Bristol made an intrepid debut at Le Mans with a remarkable streamlined coupé, but just one 450 racer from the successful team survives
The motorsport debut of any marque with aviation connections always makes a fascinating development, particularly when the resulting design breaks the mould.
Bristol-powered sports cars made their mark after WW2, with a Frazer Nash High Speed taking an impressive third at the ’49 Le Mans, but three years later two streamlined coupés marked the first works outing for the British Aeroplane Company’s car division.
In the autumn of 1952, company boss Sir George White decided that it was time Bristol entered Le Mans under its own name, giving the newly formed racing department just eight months to design, build and develop a 2-litre sports-racer.
The BMW-based ‘six’ was already well proven, but for the chassis Bristol conveniently acquired an innovative but unreliable Formula Two challenger, following the closure of Leslie Johnson’s ERA team.
The offset single-seater had struggled to find pace even with Stirling Moss at the wheel, but the Bristol engineers saw through its frustrating 1952 form to realise the advantages of adopting its rigid ‘big tube’ magnesium chassis.
The ERA G-type had impressive design credentials, with involvement from Dr Eberan von Eberhost of Auto Union fame along with David Hodkin, a talented young Cambridge graduate.
The ERA’s specification featured a transaxle giving neutral weight distribution, plus independent front suspension with de Dion-type rear, dry-sump Bristol power, and distinctive five-spoke alloy wheels with detachable rims.
Although Moss had become disillusioned by the “clever professor approach to racing-car design”, the ERA – when reliable – had proved to be one of the quickest F2 cars in Britain, with superb steering and brakes.
On paper, the ERA project looked an inspired shortcut basis for the new Bristol sports-racer.
Once in the Filton workshop, the G-type was dismantled and evaluated before two new frames were fabricated from steel, while the suspension and engine installation were both revised. The de Dion rear end was redesigned with twin parallel trailing arms on each side.
Mysteriously, the superleggera-style body designed by David Summers was created in a separate department, and when the dramatic finned fastback shape was mated to the chassis it proved to be too big. Study period photographs and you can clearly see excessive overhang around the wheelarches.
Although developed with 1:10-scale models in Bristol’s own wind tunnel, with flush door hinges and a canopy-style roof, the finished form was spoilt by protruding wing-top fuel fillers, handles, spotlamps and straps.
The front was particularly ugly, with a slatted grille, exposed oil cooler, riveted headlamp cowls and a protruding tow iron. Even semaphore indicators were fitted!
Inside the cockpit, the trim was plush for a racing car, with leather-edged carpets and sill covers, while the dashboard binnacle featured capped reflectors over the instruments.
The cramped space necessitated lightweight seat frames with leather-trimmed covers.
The engine returned to a wet sump, with the clutch now at the rear, while concerns about the bottom end led to a new crank design with extra balance-weights.
Scepticism from aero engineer Stewart Tresilian during a visit to the race department that the weights wouldn’t work put the team into a spin, but with time running out the new cranks were still fitted.
In bare-aluminium form, the newly finished 450s were taken to MIRA for testing, where serious problems with the rear suspension limited track time.
The team worked all hours during the final weeks before Le Mans, while away from the workshop two Bedford articulated transporters were completed by a local firm.
Fitted out with accommodation, a workshop – complete with lathe – and the space to carry two cars each, they impressed observers.
“You had better win with those,” one bystander reportedly remarked as they rolled out.
Bristol also signed up three experienced Le Mans drivers in Lance Macklin, Tommy Wisdom and Jack Fairman, to join ERA racer Graham Whitehead.
Lining up with the exotic Alfa Romeo 3000CM and Lancia D20C coupés, the new Bristol looked gawky and eccentric in shape and detail, with its huge numbers and anti-glare matt paint finish for the upper body.
Bristol set up camp in Arnage, where team manager Vivian Selby organised exclusive access to the local garage and yard for the transporters and racers.
Stan Ivermee and ‘Bentley Boy’ SCH ‘Sammy’ Davis joined the team to run the pits.
In the race, all went smoothly until 2am when Tresilian’s foreboding observations regarding the crankshaft’s balance weights came true.
First the Macklin/Whitehead car retired with engine failure, and later that hour Wisdom had a more dramatic exit as a blow-up punctured the sump and started an engine fire.
The car spun off, smashing into the bank before rear-ending a concrete post. The flames were quickly extinguished, but Wisdom suffered burns and a dislocated shoulder.
It was little compensation that both the Lancia and Alfa teams also retired, but a 97mph lap – 5 secs quicker than any rival 2-litre car – was encouraging.
Back at Filton, White gave clear instructions that they must “get it right next time”.
Just three weeks after the Le Mans debacle, the team was heading back to France for another sortie at the Reims 12 Hours.
The engines were fitted with conventional crankshafts and the bodywork was cleaned. The injured Wisdom was replaced by reserve driver Peter Wilson, teamed with Whitehead.
They ran strongly all night around the fast five-mile road circuit to take an impressive fifth and a 2-litre class win, but Macklin’s car was pushed off at the start due to driveline failure, with a broken Woodruff key.
Bristol was on a mission when the team returned to Le Sarthe in 1954 with a trio of revised coupés.
Although the chassis remained unchanged, the bodywork was extensively restyled following further wind-tunnel tests and the involvement of young draughtsman Grey Ross.
As well as smoothing the body profile, with flush-fitting headlight covers, filler flaps and tail-lights, he raised the area between the rear fins, with an extended roofline that cured the vacuum created by the original recess.
To test the cars, the team went to Montlhéry in autumn ’53 for a 2-litre record-breaking challenge. A single 450 ran like clockwork around the banked circuit, taking six Class E records including averaging 115.43mph for six hours.
After the attempt, Fairman took the 450 out again to clock a 126mph lap, just to prove the car was as mechanically fit as when it started.
The following year, when pulling 150mph on the Mulsanne, the drivers reported how amazingly stable the 450 was in gusty conditions.
“At one point on the straight, a gap between the trees suddenly caused a strong crosswind,” said Wilson. “Where the 450 simply moved sideways very slightly with steering correction necessary, the others entrants were being tossed about violently.”
The body sides were also altered, with the front wings scalloped to improve airflow from the front brakes. The engine was further developed with a special 12-port head and triple twin-choke Solex carburettors, which increased power to 155bhp at 6000rpm.
The single wiper proved a disaster, however, as Wilson discovered during the wet night when Stirling Moss spun his D-type ahead.
“Stirling had turned around on the escape road at the Mulsanne corner, and with his full headlights shining up the straight, I was totally blinded. The situation was compounded by the dirty windscreen, and the only way I could see where the corner went was to open the door and look out past the ’screen pillar.”
As the intense Jaguar vs Ferrari duel played out for victory, the Bristol team rasped on with strict team orders to conserve the cars.
Fairman had a scare during the night as he tried to avoid a spinner and returned to the pits with crunched front wings and a smashed headlight, but, after a hasty bit of panel-beating, car 33 returned to the race.
At 4pm on Sunday the Bristols crossed the line together with Wilson/Jim Mayers in seventh, trailed by Wisdom/Fairman and Mike Keen/Trevor Line.
The team was rightfully jubilant about the overall result and the 2-litre class win. After returning to the West Country aboard the bespoke Bedford transporters, the battle-stained trio of 450s was proudly parked in front of the Filton factory for all to admire.
The team decided to further revise the 450’s bodywork when Bristol management gave the go-ahead for a third attempt at Le Mans.
The coupé design, although stable at high speed, proved unsatisfactory for the drivers. On top of the intrusive engine noise, hopeless wipers and cramped cabin, the windows were prone to misting up. Summers decided that the body should be converted to an open roadster, with a single head fairing and a high fin.
One car was converted for wind-tunnel testing, with the rear cut off from the doors back. The new, open design was fabricated using cardboard strips and tape.
With an aviation-style cowl and a Perspex ’screen for the driver that further reduced the frontal area, the roadster proved even more stable and was clocked at 150.34mph on the Mulsanne in practice.
Better visibility, a cooler cockpit and more space – particularly for taller drivers – proved popular with the team, which was retained from the 1954 outing. Reserve pilots were to include David Blakely, but his jilted lover Ruth Ellis had other ideas and murdered him on Easter Sunday.
The build-up for a titanic contest at the front between Jaguar, Mercedes and Ferrari created huge interest, but after 2½ hours disaster struck as Pierre Levegh’s 300SLR launched into the crowd, resulting in the loss of 83 lives.
The Bristol team raced on through the gloomy night to finish in identical positions to the previous year, with Wilson and Mayers again leading the trio to 2-litre class honours.
The speed average and distance covered had improved, but the Bristols were no match for the smaller-capacity Porsche 550s.
The British team generously donated all its winnings to a disaster fund set up for victims of the sport’s worst-ever racing accident.
With the Reims 12 Hours cancelled, Bristol management reviewed its racing involvement and the competition department was closed.
No official statement was made to the press, but the combination of the Le Mans tragedy, Bristol’s challenges in the aviation business after the failure of the Brabazon, and the fact that the three-year-old design had more than proved its reliability and pace led to the team’s demise.
The dark year ended sadly when first Keen, in the Nine Hours at Goodwood, and then Mayers – during the TT at Dundrod – lost their lives.
While Dinky prepared a toy of the coupé for release in 1956 (oddly wearing the number 26, which was never used by a 450), the management decided the fate of the team cars.
For various reasons – Purchase Tax, storage, and fear of Bristol’s reputation being spoiled if the cars got into the wrong hands – the order came to scrap them, with the exception of one roadster. The remains of the ERA G-type were also cut up.
The sole-surviving 450, chassis 11, as driven by Wilson and Mayers, was eventually sold to Anthony Crook, who repainted it in his team’s maroon racing colour and very occasionally brought it out for Bristol Owners’ Club events.
Crook later painted the 450 again, in a non-original, Aston-style metallic green, and in the early ’90s was persuaded to sell it by Bristol aficionado Simon Draper.
The enquiry came about after Crook had spotted a Bristol tax disc on Draper’s Aston Martin DB3S racer at the 1992 Silverstone Historic Festival, and a conversation about the 450 led to the possibility of a sale.
Crook had already removed the original Le Mans engine and fitted it into his Frazer Nash racer, so the 450 deal included a replacement six-port Bristol unit.
After a full mechanical rebuild by Dean Lanzante, the 450 returned to the track for a Silverstone test day in 1993, some 40 years after its debut, in preparation for a race at the Coys Festival.
Frank Synter was among those invited to try the car on the wet day, and the 450’s neutral balance greatly impressed the 1988 British Touring Car Champion.
A cammy engine and tall Le Mans gearing handicapped the very original racer’s potential, but Draper still entered it in the Festival with Aston fanatic Stephen Archer at the wheel. Gaining confidence throughout the race, Archer finished in the midfield after a battle with a Veritas.
Convinced that the 450 was too original and important to again brave the track, Draper had the car made road-legal. “I had the mad idea of taking it on European driving events and even had a passenger seat made, but my wife wasn’t happy about the exposed cockpit,” he laughs.
Rare public outings have included the Sir Jack Brabham tribute at the 2016 Goodwood Revival – ‘Black Jack’ was a reserve driver for 1955 and practised at Le Mans – while more recently the original engine has finally been reunited with the chassis.
“The body and engine are both marked with number four, but we’re still not sure how many were built,” says Draper. “Recent picture discoveries show four in the factory workshop, but some reports suggest five.”
Race engineer Lanzante was also intrigued by the 450’s design. “It’s the 1950s equivalent of the McLaren F1,” he says. “Many of the features are so advanced and all through the car there are special magnesium parts, including the gearbox.”
Having had just two owners over the past 60 years, the 450 is wonderfully original. The styling and details vividly evoke the car’s aviation links and its progressive Le Mans evolution.
The protruding doorhandles of the coupé have gone, so drivers now stretch inside to unlatch the long, lightweight door. With the hinges neatly flush in the wing, entry must have been easy after the sprint across the track at 4 o’clock on 11 June.
Once inside, and settled on the red, quilted-leather cover slung across the frame in the tight space just ahead of the rear axle, the cockpit has a fighter-plane character.
The matt-black dash is dominated by a large Jaeger rev counter, while looking through the Perspex cowl you can just imagine the relief for drivers at finally losing the claustrophobic coupé roof.
It’s still a highly evocative place to sit. You can’t help just grasping the leather-rimmed three-spoke wheel, head pushed back against the padded fairing, and looking down the bonnet, thinking about the dramas that this timewarp sports-racer has encountered.
Frustratingly, no factory records have yet turned up confirming the rest of this car’s race history.
After peaceful reflection high on the Sussex Downs under ominous dark clouds, it’s time to wake that hot 12-port Bristol ‘six’.
Flick the ignition, pull the starter and the busy engine barks into life with a riotous, raucous rasp through the unsilenced system that runs six pipes under the chassis into a single exit ahead of the offside rear arch.
The rich note sounds like an F2 Cooper-Bristol, but with a roof the noise must have been deafening through the 24-hour enduro.
Any apprehensions about the novel transaxle are forgotten with use. The short gearlever sits between the seats and works a hefty linkage back to the conventional H-gate, while a coathanger hook-style lever allows engagement of reverse.
The clutch feels light, and gear selection is short and slick with revs and warm oil. The ratios are closely stacked, the tall top giving 70mph at just 3000rpm.
Stretching the revs between gears, the Bristol’s eager engine response and rorty roar are addictive fun over favourite Sussex B-roads.
As with all tuned Bristols, the power really starts to deliver above 4000rpm. Up to speed, the rack-and-pinion steering is sharp and light, but in contrast the brake pedal initially feels lifeless and heavy.
As the linings warm, the increased feel gives confidence, while those distinctive five-spoke wheels no doubt offer effective cooling.
Within the limits of country roads and respect for this historic car, the handling feels neutral with a bias towards understeer.
Weighing around 700kg, with ideal weight distribution, the performance from the 150bhp straight-six engine is a match for a tuned AC Ace. But on the road you’re never going to meet another 450 – although one Bristol enthusiast is rumoured to be building a replica coupé.
Like all historic racing cars, the roadster doesn’t look quite complete without roundels or numbers – just like a warbird without markings.
Earlier, while examining the car’s precious patina, we unearthed some original bright-green paint in the nose.
Maybe it’s time for a repaint in authentic colours, with the Index of Performance roundels adding the final touch to celebrate its remarkable racing history.
It’s too original to race again at the Le Mans Classic, but were I lucky enough to own this fantastic survivor, I’d relish taking it out at night to evoke its illustrious record.
In the dark, the warmth and noise of that 2-litre ‘six’ would feel even more special. What a magical machine.
Images: Luc Lacey