Interview with Ivor Halbert: Reminiscences of a Bristol enthusiast

My father was a gas fitter on about £3 a week in the 1930s and he graduated to an inspector in later years. He taught my brother and I the importance of cleanliness and how to solder joints properly. He taught us how to re-sole our boots and shoes on a cobblers’ last which we still have. My mother used to be a teacher and had some musical talents. Their attitude was kind and caring but a little Victorian, one had to be home in bed by ten o’clock at night. My sister, five years younger, was in the Wrens on the electrical side. I have a brother 10 years younger than me who is also a trained engineer and was apprenticed at the same firm as myself, at Llewellyns Machine Company. His love, apart from his wife, is vintage motorcycles , of which he has 25.

I went to the Cathedral School until I was aged 16. I was always interested in cars, motorcycles and aeroplanes. I thought it was a marvellous school and science was very well taught there. The headmaster wanted me to be a preacher but I explained that I was always more interested in mechanical things. We had woodworking but there wasn’t any engineering teaching, though the physics was quite helpful and we had a very good science teacher.
At that age I was rather inspired by my cousin Aubrey Tilley who worked as an electrician in the Bristol Tramways depot. He had a little lathe and he showed me how to make all sorts of things, because there wasn’t much spare money in those days and if you wanted something you had to make it yourself.
I was taught to drive by our marvellous Irish doctor’s chauffeur and I used to practice along the Portway. Dr McLelland lived next door to us in Wick Road, Brislington and was a great man, he could do anything. He did enjoy a nightcap of whiskey!
At age 16 I began my engineering apprenticeship. 7.30 am till 5.45 pm and Saturday mornings. We had to pay £30 for my apprenticeship and I then started out on 5 shillings a week. My apprenticeship finished after five years in 1939. I was apprenticed to Llewellyn Gears who are still in King Square, Bristol.

I was in a reserved occupation making gears, airscrew hubs, splined shafts etc. for aero engines and tanks. We worked from 7.30 am to 9 pm and also did fire watching three nights a week. My brother and I joined a group of motor cycle messengers, we used to think we were proper dispatch drivers. Stationed at St. George, we were on call every night when the sirens went and our duties included guiding the ambulances into serious incidents in Bristol during the Blitz. We did not seem to be affected by lack of sleep, particularly where the girls were concerned in the depot at St. George. We witnessed several spectacular fights in the air when our boys defended attacks on Bath and Patchway from the Huns. There were loads of incendiaries to put out with buckets of sand.
In the evenings twice a week we had to go to Merchant Venturers night school and I used to cycle back in from Brislington to the centre for this. I learnt all sorts of engineering skills there.

My role model was one of the Bristol Aeroplane Company bosses, Mr Tewksbury. He ran a tool club for us and we all contributed 2/6d a week. I remember one day he came up to me and said could he have my pound for the tool club, and I was sure I’d given it to him so I said so, and he said, ‘Oh well, if you’re sure you have then it must be so.’ He was moved by the Ministry to Accrington in charge of war work. When the war was over, he returned to Bristol in charge of the Subcontract Department. Years later, I looked in the bottom of my tool kit and there was the pound! I sought him out, because he was still working at Bristol’s, and told him what had happened. He was completely amazed by this and we became great friends after that.

In 1947 I met Mr Tewksbury again and he told me I was wasted as a machinist at Llewellyn Gears, he wanted me to join him at Patchway. Then I joined the Bristol Aeroplane Company in the 1950s He put me on subcontracts and I never looked back. My job was travelling around the country with plans and placing orders with firms for production of parts. This made contacts for my own future career.

My business: I always wanted to have my own business though. When I started up in the early 1950s I kept the name of GV Linham Ltd, named after my friend Victor Linham, a fellow apprentice who had started the engineering business in an old chapel. Things had gone badly for him, the firm was going bust, he spent too much time with his secretary, and he sadly died due to all the worry. I kept the name in memory of him, as he had died young. When I set up the business Mr. Tewksbury was very sympathetic and gave me lots of good advice. It was difficult to borrow money as the business was failing at the time, but eventually the firm’s own bank looked after me and made it possible. We started with 12 employees, later to grow to 80 staff in our own purpose built factory. We made a wide range of components in small quantities for clients such as the Admiralty, Concorde, Jaguar and Bristol Cars. Mr. Tewksbury had suggested I got thread grinding machinery and this got us a lot of work, in particular for Rotol (Rolls-Bristol).
Examples of components we made were the king pins and valve guides which we produced for Bristol Cars, among many others. We used to make bits and pieces for the Company in our new factory at Fishponds. We only made small batches mostly for development work. Teesdale Tools at Downend did a lot. I think they made several crankshafts for the new, bigger 3 litre engine which was never put into production.

What happened to those engines?
There is a story that one three litre engine does still exist but I don’t know where. Bristol’s used to scrap a great deal of equipment in those days.
Personally I believe that they had tried a Jaguar engine in a Bristol chassis and it is possible that the three litre was developed from that concept. Apparently the Bristol engine was so powerful it kept breaking crank shafts. Bristol employed disc brakes quite early on and I believe they did some development work for Jaguar on this subject. Bristol’s test rig for shock absorbers was a work of art.

How did Bristol Aeroplane Company’s standards of engineering influence the design and construction of Bristol Cars?
You could almost say it was their Bible.
How did this compare with other UK car firms?

Other respected firms such as Lagonda and Aston Martin were making limited production sporting cars, they were pretty good but they had more financial strings. This is no criticism of our wonderful MGs, Rileys, Singers, Austin Healeys, HRGs etc.

BAC and Rolls-Royce used many engineering firms around Bristol , such as GV Linhams, to produce components. How was the culture of excellence within these great companies maintained among their suppliers?

Small firms like us were proud to be selected to do work for such as BAC and Rolls Royce. We all belonged to an organisation called BEMA, Bristol Engineering Manufacturers Association, and there was a very friendly rivalry between us. We would even help one another out at times, perhaps holidays and illness.

Were car components made to the same standards as aircraft parts? And were many rejected?
Some parts for the earlier 400 engines were made in the aero engine division at Patchway to exactly the same standards and I’m sure that standards were maintained in later years. Many parts were rejected, particularly in the early days for example hairline cracks in crank shafts, blow holes in castings etc. There were not often rejects for machining tolerances because of the strict inspection during manufacture. There was some trouble in the early days with the specification of aluminium alloy for the cylinder heads. It corroded too easily in water passages so the gaskets blew. This was rectified quite soon though I’m not sure at which engine number they changed. Bristol was so good that they would just scrap the old cylinder heads and put another one on. This wouldn’t happen nowadays.

Standards of engineering at Bristol’s When I completed my engineering apprenticeship in 1939 I was taught to try to achieve perfection in the components I was manufacturing, particularly as most of them were for the aircraft industry. Of course, time taken and the economics were a factor. I was lucky enough to meet a person who became a great friend in the name of Ted Conybear who was an engineer fitter in Bristol Cars. He inspired me with his stories describing the care and dedication that he and his colleagues were putting into their work. This state of mind has to come from the top, as indeed it did.

Through Ted I was introduced to many members of the Bristol team including Syd Lovesey, Sid Gibbens, (deputy spares manager) Dennis Sevier,(designer) Percy Kemish,(engine tuner in Le Mans days) Ivor Pearce, Danny Stocker, (panel beater and welder) Don Scudamore, Ted Conybeare (engine builder) Frank Pritchard (upholsterer).

I was always interested in sports cars before the war and when the BMW 328 appeared in this country we were amazed at its beautiful appearance and its handling and performance. I was really excited at the end of the war when Bristol Cars were awarded the designs etc. of the BMW car. I watched with interest the development of the car when handled by a company who were more interested in perfection than profit.

Did they ever make a profit? Your own firm became considerably bigger, maybe larger even than Bristol Cars. What are your thoughts on how things were run by Bristol Cars? What might have become of them if things had been managed differently?
This is difficult to say. When Mr Crook took over his thinking was in my opinion different to the original conception. He wanted a fast saloon to accommodate four gentlemen in comfort and luxury while maintaining the same high standards. I suppose this led to the adoption of the American V8 engines. He was probably right, the big Bristols were more practical to run and service than the contemporary Rolls Royce and much more fun to drive. A further development of the 402 convertible or a modernised 404 coupe would have been nice.

My first Bristol: I saved up enough money to buy a Bristol 401 (NUG 401) which had been repaired after an accident, by trading in a MG TF 1250cc. It was during that period that I gradually became acquainted with all those lovely characters mentioned above.

That must have been a considerable investment for a young engineer. Why did you choose a Bristol car and what first attracted you to it?
I was working for the engines subcontract department at Patchway and outside of my office was a row of five or six immaculate 401s and 403s, and I used to talk to the chauffeurs. These cars had the free wheel on bottom gear which did give trouble when over-revved, which offered a clutch-less change into bottom gear in traffic, and being on the low side gave a terrific acceleration on take-off. I thought I must have one. Part of my job working for the subcontract department was to visit a firm called Roundway Engineering owned by a motoring enthusiast called Ben Round who lived at Long Ashton. I used to take over drawings of some engine bits which I thought his firm were capable of making and discussed things like price and delivery over some coffee, biscuits and Tia Maria. Of course we found time to enthuse about Bristol Cars and even have a little demonstration. He was a gentleman in all respects and could afford to maintain and update his 400 Bristol as these things were offered. I was hooked.

Around that period I was working for Bristol Aeroplane Co., later Rolls Royce engines dept. on the sub-contracts department. I always wanted my own business and while I was travelling around the country with drawings etc. of aircraft engine components I was sub-consciously laying down plans and contacts for my own business. Eventually I managed to start up, and we were proud to make bits and pieces for Bristol Cars.

When I had the 401, it needed some spares so I approached Mr Bircher who was the spares manager. They were then situated in what used to be Shields Laundry. He was one of the old school and wished to maintain the reputation of Bristol as a prestige car and not one for the masses. He did not think I was a suitable person to own and maintain the car as it should be. He would not sell me the spares until I obtained from my boss at Patchway, Charles Tewksbury, a letter of recommendation. This was obtained and Mr Bircher apologised. In the meantime Sid Gibbons who was then his assistant met me outside of the door of the stores and sold me the bits I wanted. This started a very happy friendship, which lasted until he died.

I was far from well off in those days. I was courting Sibyl and ploughing back what I could into the business. In order to help things along I bought quite a few Bristol 400s, 401s, 403s, 405s and did work on them and sold them to make a few pounds. When we were established in our new factory at Fishponds I became acquainted with more people interested in Bristol Cars, TT Workshops etc.

I had a lovely day in the 1960s when Leonard Setright came to the factory and test drove my 404 and the 407 Zagato. During the 1960s I used to own an Ace, an AC Ace which I eventually sold to Tim Pearce who still owns it. I owned it for several years and used it as a test bed for my experiments with Bristol engines etc.

The 407 Zagato: Then Tony Mitchell brought along the 407 Zagato which I understand was the Earl’s Court car. I think Bristol Cars were put off by the Motoring Press from producing more of this model, because the E-type Jaguar was presented at the same time. Sybil and I loved the Zagato and kept it for quite a few years. It had beautiful leather seats as fitted to the current Bristol saloons. They were too cumbersome to suit the tight fitting but beautiful Zagato body so I replaced them with more sporting ones which saved even more weight. I had the car weighed and it was 22 cwt. with half a tank of petrol. Over the years we did lots to it, some practical, some cosmetic. I put more modern Girling brake callipers on with twin servos and a new master cylinder.

We had a house in Cornwall at the time and we used to get away for weekends when we could. Sybil loved to drive and found the steering very heavy. With the technical help of Dennis Sevier we converted it to power steering. I always admired a new Chrysler engine at the factory which had been dolled up for a motor show, maybe Geneva. Eventually I bought it and put it in the Zagato. Lots of chrome does not make it any faster, but I was timed once at St. Eval airfield in Cornwall at 128 mph. It only let me down once when the master cylinder failed and I had no brakes. Dick Lovett lent me a car for a week and that was when I fitted the new master cylinder.

The BMW 328. I bought two of these from Tony Mitchell in bits. One had a proper chassis. Only one of them had provenance, a log book. I had one new body made by TT Workshops for GHX 514. The other had steel wings but no proper chassis left and I bought a chassis for it from a firm in Devon. I put an ENV axle in and a Bristol engine and gearbox. The rear woodwork was rotten so I replaced it with some lightweight aircraft tubing we had left over in the factory. This improved it a lot. A Bristol panel beater made me a new tail section, this was a fantastic piece of work and there is no filler in it at all. The original wheels on these cars were poor quality wartime steel. Hitler had all the best steel for armaments purposes, and these wheels tended to break up under pressure, so I also put Bristol wheels on this car, they were much better. It’s possible that some of the bits in this car came from a Le Mans car, it had an Electron sump.

I put Alfin drums and an overdrive gearbox in as well. The dashboard of this BMW was of poor quality mild steel by BMW and this rusted through so I made up a stainless one and also made up the castings for the windscreen myself. I found the handbrake was in an awkward position so I moved it between the seats, this is a much better spot. I’ve had this car since the 1960’s and originally had a 100 B2 engine in it. I’m not competitive by nature but we used to go to Prescott etc. and I have driven up the hill in it unofficially. GHX 514 was the other BMW.

My 404: In the sixties I purchased my 404, THU 404 from Dick Lovett, it had suffered an accident in Hyde Park and the chassis was damaged. I was more than impressed when Bristol offered to lend me the chassis jig, and delivered it to a small garage where the car was stored. The chassis work was completed and the car was taken to Hanham where I was living at the time. During the next few years the drum front brakes were replaced by discs and a 2.2 litre engine was fitted which with the overdrive gearbox proved to be a good combination. A few years ago Peter Lovett, Dick Lovett’s son, purchased the car back from me for sentimental reasons. And I have just let them have rather a special engine for it…(with the 6 port head – Ed.)

My 412: For some years I enjoyed a 412 convertible; not everybody’s cup of tea but it gave us great pleasure on our frequent trips to Cornwall. Eddie Holder was very clever with the Torqueflite gearboxes and modified the gear change sequence to suit my style of driving, to change up at higher revs.

Improving Supercars: At weekends I used to go and help Dick Lovett tune and prepare his Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Porsches etc, and I bought all my cars from them after that. Another example of a car I modified to improve the performance of was my Ferrari 500 Superfast. I owned this in the late 1960’s and improved it with pancake air cleaners, Girling front callipers in place of the Dunlops, and Bristol silencers which I am pleased to see are all still on the car nowadays. I also used to buy exotic cars such as Ferrari and Lamborghini – I would do RHD conversions on Lamborghinis and sell them on after a year.

Trade Secrets
Ivor, have you got any trade secrets about tuning Bristol engines?
Leonard Setright said, ‘Lay the cylinder heads on with a trowel.’ And the best way to set the ignition I’ve found is to set the engine running at a steady 3000rpm and quite simply edge the distributor round until the revs reach their maximum, this works every time.
In those days I sometimes used a Colortune but I found it best to go by the colour of the plugs after a hard run. I’d also use an airflow indicator. You do need to get the float levels absolutely equal and then check the plug colour. I made up some Perspex level indicators that bolt onto the 3 float chambers of a Bristol engine like a banjo bolt to confirm that the float levels are all the same.

TADC: There are one or two stories perhaps better told by Sid Lovesey. Mr Crook owned several light aircraft and on one occasion he landed at Filton and the aircraft nosed over damaging the propeller. He is said to have borrowed a shifting spanner from the factory and was caught trying to bend the prop back into shape. Fortunately the people in the control tower were alerted and he was not allowed to fly it home. Another favourite habit of his was to dive down through the clouds and pretend to ‘dive bomb’ events like cricket matches.

The Bristol Fighter; Several years ago Toby Silverton visited me with Sid Lovesey and before the Fighter was born we were discussing plans for a new car to replace or augment the current series. I was all for a car similar to the 404 with perhaps a 3 litre engine and the whole conception of the car modernised. Unfortunately the Americans went for the big Viper engine, which brought with it weight and handling problems which must have involved very heavy development costs. I think they missed Dennis Sevier. In spite of all this they have always tried to maintain the high standards of quality and safety, which always comes at a cost.
April – June 2008
Copyright Stefan Cembrowicz 2008