Hand built British exclusivity

It is 60 years since Bristol began making cars, and in that time WB has tested many of them

For decades the Rolls-Royce, Mercedes-Benz and Cadillac were regarded as exclusive possessions. Another truly exclusive motor car was and is the Bristol. After WWII the Bristol Aircraft Company at Filton, near Bristol, opened its motor car division under the auspices of Tony Crook, who was no mean racing driver, and built its productions to aircraft standards, using BMW engines.

I had my first experience of these fine cars in 1952 with a road-test 402. Picking up Jenks at Hartley Wintney, I drove to Land’s End, reached in 4hr 51min, and back, by different routes, in a total time of 11 hours, much of it in the dark on icy roads. The 1971cc 85bhp engine gave almost 100mph and 20mpg, driven hard. Much of the fun was in keeping up the pace with the frequent use of the excellent gearbox. Eighty mph was a lazy cruising speed for this handsome aerodynamic two-door saloon. Even DSJ was impressed. You could buy a Bristol 401 for £2000 54 years ago, plus £1112 12/3d in purchase tax.

Next it was a test of a triple-carburettor Bristo1404. We decided to see if Motor Sport’s photographer Michael Tee, a better driver than me, could improve on my 1938 time from London to John O’Groats in a 4¼-litre Bentley. My running time was 13hr 53min for 702 miles. The Bristol did 716.2 miles in 12hr 22½min. Its Michelin tyres were scarcely worn, whereas the Bentley completely demolished two of its India tyres. But here was another highly impressive and likeable fast 2-litre saloon from the Fitton factory.

My favourable opinion of those earlier Bristols was firmly endorsed in 1956 when Michael and I took a 405 for a tour of the English Lake District. We did it the hard way, arriving at Windermere in the January night and finding the Old English Hotel still open to provide sustenance and beds. It goes almost without saying that next day this desirable car climbed Kirkstone, Honister, Hard Knott, Wrynose and Whinlatter passes faultlessly; we published an unfaked photograph of it restarting on the steepest part of a 1-in-three gradient. This 25cwt saloon had the 2-litre engine with its ingenious valve gear and was able to do an effortless 100mph. A flick-switch engaged overdrive in the pleasantto-use gearbox.

In 1975 I had a weekend with a Bristol 411 Series IV, now a normally styled two-door saloon with a 6556cc Chrysler 90-degree V8 engine and notably smooth Torqueflite three-speed transmission, battery and spare wheel stored within the front wings. I missed rowing the 2-litre cars along with the manual gearbox, but the effortless performance was enjoyable in oldfashioned luxury, at the price of 15.4mpg in petrol.

I was also invited to the rare journalistic privilege of a factory visit. The engines were shipped to Avonmouth and brought to Filton in Bristol’s own trucks. The fuel feed was tested to make sure it could cope with high-speed running, the gearbox was adjusted to Bristol’s requirements, and the full-throttle kickdown adjusted for the car’s weight. The power units came in batches of 100, with seven kept by the assembly line. Bristol made its own very rigid separate chassis frame, and the body was of aluminium panels. A pump for the rear suspension provided a self-levelling function. In the body area tests with paraffin smoke ensured that no exhaust fumes entered, and the silencers had stainless steel baffles against corrosion.

Before the bodies were welded to the chassis, two test drivers did 100-mile runs, and there was a further test after delivery to the London headquarters. Bristol’s service depot was once the Hudson Motors place, on London’s Great West Road.

In 1975 the 411 saloon sold for £2875 less than a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow, and the 411 coupe cost £14,584 against £22,792 for the R-R Camargue.

The company became private in 1959, with Sir George White as Chairman and MD, and Tony Crook as director. He demonstrated his allegiance in 1950 by driving from Surrey to Montlhéry, crossing the Channel in a Silver City Bristol Freighter aeroplane, where he did a timed 104.7 in an hour in his Bristol 400, and home again all in a day.

These exclusive cars are still produced, to top standards in small numbers, the Blenheim 150mph two-door saloon for £149,813, and the 210mph Bristol Fighter V10S costing £266,150. Tony Crook, now MD and Life President, still has the very first car built, a 400, and his own 404. Toby Silverton is Company Chairman, and his influence has led to the Fighter, 27 of which have already been produced.

The HQ of Bristol Cars remains at 368 Kensington High Street, London, as it has for 50 years.