What do Sir Richard Branson, Liam Gallagher/Oasis and Tina Turner have in common? I guess Tina or Liam may well have listened to the other’s music while travelling on one of Richard Branson’s Virgin planes but as you’ve guessed, that’s not the connection I’m after. That would rather be that they have been, or still are, owners of a Bristol automobile, perhaps the most British of all UK car manufacturers. With a long-term building philosophy of “no more than 2-3 cars a week”, never more than a single show room in London’s Kensington High Street and an at times very particular view of what good car design is, it’s really no surprise that the brand hasn’t survived until today – but it is a surprise it lived on as long as it did! Before Bristol is completely forgotten, it’s well worth having a deeper look at one of the UK’s quirkiest car companies and some of the wonderful cars they built during the 70 years it was in existence!
As many other car manufacturers, Bristol had its roots in airplane manufacturing but even before that, as a builder of tramways in the UK. The tramway company started operations as early as 1875 and business was especially good during WW1 when the Luftwaffe kept damaging the tramway’s power lines, thereby creating a need for lots of maintenance work. With the tram business up and running and the Wright brothers having flown over the English Channel, it became clear to Bristol’s founder George White that the future was in the air. The airplane business started in 1910 and enjoyed an equally good business in the run-up to WW1. As for so many other military suppliers though, when the war ended, orders no longer came in. Bristol had no choice but to diversify again, creating the Bristol Car Company in 1918. However, it wasn’t until the 1950’s that it really came alive.
What really got the car business going was a collaboration with Frazer Nash, at the time UK importers of BMW. Somehow Frazer Nash came in possession of all the drawings and specifications of the BMW 326-328 after the war and it was based on these that Bristol built and presented its first car in 1946, essentially a remodeled BMW introduced under the name Frazer-Nash-Bristol. The engine was the same straight six the Beamers had under the hood, but this and later Bristol cars weren’t just copies of the respective BMW’s – they were improved in several ways and already in the 50’s earned a very good reputation. Even though the official collaboration with Frazer Nash ended the year after, Bristol’s 400 series would go on and include all cars until the 80’s. Starting with the Bristol 400 in 1947 and along with the following Bristol two and four-seater cars until the 406 (and there were models for all numbers in between), the cars were all powered by the same two-litre, BMW straight six engine.
From the start, Bristols were thus positioned as luxury cars and comparable to the Jags and Bentleys out there. Of course all cars were hand-built back in the 50’s and 60’s, but Bristol did so in line with the British car building tradition and was quickly seen as an alternative to for example Jaguar. The cars were built to high engineering standards, said to be “built to last”, apparently to the difference to some other cars of the time. This together with the exclusivity that comes from building such small series of cars was what Bristol felt justified the high price. The “no more than 2-3 cars per week” was probably all the company could do anyway back in the 50’s, but the motto lived on through Bristol’s full history, making any Bristol a very rare automobile these days. Some of those will be far more desirable than others. If the early 400 series Bristols from the 50’s drew heavily on BMW, the 60’s and early 70’s models were certainly the high point of Bristol’s own design. You’d be excused for thinking that the design department was on long term leave during the following decades when you see later cars.
Starting with the Bristol 407 the company switched to a Chrysler V8 engine which from the 411 (most cars) and onwards (all cars) was the large 6.2 litre one. The 411 is actually worth a special mention as perhaps the nicest of all Bristol cars. A total of 287 were built between 1969 and 1976, with the big engine making the car capable of a top speed of 230 km/h which you would have to be very brave indeed to exploit. This made Bristol the cool and far less common alternative to the Jaguar XJ-C or the Jensen Interceptor that I wrote about back in October. Engineering-wise it was certainly comparable and in the looks department, it was certainly up there with the XJ-C and some Italian beauties, which is saying a lot!
The late 70’s and early 80’s were certainly not known for good design and nowhere was it worse than at Bristol. Starting with the 412, the company’s efforts to modernize the lines failed so spectacularly that fans pretty much gave up on the company, starting its long demise. Cars like the 90’s Blenheim roadster were seen as dated already when they appeared, and it was in a last effort to save the company that Bristol developed the Fighter, built between 2004 and when the company went into administration in 2011 in around a dozen examples (no one knows for sure). It was a pretty extraordinary car, looking like nothing else and powered by Chrysler’s V10 Viper engine, here producing around 500 hp and coupled to a four-speed autobox. Bristol had plans to build around 20 Fighters a year and also to launch a turbo version with twice that power (yes, really!), but that wasn’t to be. Given the low level of interest the Fighter generated, probably due both to the particular design but perhaps even more to the GBP 230′ price tag, no other Bristol car would ever see the light of day.
Bristol Cars went into administration in 2011 and was then bought by the Swiss Kamkorp group who never managed to bring out any new models so that until the lights were finally turned off in 2020, the company mostly renovated and supplied parts to older Bristol models. In 2016, the Bristol veteran Richard Hackett was one of the founders of a company called SLJ Hackett, today one of the main distributors of older Bristol cars. SLJ offers most Bristol models for sale and with prices starting around GBP 50′, they are more affordable than you may think. So if you want to do what Sir Richard, Tina Turner and Liam Gallagher did, then SLJ Hackett is the company for you. It goes without saying that the driving pleasure will be from the right side only – after all, who would come up with the strange idea of driving on the other side? Unfortunately there’s no place for companies like Bristol in today’s car world and that’s a shame, because it could certainly use a bit more of them!