Behind the scenes at Bristol. Bristol’s unseen history. A rare peek into the fascinating archive of a motor industry enigma. For so long one of the most secretive of car-makers, Bristol is finally starting to open up. Paul Hardiman spends a day going through its fascinating archive.
The late Tony Crook – still referred to within Bristol, the company that he nurtured for the best part of 50 years from 1960, as ‘Mr Crook’ – was protective of every aspect of his business, and that included the archive. This amazing collection of publicity material and photographs is still kept in the ‘dungeon’ under the famous Kensington High Street showroom in London, nestling beneath a corner of the Hilton hotel.
But following Crook’s retirement in 2007, things have slowly been changing. The company is now under the ownership of the Frazer-Nash group, which is investing heavily, including the promise of a new model with a ‘range extended electric powertrain’, modern workshops in Brentford and buying property on the south side of the street for a showroom. The old premises will remain, though, and will be preserved with as much of the original woodwork and decor as possible. It is hoped that eventually enthusiasts might even be let ‘below decks’ to delight in the cabinets full of historical records.
Bristol never did much advertising – even in the pre-Crook era it was canny enough to let suppliers and dealers such as Lockheed and AFN bear that cost. The various photographs of coachbuilt variants, meanwhile, suggest that working on a budget and scratching each others’ backs must have been endemic of the times. The shots of the Pininfarina-bodied cars, for example, are credited to the famous Italian carrozzeria rather than Bristol itself.
And yet the Kensington head office retains a goodly archive of fabulous old black-and-white prints, as well as chassis drawings, car records and other historical reference material. We were lucky enough to be allowed downstairs for a rummage around before it’s all reorganised by the new custodians, and here we get to share some of our favourite images.
A 401 at London’s Wellington Arch – not a shot that you could easily replicate today. MHW 668 was used for a series of images that day; there is another one of it in front of the Victoria Memorial.
Left: a technician balancing a crankshaft for the famous BMW-derived 2-litre engine on a Gisholt machine. Below: a 400 pictured in front of Filton House, which served as the headquarters for the Bristol Aeroplane Company until 1936, when it moved into the newly constructed Pegasus House alongside. Both buildings have recently been refurbished.
Above: the Le Mans 450s return to Bristol after the 1954 race. Pictured are (l-r) Vivian Selby, Sir George White and Dave Summers. Jack Fairman had posted a new 2-litre lap record in number 33. Left: another rare glimpse inside the Filton factory in 1956, as engineers use dial gauges to inspect an engine. Right: one of the three Pininfarina-bodied 400s built in 1947.
Left: the entire family of Bristol models, from 405 drophead coupé to 450 racer, pictured outside Filton’s mighty Brabazon hangars. The cars were being displayed for the benefit of Bristol’s overseas agents. Below: the Czech team of Zdenˇek Treybal and F Dobry pose with their 400 and prizes after the 1949 Rallye Monte-Carlo. They finished third overall. Left: Bristol didn’t always settle for Filton or the posh bits of London around its showroom, as proven by this ‘lifestyle’ shot showing that the 406 was ‘in’ with the polo set. October 1957, and the unique Beutler-bodied 406 arrives at Lydd from Switzerland. Fittingly, it was transported on a Bristol freighter, operated from the Kent airfield by Silver City Airways.