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Jaguar XK140/150 vs. Alvis TD21 vs. Bristol 406

Three quintessential British GTs which served up a tasty recipe of smoothness, speed and style 60 years ago. What’s best for you Published: 4th Oct 2018 - 0 Comments - Be the first, contribute now!

What The Experts Say...

Philip Olden, commercial Officer of the Alvis Owners Club, cites elegance and exceptional quality as the model’s best points. “The most popular is the TD21 Series I, simply because there are more of them (but still only 784 ever made). Personally, I think the TD21 Series II is the most elegant. They are very well regarded and great value for the quality they provide. A beautiful 1961 TD21 drophead recently sold at auction for £124,000, but good quality saloons can be found from around £20,000, which is a lot of fantastic metal for your money .”

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It’s ironic when even the most prosaic hatchback can exceed 110mph and many supercars can break 200 mph, the national speed limit is just 70mph yet, back in 1958 there was no speed limit and few cars could exceed 70mph. There were faster cars, like the three here which could all easily exceed the ton and some versions of the Jaguar XK150 could hit 130. In fact, the Jaguar XK150 S in 1959 was the fastest closed car ever tested by Motor magazine with a 132mph maximum, 0-60 in 7.8 seconds and a reasonable enough 22mpg.

Sixty seats ago, when all three cars were available was an auspicious time: the European Economic Community was founded, Nikita Khrushchev became Soviet Union premier, The Chinese ‘Great Leap Forward’ campaign was unveiled by Mao Tse-tung and Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba.

The shopping list for relatively wealthy car enthusiasts in 1958 may have been different to the classic car buff’s list in 2018. Back in 1958 there was a price difference between the three protagonists; the Jaguar would have been the cheapest by far at less than £2000 (£44,000 at today’s prices), the Alvis considerably more at £2,993 (£68,000 today) but the Bristol was in Rolls- Royce territory at £4493 (£102,000 today). The Alvis and Bristol may well have been on the same shopping list but by comparison the Jaguar XK, even if only two seats were required, would have seemed somewhat low rent. It is interesting therefore that the Jag is the only one here, in fixedhead coupé form which has kept pace with inflation. The Jaguar and Alvis convertibles have more than kept up.

Which to buy?

1st XK150 | 2nd Alvis TD21 | 3rd Bristol 406

All three are extremely expensive to rebuild so unless you are one of these rare people capable of doing everything yourself, buy one that has already been restored. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder but all three are good looking cars; the Jaguar a wonderful evolution of previous Jaguar lines with vestigial wings harking back to the SS100, the Alvis a development of the timeless Graber design and the 406, one of the last before famous Bristol boss, Anthony Crook became his own chief stylist and it all went horribly wrong. The XK150 is the easiest to buy simply because many more were made than the others and therefore more are left. The XK offers the widest choice of style: Roadster, the most beautiful but the least practical, Drophead with its excellent hood and the Fixedhead. There are also engine choices; initially 190, 210 (SE) and 250 (S) bhp 3.4-litre and after late 1959 an extra 400cc to give 220 and 265bhp. Good XK 150 Fixedheads really start at £60,000 with Dropheads and Roadsters £100,000 plus up to £250,000 or more for the ‘S’ versions. If that’s too rich a fare the XK140 is just as delicious despite having only 210bhp. It does have the same chassis as the XK150 including rack and pinion steering.

Just 1069 Series 1 and 11 Alvis TD 21s were made and because of high restoration costs there are few left particularly the Fixed Head Coupé. Prices are starting to rise with a good Fixedhead at £35,000 and a pristine Drophead around £100,000.

Just 174 Bristol 406s were made and even fewer are left thanks not only to high restoration costs but also because many were cannibalised for the wonderful engine which was used in much more valuable cars like the race-winning Cooper-Bristol and highly desirable AC Aces and Acecas. With recently rising prices, a good 406 will cost £70,000, if you can find one.

So when choosing there are some decisions; if you want a convertible, it will have to be an Alvis or Jag and if you want four seats it will have to be an Alvis or Bristol. If you want performance it will have to be the Jaguar. If you want an automatic it will have to be the XK or the TD21.

What’s the best to drive?

1st XK150 | 2nd 406 | 3rd TD21

One of the reasons the Jaguar and the Bristol are the two best cars to drive here is they are both fitted with rack and pinion steering as opposed to the recirculating ball steering box in the Alvis. Having said that, by the standards of steering systems, the Alvis is pretty good with little play, when properly maintained. All these drive better on the correct sized wheels and original specification cross-ply tyres (see our classic tyre feature in this issue-ed).

Despite being by far the cheapest back in 1958, the Jaguar, at 210bhp offers twice as much power as either of the other two and nearly twice as much torque. The XK150 engine was a development of the original unit launched in the XK120 although actually created for Jaguar saloons. It started with 160 bhp and in the XK140 that became 190 with a special equipment version of 210bhp. These were carried over to the 150 but very few 190bhp cars were sold. The XK’s extra power obviously shows up on the road and a properly set-up XK is a joy to drive and can be really hustled along winding roads yet with a very high-geared overdrive can cruise very quietly.

The Bristol comes second inour view and while the performance, despite the extra 250cc over the previous 405, is not exactly sparkling, the 406 is aerodynamically efficient and, thanks to aluminium panels, reasonably light in weight. This means the Bristol cuts along very nicely with quiet progress on motorways thanks to standard overdrive.

The first TD21s came with drum brakes and four-speed gearbox with standard discs and an optional overdrive coming later. These can be retro fitted and make a tremendous difference to braking and cruising. Cross country, the Alvis is the slowest of the three but speed isn’t everything and the TD is a very enjoyable car to drive. Mind you there is talk of prototype TDs running around with V8 engines; just think of the result if British Leyland, after acquiring Rover/Alvis and Jaguar/ Daimler had fitted the Edward Turner designed 4.5-litre V8 from the Daimler Majestic Major.

The Jag is obviously the most sporting but when all three are driven with restraint in touring mode they offer very pleasant experiences and long distances can be covered in quiet comfort.

Fuel consumption is likely to be 18-25mpg for all three although optional overdrive on the Jag will make a difference. It is ironic that Bristol 2-litre cars were never offered with automatic gearboxes but later V8 cars were never offered with manual. The Jaguar and Alvis on the other hand are offered with both manual and automatic, in both cases not a particularly pleasant Borg-Warner unit.

Owning and running

1st XK150 | 2nd TD21 | 3rd 406

It is incredible that considering how few Jaguar XK150s are left, parts are so freely and relatively cheaply available from the likes of David Manners, SNG Barratt Group, Martin Robey, Rimmer Bros, SC Parts and Moss Europe. There is some commonality with Jaguar saloons and also other classics of the day. Probably more with Jaguar than Alvis and Bristol, care has to be taken with some parts which may have been made in sweat shops in China.

Problems are down to poor quality control with British companies who commission these parts. These British companies commission parts with reputable Chinese suppliers and initial supplies are of good quality. But then the Chinese companies put the work out to the low-cost sweat shops to make more profit. Problems are only identified when restorers or enthusiasts try to fit these parts. Under pressure parts are modified to get the car on the road and nobody has time to complain to the commissioning company.

There are no such problems with Alvis and Bristol which effectively have factory support. All Alvis original drawings and parts are held by Red Triangle, set up after the Alvis car division was subject to a management buyout in 1968. There is a very healthy parts supply but prices are very high but at least these parts are there and very high quality. There are other independent parts suppliers like Chris Prince and Earley Engineering.

Bristol is similar and it was only in 2011 that it stopped making cars. Ironically, the Bristol Car company was bought out of receivership in 2011 by Fraser-Nash, the company that was originally bought by the Bristol Aeroplane Company in 1945 but sold in 1947. Limited Bristol production is to return with a high performance hybrid but in the meantime, Bristol Cars still sell and maintain classic Bristols and supply top quality parts, at a price.

Support for all three from owners clubs is excellent; Jaguar has a very specific Jaguar XK Club, the Jaguar Drivers Club and the Jaguar Enthusiasts Club which all offer excellent advice and support. For Alvis there is the excellent Alvis Owners Club and for Bristol, the Bristol Owners Club and the Bristol Owners and Drivers Association which is non-profit making and commissions obsolete parts and sells them at very reasonable prices.

And The Winner Is...

1st XK150 | 2nd TD21 | 3rd 406

Choosing a winner is extremely difficult – 1st equal would be much more appropriate. The Jaguar is arguably the best investment, the nicest to drive, the cheapest to run and offers the most alternative body styles: Fixedhead, Drophead and Roadster. But it only offers very, very small seats in the back so can be considered anti-social.

The Alvis drives very well but in a much more staid and gentlemanly way. It is available as a two-door sports saloon or a Drophead Coupé and offers four very comfortable seats. Provided the Alvis is a good example when purchased, it should be reasonably cheap to run but if major work is needed, funds will be required.

The Bristol is a lovely car; it drives beautifully, is extremely comfortable for four and is starting to rise in value but it is only available as a two door coupé. Bristol didn’t really do dropheads apart from a few 400s and 405s, one 409 and a handful of V8s.

However, if we’d included the Aston, then it would have taken top slot even at around £300,000 for a saloon and £700,000 for a drophead. The aluminium-bodied Mk 111 was a much better development of the DB 2/4 and overall performance and driver satisfaction is pretty much on par with the XK150. Half the value of a DB4 , we can see these earlier cars really taking off so buy now if you can afford one.

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