Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato

| 24 Jun 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato

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Fifty years ago, these two must have topped the league as a way of spending the most amount of money on the least amount of car.

In fact, in 1960 there was no more expensive 2-litre car for sale anywhere in the world than the near-£5000 Bristol 406 Zagato.

Six were created at the behest of Tony Crook when he was still Anthony Crook Motors Ltd (the UK Zagato agent) and, although they were not easy to sell at the time, these 406Zs are now among the most revered of all the six-cylinder Bristols.

Of the six built, all with minor trim and detail differences, at the time of writing five remain accounted for – four in the UK and one in Australia. The missing car was written off in the late 1960s

Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato
The Bristol looks better in the metal

AC built many more Greyhounds (82 from 1960-’63) but the car made far fewer friends.

Created as a four-place coupé to appease those loyal family-man customers who were outgrowing their two-seaters, it was never really forgiven for its handling problems and amateurish styling.

The Greyhound is a car you have to see from the right angle to ‘get’.

It looks fairly seductive from the back (have you spotted the Wolseley tail-lights?) but then is a let-down when you see its unresolved ‘face’.

The features are in the right place yet it is neither square-jawed enough to have machismo, or pouting enough to be feminine.

Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato
The 2+2 was based on a lengthened and stiffened Aceca chassis

The intervening years have inevitably softened views towards the Greyhound.

I liked this one much more than the first I drove 20 years ago – which I’m embarrassed to see I was very rude about – but the essence of the critics’ original gripes are still there to be found.

Although they share engines and gearboxes – plus a certain hand-wrought sensibility – the Greyhound and the 406Z are not really the same kind of motor car at all.

The AC was an attempt to go back to a more comfortable sort of touring saloon, cast in the mould of the post-war 2 Litre.

By building the svelte 406 Zagato, however, Bristol – via Tony Crook – was looking to do the opposite: make a sportier model to please customers who wanted to replace their ageing short-chassis 404s, or thought the latest 406 saloons had become a bit too grown up.

Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato
AC’s famous badge

In fact, the 406 was the most sorted of the six-cylinder Bristols, with four-wheel disc brakes, overdrive as standard and a Watt linkage on the rear axle, which also had a usefully lower roll centre.

A bigger 2.2-litre engine gave the 406 the torque to counter its extra weight, but the thing looked flabby to some people and just seemed a lot of car for so little engine.

Something leaner-looking built by Zagato could probably be produced more cheaply but sold for more money.

So Bristol sent six 406 chassis to Milan – plus two men from Anthony Crook Motors to make sure the work was being done to ‘Bristol standards’.

Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato
Stylish script for the British-Italian collaboration

Enter, at the 1959 Earls Court show, the 406 Zagato. Here was a slender jewel of a car with a sensuous grille, long front wings and an angular roof, an elegant combination of racy curves and sharp-edged formality.

It was still a nominal four-seater on the original wheelbase, but five inches lower and narrower than the 406 saloon, with a trademark Zagato/Abarth crease down the middle of the roof.

With faired-in lights, the Zagato boasted a smaller frontal area and, with much simpler trim and clipped length, it was 672lb lighter than the 406 saloon.

Two short-chassis 406S variants – the first for Crook’s daughter Carole – were built in 1960.

This squat, pretty two-seater was the car that persuaded David Brown to commission the visually similar Aston Martin DB4GT Zagato.

Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato
The AC Greyhound has a decent boot, as befits its ‘touring’ brief

In many ways, the Greyhound (£3185 including reclining seats, foglights and two-speed wipers) was damned before it ever got the chance to establish its reputation.

The styling was so poorly received in 1959 that a revamp was required before sales began.

Then, in 1961, The Motor delivered the final blow by criticising the handling for its tendency towards ‘straight-line wander’ and ‘sudden break-away’ at the back.

On the coil-spring and diagonal swinging-arm rear suspension (unique to the Greyhound), the writer said that it ‘seems to leave scope for considerable improvement’. Harsh.

Ten inches longer and four inches wider than the Aceca, the Greyhound was a little too big to be merely a 2+2, but not quite roomy enough to qualify as a family-sized four-seater.

It boasted an alloy body over a tubular frame, and its coil-sprung suspension should have been an improvement on its predecessors.

In fairness, some of its problems could have lain with AC’s hesitation over the correct combination of wheel and tyre.

Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato
This 105bhp Bristol engine powers the AC

Apart from a handful with Zephyr and AC ‘sixes’, all Greyhounds featured Bristol units in 100B, D2 or 2.2-litre/110 form.

When they had little value in the 1970s and ’80s, many were plundered for these engines to be transplanted into Aces and other more ‘deserving’ cases – but no longer.

This Greyhound features the 110 specification (2.2/105bhp), which makes a lively car of it.

Having coveted the model, motoring writer Leonard Setright bought a long-chassis 406 Zagato secondhand in the early 1970s and, via his regular references to it in print, probably made more people aware of the model than when the car was new.

At the time, it suited him perfectly as a rapid and exceedingly rare everyday car that also just happened to be a Bristol, with all that implied in terms of handling and uncompromisingly excellent engineering.

When Setright believed the car (registration 138 WPJ) had been written off in a rear-end shunt, he even wrote an obituary to it. Luckily, reports of the Zagato’s demise had been exaggerated.

Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato
The 406 Zagato’s uprated ‘six’ gives 130bhp

This sister car had already begun another life on the other side of the world when Setright bought his.

Owner Brian Flagg saw it at Bristol’s Chiswick depot in 1967, albeit suffering from accident damage. He managed to buy it three years later and had it shipped to New Zealand.

It was put back on the road in the early 1980s, with the damage expertly rectified and a 100B 2-litre engine, which was replaced in the 1990s by the correct 110S BB2 unit.

That means 2.2 litres, a high-lift camshaft and higher compression for 130bhp at 5750rpm – sufficient to push the 406 Zagato to over 120mph, yet return 30mpg on a gentle run.

The Bristol sits quite tall on its 15in Michelin X radials, has lots of glass and probably looks more pleasing in the metal than it does in pictures, whereas photographs tend to do the Greyhound favours.

Only the proportions and the design of the wheels (less the original centre ‘knave plates’ in this case) identify the 406Z as a Bristol, and I am reminded of Setright’s comment about the panelling being stretched around it ‘as tightly as a matador’s trousers’; there’s no spare flab on this car.

Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato
The Bristol is the easier car in which to corner quickly

The razor-edged roofline with the flat rear screen has a rather Rootes/Humber feel, while the tail-lights, framing the short bootlid, have a Lancia flavour.

It looks fragile, but Zagato supplemented its panelling with extensive tubular structures so it is probably more rugged than it seems.

On the Bristol, the door glasses are frameless and the handles flush. The interior is flooded with light and this car still has its original bone-coloured leather and Wilton carpets.

The Greyhound is a gloomier but plusher car inside, with decadent seats, an impressive Jaguar-like slab of a dashboard, a monster steering wheel and enough room in the back for two adults to sit for a couple of hours without seizing up.

Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato
The AC Greyhound has a traditional interior

The Zagato Bristol eschews these boardroom luxuries for the bare necessities to make a gentleman’s car habitable.

There isn’t even a lid on the glovebox, but there’s a full range of instruments in a handsome nacelle, a fine wood-rimmed Nardi steering wheel and a promisingly sturdy-looking gearlever close by.

The seats seem less substantial than those in the factory 406 and are probably not as comfortable, but there are two real seats in the back with proper headroom. You could wear your hat if you wanted.

The all-round vision, plus the position of the pedals, means that you soon feel at one with the 406, effortlessly familiar with the car within a few minutes of moving off.

Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato
The Bristol’s cabin is light and airy

In some hard-to-define way, the Greyhound is less easy to get comfortable in and you feel rather hemmed-in by the door rails and the height of the scuttle.

The Bristol’s exhaust exits fruitily just forward of the offside rear wheelarch (as originally supplied, it was an Abarth system) and both cars pull strong and clean, with no particular indication that the 406 has the more aggressive cam timing.

Neither feels exactly flabby or weak at low revs, although in the Bristol things are just starting to get interesting at 3500rpm, which is where I have to back off due to its freshness: it was rebuilt only 3000 miles ago.

Neither car is remotely quiet but the noises are good ones. Almost 6000rpm is safe in the AC and this noble straight-six – with its sharp throttle response and throaty timbre – moves eagerly through the close ratios in a fabulously precise gearbox, with a freewheeling hub on bottom.

In both cars, it finds its slots with a total lack of slop, and an extended finger can flick the chrome overdrive switch when a straight opens up. It self-cancels when you drop to third.

Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato
The trademark location for the Bristol’s spare

Naturally, the cars are divergent in handling and overall feel.

The AC just feels a heftier car, much more physically and mentally fatiguing than the Bristol. Its steering is high-geared but correspondingly quite heavy and unrefined.

In the 406, you steer the car with a lightness of touch and effortless precision that adds up to a sort of relaxation.

All I can relate is that the effort you dial in to the Nardi rim transfers accurately to the attitude of the front wheels, yet without ever feeling nervous and with no kick.

The Greyhound may corner as flat and as quickly as the Bristol but it feels more skittish, has a much harsher and noisier ride, and gives you the idea that its creators didn’t know if they wanted a sports car or a saloon – so elected to give the Greyhound too many of the worst features of both.

The Bristol knows what it is, what it wants and where it is going: it has a supple yet tied-together feel that is everything you hoped it would be.

Images: Tony Baker

Thanks to Alistair Hacking for the AC and Andrew Blow for the Bristol

The feature was originally published in our April 2013 issue


Factfiles

Classic & Sports Car – Six of the best: AC Greyhound vs Bristol 406 Zagato

AC Greyhound

  • Sold/number built 1960-’63/82
  • Construction box-section steel chassis, aluminium body on steel frame
  • Engine cast-iron block, aluminium-head, cross-pushrod 2216cc straight-six with triple Solex carburettors
  • Max power 105bhp @ 4700rpm
  • Max torque 129Ib ft @ 3000rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual with overdrive on top, driving rear wheels
  • Suspension independent, at front by wishbones rear semi-trailing arms; coil springs, telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs/drums, twin master cylinders
  • Length 14ft 7in (4445mm)
  • Width 5ft 5in (1651mm)
  • Height 4ft 4½in (1333mm)
  • Wheelbase 8ft 4in (2540mm)
  • Weight 2352lb (1066kg)
  • 0-60mph 11.4 secs
  • Top speed 104mph
  • Mpg 26
  • Price new £2557
      

Bristol 406 Zagato

  • Sold/number built 1959-’60/six
  • Construction box-section steel chassis, aluminium body on steel frame
  • Engine cast-iron block, aluminium-head, cross-pushrod 2216cc straight-six with triple Solex carburettors
  • Max power 130bhp @ 5750rpm
  • Max torque 132Ib ft @ 3000rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual with overdrive on top, driving rear wheels
  • Suspension: front independent, by transverse leaf spring, upper wishbones, anti-roll bar rear live axle, torsion bars, central torque arm, Watt linkage; telescopic dampers f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes discs, with servo
  • Length 15ft 5in (4699mm)
  • Width 5ft 3in (1600mm)
  • Height 4ft 7in (1397mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 6in (2896mm)
  • Weight 2469lb (1120kg)
  • 0-60mph not quoted
  • Top speed 122mph
  • Mpg 26-30
  • Price new £4792
      

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