For some, a Rolls was too ostentatious. For some, a Jaguar too common and flashy. A Mercedes or BMW, too, well, German. Italian cars were simply too exotic. Even a Bentley was too obvious. For these people, however, there was Bristol.
Bristol was always a car maker for a very few people. Production at its peak was about 150 automobiles per year, two or three per week. Every one was specially ordered, every one custom tailored, built to the highest craftsmanship. Bristols have not, however, been high points in automotive styling.
It had been that way since Bristol began making cars in 1946. The Bristol Aeroplane Co. added automobiles to its postwar plans which it did not see including enough aircraft production for solvency. But after the Car Division’s own prototype had crashed rather conclusively—the a radial engine mounted high in the rear made it handle rather like a sailboat with a lead mast—Bristol turned to the designs of pre-war BMWs to shorten development time for a production-ready vehicle.
It was a fortuitous decision, for Bristol continued to rely on the 6.5-inch deep box section frame well into the ‘80s with only detail changes. Even the two-liter BMW engine served until the early ‘60s, only then failing to provide the performance differential expected over more common, less expensive automobiles. Bristol was loathe to change, but even highly tuned, the inline six couldn’t move the solid (read “on the heavy side”) cars fast enough.
There was an in-house project to replace the aging engine, but the beautiful twin-cam six under development was scuttled because of financial need on the part of the aircraft division. As a result, there would be no alternative but to go outside for an engine. Logic supported an American V-8—technologically unexciting, but possessing an excellent power-to-weight ratio and a compact layout. After due consideration, the Chrysler 318 with a Torqueflite automatic transmission was chosen.
Actually, it wasn’t the 318, but the Chrysler of Canada’s 313, to keep it within the Commonwealth, one supposes. Chrysler built a unique of the engine for Bristol, with the hemi head, a high-lift camshaft with mechanical lifters replacing the hydraulics, a four barrel Carter carburetor and a larger capacity oil pan. Once at Bristol’s facilities in Filton, however, Bristol virtually rebuilt the engine to its exacting specifications.
The engine was then eased into the bay of the Bristol 407 for the 1961 model year—starting a tradition that would continue even into a sports car produced in 2004, the Bristol Fighter. The 407 was actually a transition model, a Bristol 406 with the V-8. Both stayed true to the aircraft-inspired design that began with the Bristol 404 in 1953, when that model replaced the BMW-like 400 through 403 model cars.
The Bristol 408 came in 1963. It was an example of how much and how little a car could change. Gone was the streamlined snout of the earlier cars, replaced by a rectangular cavern housing an extra pair of lamps and a Venetian blind grille. The headlamps and turn indicators were mounted on vertical slabs, and the greenhouse, though actually lower, was squared off for more rear seat headroom. Appropriately enough for an aircraft manufacturer, the body was wholly aluminum.
Underneath, however, it was still all Bristol. The welded steel box section frame remained, and the 408 continued the double wishbone and coil front suspension the 407 inaugurated in lieu of the earlier transverse lower leaf arrangement. At the rear was the same live axle on longitudinal torsion bars that would continue long after the 408 would be superseded. Dunlop disc brakes were still at all corners, and the 408 did not break the Bristol tradition of locating the battery and various electrics under a door in the fender on the passenger side, and the spare tire on the other.
The Chrysler 313 was continued for all of the Bristol 408’s two-year model run, except on the final two cars. Three, known as the Bristol 408 Mark 2, received a 318 cubic inch version of the motor and a Torqueflite updated to include Park of the shift quadrant, i.e., another pushbutton on the dash.
The pushbutton transmission is complemented by a drooping mustache-spoked steering wheel. The wheel is unusual, looking like a cross between a pilot’s yoke and an automotive steerer, but it does afford an unobstructed view of the seven gauges neatly clustered in a nacelle and mounted in walnut veneer.
The interior is a roomy place, and it’s comfortable as going home. It’s a true four seater, with ample space for a pair of back seat passengers. The only trouble is getting in. The 408 is a two-door, and the portals aren’t all that big.
The Bristol 408 continues that domesticated feeling on the road, too. It’s quiet. The engine doesn’t intrude, being audible only when you listen for it. The ride is syrupy, smooth and sticky. Bristol avoided the “pillow soft” feel of which Detroit was so enamored, but instead achieving firm but gentle.” Much of the credit must go to the massive frame which by its strength allows no chassis shake or shudder, much less significant chassis flex, even over rough roads.
If the ride is house-like, though, so is the steering. At low speeds it will build shoulders and biceps faster than Charles Atlas, and although the heaviness diminishes with speed, it’s replaced by a combination of stiction and numbness. Bristol hadn’t completely sorted the new double-wishbone on the 408; the 409 reportedly was much improved.
It seems to be on rolling two-lane highways that the Bristol 408 is most at home. The 318 is able to move the 3,500 pound car rather smartly for the era, turning the quarter mile in 16.1 seconds, and the steering provides best feel when it’s turning. It’s just the thing for an antique hunting jaunt into the country. The trunk, which compares favorably to a Manhattan apartment, is also big enough for luggage for four and a whole bunch of old junk.
Of course, it would take very special people to appreciate the Bristol, both in attitude and in checking (chequing?) account: The UK price for a 1964 was £4,461, that in a time when a pound Sterling cost between three and four of Uncle Sam’s dollars. And that for a car with questionable aesthetics. No wonder 300 or so Bristol 408s made, most were destined to remain at home in Great Britain. Few went abroad, and fewer still were originally built with left hand drive for foreign destinations.
But then, it really isn’t all that bad looking, especially from the right angles. And there is the comfort factor, not to mention the knock-down-stone-walls crash safety Bristol enthusiasts enjoy. The safety factor. Not the knocking down walls so much.
The Bristol 408 is a car which seemingly takes a while to get to know—and appreciate.