Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

| 15 Jun 2020
Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

It is not quite fair to describe the first Bristols as reconstituted pre-war BMWs.

In the first of many wise early decisions made by the men of the Bristol Aeroplane Company at Filton, and having acquired the rights to build the 326, 327 and 328 through the War Reparations Board, it decided to make its new car an amalgam of the best components from the Bavarian marque’s celebrated pre-war range.

The combination had never been offered in a single package before: the 326 saloon’s stiff 9ft 6in-wheelbase, torsion-bar-suspended chassis; its own version of 327 Coupé body; and, best of all, the 328’s superb straight-six.

Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

With its distinctive twin valve-chests, alloy head – with very direct inlet porting for mixture flow – and a deep, strong iron block, this cross-pushrod 2-litre marvel was probably the high point of pre-war Teutonic road-car engine technology.

There is something almost chilling in the fact that the Germans were testing these engines with fuel injection before war broke out.

Bristol made do with three sidedraught SU carburettors and the resulting 1971cc, 90mph close-coupled four-seater provided the template for the marque’s reputation for the following 60 years. It would cruise in the 80s when the average British 2-litre could barely top 70mph.

No subsequent Bristol model sold in anything like the same quantities (700 cars, many going to Australia and other right-hand-drive territories) or had such a strong visual link to its German progenitor.

Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

The West Country re-imagining of the 327 coupé was roomier, probably more slippery, but nothing like so dashing as the low-slung Autenrieth-bodied original.

If the genteel, bulbous 400 seemed perfect for a well-heeled post-war businessman, the 327 looked as if it should have been piloted by a Luftwaffe officer with an eye patch and a fencing scar.

While certain later classic Bristol elements such as all-aluminium bodywork and the famous wingbays were missing from the steel-panelled, ash-framed, slightly matronly 400, there is an argument that says Bristol never built a better car in terms of competition pedigree and sheer quality.

Examples competed honourably on the Mille Miglia, Targa Florio and Rallye Monte-Carlo, and, Borg & Beck clutch and Lucas electrics aside, the car was an in-house production.

Bristol even made its own shock absorbers and door locks, while applying standards of inspection and superior metallurgy that really were of aircraft-industry levels.

Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

Plans to build the car at Filton to keep at least part of the 50,000-strong wartime workforce occupied when military contracts ended had been mooted long before peacetime, even before the brief alliance with AFN Ltd owner HJ Aldington.

The all-round excellence of the 700-odd BMWs he had marketed in England during the 1930s was well appreciated by anyone with a feel for efficient, fine-handling cars.

His contacts with top-level German management and engineers – several of whom were in jail – at the bomb-ravaged Bavarian Motor Works opened the necessary doors for BAC to acquire the plans and rights for the firm’s pre-war range.

Aldington would prove to be of invaluable help in developing the 2-litre engine because of his pre-war experiences selling and competing in the 328.

It is well documented that he became disenchanted by the pace with which Bristol worked and, in some ways, the low volume, specialist appeal of the 400 itself; he favoured a mass-production approach based on the simpler 326 saloon.

Bristol and AFN parted company not long after the 1947 Geneva launch of the 400, leaving the inhabitants of Filton and Patchway to build this hugely expensive £2400 connoisseur’s machine in the sort of moderate numbers that suited the naturally cautious mindset of an aeroplane maker.

Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

Reginald Verdon Smith and George White were the two young BAC managers, and sons of directors, charged with making the family firm’s new car division work.

The cousins ran 400s as company cars and it was perhaps inevitable that the cars in question would end up, 70 years later, under Richard Hackett’s care at SLJ Hackett, the Bristol specialist based in Warminster.

Hackett, former right-hand man to Tony Crook, doesn’t go back as far the 400 but he remembers selling them secondhand for just £195 in the 1960s.

The ex-Reginald Verdon Smith car is KHU 303. First registered in May 1947, it was the ninth production 400 and the BAC demonstration car featured in The Autocar’s road test in 1948. It also took part in a story on European touring printed in The Motor.

Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400
Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

It was a development car, too, used for testing the revised boot with the spare tyre moved to the now bottom-hinged bootlid, the wind-down rear window and the blade-type bumpers that replaced the ‘curly cowhorn’ design.

These features tend to separate early handbuilt 400s from later, more productionised ones, when they were being created at the giddy heights of four cars per week.

At the end, production 400s overlapped slightly with the much roomier, more modern-looking 401.

Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

Assistant to George White’s father, Sir Stanley White, Verdon Smith was joint managing director of Bristol Cars from 1952, having given up his legal training to join the firm during the war.

He became chairman in 1955. As Sir Reginald Verdon Smith, he would become vicechairman of Rolls-Royce and chairman of BAC between 1969 and ’72.

It was ‘Reggie’ who took the decision to continue development of the Olympus jet engines in defiance of government directives that favoured the Rolls-Royce Conway; had he done as he was told there would have been no ready-made engines for Concorde.

Before the Second World War he ran an Alvis Speed 20 and, like George, a Derby Bentley that he drove hard, covering huge distances visiting shadow factories around the country after being seconded to the Ministry of Supply.

Post-hostilities he tested the 400 prototype extensively on the Continent and established that, among many other observations, better ventilation was needed – hence the wind-down rear window. Prior to the 400 he had a BMW 327 with the first Bristol-developed version of Fritz Fiedler’s cross-pushrod engine.

Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

When RVS took on a 401 as a company car in 1951, the 400 was passed to his wife and later became a pool vehicle at the Filton works before being sold off in the mid-’50s with a big mileage.

It ended up in Surrey at some time but had migrated back to the Bristol area by 1967, at which point it was dismantled for a restoration that never quite gained momentum.

In 1998 it was sold again, still stripped down, to Peter Osmond of Somerset and by 2010 KHU 303 was back on the road.

Enter, in 2015, current owner William Verdon Smith, son of Sir Reginald, who spotted KHU advertised and simply could not resist.

Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

“I was born in 1948, so I remember the car very well, particularly playing with my stick-on toy steering wheel on the dashboard,” he says.

“And the two accidents… The first one happened when the fly-off handbrake released while we were sitting in the car with our grandmother in the passenger seat as my mother popped into a shop in Clifton. It was in gear, but it’s a freewheel first so off it went down the hill, over a crossroads and into a wall. I flew forward and hit my head on the ’screen.

“The second encounter, with mother at the wheel, involved a motorcycle – luckily with no major medical issues.”

Since acquiring the car, chartered surveyor and former long-term Aston Martin DB MkIII owner Verdon Smith has fitted overdrive – not standard until the four-door 405 – a remote gearlever and a brake servo.

Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

Despite having a standard 85bhp engine, with a Type 100A block from the 403 fitted probably by Filton before the car was sold off, he finds the 400 quick and engaging to drive across country.

“It’s not about how fast it is,” he explains, “but the way it does things; it gives you back what you put in. I remember that my father marvelled at the lightness of the steering and the gearchange, and the comfort on bad roads compared to his Bentley.”

The younger of this 400 pair, JSV 823, was originally registered BAC 1 and used by George White and his wife.

Later knighted, he became chairman and managing director of Bristol Cars, working alongside Tony Crook when the car business was separated from the aerospace activities.

His working life was cut tragically short by an accident in a 410 in 1969, but as a young man he probably did more than anyone to get the concept of a Bristol-built car under way, mooting the idea to his father and uncle as early as 1941.

Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

Having lost its BAC plate, JSV was sold abroad and on its return was restored and fitted with a sports engine giving an alleged 150bhp. It appears to sit slightly lower, on its adjustable torsion bars, than the RVS car.

It’s hard to reconcile the tall, pre-war appearance of the 400 with the later, full-bodied cars.

The interiors are narrow, with poor over-the-shoulder vision, and you sit low pondering the advance/retard controls – a reminder of the low-quality ‘pool’ petrol of the era – and ENOTS chassis lubrication button on the floor that is to be depressed every 90 miles, but only if you are wearing slim shoes. Strangely, the radio was standard but the heater wasn’t on the 400.

Sliding windows were fitted to liberate elbow space in the rear-hinged doors. The semi-bucket seats feel good and the detailing in the cars, from the delightful roller-blind sunvisors and the hand throttle to the tiny rear-view mirror, feels delicate but not fragile.

Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

The tune of the engine in JSV, the George White car, is all lumpy cam and high compression – so probably on the margins of what is desirable on the road, with nothing much in top below 40-50mph.

This at least gives you every excuse to exploit the beautifully light, quick gearbox, with its nicely distributed ratios for a handy 70mph in third, and make full use of the throaty and sonorous rev range.

The Verdon Smith car is more refined and flexible, and in any case driven with such relish and gusto by its owner that it is hardly any slower on the road.

The 400s have a compact and together feel that slightly escapes some of their later brethren, as the Bristol marque sought to offer more space and comfort.

It’s odd to consider that the BMWs on which they were modelled were already a good eight years out of production in 1948, yet it is hard to think of a car of the era with a more roadable combination of light, accurate steering and agile roadholding combined with such a comfortable and level ride.

Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

As a means of cross-Britain transport in a country still more than a decade away from its first motorway, I doubt there was anything more effective than a Bristol 400 in the late 1940s and early ’50s.

You can get along in them pretty well now, not just as a passenger but also as an organic element of the drivetrain, co-ordinating hands, feet, eyes and ears in an unapologetically mechanical, unassisted vehicle that goads you to urge it on.

It is a process that is never a chore but in many ways a kind of relaxation, because all the controls are such a tactile delight.

These are not remotely quick cars by any modern measure, yet somehow the sweetness of the gearchange is a lovely match to the well-oiled, mechanical efficiency of the steering and the urgent, responsive feel of that lusty and willing engine. Within a few minutes of taking the wheel, you are totally engaged.

If that’s not the mark of a great car, then I don’t know what is.

Images: James Mann

Thanks to Richard Hackett of SLJ Hacket


Classic & Sports Car – Something borrowed: celebrating the Bristol 400

Bristol 400

  • Sold/number built 1947-’50/474
  • Construction steel and aluminium panels over wood frame, steel box-section chassis
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-head, cross-pushrod 1971cc straight-six, triple SU carburettors
  • Max power 80bhp @ 4200rpm
  • Max torque 106Ib ft @ 3500rpm
  • Transmission four-speed manual, crash first with freewheel, RWD
  • Suspension: front independent, by transverse leaf springs and wishbones rear live axle, torsion bars; lever-arm dampers f/r
  • Steering rack and pinion
  • Brakes drums
  • Length 15ft 3in (4648mm)
  • Width 5ft 4in (1625mm)
  • Height 4ft 11in (1498mm)
  • Wheelbase 9ft 6in (2895mm)
  • Weight 2464Ib (1117kg)
  • 0-60mph 19.7 secs
  • Top speed 91mph
  • Mpg 26
  • Price new £2374
  • Price now £25-66,000


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