If you are eccentric or fully loaded with pots of money you may be in the market for a Bristol – a very rare supercar that most people will never have seen! Like many car companies around the world, they came out of aircraft manufacturing – think about my history articles on Cord and Duesenberg, they used Lycoming who developed aircraft engines and there would have been a lot of cross-over in technologies during the early years of motoring and flying.
Bristol was originally founded in 1910 as the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company (BCAC) by Sir George White in its namesake city in south west England. Sir White had built quite a reputation from controlling the city tram business and had expanded into other cities as well as omnibuses – the Bristol Omnibus company was one of his creations and used the same logo as the aircraft company and later car business. The aircraft company was founded after White met Wilbur Wright of the Wright Brothers fame.
After the First World War, BCAC had collapsed and reformed as the Bristol Aeroplane Company and in a need to earn revenue was contracted to build car bodies for Armstrong Siddeley and the bodies for the Bristol buses. By this stage White’s son, George Stanley was running the business and it was his son George Stanley Midleton White who saw an opportunity in not only making a light car called the Monocar, but also doing a deal with AFN (owners of the Frazer Nash name) who were importing BMWs to the UK, to create a car under their own name.
After the war the allies were busy grabbing war reparations and the Bristol Aeroplane Company received some designs from BMW – hence the first model, the 400 was almost a direct copy of a pre-war BMW 327 including the kidney grille now synonymous with the german marque! In fact it was a 327 on a 326 chassis with a 328 motor! AFN owned the UK rights to the engine and licensed that to Bristol which resulted in Bristol acquiring a controlling interest in AFN.
The engines were badged as Bristol however they were in reality updated BMW 328 designs – starting as 2 litres with the final ones being 2.2 litres and having some magic applied that meant that they were in demand for other sports cars (including later Frazer Nash cars).
The 400 was followed by the 401 and then sequentially through to the 405, each model slowly removing any trace of the BMW design and were offered as convertibles (known as drop-heads) and luxury saloons.
In 1956, the car division became a wholly owned subsidiary of the parent company and then in 1960, George S.M. and Tony Crook took it private. The Bristol Aeroplane Company had been forced to merge with other British aero companies by the Government to become the British Aircraft Corporation – which is now British Aerospace. White saw that the car subsidiary would cease production and wanting to keep the business alive got together with Crook, a very successful British sports car racing driver and Le Mans winner to take over the company, which became Bristol Cars Limited.
They signed a deal with Chrysler for their large V8s and Torqueflite gearboxes (just like Jensen) and the first of the Chrysler models was the 407, an updated 406 – just think of the difference, same body but one has a 2.2 and the other a 5.2 litre motor!
By the early 1970s, White had retired after a near fatal road accident (in a Bristol where the driver came off worse than the vehicle, apparently) and Crook was in full command with the models started to get names from the old planes: Beaufighter, Brigand, Blenheim and Britannia! They were truly gentleman grand tourers built in low volume in Bristol and sold though a single sales showroom in London. Like many low volume manufacturers, the cars were actually made up of parts from many other vehicles, apart from the engines and gearboxes from Chrysler, the lights were from General Motors Europe and other switches and parts came from other sources – all meshed together in an opulent surrounding!
In 1997, Crook sold half of the business to Toby Silverton, whose father ran Overfinch, a small British coachbuilder and whose father-in-law ran a very successful private equity firm (hence the money flow and possibly a Bristol owner). They continued to build the GTs, however they wanted to build something quite spectacular: the Bristol Fighter.
This was a sleek 2+2 in the finest tradition of hand-built go-faster Grand Tourers. The original plan was to have three models: the Fighter, the “S” and the “T”. The base model was no slouch powered by an aluminium V10 (from the Dodge Viper) pumping out 525hp but at high speeds delivered 550 due to the aerodynamics! Maximum speed was claimed to be over 200mph. The planned “S” model was to be uprated to 628 horses – 660 at high speed and 590 lbs of torque and the “T” model was going to be even more nuts – bolting on twin turbos to give over 1,000hp and over 1,000 lbs torque.
The Fighter production started in 2004 and by 2007, Crook had sold out with the company claiming they were selling 20 a year (from a report in Car Magazine) and they were about to release the Fighter T. However, things were not going to plan and the company was in deep financial trouble. The Fighter S and T never made it to market and realistically between 9 and 13 Fighters were ever built (apparently record keeping wasn’t the new owners forte) – a far cry from the 20 a year! By 2011 the company was placed into administration with several buyers (including Silverton) wanting the business. Ultimately it was bought by Kamcorp who own Fraser-Nash Research – which is not the same company as Fraser Nash or AFN!
With regards to AFN, it seems that the relationship with Bristol only lasted a couple of years and by 1947 was wholly owned by the Adlington family. AFN was ultimately bought by Porsche because AFN had become their UK distributor during the 1950s. Even though that arrangement lasted for 9 years, the Aldington family later sold the AFN business to Porsche in 1987.
Archie Nash had left AFN early to start several engineering businesses, one of which was the Fraser Nash group who went bust in the early 1990s and was the one acquired by Kamcorp.
Kamcorp wanted Bristol to come back into production and since acquiring the assets have been focused not only on parts and servicing for the older cars, however they have also been developing a new car: the Bullet, which has just recently been announced. It is a throwback – powered by a BMW sourced (yet rebuilt by Bristol) V8, it has design cues back to the mid 1950s 405 with a hint of AC Cobra mixed in.
The Bristol is truly one of the world’s rarest cars on the market today. They are made even rarer because they have no dealer network – you buy from the factory showroom in London. If you look at their web site you can see the Bullet and also the used cars the factory sells – some very reasonably priced. One day when I’ve made my pots of cash I’ll have one! Don’t wake me, it’s a great dream…
If you want to see a Bristol Fighter in action, then follow @Only9Built on Twitter.