Bristol Cars’ history is one of consistency and evolution – and now it’s reached a turning point that will define its future. Time to take a look at why Bristol and the new Bullet are worth taking seriously
Bristol Cars is an idiosyncratic national treasure. But its legacy of cars through the years, since the first model broke cover in 1946, is one that proves continuous development works in creating some of the finest cars ever to emerge from a British car factory. You may or may not agree with that sentiment, but an army of loyal customers has it running through their veins.
From a company that emerged from the aircraft industry in the immediate aftermath of WW2 (and one that’s just launched the new Bristol Bullet
), each successive car shares key characteristics with its forebears. That fact is evident even when you jump out of an elegant early 400 and into the latest Fighter supercar. Naturally there have been countless improvements along the way, but what is clear is that very few other marques have retained their values as strongly as Bristol – a car manufacturer born in the aviation industry.
That’s why its customers stay so faithful. It’s also why the most important names in Bristol’s history have such strongly held views:
Bristol 400, 401, 402 and 403
the Bristol type 400’s arrival was announced in late 1946, making it one of Britain’s very first post-war cars. For a war-weary nation, desperate for desirable cars to lift its mood – and help the export drive – the 400 was perfect. And when those first deliveries began to take place in 1947, it was clear that England’s largest aircraft maker had built something special for the road.
Bristol decided during the war to diversify into car production, hastened by the acquisition of a licence from Frazer Nash to build BMW-based cars. This was an inspired move, and although it could be argued that the steel-bodied 400 was little more than a combination of BMW 326, 327 and 328, what rolled out of Filton was, as Tony Crook describes, ‘quieter than the BMW, and just as fast as the 327/80’. Yet it’s so much more.
Its engine was a modified version of BMW’s 1971cc overhead-valve straight-six, with Mille Miglia-winning pedigree, and excellent power (80bhp). It thrived on revs and the 400 would effortlessly cruise at its 90mph maximum speed all day long. Independent front suspension and a long 114in wheelbase ensured grip and stability. What stands out about the 400 is its exemplary build quality, thanks to lessons learned from the aeronautics industry overseen by the perfectionist White family. Aerodynamics honed in the skies were applied on the road, too – the 400 is hushed at speed and more capable at the top end than its 0-60mph time of 19.1sec suggests.
The 400 turned out to be merely the entrée – as the swooping Type 401 was unveiled at that most memorable of Earls Court Motor Shows in 1948, where the Jaguar XK120 and Morris Minor also debuted. The biggest leap forward was the 401’s more aerodynamic full-width body, fashioned in aluminium using Superleggera construction methods. Its styling was a definite nod to Carrozzeria Touring in Italy.
The bold new body brought with it more room, and the option of the convertible Type 402 – of which only 23 were made. Power was up to 85bhp, and top speed, according to The Motor’s 1953 road test, was 97.3mph. The magazine concluded that the 401 was ‘a car in a class of its own’. And today it remains a delightful combination of precise steering, mechanical hush, an almost total absense of wind noise and long-legged cruising ability. There aren’t many other cars of this age – you have to step up into it, vintage-style – that are as usable.
But the 403 of 1953 was even better. It added more power, with bigger valves and larger main bearings taking it to 100bhp and an official 100mph. The 403 was the first Bristol to breach the magic ‘ton’ and was the swansong for this body style. It lasted two years – and a far more radical new style sashayed in alongside. Bristol was moving on again.
Bristol 404, 405 and 406
A svelte new Bristol style arrived in 1953, when the Type 404 was launched. Sold alongside the more stately 403, the new 2+2 coupé was pitched by Bristol as ‘the businessman’s express’. It boasted an aerodynamic new body designed by Dudley Hobbs and Jim Lane, and was the first production Bristol to break away from the BMW-style grille, adopting a minimalist ‘jet engine’ intake and creating a definitive new look.
Despite its petite dimensions and Italianate teardrop shape, the 404 was a relatively practical proposition, with spare wheel concealed behind a front wing to maximise boot space and improve weight distribution. Construction also marked a departure from the 403, with the body being panelled in steel and light alloy, and much of the framework fashioned in hardwood. The result was a strong and light structure that made the most of the car’s uprated 125bhp straight-six.
The 404’s suspension was given altered spring rates to improve responsiveness and deliver a more sporting drive. It works – whereas the 403 is all about stability and cruising refinement, the 404 is alert at the wheel, responding deftly to a fingertip touch – and it’s even capable of raising a cheeky smile in the wet.
In a surprise move to replace the graceful 403, in 1955 Bristol extended the 404’s body by lengthening the wheelbase (from 2438 to 2896mm), and adding a pair of doors at the rear to create the company’s one and only four-door – and one of the most graceful saloons of the period.
The 405 was also sold as the Drophead (or 405D) although, predictably, the saloon was more popular, with 265 (of 308 cars in total) made.
But it was the arrival of the all-new metal-bodied Type 406 in 1958 to replace the 404/405 that really raised Bristol’s game. It was the last hurrah for the company’s BMW-based pushrod straight-six (which had just been uprated to 2216cc), and heralded the arrival of a handsome, understated body – with that unmistakable saloon profile – that remained in production until 1976 and the 603.
The 406 cemented Bristol’s reputation for building cars that thrived on long, high-speed journeys. The steering has bags of feel through its upright slim rim, and the super-smooth straight-six pulls the car along eagerly. It loves to be driven hard, with plenty of revs, and it’s more than capable enough for the UK limit – it settles down to a cruise at well over 80mph.
Problem was, the 406 was outgunned by similarly priced rivals, and something with considerably more muscle was going to be needed if Bristol was to compete with the likes of Bentley and Alvis.
Bristol 407, 408, 409 and 410
Although for many 1961 was the year of the Jaguar E-type, it was also the year Bristol created something special. Pre-empting the trend towards the Anglo-American V8 supercar, the company secured a supply of Canadian-built Chrysler 5130cc V8 engines. The 407 may have looked just like the 406, but it boasted 250bhp and a super-smooth Torqueflite transmission. It made for the definitive gentleman’s express.
With its new-found muscle, the 407 really did fly. Thank the new V8 for that. Its effortlessness was possibly a culture shock to seasoned six-cylinder Bristol owners, used to higher revs and rifle-bolt manual gearchanges. Any Bristol of this generation is a wafty pleasure, gaining momentum far more quickly than you’d expect of a car with such an upright, drawing-room driving position.
The combination of V8 muscle and British craftsmanship proved to be a winner. The Autocar may have concluded that ‘the 407 is for the wealthy man who prefers to drive himself, but does not appreciate bulk and swagger’, but it’s clear that swagger is what the V8 was really about – and it’s still instrumental to its appeal.
Bristol was entering a period of subtle ongoing refinement instead of its more radical step-changes. The basic 407 theme was steadily improved over a decade, usually in response to the wishes of its loyal customers. The 408 of 1963 retained the same layout as its predecessor, but the front end lost the aero-style air intake, replaced by a crisper, squarer grille, and the roofline was subtly changed. In 1966, the 408 became the 409, and it was a case of more detail changes and softer springing for a more cosseting ride.
Further small and important improvements followed in 1967, with the Bristol 410. The styling was subtly rounded off for improved aerodynamics, the wheels were reduced in diameter from 16in to 15in, and dual circuits were introduced for the Girling disc braking system. Most importantly, for those with a delicate touch, power-assisted steering was made standard. Press-on drivers might have preferred a heavier set-up, but the majority agree it was the right step.
Would this winning combination work just as well for Bristol as the 1960s turned to the ’70s?
Bristol 411, 412, 603 and Beaufighter
Bristol cars enjoyed a profitable ’60s on the back of the V8-powered 407 and its antecedents, and it was clear that the company had perfected a formula that worked. When the 411 arrived in 1969, the discreet and upright sporting saloon – reassuringly familiar on its sturdy separate chassis – received a far more muscular V8.
Bristol continued its successful deal with Chrysler, substituting the old 5.2-litre A-type for a 335bhp 6277cc B-type, with a Carter four-barrel downdraught carburettor. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out the substantial effect it had on performance.
In his Autosport road test, John Bolster summarised: ‘Almost accidentally, the Bristol has become the fastest genuine touring saloon, beating the Mercedes-Benz 300SEL 6.3, both for maximum speed and acceleration.’
But there’s so much more to the big Bristol than straight-line speed. Quality remained first rate, and that’s what still impresses. The 411 ran through four iterations, including a further engine enlargement to 6556cc in 1974, and it was ushered out in Series 5 form in favour of the new pairing of 412 and 603 in 1975 and ’76. It was the first time since the era of the 404 and 405 that more than a single Bristol body variant had been offered, and this pairing was intended to take Bristol fighting into the 1980s.
The Zagato-styled 412 came first: a culture shock for Bristol fans used to glacial design progression. It was a clever targa-topped drophead that closely echoed the carrozzeria’s work on the Lancia Beta Spider, though it wasn’t universally adored. To this day, it’s easily the most controversially styled of all Bristols – some liken it to a breeze block, while others love its square-rigged assertiveness.
Company owner Tony Crook recalls that the design process wasn’t straightforward: ‘We went to Italy, and came up with the idea of the semi-convertible. Something went wrong between design and production. I wanted it to be 15ft 10in long, but the prototype ended up being 17ft 10in!’
In 1980, the 412 was turbocharged to become the Beaufighter. Visually similar it may have been, but the bodies were crafted in Filton, and not Italy. Now with 5900cc and nearly 400bhp, it became the company’s first 150mph car. It remained in production until 1993.
The 1976 603 was an effective contrast with the 412, thanks to its curves and aerodynamic style. As a replacement for the 411 Series 5, it looked better from some angles than others, and again Tony Crook wasn’t entirely happy: ‘The 603 featured a modified chassis, and our own wind-tunnel-tested body,’ he says. ‘It didn’t look right in prototype form, but we ended up not changing it.’
Bristol Britannia to Blenheim
The Bristol 603 encapsulated all that was right about the marque. It was refined, spacious, and near-unbeatable for high-speed touring. But it was ferociously expensive (in 1978, a 603 S3 cost £29,984, compared with £20,999 for an Aston Martin V8), and was also an acquired taste. The Jaguar XJ-S came along in the same year as the 603, its 150mph maximum and near-silent V12 asking serious questions of all the establishment.
Bristol answered in 1982, with the 603-based Britannia and turbocharged Brigand. Although both cars looked similar to the one they replaced, they shared a new bodyshell that had only the roof, front doors and front and rear screens carried over. The big rectangular headlamps and protruding rear lamp clusters might have added a touch of modernity but, boy, did they jar.
Their arrival saw the end of Bristol’s numbering system – all subsequent models would share names with aircraft from the company’s history, despite the companies being no longer linked.
Motor’s Howard Walker drove the Britannia on the magazine’s ‘Great English Wine Run’ in 1984. ‘For a car that appears so upright, so dignified to the point of being almost haughty, the Britannia coped well with challenging roads.’ He was driving it like a sports car, but he came to appreciate the Bristol’s finer qualities. ‘There is something special about the Britannia. For the well-heeled enthusiastic driver with nothing to prove, nothing else comes close.’
As for the Brigand, it has all of the above, but it’s also devilishly quick once the turbo has spooled up. The next increment came in September 1993, when Bristol launched a heavily improved Brigand, known as the Blenheim. The new car, in effect another make-over of the 603, sported new rear-end styling and a much larger boot. Was it enough to stay desirable?
Tony Crook maintained that it was built in response to his customer’s wishes – though many non-Bristol people felt that the company was running out of steam. Given that Bristol continued to weather global financial storm after storm, it was an approach that worked, fashionable styling or not.
Although by the mid-1990s the Blenheim could not have been considered anything other than an automotive dinosaur, it was still an astonishingly effective high-speed cruiser. Wind noise was near-absent, and it was capable of cruising at maximum speed with minimum fuss. And that top speed had moved with the times.
That anyone bought a Blenheim in favour of a Jaguar XJ8 or Aston Martin Virage proves that there will always be individuals choosing cars. As the ultimate evolution of the traditional Bristol, the Blenheim remains the gentleman’s express its designers intended: it’s the last of a line that had been unbroken since the Type 400.
But what came next was truly amazing…
And so to the 21st century. Against the odds, Bristol had survived with an exclusively V8-powered range, all without the support of a major manufacturer’s deep pockets. And that was due to the singlemindedness of its owner, Tony Crook.
Crook knew he couldn’t carry on forever, and in 1997 he sold half his shares to Toby Silverton. The Blenheim 3 was the first car launched under new management, which led to the development of the stillborn (and promising) Buccaneer, and the pretty Speedster, both very much traditional Bristols. But Silverton wanted to build a 200mph supercar, and pushed ahead with the Fighter project against Crook’s wishes. There’s no doubt that it contributed to the company’s fall into administration in 2010.
For all that, the Fighter remains a wonderful car. When we had our first glimpses in model form in 2003, it seemed impossible that a company as small as Bristol could bring it to market. After all, here was a supercar with gullwing doors, V10 power and a 200mph top speed!
Against all expectations, it arrived in the Kensington showroom in 2007: aerodynamic, with a Cd of 0.225 (its engineer described it as ‘the worst wing he’s ever designed’), hushed at speed and usefully narrow, with great forward visibility, it was everything a Bristol should be.
It’s also practical to use on a daily basis, those gullwing doors making it so easy to get into and out of. Considering the other-worldly acceleration delivered by the 8.0-litre Chrysler V10 with such a tuneful, offbeat soundtrack, it’s friendly to drive, too, with positive steering, progressive throttle and a well-planned interior.
Looking to the future
Following Frazer-Nash’s rescue of Bristol Cars in 2011, the company’s future looks far more secure. Those responsible for shaping the next Bristols are enthusiastic about the company’s history – and they have an electric vision in store.
The recently unveiled Bullet, a BMW V8-powered speedster model, has been launched to commemorate the company’s 70th anniversary, as well as bring the company back into the public eye. It’s only the first step in the company’s plan, which will include electric models due to Frazer Nash’s expertise in the area. Read more about the new Bristol Bullet here
Main images: Matthew Howell