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If you want an upper crust classic that’s a class apart, then take a look at an Alvis or Bristol advises Alvis owner Robert Coul Published: 14th Apr 2016 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!


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According to the Alvis Owners’ Club, the spares situation is good with Chris Prince, Earley Engineering and Red Triangle catering for most needs, although some spares, like for the Masterati-sourced five-speed gearbox now virtually obsolete. Bristol has always catered for owners well and still does, claiming that it has seen standards slip with inferior parts being substituted by owners. Bristol Cars says it can supply OE parts for all models from the 400 to the Fighter. Serial Alvis and Bristol collector Adam Gilchrist says its service department in London is now amazing. “Similarly the Alvis specialists have re-invested in the manufacture of new bearing sets and I am quite sure that their service department is fully occupied”. He says Alvis TE 21 DHC is a perfect classic to use and easy to fall in love with but if he needed a car to get there quickly then “ I jump into a Bristol 411 Series 4”.

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The term ‘gentleman’s express’ was probably coined in the 1950s and described cars bought by very wealthy, discerning people who found Rolls-Royce and Bentley ostentatious. They wanted cars of high quality, probably hand-built, subtle and sufficiently powerful without being egregiously sporty or – heaven forbid – showy.

Few cars actually fitted the bill; Rovers were high quality and worthy but too common and too frumpy, Jaguars were driven by spivs, ‘get rich quick builders’ and bank robbers and Astons were just a little too obvious. That left just three marques: Alvis, Bristol and Lagonda.

Here we are considering Alvis and Bristol which have a lot in common, both producing Second World War armaments; Alvis made tanks and aircraft engines and Bristol, aircraft frames. An Alvis engine was actually fitted to a Bristol helicopter which first flew in 1947.

Bristol started earlier, first producing trams in 1901, quickly followed by aircraft production from 1910. There were no Bristol cars until 1945 when the company, which had been the largest aircraft manufacturer on the planet, needed to fill their factories. Alvis was started in 1917 by T G John with the first car in 1920.

After the Second World War, Alvis continued making high quality cars and Bristol started, having acquired Fraser- Nash who, pre-war had been building BMW-based sports cars. With the support of the War Reparations Board, the new company purchased the rights to manufacture three BMW models and the 328 engine.

So much for the history lesson, what both marques offer now are prestigious performance cars that can sell for less than many ‘lesser’ names, such as Triumph, Austin-Healey and, dare we suggest Jaguar?



First of all, these brands are both worth buying as they have started to appreciate recently and will continue to do so. They are both effectively supported parts-wise by the manufacturer, several dedicated specialists and great owners’ clubs. Bristol still exists, now ironically owned by Frazer-Nash and is in the process of developing a new hybrid car. Alvis exists as Red Triangle, set up by Alvis when it stopped making motor cars, to look after all the drawings, build records and parts stock.

Budget will play a part and assuming you want to buy a roadworthy car, post-war Alvis are generally cheaper than Bristol, the Alvis ladder starting at around £10,000 for a decent four-cylinder, late forties TA14 saloon, a re-hashed pre-war 12/70. It was rather more staid than the contemporary Bristol, the beautiful BMW 327-based 400, both in styling and performance, barely exceeding 70mph. The 400 now starts at around £60,000 for a decent runner. Like the Bristol, the Alvis was very carefully hand-built with high quality materials. Also, series drophead versions were available unlike Bristol which produced just a handful of the Farina dropheads, now worth over £200,000 against around £25,000 for the earlier TA14 DHC!

Bristol stuck to aircraft principles and its next model, the 1948 401, was even more aerodynamic and roomier than the 400 and the first 2-litre saloon to exceed 100mph, thanks to more power and all-aluminium bodywork. A particularly svelte convertible, the 402 followed in 1948, and caught the attention of Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons who bought one, now worth £300,000 plus.

A slightly modified 403 saloon with a little more power came in 1949 but a big break was in 1954 after Bristol started building Le Mans cars, with the 404 which was christened the ‘businessman’s express’. This two seater coupé was built on the same chassis as the 403 but with a shorter wheelbase. Weighing in at less than a ton, the 404 came with a choice of 105bhp or 125bhp with much better braking to cope with a top speed of up to 110mph. The 404 was the first Bristol to have the spare wheel and battery fitted inside the front wings, a feature which would survive into the second millennium.

Bristol’s only four-door, the 405 was next with a two-door convertible version which would be Bristol’s most prolific with 43 made against 297 coupés.

Alvis hadn’t really kept up at this point, launching a larger 3-litre straight six in 1950, re-bodied as a TA21 but still with pre-war styling. It was the uprated 100bhp, TC21 100 that first earned the term gentleman’s express with 100mph performance, sporty bonnet scoops, wire wheels and excellent handling.

This attracted high profile customers like HRH Prince Philip and Group Captain Douglas Bader, where an Alvis suited their stature to a tee – and do you remember the 1960’s film the Iron Maiden where aircraft designer Jack Hopkins (played by actor Michael Craig) drove an Alvis? You’d have never have caught such cultured chaps in something as brash as an E-type!

The Alvis and Bristol design approaches seemed to come together in 1958 when both launched quintessential gentlemans’ expresses, the 2.2-litre, 105bhp Bristol 406 and the 3.0-litre, 105bhp Alvis TD21. Almost identical in concept; these hand-built two-door coupés had luxurious wood and leatherclad interiors with room for four in supreme comfort and can be picked up for around £30,000, as can the later TE and TF 21s, despite their added power (130bhp) and a better suspension.

The 406 still retained the responsive rack and pinion steering, an advantage over the TD21. Alvis further offered a convertible but Bristol didn’t and apart from a one-off 407 would not offer one again until 1975.

The 406 became the 407 with the Chrysler V8 and Alvis would gradually increase its 3-litre’s power to 115 in the TD 21 Mk2, 130 in the TE and finally 150bhp in the TF which was the last Alvis motor car. Alvis offered convertibles (which on the TD-TF are worth at least double that of a fixedhead), Bristol didn’t apart from one-off specials.

So, which one to buy? If you want a drophead, it will probably have to be an Alvis as there were so few Bristol convertibles made, even fewer that have survived and those that have cost at least £150,000. If you want real performance, it will have to be a V8-powered Bristol of various descriptions.




Undoubtedly, the best cars to drive are the Bristols, the short chassis Bristol 404 with the rack and pinion steering in particular. With the higher powered 125bhp 100C engine it has enough performance to keep up with the traffic although not enough to take on hot hatches at traffic lights. The steering is lovely, the handling responsive and the drum brakes totally adequate. It is also remarkably quiet.

The V8 Bristols with power steering have real grunt and are very rewarding when you want to press on but you pay for it at the pumps. If you want an automatic it would have to be the V8 Bristol with the super smooth Chrysler Torqueflite three-speed autobox, more than enough gears with so much torque.

Alvis did offer an automatic from the 1958 TD on but it is a little agricultural and does not enhance the car’s appeal.

That’s not to say that a 3-litre Alvis, be it a TC21 100, TD, TE or TF would not make a wonderful touring car with minimum 100mph performance and reasonably taut handling. Just a pity the company didn’t fit rack and pinion steering. Another point to be considered is the wider choice of Bristols meaning that there’s more likely to be one that suits your driving style.




If properly restored and maintained, a Bristol or Alvis will prove to be reliable transport. Both have surprisingly good manufacturer support, unusual in rare cars of this age, as well as several specialists and terrific owners’ clubs. Parts are generally available and, particularly for the later cars there are many proprietary parts also fitted to the likes of Ford and BMC cars which, once identified are much cheaper than Bristol or Red Triangle.

Whether Bristol or Alvis, it is vital to buy a car already restored unless you are a qualified mechanic who can do bodywork. These cars are fearfully expensive to restore.

None can be regarded as economical, the best you can expect is 25mpg from a six-cylinder Bristol or four-cylinder Alvis, 18-20 for a six-cylinder Alvis and 14-18mph when talking V8 Bristols. The later turbo-charged models, if pressed, can barely manage double figure fuel returns. Motor magazine’s road test car averaged just 9.4mpg and despite petrol still plummeting in price, has to be some cause for concern.

And The Winner Is...

These are hugely desirable marques which have steadily appreciated in both value and stature and will continue to do so. While exclusive brands, both are supported by manufacturers, specialists and great owners’ clubs, all which make their ownership quite straightforward. If you are looking for performance it would have to be a Bristol 411 with the 6.5 litre Chrysler V8, 0-60 in 6.5 seconds and a top speed of 143mph. Our pick would be an Alvis TD-TF 21; there’s something delightfully uppercrust British about them – that’s why this writer sold an XK to buy one!

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