Donald Aldington was stationed in Bristol and heard that BAC was considering car manufacture as a means of keeping people in jobs when the war effort ceased. Aldy, his elder brother was in the Army and used military contacts to visit BMW, see his old friends and if there was a chance the agency could continue. It couldn’t but the Bristol Aircraft Company were able to buy a complete set of drawings, some engines and other parts and the possibility of a job in the UK was discussed with the chief engineer Fritz Fiedler and couple of others. An agreement was drawn up which included the purchase of AFN, but within a year they’d fallen out, Aldy regained ownership of his company and was given exclusive rights to a higher-powered version of the engine that was to be used in the Bristol 400. Fritz Fiedler came to the UK, BAC weren’t really interested him, so he helped design what was to become the Frazer Nash Le Mans (it came second!) at AFN before returning to Germany in ’50.
The three models of BMW relevant to the Bristol story are the 328, a very exciting and technically advanced sports car. It had rack and pinion steering, independent front suspension and a very interesting 2L OHV engine with hemispherical combustion chambers and triple carburettors that fitted into the top of the head and gave straight inlet ports. It was superior in every respect to anything we made in this country and outperformed Jaguars, Alvis’s, Lagondas and Bentleys.
They also made a two-door coupe known as the 327 that could be fitted with the engine from the 328. This model was referred to as the 327/80 and it compared very favourably with the over four litre sporting cars made in the UK at the time. It lacked the wood and leather beloved of British coachbuilders but was faster, very comfortable and handled better. The final link was the 326 and this had a cleverly located rear axle sprung by torsion bars. The 400 Bristol was an amalgamation of the best qualities of these three cars.
Bristol effectively used the 326 chassis, the 328 engine and some styling cues from the 327 to produce the 400 which must also have been influenced by the likes of the Figoni and Falasci Talbot Lago, the Gangloff Bugattis and a handful of other of the more elegant sporting pre war teardrop type coupes from the major Paris Coachbuilders. Most of the rest of the car was pure BMW but built to a very high standard. Their engines would last for nearly 100,000 miles without rebuild at a time when R-R were experiencing piston failures caused by cuff liners and main bearing failures because by-pass oil filters.
The 400 was surprisingly successful in competition and quickly made a name for itself for outstanding handling and being about 20mph faster than any other 2L made in the UK at the time.
The attached review from The Motor in 1948 shows what an impact they made. Approximately 420 were sold before they were replaced by the 401, a full four seater, tested in Bristol’s wind tunnel and built using the Superleggera system of aluminium over a tubular steel frame instead of one made of Ash as in the 400.
Frazer Nash made 85 Bristol engined cars, they were unbeatable in sports car racing in the early part of the nineteen fifties and are extremely sought after now.
Eventually despite an agreement giving exclusive rights to the competition engine to AFN, Bristol also sold to AC, Tojeiro, Cooper and even Emeryson. In recent years in classic racing Bristol engined Coopers have proved competitive against contemporary Ferraris and Maseratis, which was not happening at the time. This is because BAC continued to develop the engine and used it in a sports racing car called the 450. It developed somewhere between 150 & 170bhp and gave a very account of itself at Le Mans in the mid fifties.
When production of the 2L engine ceased in ’62 Bristol had sold about 2,300 cars, not a great figure but a fascinating chapter in the history of Britain’s unique history of motor manufacturing. The Bristol Owners Club has an extremely interesting website where there is far more information Bristol, and
Those interested in more detail may like to refer to the two Setright books on Bristols, Denis Jenkinsons From Chain Gang To Turbocharger A History Of AFN, Charles Oxley’s Quiet Survivor (iffy), Rainer Simmonds BMW328 From Roadster To Legend and a splendid article in Automobile, who always dig out a little more, in the Sept ’09 issue.
I’m deeply indebted to Andrew Blow for policing my crude attempts at this story and for selling me the car. Thanks also must go to good friend Geoff Dowdle who has provided much valuable information to make this site what it is.
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