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.