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1947 Bristol 400 (Bristol Cars)
1947 Bristol 400 (Bristol Cars)

Classic Cars: 1947 Bristol 400

The British legends who teamed up to produce a speedy, sporty sedan Add to ...

Two legendary names in British automotive history – Frazer Nash and Bristol – were reunited earlier this year when the modern-day Frazer-Nash organization stepped in after almost 65 years to once again lend Bristol a hand.

The first time around, Frazer Nash provided aircraft-maker Bristol a leg up to launch a new automotive venture. This time, Frazer-Nash’s involvement will hopefully correct a terminal skid and counter-steer Bristol Cars back on to a road that will lead into a green-tinged future.

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During two world wars, Britain’s pioneering Bristol Aircraft Co., created in 1910, delivered war birds that helped preserve the country’s freedom and ultimately lead to victory. But as the Second World War began to draw to a close, it became concerned about what it would build to keep the doors open after its Beaufort light bombers and hard-hitting heavy fighter and torpedo bomber the Beaufighter were no longer needed.

Building fast luxury cars so Britons could enjoy their newly won freedom seemed a likely plan and by 1947 the Bristol 400 was launched with help from AFN Ltd. the successor to the original car company created by Archie Frazer-Nash in 1922. It was under the AFN name that the famously fast and quirky chain-driven Frazer Nash sports cars of the 1930s were built. ANF also had BMW connections dating back to 1934 as its British importer, which were leveraged to help both companies.

Archibald Frazer-Nash’s name, in case you were wondering, was spelled with a hyphen after 1938, but Frazer Nash cars never used the hyphen.

However, the Bristol 400 wasn’t the launching point of a fast drive to industrial success so much as the start of a long and convoluted struggle for survival, albeit one that would produce some remarkable cars along the way, some with a Canadian connection.

That battle appeared to have ended this past March when Bristol Cars finally had to call it quits. It had been building about 20 cars a year in its 22-man factory near Bristol and selling them sporadically to a dwindling faithful – that has included ex-U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Sir Richard Branson – through its single dealership on Kensington High Street in London.

A month later, however, the pieces were picked up by Kamkorp Autokraft, part of the Frazer-Nash Group which, in its current iteration, is involved in electric and hybrid automotive drivetrain development.

But hope was still very much in the air in 1945 when Bristol linked arms with AFN to develop a new car. As soon as the loud noises stopped, H.J. Aldington, one of three brothers running AFN, beetled off to BMW headquarters in Munich from which he returned with an arm-load of vehicle design blueprints. And with BMW’s former chief engineer Fritz Friedler, responsible for the pre-war 328 sports car, in tow. Legend also has Aldy Aldington “rescuing” a 1940 factory Mille Miglia 328 racer, which was transformed into the Frazer Nash Grand Prix of 1946.

Before all this, Bristol had designed its own prototype, a compact design, with independent suspension and powered by a rear-mounted radial engine, but rolled it up into a ball during a runway test session. It was then thought a good idea to concentrate on something already proven, in this case the chassis from the pre-war BMW 326, the bodywork of the 327 and the inline-six of the 328.

All three were brought up to post-war standards with some mechanical redesigning overseen by Fiedler and bodywork tweaked by Bristol’s aerodynamicists. The Bristol 400 that emerged was first seen at the Geneva auto show in 1947, looking pretty sporty and BMW-like, as even the twin-kidney grille had been closely replicated.

The 400 was built on a conventional chassis with independent front and live axle rear suspension and with drum brakes. The rather cramped two-door bodywork was of steel laid up over a wooden framework.

The engine was an update of the BMW 2.0-litre six, a pushrod design with complex valve-gear, that made 80 hp at 4,500 rpm on the low-grade “pool” petrol available, and drove the wheels through a four-speed transmission. Bristol provided the engine to Frazer Nash, which it used in the just 85 sports cars it managed to produce until it gave up in 1957.

Top speed of the Bristol was about 150 km/h – which at the time was quick enough to attract the attention of motorsport enthusiasts – and the overall level of quality and equipment high, both of which set the tone for Bristols from then on. Only about 700 of these pricey-for-the-time models were built before production ended in 1950, which, possibly unintentionally, set another precedent, this being that Bristols would remain exclusive and low-volume cars.

With the 400 in production, Bristol turned its attention to designing a follow-on model, which appeared in 1948 as the 401 saloon and 402 convertible with swoopy new and very low-drag superleggera bodywork (alloy panels form-fitted over a three-dimensional spider web of small-diameter tubing) inspired by Carrozzeria Touring of Milan and tweaked by Bristol’s aero-specialists. One of the neat features of the 611 saloons and 23 convertibles built was that they had no door handles, just push buttons.

Evolutionary models followed, since the 1960s powered by Chrysler Canada-sourced V-8s tweaked by Bristol, with names such as Britannia, Brigand, Beaufighter and Blenheim, all produced in very low numbers. The Series 6 and Fighter arrived in the new century with the latter powered by a Dodge Viper V-10 engine.

The new Bristol management team is currently sorting things out, investing in the development of new cars based on Frazer-Nash green technology and selling the still sought after older models from the Kensington showroom.



Back in 1947

Bristol wasn’t the only aircraft maker getting into the post-war car business. Saab builds the second prototype – also using advanced runway-tested aircraft aerodynamics – of the car it would launch in 1949 as the production version Saab 92.

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