The racing history of the Bristol 450 is easily told: five races, 11 starts, three retirements, three class wins. It’s a story which would be easy to overlook (how many times did DB-Panhards win their class at Le Mans?) except for the style of the way which Bristol went racing.
It should be a simple story to tell, but it isn’t. For a car with so straightforward a competition history, the Bristol 450 has a complicated background. It was, in essence, an Anglo-German hybrid with the Germanic influence coming not only via the BMW-inspired engine but also via the chassis which was developed from an ERA frame which, in turn, had direct links with the Auto Union GP cars.
The story’s something of a maze but the following may be a way through it.
WW2 was still in progress when the Bristol Aeroplane Company decided it would build cars once the conflict had been resolved. Sir George White and Reginald Verdon-Smith of Bristol and H. J. Aldington, of AFN Ltd, combined to create a company to make cars. Aldinglon had been the pre-war BMW concessionaire and when the war was over, he went to Munich with one of the teams which picked over German technology and carried some off as war reparations.
The result of these forays was the Bristol 400, the first of which was made in 1946. This car is still in the possesion of Tony Crook, who has owned the Bristol Car Company since 1960. The Bristol 400 has a chassis derived from the BMW 326, a body based on the BMW 327/80 and its engine was a direct descendent of the BMW 328.
One has to be careful in describing the lineage, hence terms like “derived from” and “direct descendent”. The ideas and drawings came from BMW but they then went through a drawing office which also knew a thing or two about engineering and which had its own ideas. The Bristol engine had the same dimensions and layout as the BMW 328 which is described in detail elsewhere in this issue.
In its original Bristol production form, this engine produced 80 bhp but eventually it gave a little over 140 bhp, this near doubling of power being achieved with no loss of reliability. Higher power figures (up to 170 bhp) have been quoted by some but we remain sceptical. The works racing BMW 328s gave 140 bhp in 1940.
BMW had more advanced engines on the stocks and Aldington attempted to Introduce a 2.5-litre dohc straight six to Bristol but the company had gone too far with the 2-litre unit to be interested. So development continued with what BMW had already come to regard as an obsolete engine.
A partnership between AFN and Bristol was hardly a match made in Heaven for the two concerns had entirely different attitudes and aims. AFN produced traditional British sports cars (ie productionised specials) while Bristol’s aircraft pedigree suggested that one made the drawings before cutting the metal and not afterwards.
AFN wanted up to 50% more power than Bristol was content to provide for the 400. With ex-BMW man, Fritz Fiedler on its staff, it had the expertise to find the extra horses. Aldington and Bristol agreed to go their separate ways but Bristol would provide engines to AFN for its Frazer Nashes. These were to be FNS (Frazer Nash Special) versions of the standard unit which had been developed with Fiedler and, naturally, it was to be an exclusive deal.
Bristol developed along one path, AFN along another. Bristol followed the Teutonic looking 400 with the 401 which was essentially a styling exercise by Touring of Milan refined and smoothed in a wind tunnel by Bristol. Frazer Nash continued on its own path and the two companies might have existed in harmony except for the appearance, in 1952, of the F2 Cooper-Bristol which was fitted with an FNS engine which had somehow gone through the back door at Bristol and with Mike Hawthorn at the wheel, the Cooper-Bristol was not exactly hiding its light under a bushel. There quickly grew a rift between AFN and Bristol.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the case, the result was beneficial to British motor racing. AFN continued to be supplied with engines but engines went to other makers as well. In motor racing, it follows as the day does the night, that when there appears an engine which is powerful, reliable and available, there shall grow up around it a category of racing. So grew the popularity of 2-litre sports car racing in Britain with Bristol engines powering Cooper, Lotus, Lister, Kieft, Tojeiro (and other) cars.
The engine became, too, a possibility for the 2-litre Formula Two (the World Championship formula in 1952 & ’53). Among the companies which saw it as an entree into F2 was ERA which, by the early Fifties, was a general engineering and consultancy firm owned by Leslie Johnson, a noted amateur driver. On ERA’s design staff was Eberan von Eberhorst, who pre-war had overseen the chassis design of the Auto Union GP cars. Assisted by David Hodkin, von Eberhorst designed the ERA-Jowett sports car which first appeared publicly at the 1949 Earls Court Motor Show and which, the following year, went into production as the Joweft Jupiter.
When Hodkin was asked to design an ERA formula car, the result was clearly influenced by the work he had done with von Eberhorst on the Jowett project and, like that car, the chassis featured two large diameter tubular main members. Hodkin has been described as a “brilliant theoretical engineer” and the G Type ERA certainly had some interesting features, most notably a magnesium alloy chassis and a de Dion rear axle mounted on trailing links which could be adjusted to alter the car’s handling characteristics. The four-speed Bristol gearbox was mounted in unit with the final drive, coil spring and wishbone front suspension was used. and the drum brakes were inboard at the rear.
The Bristol engine was tall and so, to keep the frontal area down, this was slightly angled (and converted to dry sump lubrication) and in a further attempt to reduce height, the chassis was made wide so that the driver could sit alongside, rather than over, the prop-shaft. This widened the car so it looked like a two-seater minus its wings which did not help reduce the frontal area to any great extent. The wheels were of cast alloy.
The G Type ERA Is generally remembered as another British failure and it is often assumed that part of its problem was lack of money. While in fact it was not a success, it was far from being under-financed. Parts for three cars were laid down and the Bristol engine which powered it was intended merely to be a stop-gap. ERA was working on its own six-cylinder engine both for F2 and the 2.5-litre F1 which came into operation at the beginning of 1954. This was based on the single-cylinder 500 cc Norton engine, using hairpin valve springs and a Norton-derived hemispherical combustion chamber. ERA had a single-cylinder experimental engine running in 1952 and it appeared capable of reaching 100 bhp per litre which was then the engine designer’s Holy Grail.
Stirling Moss was contracted to drive the car during 1952 and it first appeared at the Grand Prix d’Europe at Spa on June 22nd. During practice the engine seized and a replacement was flown out, hastily converted to dry sump specification, and fitted. Moss started from the back of the grid but very quickly made up places and was in about fifth spot when, halfway round the first lap, the engine blew up, the rear wheels locked and the car crashed heavily.
ERA missed the French GP (Moss drove an HWM) while the car was rebuilt around a new chassis and at Silverstone, Moss qualified it on the fifth row a full nine seconds off pole time. It retired with overheating problems.
It was not a happy season. The car was not expected to compete against the Ferraris and Maseratis while still fitted with its interim Bristol engine but even in British national events it was comprehensively outclassed by Cooper-Bristols and the appearance of the Lea Francis-engined A Type Connaughts pushed it further down the order. It handled well and most commentators remarked on its steadiness, but despite the use of light alloys in its construclion, it was too heavy and, worse, it presented too large a frontal area.
Any questions about the continuation of the project were rendered null and void by Leslie Johnson suffering a heart attack. On his doctor’s advice he withdrew from business, selling ERA to Solex and the G Type and its spares to the Bristol Car Company which was still, at the time, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Bristol Aeroplane Company.
David Hodkin, now deceased, went to work for Ford and, later, Perkins, followed by Rootes. Peter Lawrence, the chassis development engineer whose help in preparing this article has been invaluable, went first to run his own business and later work for Ford on rally cars during the period 1964-71, then to the SMMT and is now in semi-retirement.
Bristol had decided to embark on its own programme of motor racing and, in order to test the water had decided to run cars at Le Mans though, as an after-thought, the Reims 12 Hour race was added to the programme. A team at the company built a startling coupe body on one of the ex-ERA chassis for evaluation purposes (it was one of the first instances of serious aerodynamics being applied to a racing car) and then Bristol built its own chassis out of steel, showing a similarity to the parent but incorporating many modifications. Ironically, Bristol’s steel chassis was slightly lighter than ERA’s magnesium frame.
Whereas the ERA had too wide a chassis for a single seater, the Bristol had too narrow a frame for a sportscar so the body was taller than it might otherwise have been for the drivers could not sit low enough in the car. When one of the drivers, Peter Wilson, was measured it was found necessary to increase the roof height by a further one and a half inches.
Overall the car followed the layout of the ERA, but the rear suspension was simplified so that it could no longer be adjusted for the company had one circuit only in mind, Le Mans. The trailing arms locating the de Dion tube were initially a little too short so that some rear end steering was experienced at Reims when the springs hit the bump stops but these were modified for the 1955 season.
Much work had been done on the basic engine so, in 1953, the compression ratio had been increased, larger valves fitted, a six port head replaced the standard head with three siarnesed ports, much use was made of advanced alloys within the engine and three Solex downdraught carburetters provided the breathing. Though power output was to nearly double from the 80 bhp of the first 400s. reliability was unimpaired. Apart from their debut race, no Bristol 450 suffered an engine failure and Tony Crook has one of the Le Mans engines fitted in his own 404.
Two cars were entered in the 1953 Le Mans race, driven by Lance Macklin and Graham Whitehead and Tommy Wisdom and Jack Fairman. The reserve driver was Peter Wilson, an eminent test pilot whose entire racing career was to consist of just a dozen races in seven years, all of them International events.
When the cars appeared at Le Mans, they were regarded with general approval. The overall finish was not good partly because of the very thin alloy used on the body and the frontal treatrnent was unusual, put discerning observers noted with approval the fine detail finish of the important components. This attention extended to the bonnet straps which were painted in matt green to eliminate glare through the sharply sloping windscreen. There was a little flap under the bonnet to blank off direct air should the temperature drop in the night (Wilson had experienced carburetter icing when co-driving a Frazer Nash with Dickie Stoop the previous year) and the large external filler cap closed magnetically. It was, people agreed, the sort of car you’d expect an aircraft manufacturer to produce. The pity was that the effort was going into a team which was only after class wins and not outright victory.
Unfortunately, despite being extensively tested, the cars were slow (due to being overgeared) and both went out quite early in the race. At around 7 pm one of the crankshaft balance weights on Graham Whitehead’s car let fly through the crankcase, oil splashed onto the exhaust pipe causing the symptoms of a fire, and Whitehead suffered a minor crash.
During the night, the same thing happened on Wisdom’s car but with more serious effects and Wisdom sustained a dislocated shoulder, burns and cuts after his shunt.
It was the sort of set-back which would have floored most makers of the time (or indeed now) for Le Mans and Reims were only three weeks apart. Not only did the team arrive for the 12 Hour race in good shape, it did so with two extensively revised cars. The front end had been tidied up considerably with the oil radiator moved from the nose and the auxiliary headlights faired in. The engine problem had been solved too. With Tommy Wisdom still side-lined, Peter Wilson moved up from reserve driver to share with Jack Fairman.
The Reims 12 Hour race began at midnight with a Le Mans start and it is doubtful whether more than one or two drivers saw the flag. Jostling for position in darkness wasn’t too popular an activity either. Still, everyone got away safely and the Bristols settled into a steady routine, aiming to finish while the 2-litre class was led by a couple of Gordinis.
It has to be said that the 2-litre class at International level was not keenly contested and entries tended to be a little thin. The Bristols were never a match for the Gordinis in terms of pace but when the two teams were matched, the Gordlnis never lasted the distance. They would go for well over 12 hours at Le Mans but less than 12 hours at Reims. Though Whitehead retired his Bristol with a broken clutch, the Fairman/Wilson car went steadily on to finish fifth overall, winning its class in the process. In doing so, it averaged 149.135 kph which compares favourably with the winning average of 169.696 kph set by the Jaguar C Type of Stirling Moss and Peter Whitehead.
To round off the year, Bristol further modified the cars, smoothing off the nose section to produce the definitive 450 shape (which so many of us remember from the little model which Corgi produced) and went to Montlhery for an attack on some International records. Jack Fairman took a new Class E 200 mile record at 125.87 mph. Then with Lance Macklin sharing the wheel, the car took three and six hour records and 500 km, 500 miles and 1,000 km records.
During the winter, the body line was raised slightly between the rear fins and new twin-barrel Solexes were fitted to the engine. Under team manager Vivian Selby (who had once raced Bugattis), preparations were made for the two-race 1954 programme. This time Bristol fielded three cars, retaining the services of Fairrnan, Wisdom and Wilson and bringing onto the strength Mike Keen, Trevor Line and Jim Mayers. The three recruits were all members of “The Monkey Stable”, a private team of good amateur drivers which was organised by a professional manager.
Peter Wilson was asked about the cars and Bristol’s approach to racing. “The cars had very light steering and they handled nicely. We made a point of braking lightly at Le Mans but much fiercer braking was called for at Reims and the brakes stood up to it very well. The rear fins worked well as we discovered when encountering sudden strong crosswinds at Reims.
“You have to remember we raced as a tearn and the idea was to finish as a team. During practice we’d discover a pace which could be maintained and we stuck to it in the race. I think we could have finished higher at Reims in 1954, and at Le Mans in the following year, but we were not allowed to have a go. Finishing, if possible in company, was the teams objective.”
At Le Mans in 1954, that aim was brilliantly achieved and the three cars finished seventh (Wilson/ Mayers. 3,505 kms), eighth (Wisdom/ Fairnan, 3,465 kms) and ninth (Keen/Line. 3,437 kms) and took the first three places in the 2-litre class. Bristol was the only team to finish intact, though Fairman spun late in the race and damaged his car’s bodywork.
It is true that there was little in the way of opposition in the class (one Maserati, one Gordini and two Frazer Nashes) but it was still a highly commendable demonstration of speed and reliability which, alter all. was the object of the exercise.
Three weeks later, it was the Reims race again and a contemporary report describes the team on race day “standing about in their best clothes with their hands in their pockets, so confident were they David Sommers, the chief engineer on the project, was no doubt setting the sartorial pace — he was invariably to be seen in a dark suit, with collar and tie and briefcase. Again the cars ran like clockwork though the Wilson Mayer car had to have a plug change because rainwater got into the carburetters. As usual, the Gordinis were quicker but they fell by the roadside. At the end. though, the two-litre Ferrari of Picard and Pozzi won the class, finishing ninth overall with Keen/Line, Mayers/Wilson and Wisdom/ Fairman taking the next three places. The Ferrari was just eight kilometres ahead at the flag so it is possible that had Keen and Line been allowed to race at the end, the result might have been another class win.
For Le Mans 1955, Bristol cut off the roofs of the cars and entered them as sports racers. Wind tunnel testing had shown there was an aerodynamic advantage, which Peter Wilson confirms judging by the revs the car pulled, and the problems associated with an enclosed bodywork (misting, wiper failure and oil on the screen) were eliminated.
The previous year a windscreen wiper had blown off on Wilson’s car and he came close to crashing. Power was slightly increased by a new exhaust system.
1955 was a repeat of 1954 with Wilson/Mayers finishing seventh, Keen/Line eighth and Wisdom/ Fairman ninth and taking the two-litre class. Though a couple of Porsche 550s finished ahead, Wilson and Mayers had been running in front of them at one stage and were once as high as fifth, but the Bristol drivers were slowed down on team orders.
That was the last time the cars raced for, following the terrible accident at Le Mans, Reims was cancelled. Later in the year Mike Keen was killed in the Goodwood Nine Hours and Jim Mayers died in the Tourist Trophy. Bristol had been considering expanding its racing programme and was even investigating an F1 car but the Le Mans catastrophe followed closely by the deaths of two of the works drivers caused its withdrawal from the sport.
Of the drivers, Fairman, Line and Wilson are still with us. As for the team cars, all but one were sawn up. Bristol did not want them to pass into private hands and, besides, they were not suitable for sprint racing. It was better to allow the memory to stand unblemished by later performances. The surviving car, which is one of the team cars and not, as some would have it, the prototype built on the ERA chassis, has fast been fully restored by the works.
It’s good that Bristol’s brief involvement with motor racing was successful for the company went about its business in the right way, and it deserved to succeed. It also had a moral right to some success in its own name. Fitted into other chassis (Cooper, Lotus, Lister, Kieft, Frazer Nash, AC. Tojeiro etc) its engines had played their part in the post-war development of British motor racing.
As the ’50s drew to a close, Bristol planned to replace its engine which had grown to 2.2 litres, with a 3 5-litre straight six. At the same time the company was developing its own automatic transmission, but had some doubts over its long-term reliability. The company cast around for a suitable automatic transmission, fit on a Chrysler box, bought one and found it came with a V8 engine attached.
The Americans have long had the knack of producing smooth, flexible, quiet, powerful and reliable engines at relatively low cost. Bristol was able to appreciate the virtues and advantages of such units, its own engine development was dropped and the company pined the (honourable) tradition of the Euro-American hybrid, – M.L.