pushrods. It was pre-war in character and BMW evolved the design into the 501 sedans, the “Gothic Angels” that practically broke the company.
The 400 had some sporting pretensions and 700 were sold in four years, until the aerodynamic 401 emerged in 1949. The wind-tunnel-tested 401 had lightweight superleggera construction, with aluminum and steel panels over an ash frame. The engine gained an extra 20 horsepower and top speed rose to 100 mph. A 401 finished 3rd in the 1949 Monte Carlo Rally and 2nd in the Targa Florio.
Bristol built 650 examples of the 401 and 281 of the 403 coupes between 1949 and 1955, while there were just 20 lovely 402 dropheads. The cars were well-made but expensive: a 1953 Bristol 403 cost about double the price of a Jaguar XK120 coupe.
The 404 2+2 coupe arrived in late 1953. Called the “Businessman’s Express,” it was shorter and lighter, with 110 mph top speed. A full-width body abandoned the aerodynamic look and the BMW engine was tweaked to 105 hp. Only 52 were sold between 1953 and ’56, and at least one drophead was built by Abbott.
Succumbing to the four-door fixation that diverts all sports car makers eventually, Bristol’s next move was the stodgy Bristol 405 saloon of 1954. A surprising 265 were sold by 1958, along with 56 pretty dropheads. Some saloons were bodied by Beutler in Switzerland.
The company also supplied engines and chassis to Stanley “Wacky” Arnolt, the company’s U.S. importer, who had been selling Bertone-bodied bodied (but dreadfully slow) MG TDs. Arnolt had 404 chassis sent to Bertone, where they were bodied by a young Franco Scaglione. Faced with a tall chassis, Scaglione did what he could, though the result is a bit ungainly like a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. There were 142 built between 1956 and 1960, including five or six coupes, and at $3,995, the Arnolt-Bristol cost less than half the price of a 404.
The 406 coupe of 1958–61 took a page out of Herman Graber’s design for the Alvis TD21, with an airy greenhouse, disc brakes, and overdrive. The engine was bored out to 2.2 litres, and it was fairly successful, with 174 sold. There was a handsome 406 Zagato coupe, which boasted 130 horsepower and shed 450 lb. to be the fastest Bristol so far. Only seven were built, so good luck finding one.
While the 1961-63 Bristol 407 closely resembled the 406, it finally got the engine it desperately needed, in Chrysler’s 250-horsepower, 5-litre OHV V-8. The 407 was only available with a 3-speed automatic transmission and only 88 were made. Most went to America.
Subsequent 408s, 409s, 410s, and 411s were built between 1963 and 1976, gaining power brakes, power steering, air-conditioning and self-levelling suspension. Sales were still modest, with 83 408s, 74 409s, 79 410s and 287 411s, but it looked like the company had found its niche.
However, it was an exceedingly slim market, rather like buying a Savile Row suit. Bristols were bespoke but extremely subdued, some might say dull. The press never got to test new Bristols and embittered stories can be found on the subject.
In 1975, Zagato designed the 412, with catastrophic “breeze block” styling. After a year as a convertible it developed a jumbo fixed roll-bar and removable roof panels as was the fashion. A turbo Beaufighter model was launched in 1980 and was the only 412 available after 1982.
The next new design was the 603, which was nearly as clumsy. It evolved into the Britannia, Brigand, and Blenheim in 1982 and was still in production at the time of receivership, often constructed from older donor models.
Bristol was owned by former racing driver Tony Crook and Sir George White from 1960 to 1973, at which point Crook bought out White. Toby Silverton became co-owner in 1997 and he bought out Crook in 2001, spurring the development of the remarkable Bristol Fighter gullwing coupe.
Powered by a twin-turbocharged, 1,012-horsepower Dodge Viper 8.4-liter V10, the Fighter costs a staggering £256,000. It’s limited to 225 mph, though true top speed is somewhere near 270 mph, and a speeding ticket that would see you banned for life.
Used Bristols come up for sale rarely and most of the 1960s and 1970s cars are unacceptably thirsty, with gigantic V-8s and automatic transmissions. Prices seem to be languishing, too. The classic Bristol would have to be the timeless 401-403 series, which ooze elegance — exactly what the company was aiming for. Make sure the object of your affection is complete; replacement engines are very expensive.
Bristol Cars Ltd.
Years built: 1946-2011
Production: Approximately 3,500
Engine: 1,971/2,216cc OHV 6-cylinder, 5,130/5,211/6,277cc OHV V8, 8,400cc OHV V10
Horsepower: 80-1,012 hp
Top speed: 92-270 mph