For the latest classic car news, features, buyer’s guides and classifieds, sign up to the C&SC newsletter here
With a few exceptions, Mercedes’ classic ‘chrome bumper’-era coupés and sports cars always tended to be vastly overrated and overvalued.
The Pagodas, 3.5 Coupés and fin-tails are nice cars, but not spectacularly interesting; nor have I ever understood the appeal of the wheezing, underwhelming 190SL.
Similarly, the W180 Ponton-based coupés of the ’50s are nicely engineered and handsome – in a slightly chrome-laden, frumpy way – but offer nothing special in the way of driving satisfaction.
To be fair, they don’t come up for sale that often – but when they do, buyers apparently lose all sense of reality when it comes to lobbing out the dosh.
What they should really be doing, of course, is taking a deep breath and looking for something else that fits the bill, preferably for a lot less money. And to my mind, that something else is the Bristol 406.
The Bristol 406 won't float everyone's boat, but I love them all the same. I’m not sure that the Filton-based former aircraft manufacturers ever made a car with a better balance of virtues than this once-unloved variant.
It seemed to be the forgotten Bristol, with neither the enthusiast appeal of the earlier six-cylinder cars nor the lazy power of the V8s. When values were really low in the ’70s, a lot of 406s lost their engines. Even now, few have been comprehensively restored.
Like the Mercedes, it’s a six-cylinder 2.2-litre four-seater from the late ’50s – but it’s a stronger and much more durable vehicle than the rot-prone German, thanks to its alloy body and separate chassis.
The Bristol trumps the Mercedes massively in the exclusivity department, with just 174 cars to the 1251 220S Coupés.
For its capacity, the 406 must have been one of the most expensive 2-litre cars in the world at £4244 in 1958. Having said that, the Mercedes’ eye-watering £4000 UK price-tag ensured its rarity in the British motoring landscape, where it was the preserve of the likes of Lionel Bart.
But while certain parallels can be drawn, the Benz and the Bristol appealed to very different people, and still do.
The 406 was a cerebral engineer’s car for the man who understood that it would last a long time and revelled in the driving skills that allowed him to exploit it.
In comparison, the 220S, for all its solid Germanic virtues, was a bit ‘showbiz’, what with its whitewall tyres and the fact that it could often be found wearing two-tone paint schemes.
If the Bristol was a car for square-jawed test pilots of the new jet age, you almost had to be a bit of a cad to want a Mercedes. The fact that ex-Nazi Dr Wernher von Braun had a 220S Coupé while working on the American space programme conforms to every cliché about 1950s Mercedes and their at times slightly dubious owners.
In fairness Jon Voight, the Nazi-hunting hero of The Odessa File, rescued the model’s reputation (at least in my eyes) by using a Cabriolet version in the 1974 film. The only significant role for a Bristol 406 I know of is in the 1961 film Victim, driven by Dirk Bogarde.
The 406 is more of a well-kept secret. Built from 1958-’61, it has an appeal all of its own as the last Bristol to be conceived within the aerospace group before the car-making activities were sold off.
With its four-wheel Dunlop disc brakes (drums all round on the Mercedes) and Watt linkage on its live rear axle, it is the most highly specified and thoroughly sorted of the six-cylinder Bristols that were developed directly from the pre-war 2-litre BMW range.
Its bigger, 105bhp 2.2-litre Type 110 unit (first seen in the BMW 328, probably the best sports car of the ’30s) was intelligently improved to give a maturing ownership demographic a more flexible and relaxing car.
It had room for four full-sized passengers in a re-planned interior, and could pull a generously high top gear; the self-cancelling overdrive gave nearly 25mph per 1000rpm.
For Bristol, it marked a return to two doors after the four-door, wood-framed 405. The result is, to my eyes, not only the last really good-looking Bristol but also one of the best-looking overall, with lots of items of detail quality that were lost on later V8 versions, such as the flip-up integrated headrests in the front seats.
Next to the elegant but plump 220S Coupé, the 406 looks lean and delightfully unadorned, like comparing a one-armed bandit with a classic piece of furniture.
The cabin is a big part of its charm. In the 406, Bristol hit on a pleasing formula that it carried through until the Blenheim, clustering a proper set of circular instruments in a handsome nacelle behind a classic dropped-spoke steering wheel that suggested aircraft controls.
The Benz was undeniably good to drive by ’50s standards, with a free-revving engine, a smooth ride and predictable handling.
Yet it is nothing like as special and involving as the British car. The Bristol, with its hemispherical combustion chambers and complex cross-pushrods, was ready to wind out eagerly to 5500rpm, with a throaty blare that sounds expensive.
It was never a truly quick car in any overall sense, yet its four closely stacked gears made it feel more like a sports car and less like the chairman’s luxury carriage that Bristol intended it to be. Steering, gear shift and brakes feature in descending order of brilliance. The ride is firm but controlled, its central gear change a delight, like a giant switch.
So, while I can imagine almost anyone being very happy with the pretty, luxurious Mercedes 220S as an all-rounder, it was never intended to be an uncompromising enthusiast’s car in the same way as the 406.
So before you blow £60,000 on that 220 Coupé, can I please direct you to the Bristol 406? It’s even more beautifully made than the Mercedes (to aircraft standards, in fact) and could be yours for £40,000 or less.
Images: James Mann