5th February 2020

Bristol Cars: planely wonderful engineering

The end of the Great War would normally be the cause for celebration, however for the Managing Director of an aeroplane company, which had over 10,000 employees, it presented a problem in the form of the immediate cancellation of the governmental contracts that would keep the workforce gainfully employed.

As the head of a vastly successful group of ‘Bristol’ companies that included the production of trams, commercial vehicles, and the vast and world leading Bristol Aeroplane Company, Sir Stanley White was no stranger to diversification. As such, he turned his attention to the idea of producing motorcars, using the aeronautical expertise of his workforce and designers. He planned to build an exceptional vehicle which would enjoy the same build quality as his aeroplanes.

The Second World War came around before a vehicle could be developed, and so after the war, the ‘Car Division of the Bristol Aeroplane Company’ engineers bought the rights to the designs of the BMW 327 chassis and the 328 racing engines, rather than lose time in developing a vehicle from scratch. The chassis and engine were considered the best of breed at the time, so these were combined and adapted into the ‘Bristol 400’ saloon.

The bodywork was formed from a mixture of steel and aluminium for strength and lightness, with a separate chassis formed from steel. The two-litre, straight-six engine was developed by the engineers at Bristol into free revving and torquey unit, which gained an instant reputation for power and reliability thanks to the tight tolerances to which it was manufactured by the aero engineers.

Buyers were enthused and flocked to the new car, so with the order books and client base established, the new 401 model was launched a year later in 1948 with the full strength of aeronautical engineering behind it. Designed using the aeronautical wind tunnels at the factory, the teardrop-shaped saloon had bodywork formed entirely of aluminium, and with a drag coefficient of just Cd 0.36, the efficiency is comparable with many good cars today, it was astounding in 1948.

With spring loaded bumpers which would absorb minor impacts without damaging the bodywork, and doors which sprung open at the touch of a button (but only to around three inches, to avoid accidental impacts with nearby walls or cars) the vehicle was packed with practical touches.

A continuous fresh air ventilation system kept the cabin cool in summer and free of misting in the wet, to cut down on the need for lubrication servicing, the vehicles suspension could be fully lubricated with a single press of a pedal from within the cabin. For safety, the car could be completely secured with just one key, and for convenience in the event of a puncture, the spare wheel was located in a counter weighted tray under the boot, negating the need to remove luggage for access if needed.

Despite the price of the vehicle being comparable to Bentleys and Rolls Royces of the era, the smaller and sleeker Bristols held a strong appeal amongst the well-heeled motorists of the 1950s who valued its speed, sure footed handling and practicality. Today the early 2 litre Bristol models are highly prized by collectors, although their values remain low when compared with some of the contemporary Bentleys with which they so ably competed.

Have you owned a 2 litre Bristol? Please share your memories of the vehicle in the comments below.