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Bristol Fashion Published: 20th May 2011 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

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Hardly the trendiest of designer labels, but you’d be surprised at who are big fans of these bespoke bargains!

Pros & Cons

Heritage, performance, exclusivity, factory parts back up, hand made, engineering, value for money
Acquired taste, antiquated looks, expensive to run, maintain, restore, many tired examples

For more than sixty years Bristol has made a virtue out of quiet perversity. As a nod to the 21st century it does have a website, and very occasionally it will issue a press release about its ferocious V10-engined Fighter, or the latest design upgrades to its incredibly long-lived Blenheim GT, but otherwise this company almost goes out of its way to shun publicity. It won’t say how many new cars it builds – three a week was the norm in the 1970s and around forty Fighters are rumoured – and its survival is as much down to the aftersales operation which looks after everything from the earliest 2-litre models to the latest V8s. It does have celebrity clients. In the past they’ve included Hollywood couple Stuart Granger and Jean Simmonds. Richard Branson, Liam Gallagher and Will Young have also bought its cars. The firm’s most recent brush with fame was when a mid-50’s 405 (to date its only four-door model) was used as the older man’s choice of wheels in the coming-of-age movie An Education. For those who fi nd the likes of classic Aston Martins, and even Jaguars, a bit too fl ashy, and possibly expensive to buy (if not to maintain), and are attracted to the idea of cars made to aircraft engineering standards, particularly the earlier models- Bristols have a discreet allure.


It’s now the hundredth anniversary of the Bristol and Colonial Aeroplane Company, which became an early aviation pioneer, now probably best known for its military aircraft, with the classic Fighter bi-plane in particular being a stalwart of the First World War. Its planes were also used in the Second World War too, resulting in a huge expansion at its works in Filton, on the outskirts of Bristol. I n 1 9 4 5 Bristol was left with a surplus of engineering capacity and skilled labour, and car production was seen as a good way of utilising some of it. So Bristol’s Car Division was set up in 1946, and one of the spoils of war was that it was able to build very British versions of BMW’s highly regarded pre-War 328, with its excellent road manners and free-revving straight-six engine. It is said that the company made use of BMW six-cylinder stationary engines used to power German anti aircraft search lights when developing its fi rst model, the 400. This two-door, four-seater saloon looked very much like its German antecedents, right down to its kidney grill, although a lot of detailengineering revision went into it, and Bristol claims the quality of materials used to make it was superior. It was very well made, fast, handled well, was certainly exclusive and initially mostly sold abroad. This was more or less by government dictate, as Britain was desperately short of foreign currency, and its industrial organisations were exhorted to ‘export or die.’ Two years later Bristol took the 400’s sophisticated mechanicals, running gear and chassis and clothed them in striking, wind cheating coachwork. Called the 401, this was an exotic, expensive grand tourer capable of 100mph. A few early cars had Touring of Milan bodies, which are perhaps not as clean looking as the in-house styled examples. Both were perhaps inspired by Pininfarina bodies made at the time for Alfas and Lancias. All had Superleggera frame construction. It was followed by the ultra-rare 402 drophead and evolved into the 403, which enjoyed a host of upgrades and a power boost from 85 to 100bhp, red badges, and at the end of the production run, wing-mounted running lights. In 1953 Bristol turned its back on the BMW style grille with the smaller 404 sports tourer, a 2+2 fastback with a recessed, rectangular air intake inspired by the Bristol Brabazon airliner engines’ engine intakes. The Arnolt Bristol, an open two-seater sold on the American market, was based on these models.By now Bristol had entered the Le Mans 24 hour race with the 450 single seaters. These cars took class and team prize wins the following year, and also did well at Rheims during the same period, but after 1955 Bristol quit motorsport
entirely, spurred by the multiple fatalities at that year’s Le Mans. Its engines were still fi nding their way into other people’s racers however, with Tojeiro, Lister and Cooper and Frazer-Nash, which had enjoyedclose links with BMW in the 1930s. AC, whose own engine dated back to the 1920s, used Bristol power in some versions of the pretty Ace drophead and Aceca coupes, marketing them as AC-Bristols. By now Bristol was making the 405 saloon with front disc brakes and overdrive. There were also 405 drophead two-doors, bodied by Abbotts of Farnham. Its 406 replacement of 1957 ushered in the sober two-door style which was to last Bristol into the mid-1970s. As with the 405, this car was used by Italian coach builders Zagato as the basis for a series of exotic, low volume coupes, which are very collectable today. Now with disc brakes all round and a 2.2-litre engine, the discreet 406 was to be Bristol’s last six-cylinder model. Its chassis was also used by Italian coachbuilder Zagato for six fi xedhead coupes (a seventh, short wheelbase car was also made). As you can imagine, these cars are also now highly desirable too. By this stage the venerable six-cylinder engine was at the end of its development envelope, and the ever-pragmatic Bristol ditched plans to make its own power plants, and went elsewhere for a new motor. This appeared in the 1961 407. Outwardly similar to the 406, it used a re-engineered 5130cc Chrysler V8 and Torquefl ite auto transmission. The company’s ownership had also changed.When Bristol and Armstrong Siddeley’s aircraft building interests were merged to create the British Aircraft Corporation (fi nishing the latter’s car making activities in 1960), Sir George White, who’s family founded the Bristol Aeroplane Company, and Anthony Crook, bought the car making division and created Bristol Cars Limited. When Sir George retired in 1973, Crook bought his share, becoming sole proprietor. A skilled racing driver – reckoned by some to be on a par with Sir Stirling Moss – Crook had been closely involved with Bristol from its inception, and was also a motor agent, amongst other things involved with importing Abarths. He kept production volumes low, maintained a close grip on the supply and manufacture of spares for older Bristols, and hung on to the fi rm’s loyal, if select, customer base.

As the 1960s progressed, Bristol’s big, low key road cars became faster and more refi ned. When the 411 gave way to the fastback 603 in 1976, it had 6556ccs at its disposal and was capable of 140mph. The year before had seen the arrival of the 412, a huge, Zagato styled targa which resembled a blockish Lancia Beta Spider. Versions of this car survived until 1994, and evolutions of the 603 continue to this day in the form of the Blenheim grand tourer, still with alloy bodywork, separate chassis and massive Chrysler V8. Along the way, versions of this car were christened Britannia and Brigand; the latter being fi tted with a turbocharger. During the New Millennium, the Blenheim has been supplemented by the Speedster, a curious stripped-out open two-seater vaguely resembling a 405 drophead and apparently based on a prototype and development mule, and the Fighter, a V10-engined, two-seater supercar with gullwing doors, a £200k plus price tag, and claimed 200mph plus performance. The car’s vaguely 1950s style alloy and composite bodywork is claimed to be highly aerodynamic, and it marks perhaps the biggest design departure in Bristol’s history.


With so many models it’s hard to generalise here so check out our model-by-model guide. As a rule however Bristols are likened to having the performance and prowess of an Aston Martin but with the craftmanship of a Rolls-Royce – which sounds like a fantastic recipe to us! That said, they are an acquired taste as they have their foibles.


Some afi cionados reckon that the 400 is slightlybetter to drive than the 401, care of sweeter handling in extremis (the 401s fuel tank sits over the back axle, effecting weight distribution they say, although Bristol boss Anthony Crook strongly disagrees). For such an old design it’s still remarkably usable in modern conditions, and the car possesses enough get up and go for long journeys. The lovely steering is light and direct and the engine free revving, although you need to keepit ‘on the cam’ to get the best from the car.


People either love these car’s slippery styling, or think they’re over bodied and under powered. Early cars can be identifi ed by the slight ridge running along the sill line, something retained by the ultrarare (21 made) and expensive 402 dropheads. The 403 is a tweaked 401, with red badges and chrome grille inserts, the fi nal versions having wing mounted sidelights. These had updated, 100bhp engines, Alfi n drum brakes, front anti-roll bar and a lovely, short action gearshift. These features were often retro fi tted to the 400 and 401.


Just 52 404s were built. They’re lithe, attractive things and generally durable. Features like overdrive and front disc brakes make these cars very usable, too. This applies to its more common 405 four door – an interesting looking rather than pretty car, but the 405 drophead two-door is a pretty handsome vehicle.


Their discreet two door bodies belay a sporting drive, although revs and regular gear changes are needed to make it move respectably. These cars feature a much desired overdrive, powerful disc brakes and a torquey 2.2-litre engine, which can be worth more than the car it’s fi tted to. Many 406s donated theirs to Frazer-Nash replicas!


Like other big engined, Anglo/American GTs, these cars’ running costs (think 10-15mpg) mean they’re less in demand than before and prices refl ect this. Demand for pre-410 models is sticky; transmission parts are hard to obtain new, and fi tting younger slush boxes diffi cult. The 410 and 411 series cars have more contemporary transmission units and power steering. Final series 411s are the most wanted V8s due to their Aston-like pace.


The square-cut targa-roofed, Zagato styled 412 appeared in 1975. It’s a notional four-seater using familiar period Bristol running gear and mechanicals, and shares most of the 411’s strengths and weaknesses. Built until 1994 in various guises (including a full convertible) and renamed, these cars aren’t everyone’s cup of tea and so the market for them is select.


The 1976-launched 603, which replaced the 411, also looks strange to modern eyes. It’s a fastback grand tourer with a short, tapering boot, and like many mid-1970s designs has not aged as well as some of its predecessors. Many reckon it improved on the 411’s dynamics, and you can get a good early one for around £5000 – not much money for a lot of hand-built grand tourer. When Motor tested this £30,000 car in 1978 (almost £10K dearer than an Aston V8 and £9000 cheaper than a Rolls Corniche) it praised the ride and Rolls-like refi nement but thought some aspects old fashioned.


For what they offer, Bristols can look astonishing value for money, so long as you get a good one. Generally, the later the car the cheaper they are. For example, 603 saloons Bristol saloons are unlikely to go for much over £20,000 – and you can pay used Ford Ka money for earlier ones but the real bargains are the ungainly and rather unloved 412s where £3000 to £25,000 is the going rate, although values are now rising as people start to appreciate the car’s dynamic poise. Some even like its Brutalist styling, too! Three grand seems to be the bottom line for any craggy Bristol; 407-411 ranges can sell up to £40,000-ish so there’s something for everyone, although lower rung prices will be refl ected in cars’ conditions. The 400-406 generations are £5000-£30,000 on average and generally up to £25,000 should nab you a respectable Bristol irrespective of model but some cars – such as the Blenheims – can make the thick end of fi ve fi gures.


For the 2-litre cars brake upgrades are common, with drivers of 400-403 series models being given 405/6 front disc brakes, and aftermarket servos. It’s important to upgrade the rear drum slave cylinders to suit or the back wheels can lock up. Some owners have ditched the rather odd fi rst gear freewheel mechanism for a fi xed gear, because this is more robust in service. Fitting a 403/6 remote change to earlier cars requires a re-profi led transmission tunnel, new carpets and deep pockets. It will easily cost four fi gures. Older Bristols have tiny rear brake and sidelights that modern car drivers fi nd it easy to miss, so a rear window-mounted, high visibility LED brake light could avoid a nasty shunt. For both 2-litre and V8 engined models a powerful thermostatic electric fan is a must. Generic V8 mods tend to see modern tyres and sometimes 603-style engine and suspension upgrades applied to 411s.

What To Look For

  • These are specialist, hand built, alloy bodied cars, regarded by many as under valued. This means that restoration costs can easily outstrip market prices; this is thankfully changing.
  • About £15,000 should get you into a usable 2-litre, but pristine cars can fetch £35,000 plus, and rare drophead are usually worth double their closed counterparts. Ultra scarce Zagato bodied cars have real prominence, and if not worth early Aston Martin money, should fetch £35/£50,000 plus.
  • Remember that Bristol is one of the few car companies that can still supply genuine spare parts for its golden oldies, meaning repairs and restorations aren’t that problematic even if your bank manager may be!
  • 400


  • Although the body is alloy the wings are steel, and these can corrode where they join the aluminium panel work, particularly the rear wings. Door bottoms can get frilly too. The interior will be expensive to fi x if it is rough.

  • With 2-litre Bristols, look for signs of overheating and low oil pressure when warmed. These engines can cost thousands to fi x. Failed head gaskets are a particular headache, as the heads are alloy; many have been skimmed beyond usability or become porous. Fixing them can lead to a big bill so beware. Watch for water jacket cracks in the steel block behind the exhaust manifolds – these can often be ‘stitched’ easily as this is a common problem.
  • 401/2/3


  • An all alloy coachwork conceals a Superleggera steel sub structure, and this can cause electrolysis-related damage in areas like the rear wing tops. Front valances suffer too: take a torch and have a good look at the area above the front bumper for signs of fi breglass or other sub standard repairs. Fixing this is possible with modern Tig welders, but will cost four fi gures.

  • Door and wing bottoms can also go, but the deep steel chassis is strong. That said, watch for outrigger rot and general signs of corrosion, particularly near the inner wings and rear torsion bar and shock mounting points; these cars are now all heading into their sixties remember.

  • Beware oil leaks from the rear axle, which could mean a split differential housing (generally an axle out job to repair).
  • 404/405


  • Just 52 404s were built. They’re pretty and generally durable. The trailing edge of the rear wings can suffer with age.

  • Both 404 and the 405 have timber framed windscreen surrounds. These rot and are hard to fi x. You can fi nd a nice 405 for £15,000, but easily double that for an equivalent 404.
  • 406


  • Sadly, like the 405, some of these cars are worth more as parts. Watch for chassis rot and wheel arch deterioration, and things like tired interiors, which will take pricey man hours to put right and cost more than the car is actually.
  • 407/8/9/10/411


  • These have the 406 body’s durability (and wheel arch weaknesses), and rot out in areas like the boot fl oor.

  • The 410 and 411 series cars have more contemporary transmission units and power steering so easier to put right, but their big engines are prone to overheating if maintenance has been skimped.

  • Final series 411s, capable of about 140mph and featuring rectangular Commer van tail lamps would you believe and twin headlights, are the most desired of all the V8s. Watch for serious chassis rot, especially on later cars.
  • 412/603, etc.


  • Chassis corrosion and arch rot is common, so despite being younger Bristol body and chassis worries remain, especially with ill-maintained and bodged examples – and there’s a good number of these around.

  • Turbocharged cars are fast need a diet of high octane (that means expensive) fuel as they don’t cope well with regular unleaded… So you need to check the engine’s health very carefully. But if looked after, the unit will last for years.

Three Of A Kind

Riley RM
Riley RM
The pretty, 2.5-litre, four-cylinder RM Rileys were cheaper than contemporary Bristols, but are rivals now, and have the benefi ts of four doors and a practical body but there’s also natty cabrios. They all drive nice but some use column gear changes; RMF from 1952 is most polished of them all plus boasts hydraulic brakes. Some four-cylinder models can feel slow and undergeared. Good value with all but watch for problems with the wood-framed body.
Jensen Interceptor
Jensen Interceptor
We could have gone for the earlier 541 ranges and the brutish CV8 which with its American V8 is quite close to Bristol, design-wise, but there’sfar more Interceptors around and they can be outlandish value. Parts supply isn’t as comprehensive as the Bristols but still very good. Ample choice of models; most hatchbacks but some convertibles. The fourwheel drive FF was outstanding in its day but transmission refi nement is like a Land Rover.
Alvis TE/TF 21
Alvis TE/TF 21
Arguably the closest rival to a Bristol in terms of style, image, exclusivity and heritage, the TE and TF only ran for three years before parent company Rover (who acquired the fl oundering concern in 1965) shut up shop in 1967. A stately GT with up to 150bhp on tap, there’s a choice of autos or manual with fi ve-speeds on some. Quite rightly prices have really started to take off for the best models. Red Triangle is the best outfi t to help run one.


Are old Bristols the best kept secret in the classic car world? Well when you take into account that you can buy a hand-built sports car that’s as rich in quality, performance and prestige as a Rolls, Aston and Jensen, but exudes even more class and all for the price of a Ford Focus, then they look steal. Later cars really drive well – as good as an Interceptor or DB6, and that will surprise many. However just make sure you buy a good one or your bank balance will look like an oasis in a barren desert called debt – and as our kid might say, you’ll certainly look back in anger.

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