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Created for a post-war seller’s market that had all but disappeared by the middle of the decade, which explains a total combined output of fewer than 1000 for both cars, they appealed to a constituency of buyers for whom the Coventry product was probably not even on the shopping list.
That both were available as four-seater dropheads shows how, at least in one area, these more specialised makes could trump the Jaguar offering, filling a gap left by the demise of the MkV drophead in 1951.
Not that their open-top sales figures would have worried Jaguar much – at just 43 Bristols and 55 Lagondas – but it does illustrate how the two marques could afford, and were adaptable enough to contrive, short runs of even more specialised models.
Alvis and Jensen both still made big, open-topped four-seaters but, at rather more than twice the cost of a Jaguar MkVIII or a MkIX, the Lagonda and Bristol were true carriage-trade offerings built for a dwindling element of the British luxury market.
These were the very wealthy buyers who, while not yet ready for a Bentley, put a premium on detail refinement and handcrafted individualism in an upmarket car with sportif overtones.
Such people were not sensitive to price but very sensitive to image: Lagondas and Bristols, rarely spotted on the roads even in their heyday, were built to order for those who expected to pay a lot of money for a motor car and valued the exclusivity that came with the big price ticket.
They were the products of a time when skilled labour was freely and inexpensively available, although I suspect the profit margins on both were sliced thinner than the post-war housewife’s weekly ham allowance.
Rationing ended in 1954, the year the Bristol 405 – the firm’s one and only four-door saloon – was introduced at the Paris Auto Salon.
The Lagonda 3 Litre had been launched the year before at the same venue, a restyled version – offered either open or closed – of the WO Bentley-designed 2.6 Litre range that had been one of the first all-new British cars to be announced after the end of the Second World War.
Unlike the meticulously costed Jaguars, neither the Lagonda nor the Bristol would have existed without the subsidy of their parent organisations.
They were effectively headline ‘trophy’ products of corporations with a much wider engineering brief.
The Lagonda was almost a vanity project for owner David Brown, who never made any secret of the fact that he bought the Staines-based company in 1947 as a diversionary activity from his main (and profitable) business of building tractors, and cutting gears, in Huddersfield.
The Bristol Aeroplane Company went into the car business with more focused ambitions: to keep its former wartime workers occupied.
But it never recaptured the production levels of its first 1947-’50 400 model. After this initial flurry of activity, in a product-starved market, car making at Filton settled down to become very much an adjunct to the main focus of airframe and aero-engine production as the civilian industry began to pick up.
Not that there was a shortage of ambition or activity within the car division in the mid-’50s; the 405, fitted with overdrive as standard and the latest 105bhp 100B engine, was built alongside the short-wheelbase 404 coupé and crossed over for quite a while with the last of the 403s.
Meanwhile, the odd-looking 450 Le Mans cars (C&SC, January 2019) were helping to promote the marque and there were even plans under way for an all-new model, the Type 220.
That was only curtailed by problems with the development of the Britannia aircraft, causing the parent company to haemorrhage money.
With its feisty straight-six and sophisticated chassis, the Bristol 2-litre family seemed to be at the forefront of British technology.
In truth, the technology was not very new or very British, but created from the best of BMW’s 1930s componentry harvested from the remains of the Bayerische Motoren Werke as war reparations.
The link with the revered BMW 328 gave the 405 and its predecessors an instant credibility that was nicely enhanced by the notion that these were cars truly ‘built to aircraft standards’.
Like the Aerodyne 401 and 403, the 405 was made in 18-gauge aluminium but with ash framing around the passenger compartment to support the roof, although the Abbott-built convertibles naturally lost most of this.
Probably no bad thing, because it gained the car a reputation for timber rot that tended to suppress the secondhand values of what was otherwise considered one of the best of the six-cylinder Bristols.
The 405 drophead was the first open Bristol since the 402 and is among the rarest and most prized of the firm’s output, although in 1954 it was unusual among expensive convertibles in retailing at exactly same price as its saloon sibling: £3188.
The chassis, only fitted with bodywork forward of the front doors, were driven from Filton to the Abbott works at Farnham in batches of half a dozen and only bodied on receipt of an order.
It has been suggested that once Abbott captured the big Ford contract to produce its estate cars, a fair proportion of the Bristol work was subcontracted out to other coachbuilders including Tickford, which built the Lagonda 3 Litre bodies in all configurations.
Despite having a pedigree that went back to 1906 and included such revered exotica as the V12s of the ’30s, the post-war 2.6 and 3 Litre Lagondas somehow had more to prove, and certainly more to live up to, than the Bristol.
It was David Brown’s fondness for those grand pre-war supercars that had caused him to rescue Lagonda in the early post-war years and, alongside Aston Martin, give the brand sanctuary within his tractor-building group.
Under stylist Frank Feeley’s new high-waisted but somehow graceful Tickford-built body lurked an ambitious specification that included one of Britain’s first production twin-overhead camshaft engines, a wet-linered 2922cc straight-six good for 140bhp that was first seen in 3-litre form in the DB3 sports-racers.
The LB6, with its alloy ‘cheeses’ to locate the four main bearings to the crankshaft diaphragm, was created specifically for the post-war Lagonda saloons but would find a much more famous home in the various DB2 and DB2/4 Astons of the ’50s.
It was built in DB’s Yorkshire factory alongside the car’s all-synchromesh gearbox and its deep cruciform chassis, which featured inboard rear brakes, rack-and-pinion steering, Jackall built-in hydraulic jacks and, most impressive of all, fully independent suspension.
It comprised coils at the front and torsion bars at the back, linked to the rear hubs by short wishbones and with tubular arms hinged off the differential, thus conferring some rather unhappy swing-axle geometry effects on the Lagonda’s handling.
A full 8in longer than the cherubic 2.6 Litre saloon, the 3 Litre’s extra length tended to highlight the short wheelbase and the fact that space in the rear was rather tight, even after the last-of-the-line four-doors took over from the coupé 3 Litres in’ 56.
It would be fair to say that the3 Litres have never been much fancied; in the 1960s,’70s and probably into the ’80s a fair proportion were plundered for their engines.
The drophead versions, though, such as this sand-coloured and nicely original example that is for sale with SLJ Hackett in Warminster, tend to have a better survival rate and a higher value.
Next to the lower-slung, more self-effacing Bristol 405, the slab-sided Lagonda looks like a giant Dinky toy, or an overgrown pedal car.
Feeley didn’t have the sure touch with the new fashion for full-width styling that the likes of William Lyons demonstrated so effortlessly.
That’s not to say the 3 Litre drophead doesn’t have some graceful lines and angles, particularly from the rear three-quarter.
It has a likeable air of pomposity; if James Robertson Justice didn’t own a Lagonda 3 Litre, he should have.
It takes two people to lower its beautifully contrived hood that, like the Bristol’s, has a tiny rear window and massive ‘blind’ rear quarters.
It also has a de Ville position that leaves the rear seats enclosed but the front seats open to the elements. That feels like a very pre-war feature, as do the rear-hinged front doors; was this the last British production car to have them?
Compared to the Bristol’s tidy, handsome binnacle, the Lagonda fascia is a slightly uninspiring block of walnut with the three main instruments behind the massive steering wheel.
Its ignition and light controls are more handily positioned for the passenger than the driver, too. Neither car is a triumph of packaging but the Lagonda is the roomier of the two, particularly in the rear.
And while its split-bench front seat does not look as inviting as the Bristol’s pleasingly shaped semi-buckets, it somewhat redeems itself by having left- and right-handed armrests for each front-seat occupant.
To be honest, it’s quite a relief to have somewhere to rest your weary limbs after doing any kind of low- or medium-speed manoeuvring in the Lagonda, which has a much heftier, more ‘vintage’ feel than the Bristol. Buy this car and you can cancel your gym membership because the clutch and brakes are pretty heavy, too, so at least the levels of effort are well matched.
The steering is high-geared and accurate, but you cannot negotiate a fast country road with anything like the gusto of the Bristol, which corners with a lot less drama.
Where the 405 feels – and looks – completely at home when cornered ambitiously, in a way that totally transcends expectations and the age of the design, you feel like a hooligan when exploring the limits of the 3 Litre.
The sight of it leaning into a corner puts expressions of both awe and anxiety on to the faces of onlookers.
The Lagonda will do what is asked of it, but not very graciously; neither does it relish being casually tossed around, and it will make you work disproportionately hard when doing so.
In the right combination of circumstances, you also notice a sense of what I want to call oversteer but feels more like rear-wheel steering.
In contrast, the beautifully smooth, light Bristol steering loads up much less and, in combination with a gearchange so slick you look for excuses to use it, leaves you with an impression of a much more nimble, agile and ‘personal’ machine that is on your side, urging you to drive it hard.
Its ratios are just right, too, with an 80mph third, a speed at which the 405 will happily cruise in its automatically disengaging overdrive top.
The Lagonda does have its good points, and a lot of charm. Certainly a 1000lb disparity in weight means that the 3 Litre needs every one of its extra 35bhp, but it does begin to lift its skirts if you use the gears freely.
This is not a chore, because the Lagonda’s impressive gearchange only seems slightly routine in light of the Bristol’s legendarily sweet mechanism.
This 1954 3 Litre was originally fitted with a column shift but now has a centre change; the lever has longer movements than the Bristol’s, but you can’t catch out its synchromesh.
The Bristol and Lagonda are really saloons powered by sports car engines: the Lagonda’s handsome twin-cam lump even looks slightly lost in the deep bay.
To extract performance from it requires that you rev it harder than might feel strictly prudent at first. In fact, it will happily rev quite a lot higher, and more smoothly, than the Bristol engine.
It also sounds more modern and less fussy doing so, bereft of the ‘grannies in a knitting competition’ sound effects that give the Bristol unit such a distinctive feel, but it is still noisy in view of the car’s luxury aspirations.
Neither engine is overburdened with torque but the Lagonda is much more flexible at low speeds.
Too few people shared David Brown’s dream of a post-war Lagonda with vintage attributes. I have always admired them from afar, but every close encounter makes their lack of commercial success easier to understand.
As a saloon it was not quite roomy enough to be chauffeur-driven, yet too much like hard work for people who wanted to drive themselves, with no power steering or automatic gearbox options.
That David Brown felt the need to slash prices of the 3 Litre range by a third at 1956 motor show time was a telling commentary on the difficulty he was having selling them.
MkIIs, with the floor gearchange, ran from 1956 to 1958, but by then public indifference to the big Lagondas was too much for even David Brown’s organisation to bear and they faded from view with no obvious replacement on the horizon.
DB had not lost interest in the marque but his mind, and money, were elsewhere – mostly with the development of the new DB4.
While 510 of the 2.6 Litre were built, the 3 Litres are much rarer than you might think at 270 examples.
If you accept that subsequent Lagonda-badged cars were really just adapted AstonMartins then the3 Litre is the last ‘real’ Lagonda with links to the great pre-war models. That should count for something, and the £89,000 price-tag attached to this one suggests it might do.
The Bristol is emphatically the nicer car to drive and, arguably, the prettier to look at. But, if I were looking for a ‘period’ four-seater English convertible, the £100,000 price disparity might give me cause to have a suck on this particular lemon.
Images: James Mann
Lagonda 3 Litre Drophead Coupé
- Sold/number built 1953-’58/55
- Construction steel cruciform chassis and floor/bulkheads, aluminium body over wood frame
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, dohc 2922cc straight-six, twin SU carbs
- Max power 140bhp @ 5000rpm
- Max torque 164Ib ft @ 3000rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension independent, at front by double wishbones, coil springs rear swing axles, torsion bars, parallel links; lever-arm dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes drums
- Length 16ft 4in (4978mm)
- Width 5ft 9½in (1765mm)
- Height 5ft 2in (1575mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 5½in (2883mm)
- Weight 3527lb (1600kg)
- 0-60mph 15.8 secs
- Top speed 100mph
- Mpg 16-19
- Price new £2957
- Price now £90,000*
Bristol 405 Drophead Coupé
- Sold/number built 1954-’58/43
- Construction steel A-frame chassis with steel, wood and light-alloy body
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, ohv 1971cc straight-six, triple Solex carburettors
- Max power 105bhp @ 5000rpm
- Max torque 123Ib ft @ 3650rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual with overdrive, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by upper wishbones and transverse leaf spring, anti-roll bar rear live axle, longitudinal torsion bars, lateral links, A-bracket; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion
- Brakes drums
- Length 15ft 9¼in (4807mm)
- Width 5ft 8in (1727mm)
- Height 4ft 9½in (1461mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 6in (2896mm)
- Weight 2660lb (1206kg)
- 0-60mph 13 secs
- Top speed 105mph
- Mpg 19-24
- Price new £3188
- Price now £185,000*
*Prices correct at date of original publication