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Old photographs give the impression of a clumsy, imposing machine, with lines that suggest massive bodywork to the rear.
But the reality soon sweeps away all misconceptions: the Bristol 450 Le Mans is compact.
It might look unnecessarily long in profile, but the bold aerodynamic logic of its designers actually gives it quite delicate proportions, such as its tapered fins, as slender as those of a fighter jet.
It was this functional aesthetic that inspired Olivier Boré, a Frenchman passionate about art, design and old cars, to embark on a recreation of the forgotten coupé.
“Initially, I was looking for an aerodynamic car,” Boré explains.
“I like things that are designed, and rare, and I’ve always been fascinated by this kind of streamliner, like the Bugatti Atlantic.
“But the cars that appealed to me were either impossible to find or too costly.”
At the time he owned a Bristol 404, an elegant coupé whose rear wings had small fins, vestiges of the 450’s, and it was through enthusiastic research that Boré discovered the 450 Le Mans.
Of the four made, only one survives: chassis 11, which had been converted to a roadster in preparation for the 1955 season that ended early (C&SC, January 2019).
The idea of recreating a coupé slowly germinated in Boré’s mind, and while in England to visit Andrew Mitchell, boss of Wiltshire-based Bristol and coachwork specialist Mitchell Motors, discussion on the 450 turned into a plan of action.
“Andrew was immediately very enthusiastic,” Boré recalls.
“As the original had disappeared, the approach was justified: it was not a replica of an existing car.”
The pair agreed to use as many Bristol components as possible. They started by looking for a suitable chassis, knowing that the originals – based on an ERA tubular spaceframe – had long since been destroyed.
“Andrew found a 406 chassis that was close to that of the late-1953 development mule,” says Boré. “So I bought it.”
Then it was a matter of sourcing a ‘12-pipe’ engine, so named because the unit could accommodate three twin-choke carburettors instead of the single-choke Solexes of the touring version.
Each carburettor had its own intake duct that, together with the exhausts, made a total of 12. But apart from the unit in the remaining roadster, was there another?
“We found one,” Boré exclaims, still incredulous at his luck.
The engine was rebuilt largely to the original specification, but the transmission was different: instead of the Le Mans car’s transaxle arrangement, a four-speed Bristol gearbox with overdrive was fitted directly to the engine.
“This blocked the passage of the exhaust behind the engine,” Boré explains, “but a complex manifold kept the two three-branch exits on the left-hand side, as on the Le Mans cars.”
The brakes were also new, discs rather than Alfin drums, and the sophisticated alloy wheels with removable rims were carefully remanufactured by a specialist.
Getting the car’s looks just right would be crucial.
The dies for the 400 to 405 models were saved from the factory following Bristol’s bankruptcy in 2020, but the 450’s buck was long missing.
To refine the recreation from paper plans that Mitchell had unearthed, Boré had to get creative.
“Andrew told me about a specialist company, 3D Engineers, that was capable of reconstructing three-dimensional images from photos,” he explains.
A hunt produced around 300 photos, from all angles, including rare shots of the engine bay and interior: “3D Engineers then created a three-dimensional image, and this allowed us to produce a matrix of the shape.”
The buck, a set of numbered wooden slats, provided the outline of the bodywork, from which the aluminium panels were shaped.
“Fortunately, there was an extraordinary coachbuilder in Andrew’s workshop, by the name of Radick,” says Boré.
“He did a fantastic job, extremely meticulous and precise.”
The structure was formed using a series of fine steel wires, on which the body panels rest. “This technique keeps the car light,” Boré points out.
“When the whole thing was finished, we lifted the body up in one piece, which was amazing,” he continues. “But the work still took almost two years.”
In the raw aluminium, its flowing form is beautiful. But to be a true image of the 1954 24 Hours of Le Mans, it had to be painted.
“In 1953 the Bristols wore the famous British Racing Green, but for 1954 the team noticed that some journalists had confused its cars with the Jaguar C-types because of their identical colour,” explains Boré.
“So they opted for a lighter shade, which they called Grass Green. But we didn’t have any period samples.”
Again, the team relied on photographs. “I collected all the original colour photos I could find and gave them to Kodak for analysis,” explains Boré.
“This allowed us to colour-match the paint, as faithfully as possible, before giving it a slight patina so it wasn’t too shiny, as it should be for a competition machine.”
As the project progressed, Boré turned up various artefacts from Bristol’s racing adventure: “I found rare pieces, such as the 1954 Le Mans trophy given to the team, an engraved mug and, with special thanks to Andrew’s contacts, the collector who still owned the steering wheel from the car driven by Jack Fairman.”
Fairman, a former Bristol works driver, had been able to preserve the wheel during the dismantling of the cars, and the collector was inspired by the recreation project.
“At first he told us it wasn’t for sale,” Boré continues, “but he agreed to give it to me, adding that he also had the car’s chronometric tachometer.
“It was an incredible piece of luck, and that’s what made me decide to give the car the number 33, which was that of Fairman and Tommy Wisdom,” he explains.
“I then went looking for his light-blue Herbert Johnson helmet, his gloves, overalls, glasses, driver’s badge and a copy of the weight book,” continues Boré.
Mitchell proved to be an invaluable intermediary in these pursuits, too, thanks to his reputation and contacts within Bristol circles.
The period steering wheel, besides being of historical interest, also dictated the exact shade of leather covering the hammock-style seats, which were made up of a thin steel frame and aluminium panels.
The rest of the cabin was built from scratch.
“We placed the instruments on an aluminium plate, painted black, then added the handmade cowls,” says Boré. “The switches were identified by hand-painted labels.
“We called on a specialist painter to reproduce them from rare interior photos.”
Apart from a thin carpet, the cabin is extremely bare, with hardboard panels covering the doors and their jambs.
The curved Plexiglas windows have been remade and the windscreen recut from an MGB item: “Fitting the windscreen was tricky, because it’s done from the inside,” explains Boré. “We broke two of them before we got it in there.”
Attention to detail is omnipresent, right down to the turn-signal arrows. “The Bristol 450 was homologated as a ‘Touring’ car for the road, and therefore featured arrow turn signals that were, of course, never used,” says Boré.
“We could have made do with a simple cover that reminded us of their presence, but we insisted on Bristol 403 arrows, even if they aren’t functional.”
The build gave rise to some moving moments, as Boré recalls: “The St Christopher medal that is now fixed to the dashboard has a lovely story.
“It belonged to Tony Crook, the Bristol agent who took over the marque in 1973.
“When he died in 2014, his wife gave it to his best friend, Peter Mitchell, Andrew’s father. Peter was also passionate about our project and came to the workshop every day to see the progress.
“When he passed away last year, Andrew said: ‘This medal is yours. For the car.’”
The team even had the chance to meet the only survivor among the drivers from the Bristol adventure to La Sarthe.
“Micky Pople was the reserve driver, and we invited him to come and see the project,” Boré says. “He was obviously moved to discover this very special machine.”
“Andrew insisted that the car should be used in competition,” he continues.
“It has been made to be driven without restraint. In fact, with Andrew we have tandem passions that combine perfectly – with my more aesthetic approach married to his technical knowledge and huge experience.” The Entente Cordiale in action.
The 450’s first outing was at Goodwood, at a Bentley meeting, for a test run. It met with great success, while not failing to intrigue the participants.
It was out again at Silverstone in August 2021, as well as at Castle Combe, before heading to France for its debut at Rétromobile, where it was the talk of the show.
“Obviously we were at the Le Mans Classic in July, and I look forward to driving it on the main circuit and better understanding the sensations experienced by the Bristol drivers, the real heroes,” says Boré.
Today we’re at Montlhéry, the location for the 450’s record-setting test outing in October 1954, for a rare turn behind the wheel of the Le Mans.
In the cramped cockpit, it feels a bit like sitting in an aquarium until the race-spec straight-six starts with a thunderous noise and, after a 68-year wait, the Bristol tiptoes out on to the historic circuit.
Following a few laps to warm the fluids, we start to pick up the pace and once up into fourth, a small switch on the dash allows you to flick in and out of overdrive.
The steering becomes lighter but remains precise as the pace increases. Attacking the banked turns, it tracks to the millimetre and holds its line faithfully.
The overall feeling is of a stable and balanced car – this is a reproduction, but so true to the original that it’s easy to imagine the drivers in period enjoying much the same sensations.
For its owner, and all those who see the reborn 450 Le Mans, its extraordinary form is a key part of the accomplishment.
It brings back to life an example of what imaginative engineers could create at a time when the science of aerodynamics was still in its infancy.
Words: Serge Cordey/Christophe Gaillard
Images: Patrick Lévèque
Thanks to: UTAC, for access to the historic Montlhéry autodrome; Mitchell Motors
Landing Le Mans victory
The Bristol Aeroplane Company diversified its post-war position with Bristol Cars in 1947.
With the introduction of the 400, it was decided that competition was the best way to promote the company, and the target was Le Mans.
Bristol held ready-made ingredients for success. The powerful BMW-derived six-cylinder engine had proven itself in competition, with the English Racing Automobiles (ERA) team having used the unit in Bristol specification for its cutting-edge G-type Formula Two car.
Its advanced, lightweight, magnesium-tube frame had failed to inspire the racing scene, but its potential was difficult to deny, so Bristol designer David Summers was tasked with giving it a Superleggera-style, wind-tunnel-tested coupé body.
In 1953, the team took four cars to Le Mans, but the entries were not to reach the chequered flag.
The Lance Macklin/Graham Whitehead car suffered engine failure, and a crankshaft defect condemned the Tommy Wisdom/Jack Fairman car to a fiery end at the trackside.
Undeterred, the team showed up at the 12 Hours of Reims three weeks later. There, it achieved a much more satisfactory result: Wisdom/Fairman came fifth, winning the 2-litre category, ahead of the Pozzi/Picard Ferrari 166.
Hopes were high for the 1954 season. The bodywork was refined and adapted to the dimensions of the chassis, while also being equipped with scalloped front wings to promote cooling of the brakes, as well as reprofiled head- and tail-lights.
To test its new car, the team went to Montlhéry where, on 6-7 October, in the hands of Fairman and Macklin, the car set six Class E records, including a six-hour average of 115.43mph.
It was great material for Bristol’s marketing department back home.
As Le Mans approached, Ferrari, Jaguar and American newcomer Cunningham were favourites. Bristol had developed a special cylinder head with six intake ducts, to take three twin-choke carburettors, resulting in 155bhp at 6000rpm.
The new 450 coupé proved very fast and was clocked at 150mph on the Mulsanne Straight. The drivers also praised its stability.
“On the straight, a gap in the woods caused a strong crosswind,” reported Peter Wilson. “While the 450’s trajectory was only slightly disturbed, the other competitors suffered a violent effect.”
The three cars lapped consistently, with the only drama being in the middle of the night, when Fairman’s car steered off the track to avoid a competitor in difficulty: the damage was minimal and, after a quick pitstop, car number 33 started again.
On Sunday, at 4pm, the three cars crossed the line in unison: car number 35 of Wilson/Jim Mayers was seventh overall and first in the 1500-2000cc class, number 33 of Tommy Wisdom/Jack Fairman was eighth, and the 34 car of Mike Keen/Tommy Line was ninth.
Bristol Cars declared itself to be the only manufacturer to have all of its cars finish, but two DB Panhard HBRs and a single Triumph could have made the same claim. Nonetheless, it was an exemplary result.
For 1955, it was decided to turn the cars into roadsters after the drivers reported having issues with condensation, heat and noise from the enclosed cabins.
The open cars were even faster, and on 11 June 1955 they finished in exactly the same places as in ’54: seventh (Wilson/Mayers), eighth (Keen/Line) and ninth (Wisdom/Fairman), with a higher average speed and 2-litre category honours again.
But the awful accident of Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes overshadowed the event, and the Bristol team donated its winnings to a support fund for the victims.
A few weeks later, Bristol announced its withdrawal from competition, owing not just to the 1955 Le Mans tragedy but also troubles closer to home, with the Bristol Aeroplane Company reeling in the wake of its ill-fated Brabazon commercial airliner project.
All but one of the racers were destroyed, and while chassis 11 survived, only now has a full-scale coupé returned to join it.
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