Bristol Cars: Hand-made, Mo-powered luxury-performance

by David Zatz

At the end of World War II, demand for the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s fighter planes started to evaporate, and the company began making cars to keep workers empoyed. Bristol Cars’ first effort, the 400, was sold in 1946. The basic substance of their second car, the 1948 Bristol 401, would survive into the 1990s: it had an aluminum body over a steel frame, and was tested in wind tunnels and on airport runways to slash aerodynamic drag.

bristol 412

In the late 1950s, George White, the son of Bristol Aeroplane’s founder, purchased Bristol Cars, selling 40% to racer and car/aviation dealer Anthony Crook. Mr. Crook bought the rest in 1973. (The aviation end of the business was split into planes and engines, both merging with different British companies).

From 1961 on, a newly independent Bristol Cars used Chrysler power, proclaiming “a product of exceptional quality and restrained beauty, but with the heart of a lion.” (The long-standing Chrysler emblem featured a lion.)

spare tire

Bristol’s steel frame/aluminum body cars had already been reinforced for front, rear, and side impact crashes, with crushable front and rear ends and a deformable steering wheel; the fuel tank was separated from the cabin by a steel bulkhead, and seat belts were standard. Strong attention to aerodynamics, including wind tunnel testing — still rare at the time — cut wind resistance and noise, as they had from the start. Bristols also had strong visibility in all directions, supportive seats, and carefully designed controls.

Bristol logo

Given the high value and rarity of the cars (only around 3,000 Bristols were ever made), owners started asking the factory to restore and repair their Bristols; so, in the 1970s, the company started a restoration and repair service that remains active, right down to installing more modern Chrysler engines into the older models.

The 1960s: Bristol 407 and 408 (Chrysler Canada 313 and 318)

The Bristol 407 looked like the older 406, but had a Chrysler 313 V8 instead of a 2.2 liter I-6. Made in Canada, it used Bristol’s camshaft grind and lifters, pushing the top speed to over 125 mph. The only transmission was a pushbutton three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission, and the 0-60 time was around 9 seconds, with a top speed around 125 mph.

The company also dropped its front transverse leaf springs and rack and pinion steering. Now, the suspension had dual unequal-length wishbones and coil springs up front, with a roll bar; in back, they used torsion bars with a Watts linkage. Both front and rear shock absorbers were adjustable. The steering was a recirculating-ball system.

battery door

The Bristol kept its unique (and subtle) hinged panels on the sides of the car for the battery, spare tire, fuses, and such, so that the entire trunk could be used for luggage — and the tire changed without unloading the trunk. This would be used for many years, into the 1980s.

Tony Crook’s obsession with aerodynamics and wind noise was such that he refused to fit wing mirrors to his cars until he was forced to by legislation. They made too much noise! — Morten

The car had two doors with burst proof locks, armrests, ashtrays, window switches, and grab handles; the front seats had fully reclining backs, with runners for height adjustment. Individual rear seats had a folding centrer armrest. Seats were done in leather over foam rubber, with padding above and below the walnut-veneer facia panel; walnut also adorned the instrument panel and doors. There were five ashtrays and two cigarette lighters. Rear quarter lights were hinged, and an electric rear defroster was standard. The trunk had a 19-foot capacity, with a tool stowage shelf. Hefty soundproofing and rustproofing was used throughout the car.

controls and gauges

Gauges included a four-inch speedometer with a trip recorder, four-inch tachometer, a battery indicator, temperature gauge, and clock. There were warning lights for the headlamps, brake fluid level, gasoline level, and handbrake, and a manual override switch for the cooling fans. Wipers were dual-speed and self-parking.

The 1963-66 Bristol 408 was similar, with a lighter transmission case and other relatively minor changes. The 313 was replaced in 1965 by a 318 V8 in 1965.

1967 Bristol 409

With the 1965 Bristol 409, buyers got softer springs, a lower axle ratio, a mildly different appearance, an Chrysler alternator, and slightly more power. Power steering was first an option, then standard. A cabin air filter took care of diesel fumes from nearby trucks.

Bristol 409

Critics had high praise for the Bristol 409’s performance, comfort, and safety. H. Charles Jones of Lincolnshire Life referred to “tremendous” power from the 318 V8, hooked up to the Torque-Flite, with 0-70 mph in under 11 seconds and “effortless” cruising at over 100 mph. He reported fuel economy of 15-21 mpg.

Acceleration was not bad for the era but not especially impressive today, with one reviewer clocking 0-70 mph in around 11 seconds and a top speed of over 130 mph (thank the aerodynamics), with “effortless” driving at over 100 mph. Fuel economy was roughly 15-21 mpg, a bit better than US cars with the same powertrain.

seats

The Girling power disk brakes at all wheels were highly effective. These, the strong body, extremely stable handling, and crash testing resulted in low insurance rates (a steel bulkhead separating the fuel tank from the interior probably helped).

In 1967, the price was is £5,373, including sales tax. The company claimed that each car was road tested by Sir George White or Anthony Crook. Depending on the source, a total of 74 were made (the company always had a 150/year maximum, but it seems unlikely they reached it).

Bristol 410

Bristol 410

The 410 was visibly different from past models, with a more curvaceous body — easy enough since the aluminum panels were likely mounted to the same frame. The car boasted an upgraded braking system, seating for four, and a top speed of over 130 mph. The car was driven by the title character of the series Inspector Lynley.

Bristol 410 dimensions

The 318, upgraded to 250 hp / 340 lb-ft, was good for 0-100 in under 26 seconds; modifications from Chrysler’s use included a Carter four-barrel carburetor (in the US, it was a two-barrel) and a special high-lift camshaft. Rear shock absorbers were electrically adjustable. The car used twin electric fans, thermostatically controlled, instead of the usual belt-operated single fan. The body and features were otherwise similar to the 409.

410 dimensions

Bristol 411: enter the 383

The first Bristol 411 was launched in October 1969, carrying a Chrysler 383 V8 engine with the usual three-speed TorqueFlite automatic transmission. The car was a continuation of the successful 410, with a restyled and more elegant body, radial tires, and fewer name badges. It was a testament to the Bristol design that the vast increase in power and torque was handled so easily by a body designed for a two-liter, six-cylinder postwar motor.

dashboard

British auto writer John Bolster wrote that the Bristol 411 had the highest acceleration and top speed of any “genuine” touring sedan; he claimed the car had the highest quality, made without regard for cost, and praised the comfortable, stable ride that remained “extremely comfortable for all the occupants.” He said that the handling was neutral, with no rear wheel hopping; the power steering was perfectly set up between comfort and performance; and the interior was surprisingly quiet. His test also confirmed the 138 mph top speed.

Bristol 411

Wheels were Dunlop steel models, with 205 x 15 tires. Mr. Bolster’s article included a chart, from which we can pinpoint the quarter mile time at around 15.8 seconds at 92 mph. Zero-60 came in 7.0 seconds, which was quite respectable for time time, while 0-100 came in 18.8 (Bristol claimed 19 seconds) and 0-120 took 29.2 seconds. He achieved 13-17 mpg in his tests.

Standard features included a self-levelling rear suspension, automatic transmisison, collapsible steering column, four-wheel disc brakes, air conditioning (it did not apper to have an Airtemp compressor), power steering, and Chrysler alternator.

The 18-gallon (Imperial; 82 liters) gas tank included a 16-liter reserve controlled by a switch on the dash. The first-year Bristol 411 ran to £6,997 including tax.

Bristol 411 Series III

The Bristol 411 Series III, launched in mid-1972, essentially changed the sheet metal — replacing the rear lamp clusters and restyling the trunk lid and area around the new tail-lamps.

1974 Bristol cars

Launched in late 1973, the 1974 Bristol Type 411 (series IV) moved to the new, though similar, 400 cubic inch V8, to run on regular gasoline; despite having a larger engine, it gained 4 mpg. The company replaced breaker points with a “unique” electronic ignition system (most likely the Chrysler unit). The price was £7530 excluding tax. The top speed was claimed at over 140 mph, with 0-100 in under 20 seconds.

1974 Bristol 411

The engine was acknowledged as being made “for Bristol Cars by Chrysler,” and used the usual Carter Thermoquad carburetor with an automatic choke. As with the 410, Bristol used twin electric fans, controlled by a thermostat.

Bristol 412

The 412 carried an unusual and modern (for the time) appearance; launching in 1975, it had an angular Zagato-designed convertible body with a removable roof, bearing some resemblance to contemporary Triumphs and Alfa Romeos. It kept the 411 engine, but a second edition, starting in 1977, replaced it with a 360 V8, presumably a response to fuel shortages.

Bristol 412 convertible

This was the first production car ever to drop the window glass by half an inch when the door was opened, a feature now common in cars with frameless windows. It was also the first car in the world to have a factory dual-fuel (gasoline/LPG) system.

412 rear

The body was designed in Italy, using the usual welded steel structure with aluminum alloy panels and trim, though with room for two this time. Continued features included the walnut trim, making the spare tire and battery, fuses, and brake servos accessible through fender doors continued, and separating the gas tank (20.5 gallons) by a steel bulkhead. The trunk was expanded to 22 cubic feet, still with tool storage, and the air filter remained. Instrumentation was similar to prior cars. The Bristol 412, the last of the 400 series, had a 114 inch wheelbase, and weight of 3,817 pounds with an empty gas tank.

Bristol 603

The 603 was lauched at the same time was the 412, a two-door, four-passenger car with a more modern, streamlined look; it used the 360 V8, with an optional 318 for economy (dropped fairly shortly). The 603 was essentially a continuation of the 400 series; the company may have been seeking additional demand by creating a “new series.” Bristol hit upon a new tactic, leaving the 603 the only numbered car not in the 400 series.

Aircraft Named Cars

Bristol Cars stopped using numbers for new cars in 1980, and started using Bristol Aeroplane Company names instead, starting with the hot Beaufighter.

The Bristol Beaufighter was a turbocharged version of the 412 — a turbo 360. Launched in 1980, it used the same body as the convertible 412, except for having four headlamps. It was the fastest-accelerating automatic-transmission four seat production car, at the time. Like the 412, the Beaufighter had two rollover bars, a detachable / stowable targa roof, and a canvas hood (with one-hand raising/lowering) behind the bars.

The left-hand-drive Bristol Beaufort was made solely for export, from the Filton plant, starting in 1985. It was mostly the same as the Beaufighter, though lacking rollover bars. The top speed was listed as 150 mph, with 0-60 in around six seconds.

The Bristol Britannia and Brigand were essentially a third series of the 603; the Britannia was the base car, and the Brigand had the turbocharger and a top speed of 150 mph. The Britannia was listed as going to 140 mph “in complete silence.” A 1985 press release compared each model favorably in price to the equivalent Rolls-Royce, selling for over £10,000 more. For that year, the Bristol Brigand was restyled in front, with a Beaufighter-style grille and four headlamps with height adjusted by the driver.

 1967 409, 1968 4101970-74 4111974 412: US, UK
Wheelbase124124124
Length194.5194.5194.5
Width686868
Height5957.557.5 UK, 56.5 US
Ground clearance6.555
Weight3,5283,724 (1970)
3,775 (1974)
3,775 (UK)
3,817 (US)
0-70 mph 9.5 sec9.5 sec
0-100 mph25.8 sec19 sec19 sec
Top speed130 mph140 mph140 mph
Fuel use16-20 mpg 15-19 mpg

The fourth series of the 603 appeared in 1993; dubbed the Blenheim, it had a 360 V8 (then called “5.9 Magnum” by Chrysler), with multiple-port fuel injection and a top speed of 152 mph. The engine and all major masses were within the wheelbase. This was the final car using the old Bristol Cars design.

Bristol Fighter and Fighter T

bristol fighter car

The last of the old Bristol cars was the Fighter (2004-2011), a two-seater supercar using the Viper’s V10 and gullwing doors; the company boasted of 0-60 in four seconds. The Bristol Fighter S used a 628 horsepower version of the same engine, producing 580 pound-feet of torque. There appear to have been very few produced, perhaps from ten to twenty throughout the seven year run. It was to be followed in 2006 by the Fighter T, though none of these appear to have been made. From Bristol’s web site:

At 3500 rpm the standard Fighter produces 525 lb.ft of torque. The Fighter T delivers more than 900 lb.ft at the same rpm, and continues to do so all the way up to the rev limit of 6000 rpm. Styling changes mean the T’s drag factor is reduced to 0.27 by a new rear wake diffuser, and a potential maximum speed of more than 270 mph has been electronically limited to a more than sufficient 225 mph at 4500 rpm. 0 to 60 mph is achieved in less than 3.5 seconds.

According to Bristol, the Fighter T pumped out 1,012 bhp at 5,600 rpm, with 1,036 lb.ft of torque available at at 4,500 rpm.

Mr. Crook sold the company in 2007; it declared bankruptcy in 2011, and was purchased by Frazer-Nash. Bristol Cars continues its restoration business, while working on a completely new car. This one will use a BMW engine; the association with Chrysler likely stopped being viable after the Daimler takeover.

gullwing doors

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We make no guarantees regarding validity, accuracy, or applicability of information, predictions, or advice. Please read the terms of use and privacy policy. Copyright © 1994-2000, David Zatz; copyright © 2001-2016, Allpar LLC (except as noted, and press/publicity materials); all rights reserved. Dodge, Jeep, Chrysler, Ram, and Mopar are trademarks of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles.


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