Bristol Cars Limited is a manufacturer of hand-built luxury cars headquartered in Kensington, London, United Kingdom.
Bristol Cars is the last remaining descendant of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, a major aircraft manufacturer that at one point employed well over 50,000 people. After the Second World War, the Car Division of the Bristol Aeroplane Company was formed, later becoming Bristol Cars Limited.
Unlike most speciality automakers, Bristol does not court publicity and has only one showroom, on Kensington High Street in London. Nevertheless, the company maintains an enthusiastic and loyal clientele.
Bristol has always been a low-volume manufacturer; the most recent published official production figures were for 1982, which stated that 104 cars were produced in that year.
The company suspended manufacturing in March 2011, when administrators were appointed and 22 staff were made redundant. In April 2011, the company was purchased by Kamkorp. Since 2011, the company has restored and sold all models of the marque while a new model is being developed.
The British aircraft industry suffered a dramatic loss of orders and great financial difficulties following the Armistice of 1918. To provide immediate employment for its considerable workforce, the Bristol Aeroplane Company undertook the manufacture of a light car (the Bristol Monocar), the construction of car bodies for Armstrong Siddeley and bus bodies for their sister company, Bristol Tramways.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Sir G. Stanley White, managing director of the Bristol Aeroplane Company from 1911–1954, was determined not to suffer the same difficulties a second time. The company now employed 70,000 and he knew he must plan for the time when the voracious wartime demand for Bristol aircraft and aircraft engines would suddenly end. The company began working with AFN Ltd, makers of Frazer Nash cars and British importer of BMWs before the war, on plans for a joint venture in automotive manufacture.
As early as 1941, a number of papers were written or commissioned by George S. M. White, Sir Stanley’s son, proposing a post-war car manufacturing division. It was decided to purchase an existing manufacturer for this purpose. Alvis, Aston Martin, Lagonda, ERA and Lea Francis were considered.
A chance discussion took place in May 1945, between D. A. Aldington, a director of Frazer Nash then serving as an inspector for the wartime Ministry of Aircraft Production (MAP), and Eric Storey, an assistant of George White at the Bristol Aeroplane Company. It led to the immediate take-over of Frazer Nash by the Aeroplane Company.
Aldington and his two brothers had marketed the “Fraser Nash B.M.W.” before the war, and proposed to build an updated version after demobilisation. This seemed the perfect match for the Aeroplane Company’s own ambitions to manufacture a high quality sports car. With the support of the War Reparations Board, H. J. Aldington travelled to Munich and purchased the rights to manufacture three BMW models and the 328 engine.
By July 1945, BAC had created a Car Division and bought a controlling stake in AFN. A factory was established at Filton Aerodrome, near Bristol.
George White and Reginald Verdon-Smith of the Aeroplane Company joined the new Frazer Nash Board, but in January 1947, soon after the first cars had been produced, differences between the Aldingtons and Bristol led to the resale of Frazer Nash. The Bristol Car Division became an independent entity.
Bristol Cars was sold after its parent joined with other British aircraft companies in 1960 to create the British Aircraft Corporation (BAC), which later became part of British Aerospace.
The car division originally merged with Bristol Siddeley Engines Ltd, and was marked for closure, but was bought in September 1960 by George S.M. White the chairman and effective founder. White retained the direction of the company, but sold a forty per cent shareholding to Tony Crook, a leading Bristol agent. Crook became sole distributor.
In September 1969, only a month before the unveiling of the new Bristol type 411 at Earl’s Court, Sir George White (as he had become) suffered a serious accident in his Bristol 410. The car was only superficially damaged, but he suffered severe trauma.
As time passed it became clear that he would never regain his health sufficiently to return to full-time work. To safeguard the future of his workforce, he decided in 1973 to sell his majority shareholding to Crook. As the ties with the White family were severed, British Aerospace (successors to the Bristol Aeroplane Company) requested the company to move its factory from Filton Aerodrome and it found new premises in nearby Patchway. The showroom in Kensington High Street became the head office, with Crook shuttling between the two in Bristol's light aircraft.
Under Crook's direction the company produced at least six types, the names of which were largely borrowed from Bristol's distinguished aeronautical past: the Beaufighter, Blenheim, Britannia and Brigand.
In February 1997, Crook, then aged 77, sold a fifty per cent holding in Bristol Cars to Toby Silverton, with an option to take full control within four years. Silverton, then son-in-law of Joe Lewis of the Tavistock Group and son of Arthur Silverton of Overfinch, joined the board with his father.
Crook and Toby Silverton produced the Speedster, Bullet and 411 Series 6, though 2002 saw the transfer of Bristol Cars fully into the ownership of Silverton and the Tavistock Group, with Silverton in the chair and Crook remaining as managing director. Together they developed a two-seater V10 named after the first Sir George White’s world-famous First World War two-seater aircraft, the Bristol Fighter.
Crook finally relinquished his connection with Bristol Cars in August 2007. In March 2011, it was announced that Bristol Cars had been placed into administration. Rescue came in April 2011, in the form of Frazer-Nash Research.
HJ Aldington, a director of the Bristol Aeroplane Company affiliated AFN (BMW's pre-war concessionaire in the UK), used his British Army connections to visit the bombed BMW factory in Munich several times post-war. In 1945 he took plans for BMW cars back to Britain, and BMW chief engineer, Dr. Fritz Fiedler was also employed. Its first car was the Bristol 400, prototyped in 1946 and introduced at the 1947 Geneva Motor Show. Derived from immediately pre-WW2 BMW products (thanks to a connection to BMW through Frazer Nash), the chassis was based on the BMW 326, the engine on the 328, and the body on the 327. Even a variation on the famous double-kidney BMW grille was retained. Bristol, however, did a thorough examination of the car's handling and ended up with performance "only matched by outright purpose-built competition cars". 700 of the Bristol 400 were built, with 17 receiving "handsome" drophead bodywork from Pininfarina.
In 1949, the 400 was joined by the five-place 401. Bodied by Touring, it was aerodynamically sleeker, accelerated better, and had higher top speed. It was joined by the drophead 402, of which just 24 examples were built.
The 403 followed in 1953, which featured improved brakes, gearbox, dampers, heater, and engine (a detuned racing motor, in fact). Bristol would use this same engine in the 450, entered at Le Mans in 1953; it broke its experimental crankshaft, but despite being less than aerodynamically ideal proved fully five seconds a lap quicker than the competition. Bristol withdrew from racing two years later.
Along with the 403 was the 404, on a shorter wheelbase, with more powerful engine and styling reminiscent of the 450. The 404 introduced a concealed front wing-mounted spare wheel and battery. It was built to extremely exacting standards, and the price reflected it; this, plus newly introduced "punitive taxation", meant only 40 were produced.
The 405, which entered production in 1954, was much more successful, not least for being Bristol's only four-door. It remained in production until 1958, with 297 saloons and 43 drophead coupés produced in all.
Bristol debuted the 406 in 1958, and it remained in production until 1961.
It was followed in 1963 by the 408, with drastic restyling as well as improved suspension. This was succeeded by the 409. Many buyers preferred the crisp steering and gearbox of the earlier six-cylinder cars.
The 410, introduced in 1966, was a return to the high-performance touring tradition, offering the same top speed as the 409, and superior acceleration, with the same powerplant. It also saw Bristol become a private company and marked a return to quality to the exclusion of output: no more than three cars a week were to be made.
1968 Bristol 410
In 1969, the Bristol 411 appeared, with a new 6.2 litre Chrysler V8 (still rebuilt and modified by Bristol, as before) delivering higher top speed and even better acceleration.
1970 Bristol 411 Series 1
Until 1961, all Bristol cars used Bristol-built derivatives of the BMW M328 2-litre six-cylinder engine. These engines also powered a number of sports and racing cars, including all post-war Frazer Nashes (apart from a few prototypes), some ACs, some Lotus and Cooper racing cars, and several others.
In 1961, with the launch of the Bristol 407, the company switched to larger Chrysler V8 engines, which were more suitable for the increasingly heavy cars. All post-1961 Bristols, including the later Blenheim and Fighter models, used Chrysler engines.
On 3 March 2011, it was announced that Bristol Cars had gone into administration, with the immediate loss of 22 jobs. On 21 April 2011, the company was purchased by Kamkorp, which also owns the Frazer-Nash Group of Companies.
The first new model since the 2004 Fighter, codenamed Project Pinnacle, was expected to be launched in autumn 2015. Reports in 2014 indicated it would be a petrol-electric hybrid, with a petrol engine from BMW; a later media report and a May 2015 press release indicate it will have non-hybrid BMW power. Public launch is scheduled for mid 2016.