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Bristol Sports Cars

Bristol 407
The Bristol 407's full instrumentation was as expected from this airplane maker.
The Bristol 407's full instrumentation was as expected from this airplane maker.


With the Bristol 407 the importance of a powerful engine came to the foreground. Great though it was, BMW's prewar cross-pushrod six couldn't last forever in a postwar world increasingly dominated by high-tech, high-compression V-8s. By the end of the 1950s, it had reached the end of its development road. Bristol Cars -- which was still making it, after all, and planning for the Bristol 407 -- knew this only too well. And with its cars seeming to put on weight each year, a larger, more potent engine was clearly needed.

The firm duly went to the trouble of designing one, a replacement six-cylinder unit designated Type 160, Bristol's first automotive engine. But cars were still a sideline operation for the British aircraft company. And with the car subsidiary's low annual volume, tooling up a new engine would have cost far more than it was worth -- or than the firm could afford.

Accordingly, management cancelled the Type 160 and suggested its engineers look around for a suitable proprietary engine. As Bristol also wanted to offer automatic transmission on its next-generation cars, America was the obvious place to start looking.

After lengthy deliberation, Bristol settled on the efficient, thoroughly proven hemi-head V-8 and matching 3-speed TorqueFlite automatic from Chrysler Corporation. Trouble was, Chrysler wasn't building hemis anymore, at least not for cars, and Bristol would have to contend with high tariffs and complex regulations if drivelines were imported direct from the U.S. But the problem was easily solved: Chrysler would send engines from Canada -- part of the Commonwealth, you know -- built to Bristol specifications.

The result of this alliance appeared in the autumn of 1961 as the Bristol 407, first in the long line of Chrysler-powered Bristols that extends to this day. As was almost expected by now, Bristol's latest retained the 114-inch-wheelbase chassis that had originated way back in the Thirties, albeit with all the improvements applied to the outgoing 406.

And the Bristol 407 had an improvement of its own: a new wishbone/coil-spring front suspension, thus ousting the old transverse-leaf setup at last. Rack-and-pinion steering was abandoned in favor of cam-and-roller, something of a retrograde step but also necessitated by the bulkier, heavier engine.

The Bristol V-8 wasn't pulled from any shelf in Highland Park. For one thing, it was sized at 313 cubic inches, a displacement not previously seen in Chrysler's U.S. lineups. For another, Bristol insisted on hemi heads, not the cheaper and more common polyspherical kind, plus mechanical instead of hydraulic tappets, a different camshaft profile, and a larger-capacity sump. Even the much-vaunted TorqueFlite automatic, then barely six years old, was modified somewhat for this application.

The Bristol 407: A specially built Canadian Chrysler hemi V-8, which transformed the Bristol 406 into a true high-performer.
The Bristol 407: A specially built Canadian Chrysler hemi V-8, which transformed the Bristol 406 into a true high-performer.

But the effort paid off. Though it tipped the scales at close to 3600 pounds, the Bristol 407 was the quickest Bristol yet, the V-8's quoted 250 SAE horsepower seeing it to 122 mph. Standing-start acceleration was similarly improved.

So was Bristol styling. Though the basic 406 shell was retained (and still supplied by the London-based Jones Brothers company), the shorter engine permitted a lower, flatter hood, and there were detail revisions elsewhere. Fortunately, perhaps, there were no Zagato specials.

An irony of the Bristol 407 is that it gave Bristol Cars a big image boost just as Bristol Aeroplane Company decided to abandon automobiles, selling the carmaking operation to Anthony Crook and Sir George White. Crook would ultimately take complete control of Bristol Cars, and still runs it in a very personal way at this writing.

With the Bristol 407, Bristol no longer meant "just" an expensive, superbly built, fully equipped four-seat touring coupe but a car that was genuinely exciting to drive -- a "gentleman's sports car" in every sense. Considering how it started, Bristol had come a mighty long way.

To learn more about Bristol and other sports cars, see: