It looks like the latter for the British car maker Bristol, as its struggle against an earlier winding up order in the High Court fails.
The current generation feel they are at the cutting edge of the technology revolution: AI, mobile phones and the interweb to name but a few.
Imagine the early 1900s with the invention of the first manned, powered flight. Now, think of the conversations Sir George White, Chairman of the Bristol Tramways & Carriage Company was having when he had a chance encounter with Wilbur Wright in 1909. White instantly recognised the potential. On his return to England, he set up The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company in a former tram shed in Bristol in February 1910. He didn’t know it then, but the forerunner of Bristol Cars was born.
With some considerable enterprise, the company built nearly one hundred aircraft in those exciting early days between 1910-1914. With the outbreak of the First World War, the company raised its game again. In total, it produced over 5000 aircraft, including models such as the “Bristol Scout” and “Fighter”. The latter name was to be reused around seventy years later on a brilliant but short-lived Bristol car. During this period, Bristol directly employed over 3000 people across its Bristol manufacturing plants.
When the armistice arrived to end the Great War, the entire aircraft industry suffered a dramatic decline. In 1920, The British and Colonial Aeroplane Company was liquidated. The Bristol Aeroplane Company took over the workforce. To make ends meet, the workforce undertook the manufacture of the Bristol Monocar, alongside the construction of the already established Armstrong Siddely, as well as bus bodies for an associated Bristol company.
Between the end of the Great War and the start of the Second World War in 1939, the Bristol Aeroplane Company expanded into building radial aero engines of some significant importance and it employed over 70,000 men and women in its plants. With another European war looking inevitable, the company built the “Bristol Blenhiem” bomber and the “Bristol Beaufighter” for use by the RAF. Both saw service during the war, serving with distinction.
By this time Sir Stanley White, George’s grandson, was Managing Director. He was determined to avoid the collapse of the company again once the Second World War was over and he knew he must plan for the voracious appetite the public would have for modern motor cars.
Archive papers confirm that from as early as 1941, White was planning for the peace ahead. He looked at acquiring and expanding an existing British car manufacturer with Alvis, Aston Martin and Lagonda all considered. What might have been?
White patiently waited until hostilities ended. In 1945, The Bristol Aeroplane Company merged with Frazer Nash. The two brothers who then owned Fraser Nash had marketed the Fraser Nash BMW before the outbreak of the war.
White saw this as a perfect springboard to avoid the demise of the previous company. He travelled to the devastation of war-torn Germany and there in Munich, he purchased the rights to build three BMW 328s and the 328 engine. Success looked to be in sight. However, in early January 1947, White, along with his co-director Verdon-Smith, fell out with the directors of Fraser Nash. They went their separate ways and The Bristol Cars Divisions became independent.
The 400 was Bristol’s first car and has been regarded as one of Britain’s first post-war cars. It is often argued the 400 was no more than an amalgamation of the BMW’s 326 & 327, with a 328 engine complete with BMW-esque twin kidney grilles. On a narrow technical point that may be accurate, however the totality of the sum was more than that. Much more.
The engine was a Bristol modified version of the German 2.0ltr straight six engine. It was capable of effortlessly cruising at 90mph all day long. Advanced independent suspension and rack & pinion steering made for “enthusiastic” driving, one report of the time said. The 400 stood out for one other key reason; Bristol engineered aircraft levels of build quality into every car, carried through from its early aeronautical heritage. It was to be a characteristic that ran through all their vehicles and it proved to be a big hit. Today some historians of the marque speculate this high cost base was to be their ultimate downfall.
The 400 was quickly followed up with the release of the 401 at the 1948 Earls Court Motor Show. The 401 shared the limelight with other motoring classic debutants, including Jaguar’s XK 120 and Morris Minor. Bristol continued to utilise its expertise obtained from aircraft manufacture. The swooping wind-tunnel induced lines made for a near noise-free drive in the 401. Not content with just design innovation, Bristol chose to manufacture the 401 body in aluminium. This breakthrough manufacturing technique made the car lighter and created more interior space. Bristol added a drop-dead gorgeous drop-head version, the 402, shortly after.
In the thirteen years between 1947 and 1960, Bristol went on to build seven 400 series models; 400 through to 406. During that period, Bristol had racing success too. Those successes included a first, second and third in its Class at Le Mans in 1954/5, with a modified 405 called the 450. The 450 was a full five seconds faster than its nearest rivals. As always, Bristol was pushing the engineering envelope. They tested a new crankshaft at Le Mans, where else! Such was the power of the modified 450, it broke the experimental crankshaft clean in two. The racing team were fortunate enough to have such great but relatively unknown names at the time in the shape of Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss driving for them.
This immediate post war period was a time of change and a time of “big” government. The thinking at the time was “biggest is best”. The British Government forced through the merger of a number of small and medium sized aircraft manufacturers throughout the 1950s. The Bristol Aeroplane Company was split up. The airframe side joined the British Aircraft Corporation, where, very interestingly, one of its designs was ultimately developed into none other than Concorde via Bristol Project 223! The successful aero engine division was formed into Bristol-Siddely, its engines powering the Harrier Jump Jet as well as Concorde. Bristol Siddley later went on to become the Rolls Royce Engine Co Ltd.
What of Bristol cars? That also merged and became Bristol Siddeley but was sadly staring down the barrel of closure. Luckily it was rescued from closure by G.M. White, the grandson of the founder.
Now Bristol had to stand on its own two feet without the support of the larger aero business. This real independence was good for Bristol but came with a downside; it could no longer rely on a steady supply of engines. It turned away from modified straight six German engines and European partners. Instead it turned west, to America and the Chrysler corporation. The Bristol V8 era was to begin.
Launched in 1961, the 407 was the first Bristol V8 and it was a departure in many ways. The styling, which had subtly moved from the swooping lines of the 1940s, was now well and truly updated to a contemporary 60s angular feel. Gone were the BMW-like twin grilles; replacing the straight six meant dumping any reference to the previous partner. This was true independence. The V8 gave Bristols a different feel. It turned from a sporty-feeling, driver’s car to a wafty gentleman’s express. The combination of V8 muscle and legendary British Bristol engineering proved to be a big success. Throughout the 60s Bristol tweaked and improved the model line-up, producing the range up until the 410 model. After road testing the 410 in 1968, one cynical journalist at the time summed it up: “it is difficult to find any points to criticise. Maybe the protective strips along the bottom of the door which hold mud could soil a lady’s stockings”. Would the winning combination of American V8 power, British engineering and reference to women’s underwear equal continued success in the 70s?
The Bristol team were excited for the launch of the new 411 at the 1969 Earls Court Motor Show. The engine was now a big block 6.3 V8 Chrysler. It powered the 411 to nearly 145mph. Keen as ever to push innovation in their cars, the 411 had electric windows, halogen headlamps and self-levelling suspension. However, the launch was over shadowed a month before the show by a motoring accident involving Sir George White. The damage to his 410 was minor but Sir George suffered badly and he was never to recover fully from the accident.
The 411 platform proved to be a success for Bristol and it stayed in production for seven years. It was followed in 1971 by S2 411, with an upgraded 6.5ltr version arriving a year later. Separate S5 & S6 were built in 73 and 75. In 1973, Sir George recognised he was never going to recover sufficiently to give the time needed to run Bristol. In order to safeguard the business, he decided the sell his interest to Tony Crook, a friend and Bristol’s biggest main agent.
The 412 Targa was launched in 1975. Following Bristol’s constant search for innovation, it was the first production car to have window-less door frames and wait for it, the first “hybrid” car. Customers could order the 412 to run on dual fuel petrol or LPG.
The new ownership of Tony Crook brought a number of new models. First was the 603 in 1976. It was an important car for Bristol. Using model names harking back to Bristol’s wartime history, the 603 platform saw Bristol through to the mid 1990’s. In any of the guises, the 603 was a high-speed tourer of almost unequalled parallel at the time. Refined, spacious, fast and with the over-engineered hallmark of all Bristol’s; a whisper quiet ride. That came at a price. With just six quid change from £30,000, it competed with twenty grand Aston Martins. Meanwhile, both cars had fierce competition from the newly launched Jaguar XJS.
Buyers weren’t put off. But Bristol knew it had to react. As an interim measure, it returned to the previous 412 platform and launched the Bristol Beaufighter. Introducing a turbo to the V8 turned the 412 into a 150mph-plus supercar that was the fastest accelerating automatic production in its day. That trumped the XJS and the Aston. Bristol continued to fight back.
Dropping the model numbering system for good, it revamped the S3 603 with two new models: the Britannia & the Brigand. The models were near identical; the standard form was the Britannia, the Brigand had the benefit of a turbo charged engine complete with distinguishing bonnet bulge. Both cars were welcomed by customers and they marked a return to a more sporty drive for the marque. Journalist Howard Walker from “Motor” magazine commented, “there is something special about the Britannia. Nothing else comes close”.
Tony Crook and his team had one more model up their sleeve. In 1993 along came the Blenheim. Offering new styling, larger interior space and effortless 150mph motorway cruising, the car was a surprising hit.
However, Tony Crook was a man who knew his limitations. In 1997, then in his late seventies, he realised there was only one way to keep the marvellous marque going into the 21st century. He sold 50% ownership to Toby Silverton, son of Arthur Silverton of Overfinch and son-in-law of Joe Lewis of The Tavistock Group. Tony Crook remained Managing Director.
The end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? We’re not sure. Certainly the next few years were a tumultuous roller-coaster for Bristol.
Work began on extending the Blenheim range into the 21st century. The Series II model saw out the 20th century with minor improvements to suspension, engine and trim. In 2000 the Series IV was launched. This included a much more extensive overhaul to engine, trim and gearbox. Bristol were at the time coy about revealing BHP figures, simply referring to “muscular authority” of its engines. It was believed the much worked-over engine in the Series 4 produced around 400bhp.
These upgrades to the Blenheim were a sideshow to the main event and would later prove to be the beginning of a deep rift between the partners.
The new shareholders led by Toby Silverton wanted to build what they saw as an all new proper supercar capable of breaking the 200mph limit. Colleagues at the time saw this a massive and dangerously expensive vanity project.
Reports over the years have variously described Tony Crook’s reaction to this idea of an expensive new model as “madness” and “reckless”. Crook was to finally exit Bristol completely in 2007 but not before he’d witnessed the vast expense of the Bristol Fighter launched to the motoring press in 2004. It did not go on public sale until four long years later.
In fairness, the Fighter was a decent attempt to bring Bristol up to date. Many at the time described it as wonderful car. Probably because it was. With its gullwing doors and a V10 engine producing well over 500bhp, the car looked gorgeous. There is much speculation over just how many were built, but is generally accepted the number is somewhere between ten and fifteen cars. What is clear however, is that production ceased in 2011. That same year, Bristol went into administration. Everything looked to have been lost. Bristol had been here before. It wasn’t done yet.
Later that year the business was bought from the administrators by Kampkorp. A name you may not have heard of, we hadn’t either. But Kampkorp owns and trades under the name Fraser-Nash. Yes, Bristol had gone full circle. The motoring industry was optimistic. This optimism was strengthened when Fraser Nash announced the forthcoming launch of a new model; the Bristol Speedster sometimes confusingly referred to as the Bristol Bullet. It was snuck out to the public at large under the cover of the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2016. The public and journalists alike were wowed by its stunning good looks, its return to BMW power-trains and in keeping with the tradition of innovation, a full carbon fibre chassis. With Fraser Nash now behind it and a model like this ready to go, what could go wrong?
No Speedster/Bullets ever reached the showroom. Again, it was unclear how many, if any, were actually produced. Some respected journalists suggest only one was ever produced of this hand-built beauty. With no new cars being built, overheads to be met and the only income from older models, it was always going to be a struggle.
Some say the end began with the takeover by Silverton and his desire to build an expensive uber-niche product. A desire, as we’ve seen matched with tiny production numbers. A number of observers postulate the end began later with Kampkorp and the still born Fighter which never reached full production.
What is clear, is that the Bristol has laid dormant since 2018. In 2019, Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) applied for a winding up order in the High Court in relation to unpaid debts. Bristol appealed. On 28 February 2020 Bristol lost that appeal. In March 2020 the order to wind up was issued. Bristol had run its last lap.
What next? The passionate and dedicated owners club have pledged to salvage what they can from the wreckage. In a statement issued recently by the owners’ club, they said, “the Owners' Club is actively engaged with the liquidators in order to preserve what we can of the heritage and associated spares for the marque. It's our hope that the assets can be kept together and, as a priority, a safe home can be found for the archive”.
Only time will tell if this really is the end, after all, Bristol has had a remarkable ability to reinvent itself. Is this bust for Bristol, or just another phase in the wonderful, fascinating Bristol story? We sincerely hope the latter.
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