Part 1: 1930 to 1939
To understand how the Bristol Aeroplane Company introduced a new range of sporting saloon cars in late 1946 one needs to know the history of AFN Ltd from the mid-1930s to the late-1950s, and its senior management, HJ, DA & WH Aldington. This firm became an integral part of discussions, planning and sales for the proposed initial car, between 1945 and 1947, then followed by car sales involvement up to 1955.
The early history of AFN, and the various sports cars and sporting saloon cars that it designed/ made/ modified/ and eventually withdrew from, can be found in a number of books on GN cyclecars, Frazer Nash cars, Frazer-Nash BMW cars and the post-second world war Frazer-Nash cars (see the Bibliography). The main market was UK sporting motorists from 1910 to 1957. AFN is a Company name, and the cars it manufactured were called Frazer Nash. The ideas man in the beginning was one Archie Frazer-Nash, hence AFN; not forgetting Ron Godfrey who co-designed the GN, and after resigning from GN Cars in 1922 went his own way and was involved in another sportscar, the HRG. HJ Aldington and his brothers were motor traders and became involved with AFN on the management and sales side in the early 1930s.
AFN publicized the cars it sold by entry into competitive motorsport, both in the UK and in Europe, and eventually also the USA. They were not “works cars” as such, but works-supported private entries, normally of standard production cars. HJ Aldington, usually known as “Aldy” or just HJ, and Don Aldington were keen sporting motorists in the 1920s and 1930s, and also postwar up to the early 1950s. The pre-war events in Europe were mainly “competitive trials” in The Alps rather than Grand Prix events. This involved driving over public roads through very mountainous terrain, completing a series of sections within time limits and normally running to an average speed through the whole event. This tested reliability and good road-holding rather than outright speed and in general Frazer Nash cars and their keen amateurs did very well in the 1500 cc class, which undoubtedly helped sales in a very competitive market.
From the early 1930s a new German manufacturer was making a name for itself in the same class of events: BMW. In 1934 their 1500 cc 2-seater sportscar known as a BMW 315/1, won the team prize of the 1500 cc class of The Alpine Trial with Frazer Nash coming second. Instead of driving back to the UK, HJ Aldington, who had known for some years that his designs needed radical updating, got in his car and drove to Munich, hoping to see the General Director, Hans Popp. He wanted to discuss if he could develop the UK market for BMW. His enthusiasm and success in sporting events seem to have impressed BMW, and after returning later in the year, AFN were granted a license covering sales rights for the six-cylinder range of BMWs for the UK and the right to manufacture BMW cars in the UK. The cars could be badged “Frazer Nash-BMW”. This license turned out to be very important, and, moving to 1945, is one of the reasons that Bristol were keen to discuss possible postwar co-operation between the two companies. From the point of view of the continuation in business of AFN from 1934 to 1939, the 707 sales of FN-BMW cars can be compared to the sales of 35 chain-drive Frazer Nash cars in this period. HJ Aldington was somewhat surprised at the mix of cars: only 10% were sports cars, 10% were running chassis which were bodied and finished in the UK, and 80% were cabriolets and saloons.
Part 2: 1939 to 1955
War with Germany was not good news to AFN Ltd, as virtually all its car, motorcycle and aeroplane sales business was with German manufacturers. Some secondhand car sales and trading was possible, but early in the 1940s the company’s buildings were requisitioned by the Army for training purposes. HJ and Don became officers in the ROAC, later renamed as REME. The eldest brother, Bill administered the training facility. In 1941 the Navy took over the premises, and naval training for small boats and torpedoes led to the premises being named HMS Victory V, and Bill being given the rank of Lieutenant. Don Aldington was a Captain in the REME, and eventually moved into admin with the Ministry of Aircraft Production, based in Bristol. HJ Aldington, while still in REME, found time to talk to motor manufacturers in the Midlands. He had long been trying to organize joint production of the pre-war BMW designs with Riley and, later Standard-Triumph. He had 6 BMW 328 chassis in the UK, the last shipment from BMW just as the war was starting. They were confiscated at the docks on arrival in the UK, but eventually released. He had a license for AFN to manufacture BMW designs and to call them Frazer Nash. He just needed a manufacturing company willing to engage with him.
The Bristol Aeroplane Company in 1939, and even more so in 1945, was one of the largest aeroplane manufacturing plants in the world. Aircraft, air frames, prodigious numbers of aeroengines, and all the technology involved was centered at Filton, on the outskirts of Bristol. The Company had seen what happened at the end of the First World War, with all military contracts cancelled and back taxes claimed. In 1945 commercial flying was not considered to be viable and profitable until maybe 1960. The White family of Bristol owned and ran the Company, and they spent some time, starting in 1941, thinking about the postwar position of the firm and its workforce of skilled labour. One idea which appealed to several board members, was quality car manufacturing. There are documents in existence dated from 1941 showing how the then head of the Aeroplane Division was seriously looking at Aston Martin as a purchase possibility. Specifications were discussed for a suitable quality car: 6-cylinder engine, 2 to 2.5 litres capacity, comfortable seats for 4, “a small Bentley” in essence. Existing manufacturers that were admired were Lancia and BMW….their cars could be seen to have been designed as a whole, and not just assembled. It was thought likely that at the end of the war there would be substantial demand for new cars, and a way to meet this demand promptly was to take over an existing design and put it back into production with few changes. This would gain some time to design a proper, Bristol car with lightweight construction, aerodynamic styling and aircraft-quality materials.
Move ahead to 1944, when it could be seen that the war was likely to end within a year or so and plans for car manufacture were being seriously considered. Once again Aston Martin was considered in some detail but rejected. Serious work actually started on 9th May 1945, with the visit of Don Aldington to Eric Storey, assistant to the Managing Director of The Aircraft Division, and later to be the Service Manager for the Car Division. Conversation turned to AFN’s plans to restart car manufacture, and their plans to replace the pre-war Frazer Nash-BMW with something more modern, to carry the Frazer Nash badge. In particular they were looking for a firm to manufacture light-alloy chassis frames, with a planned production of 500 a year. Eric passed the information back to his manager, and the ball started rolling. After much discussion, several proposals, visits to see and drive a pre-war FN-BMW 327, and to Frazer Nash’s premises in Isleworth, London, the two companies could see a way to join and get to work on the first model. By July 1945 it had been agreed that the Bristol Aeroplane Company would buy AFN Ltd, outright. This was after exhaustive investigation of the legality of the manufacturing license that AFN held, and its transfer to Bristol. It is likely, but cannot yet be proved, that a sum of money was transferred direct to BMW from Bristol at the time of the acquisition in Munich of the drawings, prototype engines and HJ Aldington’s car (that had been left there for repairs in 1939) in October 1945. Note that this deal was not part of “war reparations” as many publications have suggested. Bristol and BMW knew each other commercially prewar, both being major producers of air-cooled radial aircraft engines.
This is an outline of the connections and mutual co-operation between Bristol and AFN Ltd that led directly to the production of the Bristol sports touring car and the Frazer-Nash sportscar. Books have been written on the next stage which will not be covered here. Suffice to say that AFN benefited significantly from this association between 1945 and 1955. AFN achieved its aim of getting a Frazer Nash sports car back into production, with most mechanical parts being supplied by Bristol, as had always been HJ Aldington’s plan. It also got a range of cars to sell, service and trade in, from the cars they sold as Bristol Agents from 1947 to 1955. Bristol records show that AFN sold 145 Bristol cars in the UK and Europe and 25 running chassis- these chassis supplied in the main to Switzerland for onward sale to other coachbuilders such as Farina, Touring, Langenthal, Beuttler, and Ghia. These numbers are fairly low in modern terms, but these cars were very expensive and sales commission was earnt. This money, along with the consultancy payments that HJ Aldington received, would have enabled AFN to start manufacturing again post war with its Frazer-Nash sportscar, of which they sold 85 in this period. These cars played an important part in the postwar revival of British sports and racing cars, performing very well in races and rallies.
Andrew Blow, 6th February 2020
Frazer Nash by David Thirlby. Haynes 1977
From chain-drive to turbocharger: the AFN story by Denis Jenkinson. Patrick Stevens Ltd 1984
The Bristol Aeroplane Company. Car Division. Various authors. Palawan Press 2018
Bristol Cars – A Very British Story by Christopher Balfour. Haynes 2009
The Post-War Frazer Nash by James Trigwell & Anthony Pritchard. Palawan Press
BMW 328: From Roadster to Legend by Rainer Simons. BMW Mobile Tradition, Germany, 1996
Cars and running chassis sold by AFN Ltd
|Year||No. of chassis||400||401||402||403||No. of cars|