Article for the Bristol Aero Collection newsletter
“Didn’t they used to make cars here ?” I once heard a visitor to Filton ask.
They certainly did, and this was long before the perhaps best forgotten association between British Aerospace and the ill-fated Rover company mentioned in this 1988 press cutting, gleaned from the Bristol Owners Clubs Heritage Trust archives.
The historic connection between the current Bristol Cars Ltd and the original Bristol Aeroplane Company has not been forgotten. At the time of this press cutting (kindly donated by the estate of the late Tony Crook) and for the next 20+ years Bristol Cars was engaged in bespoke production of their discreet, powerful and anonymous cars, made in the company’s latter years in vanishingly small numbers at their Patchway works under conditions of much secrecy.
Tony Crook died earlier this year. He was the partner of Sir George White from 1960 when the Car Division of Bristol Aeroplane Company separated from the parent company, and then became Sole Proprietor of Bristol Cars Ltd after Sir George was badly injured in an RTA on the A38 in 1969. In his heyday Tony was a considerably accomplished racing driver who campaigned in his BMW 328, Cooper Bristol and Fraser Nash cars. Before he entered partnership with Sir George White in 196 he set up and developed Anthony Crook Motors, a large dealership and premises in Hersham and Caterham. Initially he sold Simca and Fiat, in particular the high performance Abarth models though he relinquished these dealerships to concentrate on developing the sales and service of Bristols. He had his own engine test bed where sports and racing Bristol engines were tuned. The Bristol 2 L engine had started as a development of the successful prewar sports/racing BMW 328 engine, of which examples were obtained from the BMW factory as part of war reparations . This engine was highly successful in post-war motorsport in the 50s. Originally producing 85 hp in its first incarnation in the 1947 Bristol 400 saloon, it later was tuned towards 150 bhp, running on fearsome methanol fuel cocktails.
Besides Bristol’s own racing success with the 450 model 2 Litre engine, Frazer Nash, AC, Cooper Bristol, and Lister Bristol, Tojeiro and Lotus all used this 2 litre engine producing a catalogue of success.
Radical high-technology models were produced by the Car Division throughout the 1950s. Perhaps the most advanced car ever built in this country was the 401 model, with its aluminium skin over a Superleggera framework and aircraft style pressurised cabin. Its flush, wind tunnel designed features gave extra performance and economy, and the near perfect 50-50 weight balance gave it superb handling. Further 2 litre models followed though some concession was by then being made to reducing cost by using common components. However by the end of this decade the 2 litre engine could no longer compete with the power of much larger competitors such as Jaguar and Aston Martin and, after exploring the development of a 3 ½ L all aluminium twin overhead camshaft model built in Filton, a 5.2 L Chrysler V8 engine with automatic gearbox was chosen as the source of silent and ample power for the model 407 and onwards.
Variants of this engine were then used, as was the original chassis, until the firm made its last model Blenheim sometime in the last 5 years. Thus the company passed between the 1940s and this decade from using radical high-technology and the most advanced aircraft based engineering and materials, to producing discrete, conservative models with plenty of power but with only detail differences over the last 30 years
Tony Crook was responsible for setting up the firm’s only showroom in Kensington High Street., originally under the name of Anthony Crook motors then later as Bristol Cars, Many years of disputes with lawyers and the landlords and determined litigation followed, but the showroom is still there – and very actively selling classic and renovated Bristol cars. In 2004 the new ownership launched an entirely new high-performance Bristol, the V10 8 litre Fighter. Perhaps this was to be the last time that such a small company – 18 employees at the end – tried to launch a supercar. Priced at £225,000 upwards, somewhere between 9 and 13 were made in the decade, not the hoped for 20 per year. (The total number of Bristol cars ever produced is unclear – perhaps around 3000 from 1946 to 2011).
Following the example of almost every other British car manufacturer, the Company eventually went into administration in 2011 and was taken over by Fraser Nash research, a technology company who have special interest in hybrid drive vehicles. They have already produced prototype Metro cab hybrids with separate wheel motors. But the high performance aspect of the Bristol Cars’ name has survived the upheaval of the change of ownership and Fraser Nash are actively developing a high-end, extended range high performance hybrid. Understandably in such a rapidly moving marketplace they are working in conditions of secrecy but we hear that something remarkable is to be produced. Watch this space!
The BOC Heritage Trust meantime continues its work of collecting Bristol ephemera in the form of sales material, magazine articles, books, and photos and has been very fortunate in acquiring the loan of the Ashman archive of photographs by Ted Ashman, the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s official photographer. And Tony Crook’s estate recently very kindly donated us a considerable quantity of material including press cuttings, road tests, and photographs. All offers will be gratefully received!
I have also interviewed 16 older people for the Heritage Trust who have had a key part to play in the history of Bristol cars in one way or another. These include a technical illustrator from 1946, racing drivers from the 1950s, the head salesman and Service department manager who both started work over 50 years ago, the former factory manager who worked on Bristol cars from 1946 to 2011, a fitter, electrician, coachbuilder, and sprayer, apprentices, and the Filton service manager – and of course Tony Crook himself. If you are aware of former staff from the early days of Bristol Cars who would like to take part in this recording project, please put them in touch with me.
We are very much looking forward to collaborating with the Bristol Aero collection, and would like to make our archives accessible to a wider audience.
The aeronautical engineering background of the Bristol Aeroplane Company underpins the history of Bristol cars – something we should to celebrate.
Dr Stefan Cembrowicz
Chair, BOC Heritage Trust