If you evaluate cars merely by armchair number-crunching, then the subtle charms of the apparently over-bodied – and seemingly underpowered – Alfa Romeo 2000 Sprint and Bristol 406 may have eluded you.
As handsome four-seater coupés for the early ’60s ‘connoisseur’ market, both looked supremely poor value in period when you could buy much more performance for half – or even a third – of the price elsewhere.
Any number of Jaguars did most things just as well as (and many things better than) these cars.
Even proletarian six-cylinder saloons from Ford and Vauxhall had democratised 100mph performance, vastly narrowing the margin of superiority enjoyed by indulgently costly possessions such as the Bristol and Alfa.
But to judge such cars on that basis would miss the point.
Price mattered much less in the rarefied, now long-lost world these exclusive vehicles inhabited.
It was a time when the reputation of exotic, high-end cars almost thrived on the size of their price-tag and the perception of exclusivity it carried among well-heeled gentlefolk – the sort of people who still paid in guineas and probably hadn’t bought their own furniture for several generations.
The 1958 Bristol 406 was the most refined derivative of a six-cylinder concept that had its origins in pre-war BMW technology.
Its 105bhp, 2216cc Type 110 engine was produced in a quest for increased torque while retaining eager triple-Solex throttle response.
But the fact that its new style of two-door, three-volume bodywork was now built in London by Jones Brothers of Willesden (the bare chassis were actually driven up to the capital), rather than in-house at Bristol, shows an increasing lack of commitment to car-building activity at Filton.
Behind the scenes, plans for an all-new, unitary-bodied, semi-volume model (with a much bigger engine) had been dropped, leaving the future of the car-making division in the balance against an uncertain background of government-sponsored co-operative deals.
A new company called Bristol-Siddeley was set up in 1959 to develop jointly the Olympus engines for Concorde, further diverting focus from the car division.
Plans for an Armstrong Siddeley Star Sapphire-engined 406 were wisely dropped, and the 406 reinvented itself as the V8-engined 407 in 1961, with the car produced privately and independently of Bristol’s airframe and aero-engine activities.
We know this Alfa better as the six-cylinder 2600 Sprint, but the Bertone shape – the first by a young designer called Giorgetto Giugiaro – was unveiled in 1960 as the 115bhp 2000, the newest member of Alfa’s senior line of larger-engined Tipo 102 cars, with their origins in the 1900 range but renamed ‘2000’ for 1958.
Had it been offered officially in the UK in 2-litre form, the Sprint would have been of marginal interest to British buyers.
Even so, it would at least have had the excuse of swingeing import tax: at £4244 in 1958, the new Bristol 406 was quite possibly the world’s most expensive 2-litre car, good for just over 100mph.
For that you got a truly handmade and highly individualistic four-seater with an aluminium body, separate chassis, countless unseen detail refinements and a potential for long service that was endemic to its ‘built to aircraft standards’ character.
Without opening the bonnet, the quick way to differentiate a 406 and a V8 407 is the lack of roof-mounted indicators on the Chrysler-engined car; apart from the missing bonnet scoop, it is almost impossible to tell a 2000 Sprint from the much more ubiquitous 2600, of which nearly 7000 were built through to 1967.
Like the Bristol, the Alfa Romeo was an owner-driver car for professional and recreational purposes, cast in the very latest Italian gran turismo idiom.
Precursor of so many 1960s coupé designs, it is hard to believe less than two years separate the big Alfa from the handsome but formal Bristol.
With its slender roof posts and fashionable quad headlights merged within its front grille, the 2000 Sprint was a graceful yet shockingly modern shape in 1960, and widely regarded as one of the world’s most beautiful production automobiles.
The 406 and 407 featured perhaps the last conventionally good-looking Bristol outline.
It appears – and is – rather longer than the Alfa, and is a little heavier, too.
More of a two-door saloon than a coupé – with roomy rear seats and plenty of headroom – the 406 runs giant 16in wheels and has provision for a starting handle.
It seems to be the product of a quite a different sensibility, yet the dignified Bristol trumps the more conservative Alfa Romeo in its use of all-round Dunlop disc brakes and rack-and-pinion steering, while equalling the Italian car in the sophistication of its rear-axle location, where a Watt linkage – and clever rocking levers on the differential casing – allowed a lower roll centre than that of previous models, but still using torsion bars.
The 406’s front suspension would be the last hurrah for the pre-war, BMW-style transverse leaf spring (the nose-heavy 407 had a new coil-sprung design), whereas the Alfa’s combination of coils and wishbones at the front – and a live rear axle controlled by radius arms – reads much like later 105-series cars, but with the curious omission of anti-roll bars at either end.
Lift the Alfa’s front-hinged bonnet and the elegant symmetry of its double-overhead-cam in-line ‘four’ seems closer to the firm’s pre-war output than the superficially similar but smaller Giulietta engine, which had a much shorter stroke and an alloy block.
The Bristol’s tall, narrow straight-six looks like a twin-cam, but the dual covers hide the pushrods and rockers for the 60º inlet valves, while transverse pushrods operate the exhaust valves, all in the name of good breathing.
You enter both cars through long doors giving easy access to the rear seats.
Inside, the Alfa, with its low waist, feels very airy.
It looks superficially as carefully finished as the Bristol, albeit to a slightly flashier design.
If anything, it is probably more highly specified, featuring electric front windows, a hand throttle and telltales for choke, main beam and heater fan – and column stalks, too, at a time when such thoughtful ergonomics were not common.
Less good is the random movement of the Alfa’s flailing clap-hands wipers.
The Bristol’s Reutter reclining front seats must have been among the first with built-in headrests.
The handsome instrument nacelle, the dropped spokes of its steering wheel and the pleasing use of veneers and quality leather give the 406 a more patrician feel than the Alfa, which has less head, knee and elbow room, and a small boot for a car with ‘GT’ ambitions.
As in the 405, Bristol saved space in the uncluttered luggage locker by fitting the spare wheel in the famous storage bays allowed by the long front wings.
With 20bhp more power to pull slightly less weight, the Alfa feels marginally livelier on the road, but part of this impression could be down to gearing: the Bristol pulls a leggy 24.2mph per 1000rpm in overdrive fourth, compared with the Alfa’s 18.8mph in fifth.
Both engines rev freely to 5000rpm, the difference being that to make satisfactory progress in the Bristol this is almost a necessity rather than an option.
Neither car is especially quiet, but, if anything, the Alfa’s ‘four’ is smoother than the Bristol’s ‘six’, with a hint of sluicing from the twin Weber carbs as you progress through the five well-spaced gears.
The long lever has a smooth, precise and satisfying action that is a high point of the car, and you can use fifth from 40mph.
The Bristol’s throaty induction roar blends with a hard-edged valvetrain thrash to produce a glorious sound under acceleration, although you should not take from this that the 406 is anything less than flexible and well-mannered at low speeds.
The noisy valvegear is at odds with its dignified image as a tycoon’s express, but the joy is in the feel and handling of its beautifully calibrated main controls.
The ridged, ball-jointed throttle linkage gives fine control over revs, so you can blip the throttle for perfect downchanges in a beautifully precise, narrow-gated gearbox.
Extend a digit on your right hand and you can flick into overdrive on a little chrome lever; change down to third and it automatically clicks out of overdrive.
A freewheel on first takes some of the effort out of low-speed driving, when you tend to notice the Bristol’s fairly hefty clutch.
The brakes, floor-hinged like the Alfa’s, need a meaty shove but perform well; the Sprint’s are less certain in feel, with too much travel.
Whipping easily and sweetly between top and fourth, both cars assert themselves well, and you scarcely miss the torque and power of their bigger-engined successors or the heavier and more ponderous steering that was a consequence of fitting bigger, heavier engines.
Like the Bristol, the Alfa Romeo’s steering is weighty at low speeds, but – also like the Bristol – has a usefully high-geared three turns between locks.
It feels light and direct on the move, with smooth castor return.
Both cars are more agile and stable than their age and size suggest, while sharing a similarly well-judged compromise between ride comfort and handling that must have been among the best available at the time.
Only the most vicious potholes catch out the live rear axles on these firm-riding but comfortable cars.
The Bristol is neutral in its cornering, but transmits some road shocks through the steering, which has no slop or mechanical stickiness.
It hangs on well on its skinny rubber and rolls less than the slightly softer Alfa.
The secure and highly controllable 406 has a weighty dignity that demands you drive it with something less than the abandon the Italian car seems to invite.
If the eager, agile 2000 Sprint is not quite in the 105-series coupé league for undistilled driver appeal, it’s not as far removed as you might think.
The 406 was the last six-cylinder Bristol.
Having been made a shareholder in the newly independent Bristol Cars Ltd, Tony Crook brought the retailing of the subsequent V8 models in-house through the Kensington High Street showroom.
Alfa was probably not even on Crook’s radar as a rival for Bristol custom.
Selling expensive, import-duty-loaded foreign machinery to British buyers was still hard work in those days; Alfa Romeo didn’t even have a factory-backed UK import set-up in 1960, preferring to let local distributor Thomson & Taylor sell its Giulietta range and a handful of 2000 saloons and Spiders.
There were no right-hooker Bertone Sprints until the introduction of the six-cylinder 2600 in 1962.
Both the 406 and 2000 Sprint are transitional models between the more engineering-led values of the 1950s and the dash for additional urge, luxury and weight in the ’60s.
Production totals show how divergent were the ambitions of Filton and Arese: fewer than 200 Bristol 406s were laid down between 1958 and ’61, compared with 705 Sprints through to 1962.
If the 406 was the product of a company that increasingly saw car making as an inconvenience, you can see how Alfa may have been having similar thoughts about the future of low-volume models such as the 2000 Sprint, a car produced almost out of sentiment for a dwindling band of traditional customers who wanted a larger and more exclusive vehicle than the populist post-1955 Giulietta.
As a close relative of the 1900, the 2000 Sprint was a hand-finished compromise between Alfa’s pre-war output and the truly mass-produced lightweight 101- and 105-series models upon which Alfa’s fortunes were based.
The highly prized Zagato versions get more coverage, but there is much to be said in favour of the once somewhat unloved Bristol 406.
Handier than a Bentley, less ubiquitous than a Jaguar and much less stuffy than a Daimler or an Alvis, the 406 was for well-heeled individualists who wanted a car that could cover ground quickly when guided by expert hands; one that was practical and distinguished but in no way ostentatious.
Certainly, there are better Alfa Romeos than the 2000 Sprint, yet it has a charm separate from that of both the Giulietta and Giulia, and it adds intrigue.
I feel drawn to its beauty and glamour, although not quite enough to displace the 406 as one of my preferred takes on a favourite marque.
Images: Jayson Fong
Alfa Romeo 2000 Sprint
- Sold/number built 1960-’62/705
- Construction steel monocoque
- Engine all-alloy, dohc 1975cc ‘four’, twin Weber carburettors
- Max power 115bhp @ 5300rpm
- Max torque 112Ib ft @ 3500rpm
- Transmission five-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by double wishbones rear live axle, radius arms, triangulated link; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering Marles worm and roller
- Brakes finned alloy drums
- Length 15ft (4572mm)
- Width 5ft 7in (1702mm)
- Height 4ft 7in (1397mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 5in (2565mm)
- Weight 2950Ib (1338kg)
- 0-60mph 14 secs
- Top speed 112mph
- Mpg 18-25
- Price new £3000
- Price now £50-75,000*
- Sold/number built 1958-’61/174
- Construction alloy body over tubular steel frame, steel box-section chassis
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 2216cc straight-six, triple Solex carburettors
- Max power 105bhp @ 4700rpm
- Max torque 129Ib ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual with overdrive on top, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by upper wishbones, transverse leaf spring, anti-roll bar rear live axle, torsion bars, torque arm, Watt linkage; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes discs, with servo
- Length 16ft 4¼in (4978mm)
- Width 5ft 8in (1727mm)
- Height 5ft (1524mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 6in (2896mm)
- Weight 3010Ib (1365kg)
- 0-60mph 14 secs
- Top speed 100mph
- Mpg 20-26
- Price new £4244
- Price now £40-60,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication
Enjoy more of the world’s best classic car content every month when you subscribe to C&SC – get our latest deals here