Tunnel Vision

Shaped in the wind tunnel, Bristol's striking Le Mans cars were technologically ahead of their time. Simon Taylor drove the sole surviving 450.

Motor racing history is full of fascinating little culs-de-sac, and the Bristol 450 is one. A quality road car manufacturer decides to go racing for the first time, and builds three cats. They are raced just five times, but achieve three prestigious class victories and two team awards, as well as several longdistance records. Then an order is given to destroy them all, and the firm never races again.

But this story really begins with Leslie _Johnson's ill-starred attempt to revive the ERA name in 1952. His plan was ambitious: a 2-litre Grand Prix car with a twin-cam engine based on four Manx Norton units, an advanced chassis by Eberan von Eberhorst of Auto Union fame, and Stirling Moss in the cockpit.

As it turned out the engine never got built (although Vanwall used the Norton idea soon after). Instead, ERA followed Cooper and others by using the Bristol engine. Then von Eberhorst moved on, leaving the project to his assistant, a clever young Cambridge graduate called David Hodkin.

Von Eberhorst was always keen on twin-tube frames (Jowett Jupiter, Aston Martin DB3), and the G-type used big oval-section members made of Elektron alloy, cross-braced to produce an exceptionally stiff chassis. To gain a high polar moment of inertia the wheelbase was long (8ft 1in) and the track narrow (4ft 3in), with the engine well forward and the clutch and gearbox at the back directly in front of the duff, driven by an engine-speed propshaft. Adjustable suspension was by wishbones and coils at the front and a de Dion tube rear while the rigid chassis, allowed by the prevailing standards of the time, softer springing with firm damping.

Unsprung weight was reduced by using wheels that were merely rims bolted onto hub spiders, with inboard brakes at the rear. The driver sat offset to the right, between the propshaft and the frame tube, with the fuel tank alongside him where it would not affect weight distribution full or empty.

The Bristol engine, with its long stroke and downdraught carburettors sitting above the valve gear, Was very tall. Hodkin dry-sumpecl it to lower the bonnet line, and did a lot of other work on the engine in search of more power. This was probably the G-type's undoing. Moss found the car handled, steered and stopped excellently, but it was heavier and bulkier than the Cooper-Bristols, and it was seriously unreliable. He drove it in three 1952 Grands Prix - Spa, Silverstone and Zandvoort - and retired from all of them with engine trouble, and he fared little better in its four British events. At the end of the season, frustrated, Moss turned his F2 attentions to a bespoke Cooper-Alta special (which was to be even more unsuccessful) and Johnson, worn out and ill, put the whole project up for sale.

In October 1952 came the surprising news that the G-type ERA and all that went with it had been sold to the Car Division of the Bristol Aeroplane Co. A month later Bristol announced it would take part in the Le Mans 24 Hours the following June - the first time it had been involved in racing as anything other than an arm's-length engine supplier.

The new racing department at Filton, managed by Vivian Selby and with David Summers heading the design team, built three fresh chassis. These followed the ERA design but were of steel (which turned out to be no heavier!) with circular-section members rather than oval. To allow room for a regulation passenger the single fuel tank was replaced by two panniers behind the front wheels, and the chassis was clothed in an extraordinary coupe body.

As aeroplane manufacturers, Bristol had their own wind tunnel, and their contemporary road cars, the 403 and 404, were adventurously aerodynamic for their time. The aim with the 450 programme seems to have been to demonstrate the speed and reliability of the Bristol running gear, and to learn more about automotive shapes. At first the 450 had a wide, almost bloated body which bore little relation to the narrow track, with a slender cabin perched on top and two immense fins that ran down the whole of the sloping tail. Forty-five years ago it looked like something from another planet. The four lights at the front seemed almost an afterthought, and fuel and oil fillers, bonnet straps and cooling slots all broke up the surface. In the claustrophobic cockpit all was painted matt-black, with instruments heavily cowled against reflections, but well-trimmed leather bucket seats and even carpeting were provided.

Two cars were entered for the 1953 Le Mans, driven by Lance Macklin/Gr-aham Whitehead and Tommy Wisdom/Jack Fairman. Despite being overgeared they were quick - Macklin comfortably set fastest 2-litre lap - but both retired with identical engine failures when crankshaft balance weights became detached. On both occasions the cam caught fire and crashed, Wisdom being slightly injured.

Nothing daunted, three weeks later the less damaged Le Mans car and the spare were at Reims for the Twelve Hours. Not only had the crankshafts been rapidly redesigned but also the nose of the car was much smoother. Whitehead's transmission broke at the start, but the other car, driven by Fairman and Peter Wilson, ran like clockwork, finished fifth overall and easily won its class.

Apart from an autumn trip to Montlhery, which earned a clutch of 2-litre world records - like 200 miles at 125.87mph and six hours at 115.43mph - the cars did not reappear until Le Mans and Reims the next year. By now the bodywork was much improved: it was narrower and smoother at the front, with ducted sides to draw hot air away from the front brakes. The Lucas Le Mans headlights were sunk into deep tunnels under perspex covers, and fuel and oil fillers, bonnet straps and five-inch spot lights were all carefully faired in. Painstaking work in the wind tunnel found further speed and stability by slightly raising the roof panel between the tail fins. Now the 450 looked just as it should have done in the first place: futuristic, functional, and utterly individual. It was a shape that an entire generation of small boys was able to enjoy, for Dinky Toys produced a 1/43rd version which was a big seller.

Engine man Percy Kemish also found more power for 1954, with a 12-port head filled by three twin-choke Solex carbs and emptied by paired exhaust manifolding that crossed under the car to exit three three pipes in front of the left rear wheel. On the conservative compression ratio of 8.5:1 demanded by dubious French fuel, the engine now produced 155bhp at 6000rpm.

All three cars were entered for both French races, driven by Fairman/Wisdom, Wilson/Jim Mayers and Mike Keen/Trevor Line. Le Mans was torrentially wet that year, but the cars ran magnificently, finishing 7th, 8th and 9th overall and scooping the 2-litre class and the team prize. This was despite Fairman having to dive off the road to avoid someone else's accident, necessitating a pitstop for some emergency panel-beating. At Reims all three finished again, and they won the team award, but a 2-litre Ferrari just pipped them for the class win.

One more race lay ahead for the 450, but that twin-finned coupe shape was never seen again. More work in the wind tunnel showed that the reduction in frontal area achieved by chopping the roof off would more than offset the increase in drag. So for Le Mans 1955 the cars looked a little more conventional, with the same dramatic nose but a neat open cockpit with aeroscreen and driver's headrest, topped by a large fin a la D-type. The triple exhaust pipes now fed into a single exit. The drivers were the same six, with as reserve young David Blakely, who'd been going well in British events in his Emperor-HRG. But Blakely never made the trip to Le Mans: a couple of months earlier he was shot dead by Ruth Ellis outside a London pub.

Le Mans 1955 is unforgettably notorious for the dreadful accident that killed Pierre Levegh and 83 spectators, but for Bristol it all went according to plan. Wilson/Mayers averaged an astonishing 100mph for the first half of the race before being slowed on team orders, and the three cars once more took the flag in line astern, 7th, 8th and 9th overall, winning both their class and the team award. Once again it was a crushing demonstration of reliability: the Wilson/Mayers 450 spent just 15 minutes out of the 24 hours in the pits.

Their prize money was unobtrusively donated to victims of the disaster, Reims was cancelled in the recriminations and arguments that followed, and the 450s were put away. By September Mike Keen and Jim Mayers were both dead, killed in unconnected accidents at Goodwood and Dundrod. The Bristol directors decided to withdraw from racing, and - not wishing the cars to fall into private hands and possibly race with less reliability and success - ordered that they should be cut up.

Then, before all the 450s were lost, the order was amended. It was decided that one car should be kept for posterity, and an apprentice was told to build up one car out of the best bits of the three. What remained was indeed destroyed: but the survivor lived on in the care of Anthony Crook, repainted in his old racing colours of metallic maroon until Simon Draper finally persuaded him to part with it.

Simon's magnificent collection of Bristols runs from a 400 to a new daily driver Blenheim, and it is impossible to imagine a more appropriate custodian for this unique car. It has been restored at Filton, correct in every detail (although the Le Mans engine with its twin-choke carburettors is no longer with the car) and returned to its original metallic green.

It looks marvellous. Apart from all the delightful details - the counter-sunk bonnet straps, the side and rear lights under tiny Perspex fairings, the flush fuel and oil filler caps, the neat trunking for the carburettors - the whole shape of the car is wonderfully fluid, from its dominant headlight tunnels to its tall fin. Yet aesthetics have played no part in the design. It's not beautiful in any conventional automotive sense, but it's uncompromisingly functional, and all the better for that. Like all of Simon's cars apart from his single-seaters, the 450 is kept road-registered, taxed and MoT'd. I had my doubts whether a car built only to race successfully at Le Mans, and based on an unsuccessful 1952 Formula Two car, would be enjoyable on the highways and byways of Sussex, but I couldn't have been more wrong.

To start with, the rear-mounted gearbox and forward engine position mean the cockpit is surprisingly roomy. Open the single featherweight door - the body is made of very thin aluminium - and you find the red leather-trimmed bucket seat is very comfortable. The matt-black dash sits neatly under the three-spoke wheel, with a big Jaeger chronometric tachometer, a hill complement of minor instruments and the necessary switches to hand. The aeroscreen wraps snugly round your head, the headrest is upholstered, and those carpets are still there.

Flick down the aircraft ignition switch, pull the starter, and you are assailed by an almost indescribable noise. The sound of an unsilenced race-spec Bristol six is a chart-topper among all mechanical music, a hard, smooth arpeggio as you blip the throttle, a crescendo as you drive off up the gears, rising to a shriek once the tacho needle flicks beyond the big five-O. Blasting through the countryside for a sunny hour or two, changing up and down just to hear the sound, I could just about stand it without ear-plugs. But I hate to think what it must have been like in a 24-hour race - particularly in the closed coupe... There's plenty of go to go with the noise. The open 450 weighs about 1450lbs, and a strong Bristol racing engine gives 140bhp plus, so the power to weight ratio is about the same as your average Porsche 911. Too much prod at low speeds makes the engine cough and die, but it's quite docile on small throttle openings. As the revs rise, the power starts to pour in, although it's not until the needle passes 4500 that the 450 really starts to sing. But it's no hardship keeping the revs up: Bristol gearboxes are always a pleasure, and this one, with the remote linkage working backwards, feels no different from the best of them - short travel, nice ratios, quick, light action. A manual guard has to be lifted to select reverse.

The steering is remarkable: through the delicately thin, leather-rimmed matt black wheel it is accurate, precise and very light, although not particularly high-geared. Together with the slick gearbox, you can drive this car with your fingertips. The clutch is light, too, but the brakes are like good brakes on any old racing car with competition linings: tiny travel, hugely heavy - and, when you push hard enough, very effective.

The long wheelbase/narrow track makes the 450 feel very stable in a straight line, which must have helped at 140mph on the Mulsanne Straight. Cornering briskly the bias is towards understeer, although driving this unique piece of history on public roads I was a long way from the limit of the 600L-15 Dunlop Racing rubber. But it didn't take much imagination to turn the Sussex B-roads into Tertre Rouge, Mulsanne and Amage, and I could well understand how the three 450s were able to reel off the laps smoothly and reliably and win those team prizes.

In fact, it makes a splendid road car. The passenger seat matches the driver's, although some work would need to be done to the tonneau cover in order to make it habitable fior a passenger. The spare-wheel compartment has room for a tiny holdall, and you could pack emergency waterproofs in those bulging body sides. With a couple of pairs of car-plugs, you and your passenger could go far in a Bristol 450.