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“I think you could be looking at an engine rebuild.”
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear while sitting by the roadside, 2500 miles into a 6000-mile expedition to the Syrian border and back.
My sixth sense, finely honed after 20 years of marriage, told me it wasn’t the sort of news that would be entirely welcomed by my wife, either.
“What was that?” she asked suspiciously.
“Nothing serious, darling,” I replied.
“We’ll just keep an eye on the spark plugs.”
Welcome to the Bristol Owners’ Club Turkey Tour 2022, an innocent-sounding expedition that, halfway in, we had already renamed the Bristol Endurance Rally.
Our route, designed by Geoffrey and Hilary Herdman – marque trailblazers and owners of a 1956 405 drophead that has driven around the world – took us across Europe to Istanbul, then south-east to Cappadocia and on across the broiling Anatolian plain to Gaziantep, close to the boundary with wartorn Syria.
From there, if we made it that far, it was back down the Antalyan coast, north along the Aegean shore and then a different route through Europe, retracing some of the footsteps of Paddy Leigh Fermor, the war hero, travel writer and bon viveur.
Our convoy consisted of eight Bristols and one Bristol-powered AC Greyhound.
All the Bristols, bar a 1969 Chrysler V8-powered 410, were 2-litre, six-cylinder cars: a 1954 403, three 406s, the Herdman drophead and a couple of 1956 405 saloons, including ‘Frieda’, our car.
Technical know-how and ability ranged from extremely high (a couple of the team were accomplished spanner-wielders, one of whom has rebuilt Bristol engines) to non-existent (in 13 years of ownership and a few forays on the Continent, I had yet to change a spark plug).
There was, then, a certain air of trepidation felt in Team Frieda, notwithstanding our preparation: a full service and oil change, four new Michelin Taxi tyres, drum brakes re-lined, fresh battery, new indicator switch, horn fixed and a set of four USB charging ports installed.
Rob Kitchen of Norfolk Classic and Sports Cars, a specialist in long-distance rally preparation, even improvised an aluminium fuel-tank cover to prevent petrol vapour from wafting into the cabin.
A pre-departure, 1500-mile shakedown had revealed no nasties. We were all set.
The journey started superbly. They always do.
Our first day in France was a bit of a rude awakening – a shade under 500 miles to Dijon, and a reminder that seatbelts and wing mirrors would have been helpful – but, apart from the minor indignity of overheating in gridlock on the steep uphill approach to the Mont Blanc Tunnel, and the abject terror of contesting Italian motorways packed with tailgating, lane-weaving boy racers, we were all in one piece.
Even better, the engine was roaring magnificently so it was game on.
Those early days of September were a blur of high-speed, high-decibel motoring.
It was 300 miles to Thessaloniki one day, then 370 miles the next.
In a flash, we had all reached Istanbul without missing a beat: 1800 miles and counting.
The challenge of piloting a steadily overheating 405 through Istanbul’s traffic-thronged streets will forever be etched into my memory.
Then getting lost and entering a world of pain, chickens, scampering children and stubborn taxi drivers, before a steep climb in barely moving traffic to the Pera Palace Hotel.
In 1933-’34, the footloose 18-year-old Leigh Fermor had taken a blissful 13 months to reach Istanbul.
We took just five days.
After a couple of days’ rest and a volley of rakis, it was back into the Bristols.
Onwards to Eskişehir, a staging post for a raid on the Cappadocian heartland.
In Göreme we parked outside the Kelebek Special Cave Hotel and let the Bristols accumulate a thickening layer of dust thrown up by battalions of minibuses charging up the hill.
Time for a swim, a quick dip into lunar landscapes, fairy chimneys and ancient underground churches before a final thrust to Gaziantep, our easternmost point, a stone’s throw from the Syrian border.
It was getting hotter by the day: mid-30s degrees Celsius and only going up.
We were slogging across the sun-dazzled Anatolian plain one afternoon, the mercury rising relentlessly to 38ºC and beyond, when Frieda started getting flustered.
Then abruptly we lost power and juddered to a halt at the bottom of a sweeping hill.
This was the moment I most regretted my complete lack of technical skill.
I have no excuses, but it is a tribute to the Bristol’s outstanding reliability that I have never needed to do much with an oily rag.
The temperature was high and rising; morale was low and sinking.
Minutes ticked by and the tension mounted. How were we going to get out of this?
The situation was hopeless, but not serious, as the old Viennese saying goes.
Then along came Çan, a Turkish good Samaritan on a moped, who helped us swap out all six plugs – two were badly fouled – before escorting us, limping along on four or five miserable cylinders, to the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, the largest of its kind in the world.
For most of the Bristollers this was a cultural treat, surrounded by vast Hellenistic Greek and Roman portraits and panoramas.
For us it was merely a brief respite from the horrors of overheating and roadside repairs.
Heading into town from the museum, we descended into a pit of snarling, snail-pace traffic.
We lost power and, in the middle of the jammed-up old city and a snake of hooting drivers, we were pushed ignominiously off the road.
What the hell? We had done 2600 miles.
Over the years, my wife and I have often disagreed on the true meaning of the word ‘breakdown’.
Where I see a bit of overheating and a temporary loss of power as a regrettable yet inevitable and forgivable aspect of classic car ownership, she registers it as a complete failure to move.
Overheating aside, we’ve never had any serious issues in the 405.
I’d heard stories about the 404 and 405 being dogged by cooling issues from the very beginning.
The formal launch at the Paris motor show on 7 October 1954 brought some swooning coverage from the motoring press, which admired the sleek, flowing lines of this refined sporting saloon.
Behind the scenes, however, it was far from a bed of roses.
In a nutshell, the 404 and 405 tended to boil in traffic.
As a 30 November 1954 report from the development department of the Bristol Aeroplane Company Car Division confirmed: ‘Chronic boiling had occurred during a number of demonstrations to prospective customers, and this fault had resulted in considerable loss of business.’
Bristol modified the engine fan, reducing its diameter by an inch, altering the ratio of the fan pulley, reducing the angle between alternate blades from 90º to 60º and increasing the thickness of the blades. It did the trick.
‘Boiling in traffic should be completely eliminated,’ the report concluded.
That was then, however, and this is now.
Besides, we had a Kenlowe fan – although before leaving for Turkey I had removed the original fan because the clearance between it and the Kenlowe was extremely tight.
The mood in the courtyard of the beautiful Anadolu Evleri hotel that night was dark and filled with gloom.
We were as far from home as it was possible to get on this trip, and repatriation of the 405, if required, would be catastrophically expensive. But what is an adventure without the possibility of ruin?
From Gaziantep, all roads led west.
West, unfortunately, via a relentless series of hill climbs that tested Frieda’s cooling system to the limit and beyond.
Most of the group seemed to be managing handsomely, although Sean and Veryan Scott-Hayward were battling their own power delivery and overheating demons in their maroon 1960 406.
But tightening a loose needle-valve in one of the carburettors and rigging up a spare Facet electric fuel pump got them back on track.
I fended off well-meaning questions from our resident Bristol experts – did I know the history of our car’s engine? Had it ever been rebuilt? – and feared the worst.
In mid-September we came a cropper again.
Ploughing through a rainstorm while negotiating a series of tight hairpin bends on another hill-climbing session, we fell in behind one of those ancient Turkish trucks that cruise happily at around 5mph.
Cue overheating, power loss and the dangerous humiliation of rolling backwards, across the approaching lane of traffic, into a place of safety.
Later that same day, Frieda threw in the towel once again in the middle of stop-start-traffic-light-roundabout mayhem in the heart of Alanya.
We veered off the road and threw ourselves at the mercy of Bristol gurus David Jones and Manuel Hughes.
Within a few moments the diagnosis became clear: the wretched Kenlowe fan, or rather the electronic relay for it, was failing.
Manuel quickly rigged up a temporary solution so the fan remained on permanently, and we were back in business.
North of the yachting Mecca of Bodrum, 350 miles west of Alanya, the temperatures started to dip.
With a functioning fan, our fortunes took a swift turn for the better, and Frieda was a different car.
The lumpy, marriage-threatening four-to-five-cylinder discord was upgraded to a soaring symphony of six.
Suddenly we could see the sights again.
Where before gentle enquiries from our fellow travellers about which ancient site we were going to visit next had been met with an embarrassed silence, now we could take our time to explore some Aegean gems, such as the wind-blown acropolis of Pergamon and then Troy, a place of royalty, myth and legend.
Some of the Bristols were starting to show a few battle scars.
A gauge or two on the 403 and our 405 had given up the ghost.
At Çanakkale it was the 410’s turn to run into some trouble with a leaking fuel tank, although it was soon re-sealed and reinstalled.
The AC developed a whining gearbox and problems with the overdrive: a few nuts tightened, a large glug of oil, problem sorted.
The ignition switch on one of the 406s wobbled, but was fixed.
Homeward bound, through the potholed roads of Bulgaria and on into Romania to revive memories of Leigh Fermor’s Transylvanian adventures in a forest-carpeted wilderness.
There were darker historical diversions, first to Mauthausen, one of the most notorious Nazi death camps, then to Nuremberg, where we had the dubious pleasure of following in Hitler’s footsteps on the Albert Speer-built Zeppelinfeld, scene of six Nazi party rallies.
Some 29 days and 6205 miles after our departure we made it back to Norfolk, still running fantastically.
All told, the eight Bristols and one AC had notched up a collective 54,000 miles, which we will claim as a world record for a single Bristol-powered outing.
It is a reminder, although none is really needed, that Bristols were superb handbuilt cars, beautifully put together by highly skilled aeronautical engineers retained after the war.
As for Frieda, her journey finished where it had begun, at Norfolk Classic and Sports Cars.
Feeling sick at the thought of horrifying expense, I mentioned the most dire diagnoses of our difficulties.
Rob rolled his eyes. “They’ve been reading too many magazine stories,” he said laconically.
An engine rebuild, for now at least, is off the agenda.
Words and images: Justin Marozzi (unless stated otherwise)
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