The model that began a luxurious line
There’s often a technology tumbledown when a war ceases and manufacturers look around for other ways to employ skills and manpower honed through years of making armaments. When the Bristol Aircraft Company found itself in that position after WWII, it chose to begin building cars – not family saloons for a mass market but sophisticated sporting machines that looked like nothing else on British roads.
Teaming up with AFN-Frazer Nash, importers of BMWs before the war, Bristol manufactured Frazer Nashes under licence but also drew on BMW technology to develop its own offering, the 400, which arrived in 1947. Both chassis and body show parentage from the pre-war 326 and 327 models, the grille clearly descended from the German firm’s famous kidney design. That’s no surprise as the man who designed the 300 series for BMW, Fritz Fiedler, came to Bristol to develop its new car. It’s because Bristol called its offering the 400 that, when Fiedler returned to Germany, post-war BMW model numbers began with a 5.
Under the 400’s curvaceous bonnet sat a modified version of the German six, using a complex pushrod system to contrive a hemi-head combustion chamber from a single camshaft. That produced 80bhp from 1971cc, a respectable figure at the time.
However, thanks to its aircraft heritage, the new Bristol Car Company’s offering was both better built and more aerodynamic than the already advanced BMW models it grew from. With its independent front suspension and well-located torsion-sprung rear axle it rode and handled nicely, while the smooth flanks and lack of protrusions helped those modest horses propel it to 92mph.
At a time when Britain was struggling, with everything at home rationed and industry desperate to sell abroad any cars it made (“Export or Die!” was the watchword), few people could afford or even obtain a car of any sort, so Bristol’s choice to concentrate on the luxury end, selling fewer but expensive cars, made sense. That would continue to be the pattern when colourful Tony Crook later became the firm’s proprietor; right to the end he resolutely refused to give production figures but Bristols remained rare and costly, appealing to individualists who enjoyed the sense of hand-built tradition.
But in 1946 the 400 looked like the future, and even today it displays remarkable composure on the road. The car at Graeme Hunt Ltd is particularly original, retaining its two-tone cabin trim and sporting a recently fettled three-carburettor engine. Over the years motoring journalists repeatedly described the Bristol as a ‘gentleman’s carriage’, a niche first elegantly carved by the sleek, smooth 400.