The 1940s Plane That Could Carry Cars: The Bristol Freighter

The 1940s were an innovative time for aviation. The Second World War saw a major push to develop and build aircraft, which fed into commercial aviation. Soon afterward, the UK-built Bristol Type 170 Freighter was launched. This could carry passengers and vehicles over short distances and became very popular in the UK and many other countries.

Bristol 170 Freighter
The Bristol 170 Freighter could carry two cars. Photo: Getty Images

A British built freighter aircraft

The Bristol Freighter was built by UK aircraft manufacturer Bristol Aeroplane Company. This started in 1910 as British and Colonial Aircraft Company and expanded rapidly during the First World War with contracts to built military aircraft.

Its relationship with the military continued after the war, and by the time of the Second World War, Bristol was one of the larger manufacturers. Its main contribution to the war was the Bristol Beaufighter. Almost 6,000 aircraft were built, and they served with air forces including the UK, US, Canada, and Australia.

Bristol Beaufighter
The Beaufighter was Bristol’s most produced military aircraft. Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia

The UK government (via the Air Ministry) was also interested in a freighter aircraft capable of carrying vehicles and heavy trucks – especially for use in the Far East. Bristol embarked on developing such an aircraft, but the war ended before it was fully operational. Design changes were then made to adapt the aircraft for civilian use. The weight was increased, and more powerful engines were added.

It was designed with nose doors for cargo and vehicle access. A second version was also developed for passenger use, known as the Wayfarer, without the cargo nose doors. It is a very recognizable aircraft with a distinctive bulging front.

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Launching the Type 170 Freighter

The first Bristol Freighter prototype (G-AGPV) flew just after the war – on 2nd December 1945. The first aircraft to enter service was a passenger Wayfarer version, entering service with Channel Islands Airways in April 1946.

UK airline Silver City Airways soon became one of the largest and most significant operators. It adapted the aircraft to carry both passengers and vehicles and put it into service on short flights in the UK and to Europe. It introduced an ‘air ferry’ service across the Channel, flying first between Lympne Airport in the UK (a former military airport) and Le Touquet in France. By 1954, Silver City Airways was operating 2,970 landings and take-offs per aircraft (according to recollections from BAE Systems).

Bristol Freighter
Silver City Airways was one of the most significant operators. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia

Many other UK airlines operated the Freighter, including British European Airways – later to become part of British Airways. It also saw service in Europe with airlines including Iberia, SABENA, Aer Lingus, and German airline LTU (later acquired by Air Berlin). It was also popular in Canada and some South American countries, and Australia and New Zealand.

Bristol Freighter
A Bristol Freighter with Air Express in Australia. Photo: RuthAS via Wikimedia

Moving on to the Superfreighter

The success of the Type 170 Freighter led Bristol to develop a successor, the larger Bristol Superfrieghter. This stretched the fuselage to give extra cargo space – it could carry three cars instead of two. A passenger Super Wayfarer was also offered, with passenger capacity increased to 60.

It entered service with Silver City Airways on its cross Channel route in 1953. The Superfreighter flew mainly in the UK, but SABENA and Canadian regional airline Lamb Air also operated it.

Bristol Superfreighter
The Bristol Superfreighter is recognizable by its larger nose. Photo: Ralf Manteufel via Wikimedia

In total, Bristol built 214 Freighters and Superfreighters, and it remained in production until 1958. Several aircraft remain stored or on display today (shown at museums in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand but not in the UK). None remain airworthy.

Bristol Freighter
A Bristol Freighter on display at the RAAF Museum in Australia. Photo: YSSYguy via Wikimedia

The Bristol Freighter was a significant aircraft, starting air ferry services in Europe and operating short cargo or vehicle flights in many other locations. With none left flying, it is not often discussed. Feel free to share more about this aircraft in the comments.