The city of Bristol is one steeped in rich industrial history. The road that has brought trade and custom to Bristol for centuries, the Portway, runs through the Avon Gorge and is at one point, spanned by Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s might Clifton Suspension Bridge. Further on you find yourself within the floating harbour – a once world renowned shipping port. Now a source of leisure rather than trade, it is the home for the SS Great Britain, another industrial marvel and another of Brunel’s works. The city also has a rich aeronautical history, with Rolls Royce and Airbus both calling Bristol home. And it’s Bristol’s link to the skies that birthed Bristol cars. Though unlike other manufacturers, Bristol Cars wasn’t necessarily bore out of passion. In fact, it was born out of a need to simply survive.
Before cars, the Bristol name was associated with planes. Interestingly though, the true beginnings of the name came from trams. Bristol Tramways was born out of a London syndicate’s proposal that was rejected by Bristol City Council. It liked the idea though, and as such, set up its own tramway. The man put in charge of it was George White (later Sir), a young and ambition junior solicitor. After making a success of the tram business, his ambition led him to France where he witnessed the Wright Brothers fly. It was a remarkable thing to witness, but White saw the potential. And given his experience in growing and developing the unusual, taking to the skies seemed to be the next logical step. In 1910, after six months of planning, the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company was founded, taking to the skies with the French Voisin-designed ‘Zodiac’.
Over the following years, ‘Bristol’ planes advanced in design, resulting in the fast and nimble Scout. It would go on to be built in huge numbers, due in no small part to their military application. The Scout became a vital tool during the First World War. The planes earned the nickname ‘Bristol Bullet’ thanks to their speed and agility.
In 1918, Great Britain celebrated the armistice. Businesses however, were in trouble. The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company, by then known as Bristol Aircraft Corporation, was no exception. Orders for planes simply vanished overnight. This left a workforce idle and facing redundancy, though on a larger scale, it also put a question mark of the company’s future as a whole. Being resourceful, management began to build car bodies under contract for Armstrong Siddeley as well as bus bodies for the still operational tram arm of the company. Most interestingly of all, the company also began to build the Bristol Monocar – its first private passenger vehicle. This diversification combined with continued aeronautical pursuits saved the company, though when the Second World War broke out, many questioned if it was possible to survive twice. With 70,000 men and women on the staff, the company would take no chances.
It’s speculated that as early as 1941 – by which time the company was in the control of Sir George White’s son, George S.M.White – a proposal had been put forward for the company to build cars as soon as the war came to a close, bringing with it demobilisation. To do so, however, would require Bristol to partner up with another brand. Amazingly, names like Aston Martin, Alvis and Lagonda were all considered. In the end, it was a chance meet that would secure Bristol’s partnership with Fraser Nash in 1945.
Fraser Nash already had links to BMW, having marketed the Fraser Nash B.M.W before the war. Its high quality was of great appeal to Bristol, and when Fraser Nash Bristol, as it was known, was able to buy the rights to the BMW 328 engine along with three vehicle models, the future was looking positive. Sadly though, it was quite the opposite. As the first cars rolled off the Filton factory production line in 1947, the two companies parted ways owing to ‘differences’.
The first car offered was the Bristol 400 and it looked a lot like a BMW 327, mainly because it was. The engine and suspension were copied from the German car, and even the trademark twin-kidney grille remained. It didn’t matter though, as the car was hugely popular. Plus, the use of BMW technology combined with Bristol’s aircraft level of engineering ensured every Bristol Car was stunning in terms of both build and aesthetic. The company, forgive the pun, was off to a flying start.
It was also in 1947 that George White, the son of George S.M.White and grandson of Sir George White, took control of the cars division of the Bristol company. A catalyst in the company’s decision to move into cars before the war, George was a focused and ultimately talented individual. He ensured that the cars were built to the same standards and the same scrutiny as the company’s flying offerings. As the years progressed, Bristol Cars earned a deserved reputation for being some of the finest in the world.
Bristol cars also gained a fierce reputation on the track, which served the company well in the showroom. A Bristol 450 won the two litre class at Reims in 1953. The same model also took first, second and third in class at Le Mans in 1954. With drivers like Jack Brabham, Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss, Bristol was a force to be reckoned with. The future looked bright, but as we know, that simply wasn’t to be.
In the late 1950s the British Government pushed the aircraft companies to merge. For the aeronautical division of the company, it was a brilliant move. Split into two, the airframe division joined BAC (British Aircraft Corporation) where its type 198 frame design would go on to be developed into Concorde. The engine division eventually became Rolls Royce where the Bristol Pegasus and Olympus engines were developed. The former would power the harrier Jump Jet. The latter went on to thrust Concorde into the history books.
With such an impressive history in the skies, you’d think Bristol Cars, by this time bought by founder George S.M.White, would go on to brilliant things. It didn’t though. Without the aeronautical wing (again, excuse the pun) gone, Bristol Cars was no longer free to develop its own engines. Also, build standards became harder to maintain. Add in the switch to a Chrysler V8 for power, and you were left with a company with an unclear direction.
By now, we’re into the 1970s. The cars had become ungainly and even though the time in history was fond of the square and uniform, the unusual proportions of cars like the Bristol 412 left longstanding customers cold and potential new customers unimpressed. An attempt to pull things back was made in 1976 with the 603, but things were already in decline by that point.
Behind the scenes, it was also the end of the White family’s involvement. In a twist or irony, George White, by this point Sir, crashed his Bristol 410. Traumatised by the event, he never returned to the company, instead selling his stake in the business to Anthony Crook, now the company’s sole distributor. Further strain came when the car division was forced to move from Filton to Patchway. Mr Crook’s showroom in London became the administrative base of sale and operations, with Mr Crook travelling from Bristol to London in, rather wonderfully, a Bristol light aircraft.
Crook was determined to make a go of the company, though logistical and financial challenges meant that the designs really didn’t progress. The 1980 Beaufighter was a facsimile of the 412, while the 1982 Britannia was nothing more than an ever so slightly modernised 603. The 1993 Blenheim, well, that was simply a series 4 603. The company was slipping backwards by sticking to dated designs, and as such, sales dwindled and that once legendary reputation began to erode.
Seeing no other alternative, Anthony Crook sold 50% of Bristol Cars to Toby Silverton. This should have been the lifeblood that Bristol oh so desperately needed. As the son of Arthur Silverton, the man behind Overfinch, as well as being the son-in-law of Joe Lewis of the Tavistock Group, Toby had it all. Business success and a world-renowned name in Land Rover should have been more than enough to save the Bristol name.
Crook and Silverton worked to develop a car that would surely save the company. Its name was taken from the Bristol’s early years in the sky – it would be called the Bristol Fighter. And fight it would. Visually it was a masterpiece. Gullwing doors, that trademark long body and a might V10 engine from the Dodge Viper resulted in a car that could hit 60 in less than four seconds and would go on to a top speed of 210mph.
Full of optimism for the future, Crook and Silverton had confidence in the car. Sadly though, the market did not. The Bristol name had simply been through too much over the years for customers to seriously consider the Fighter as an option. Other companies, especially Morgan, were more well-placed in the niche sports car market. Bristol never stood a chance. In the end, 13 Fighters were rumoured to have been built, though many speculate that the number is much lower.
Anthony Crook sold his stake in the business in 2007. In 2011, Bristol Cars fell into administration. And while many thought it was the end of the line, it actually wasn’t. There was, or depending on your level of optimism, still is a glimmer of hope. In an act of history seemingly attempting to repeat itself, Bristol cars was ‘rescued’ in April of 2011 by the most unlikely of sources – Frazer-Nash Research.
As the spelling would suggest, this isn’t the same company that made back in the early 1900s. Instead, it is a part of Kamkorp group, and specialises in sustainable and environmentally-friendly transport solutions. As such, it was well-placed to bring Bristol Cars into the 21st century.
The car that would do it was built under the exciting code-name of Project Pinnacle. It promised big things, like a hybrid platform and cutting-edge engineering. In the end, the former didn’t happen, but the latter did. At the 2016 Goodwood Festival of Speed the Bristol Bullet was unveiled. Boasting a carbon fibre chassis, impressive build quality and a very Bristol, but also very pleasing aesthetic, it wowed the crowds. In place of the hybrid platform, the Bullet is propelled by, and you’ll like this, a BMW V8 as found in the Plus 8, Aero and Speedster Morgan. Proof that the chaps in Malvern know how to pick an engine!
The Bullet generated no end of interest. People wanted to buy it, and Bristol promised it would in 2017. But we’re now in 2019 and as of yet, nothing other than a concept car has emerged. Instead, Bristol exists as a quiet entity restoring, servicing and selling the models of old and on one hand, you can’t deny that it’s good to know Bristol exists in some way even if the promise of a new car now seems unlikely.