If there is some sort of pantheon of ultimate (and unlikely) CC unicorns, Bristol would be among the most revered deities – about the same gilded level as Delage, Cord, Tatra, Lagonda or Monteverdi. Finding one of these in the wild is a once-in-a-blue-moon event. The other day, the planets aligned and said moon rose to the occasion.
Of course, what had not aligned was my damn smartphone camera, which was still not shooting straight. But at least I had found a Bristol within roaming distance. It was in a shed-like two-car garage, but the doors were almost always open, so I figured catching it outside of its lair was on the cards. I took a few photos – some, like this close-up shot of the roof-mounted turn signal repeater, were usable – and promised to return.
I returned a few times, but never took more photos. The car was not easy to see and my camera was uncooperative as hell, so it wasn’t worth the trouble. But I just had to go and gawk at this aristocratic oddity. And it was usually in good company: there were several Rolls-Royces around, a Rover 75 (which I included in my latest singles post) and other interesting exotics, all within a block of three or four small streets.
The day after I got my camera fixed, I decided to go and visit the 406, just as one would see a friend on a fine Sunday morning. And this time, lo and behold, it was sitting on the curb, as if waiting for me.
The owner of the car picked up on my interest. He was an older gentleman, but could speak some English. Naturally, I kind of caught him by surprise: “Is this your Bristol? Kirei desu! From 1960?” He must have smiled (we were all wearing masks and sunglasses, so facial clues were almost non-existent) and said “Yes, exactly! You know Bristol? Are you British?” To which I responded that I did know Bristol… After all, I had written a pretty long post on the subject, so I knew what I was looking at.
And it’s a pretty special Bristol, frankly. For one thing, it’s the last of the 6-cyl. models. Bristol Cars started making their precious automobiles in 1946 thanks to a set of blueprints “liberated” from BMW headquarters in Munich. The engine – a two-litre hemi straight-6 – was pure ‘30s Bimmer power, the body even had the double-kidney grille and the chassis was pretty close to a BMW 326.
After a while, Bristols started to evolve into their own thing in terms of style, but kept the BMW engine, even as it became clearer and clearer that it was becoming antiquated. By the late ‘50s, BMW themselves were no longer using it. In 1957, Bristol resorted to giving the old pushrod six a thorough makeover: displacement, hitherto limited to 1971cc, was brought up to 2216cc. This was done to improve torque rather than increase power; some versions of the smaller engine that were sold to AC in the ’60s remained more potent than the 2.2 litre.
Around the same time, Bristol made a prototype chassis and discreetly sent it to Carrosserie Beutler in Switzerland. It returned (less discreetly) from its Continental tour in fine form, but the production version of the Bristol 406 did not end up looking as graceful as the Beutler beaut.
Not that the production car was bad-looking, far from it. Designed by Dudley Hobbs, it had a bit less élan than the Swiss-made prototype and more of the Bristol 404/405’s gaping maw-type grille. The stretched nose, already a classic Bristol feature, was long enough to house the spare wheel on the left side and the battery on the right, just as per previous models.
Under the new all-aluminium body, the chassis was given a completely new rear suspension: a Watts linkage replaced the BMW-derived A-bracket set-up, to keep the live axle on the straight and narrow. Although the engine only provided a modest 105hp, the 406 was fitted with Dunlop disc brakes on all four wheels, also to keep up with the times. The transverse leaf spring front suspension however, though rather outdated by this time, was wisely left alone. It would have to be dispensed with in short order in any case, when the power switched to Chrysler V8 in 1961.
Somewhat famously, Bristol’s main concessionaire in southern England, Tony Crook, took it upon himself to manufacture and sell a limited run of 406 specials. Six chassis were sent to Zagato in Milan in 1959, including two with a shortened wheelbase. They came back wearing a distinctive lightweight Italian suit, having lost close to 700lbs in the process, but it took Crook a couple of years to manage to sell these expensive exotics off. Five are still accounted for today.
By that point, the Bristol conglomerate was getting split up three-ways. The biggest chunk, the aero engine arm, was getting hitched with the aero-engine departments of Armstrong Siddeley, Blackburn and De Havilland. The whole thing was renamed Bristol Siddeley in 1959 (also causing the demise of Armstrong Siddeley’s car branch) before being gobbled up by Rolls-Royce in 1966. The aircraft-making arm merged with Vickers-Armstrong and English Electric to form the British Aircraft Corporation.
That left the smallest offshoot of the Bristol Aeroplane Co., the car business, in danger of disappearing, just like Armstrong Siddeley Cars. But Tony Crook managed to rescue the Filton plant from the British government’s grand restructuration experiments; Bristol Cars became independent in September 1960.
This makes the 406 the very last Bristol that was made by the original company, too. But it was clear to Tony Crook that he had very little time to address the car’s most glaring defect, its ancient and overly modest engine. How glaring a defect was it? Well, the comparative table below, which I fortuitously made a couple of years ago when I wrote up the Bristol chapter of the European Deadly Sins series, might enlighten this particular discussion.
I had the pricing details for the French market, so that’s what I used. In the UK, the Bristol would have been a little less outrageously overpriced, but not dramatically so. It still cost more than an Aston Martin DB4, which is all you need to know.
This is reflected in the production data: numbers vary from one source to the next, but the most commonly-quoted figure is 174 chassis for the Bristol 406. Even by the company’s standards, that was a pretty low number.
At the Earl’s Court Motor Show in October 1961, the Bristol stand still had a Zagato-bodied 406 and a regular production coupé. However, the new 407 was also present – basically a 406 in appearance, but with a 250hp Mopar-made V8, mated to a push-button TorqueFlite, replacing the venerable BMW-designed six. And so Bristol continued to make their precious cars for decades, with incremental changes.
The shape’s biggest evolution was the advent of the 603 in the mid-‘70s (above), when the greenhouse went for a semi-fastback look and got a more modern-looking windscreen. But most of the sheetmetal below that remained remarkably stable from the 406 onwards. After a mind-boggling fifty-year run, the Bristol coupé (and soon the marque itself) finally gave up the ghost.
This slow evolution included the interior, which hardly budged from what we have here until the early 21st Century. I guess the timelessness of burl walnut dashes and leather seats is a cultural asset that British carmakers could always bank on, when other fad-addicted nations always had to reinvent the wheel. Lucky them. The one feature that is unique to the 406 are those headrests, which do look awesome.
The rear quarters are just as fine – this is a true four-seater, and quite a plush one too. Given the amount of Sterling one was expected to part with to acquire one of these rolling boudoirs, that level of comfort might be expected as a minimum. Yet not all European luxury coupé were as generous in cabin space as the Bristol, especially back in the ‘50s.
The owner of this car did not tell me much – nor did I enquire – about this particular car. I do not know why the bumpers are missing (that could be temporary), nor whether the engine is the correct one. It seems a number of 406s were relieved of their 2.2 litre mills to power AC Aces back in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as the AC always had more enthusiast appeal.
One thing the owner of this 406 did inform me was that he was restoring a 401. So with any luck, in due course, this blessed little corner of Tokyo will have another 6-cyl. Bristol for me to visit. And fingers crossed, for CC to have a glimpse at, too.
Curbside Outtake: 1959 Bristol 406 – A Gently Fading Aristocratic Reminder, by Roger Carr
Automotive History: British Deadly Sins (High-Brow Hybrids, Part 2) – Bristol 603 / Britannia / Blenheim: Arrested Development, by T87
Such wonderful cult cars, Bristols. Thank you for photographing one in the wild!
Very pretty and thank you for the detailed history .
I’d thought the 406 would look better without the front bumper, and indeed it does. But not much better, maybe a split bumper mounted higher would look less heavy.
Great find, the owner must be a man of good/eccentric tastes!
Great find. Odd about the lack of bumpers, and not a big fan of the maw.
Given that rather modest sized exhaust pipe, I’m guessing it’s got its original little six.
Quite a find a Bristol in the wild, I prefer it without the bumpers, since he is restoring it there is likeky still a 2.2 engine in there,
AC were putting 2.5 Ford Zephyr sixes in their Ace due to a lack of Bristol engines and with a few simple mods Zephyr engines can be made to really go.
Bristol. The most British a car that you can possibly buy. And only a Morgan comes close in absolute Britishness.
What a beauty! I’ve heard about Bristols all my life, never seen one. Thank you for pointing out details like the roof mounted indicators, and those head rests are delicious! I’m so glad you camera is up and working again, extraordinarily well too, the images fairly jump off the page. So glad Bristol went with the Dudley Hobbs design rather than with Beutler. Much more distinctive in my opinion.
It took me a little while to realize that the car actually DOES have a grille, it’s just inset a ways. I suppose that’s one way to eliminate complaints, very forward thinking. Of course now it looks like there’s a deep hole and there’ll be discussion…
In any case, it’s quite an amazing find. I’d be quite worried about leaving it parked on the street especially with that white minivan presumably needing to back out of his spot across the street sooner or later!
The interior though is quite the treat, the back seat of this and various other British cars sort of look like the stereotypical psychiatrist’s couch and quite comfortable, certainly enough to deeply ponder one’s mindset about other aspects of one’s life.
The main difference between SoCal and Tokyo is that in SoCal you will eventually see every car ever made on the road. However, it’ll be in motion on the road and is somehow never seen stuck in traffic and thus harder to enjoy whereas in Tokyo it’ll just be parked streetside, waiting for the observant.
A great find indeed, but although it looks better this way I would worry about using it without the bumpers – that aluminium coachwork looks very vulnerable.
Amazing to spot a Bristol on the street and not in a museum. I always think of l. J. K. Setright when I see a reference to Bristols as he was a real fan and often wrote about them.
What a fantastic find! The front end looks a like (more) odd without the bumpers. I never knew about the roof mounted signal lights – an interesting feature.
Your writing introduced me to Bristols and made me a fan. I would be lying if I said I didn’t prefer the one with the Chrysler V8, but can appreciate the rarity of any Bristol turning up on the street for an impromptu photo session. Well done!
A remarkable find, and in such obviously well cared for condition as well.
Curbside find of the year?
I remember reading in one of LJK Setright’s columns that he always removed the bumpers from his cars – could this be an LJKS tribute, or his old car?