"I thought it might impress the rather patronising Hollywood set… and it did"

| 16 Oct 2014

So said film star Stewart Granger, who was so keen on the Bristol 402 that he ordered another for his fiancee Jean Simmons. Martin Buckley samples a drop-top fit for a screen siren.

I'm not sure that Bristol Cars has ever really courted the ‘glamour’ market. The 2-litre era conjures images of long-distance touring in a machine of practical elegance – a pre-motorway world of A-roads, saluting AA patrolmen and grey ration-book post-war drudgery for all but a fortunate elite. Here was a car that was refined yet rugged, that could take rough and dusty ‘colonial’ motoring or quiet town carriage work equally in its stride. Back at home, Bristol man – tweedy and smug in his streamlined, alloy-bodied marvel – could sweep past the Austins and Hillmans of the lower middle classes in a car that always went better than its capacity suggested, even if it lacked the ultimate authority of the faster Jaguars. The Chrysler V8-engined Bristols redistributed the balance of power as the sporting customers of the previous decade morphed into fat-cat tycoons who wanted effortless urge in a car of conspicuous anonymity. 

Bristol 402

But still glamour remained elusive, and has done so ever since at Filton. For me, there has only ever been one truly glamorous Bristol, the short-lived 402 of 1949, a car that also has the distinction of being the only factory-bodied 2-litre convertible (others were bodied outside Filton) to be built in series, if you can call 20 cars a series. The 402 is the rarest of the 2-litre factory Bristols, but not necessarily the most coveted.

It had been conceived, sensibly enough, as a way for Bristol to cash in on the new North American taste for sporty English cars. Overtures from Kjell Qvale, the pre-eminent sports car dealer in California, encouraged Bristol to conceive this 2+2 drophead version of the 401; LJK Setright said that they literally ‘hacksawed the roof off a 401 to see what it looked like’. The 402 was previewed in November 1948, alongside the 401. It was felt that Americans who struggled to see the point of a hugely expensive closed Bristol with a mere 2 litres might be more willing to pay a premium for a more conventionally pretty convertible. The theory foundered when Qvale had to sell the first car at a loss and, understandably, was unwilling to order any more. 

Bristol 402

In any other automotive culture, a rare, beautiful, open-topped model such as the 402 would be revered, but I have always had the impression that the Bristol cognoscenti are rather sniffy about it. Setright dismissed it as ‘a bit of a Hollywood Special’ in his first Bristol history, and the insult stuck. Others talk about ‘scuttle shake’ and move on quickly, although Bristol did go to the trouble of substantially reinforcing the windscreen pillars to take account of this. The model’s seemingly premature demise in 1950 was probably as much down to the lack of production capacity at Filton – the 400, 401 and 402 were being built simultaneously – as it was to the paucity of sales in North America.

Bristol 402

Stewart Granger is easily the most famous 402 owner. All teeth and Brylcreem, he was the embodiment of post-WW2 British manhood at the cinema in the 1940s and ’50s but, rather like the 402, he was very much a UK product built for American tastes. Better known to his friends as Jimmy Stewart – Granger was a stage name to avoid confusion with his American namesake – he had a penchant for fast, expensive cars (years later he would own a Maserati 5000GT). After the war Granger was a BMW 328 owner, so it was natural that he should come into contact with one Anthony Crook, then a leading 328 specialist and already one of the top Bristol Cars distributors but not yet a director of the firm. Crook and Granger became friends and in 1949 Crook sold the actor a pair of 402s – the second car being for his fiancée, the gaminely beautiful Jean Simmons whom he married in 1950. The cars wore consecutive registration numbers – NPF 1 and NPF 2 – and were used extensively for promoting the new film Adam and Evelyne, in which the couple starred. It was quite a coup for Crook to have sold two 402s that, at £3500 each, cost as much as a detached house in a good area. MGM studios, rather that Granger himself, probably paid for them. When NPF 2, the Jean Simmons car pictured here, sold at Bonhams in 2001, Crook recalled: “Granger owned a string of exotic cars and said to me he wished there was a convertible Bristol, certain that it would go down well in California. Bristol had already decided to make a small run of convertibles and Granger was very excited about this... he was keen to have ‘his and hers’ identical Bristols.” 

At the time, Granger was just finishing the filming of King Solomon’s Mines and was entering the most fruitful part of his patchy career as he prepared to leave for Hollywood. In his 1981 autobiography Sparks Fly Upward he wrote: ‘Jean and I had just taken delivery of the first two Bristol cars off the line and not wanting to be parted from my new toy I arranged to have it flown over to Hollywood. I thought it might impress the rather patronising Hollywood Contingent – it did, especially the accounts department, as I had the freight costs charged to MGM.’

Bristol 402

What happened to the Granger 402, NPF 1, is not known, but the Jean Simmons 402 stayed in England and went through a string of owners before Jab Taylor – a gentleman farmer and former A35 saloon racer of the ’50s – bought the car at that Bonhams sale in 2001. Taylor has not long finished having the 402 restored and settled on a repaint in what he believes is the original ‘bathroom blue’, although the original (admittedly retouched) publicity shots of Simmons and Granger in the car show it in pale green. 

“We took seven different colours of paint off it and this was what was at the bottom, so that’s what it got painted,” says Taylor. “By Tony Crook’s recollection the 402 was Cambridge Grey – a dull khaki – but I couldn’t face painting it in that.” Taylor had the engine rebuilt “at vast expense” but was pleased to find that his car was running the more potent Frazer Nash specification, giving 125bhp rather than the standard 85bhp unit. It is probably not the original engine and the car has lost its fully chromed bumpers at some point (they are clearly visible in the Granger/Simmons publicity shot), but there is anyway quite a lot of detail variation between the individual 402s, of which 15 of the original 20 (or possibly 24) are known to survive.

Bristol 402

Sitting in the courtyard outside Taylor’s Gloucestershire farmhouse, the 402 looks purposefully hunched with its hood raised. It is an effective but complicated arrangement that involves cant rails, which are stowed in the boot when they are not in use. In the handbook, Bristol printed an 11-point guide – with extensive illustrations – to raising the hood and issued dire warnings about the damage that would ensue if these instructions were not followed. Taylor lowers it quite effortlessly, but tells me that Granger always moaned about it. With the hood down, snugly out of sight behind the reasonably accommodating (for kids) rear bench, the 402’s profile is beautifully clean. You slide through long doors on to the generously sized seats. With those doors shut the car seems to crowd your shoulders and make you feel as if you are sitting quite low, which is just as well because the ’screen is extremely shallow; you feel that if you sit too upright, your face will be in the airstream. 

Jolly cream switches and instrument faces lift the slight austerity of the interior and are a reminder of Bristol’s intention to sell these cars to Americans. The Bluemels wheel is substantial and has a pale boss to match the instruments, which number six in all and give all the information expected for the pilot who takes a deep interest in his car and his driving. There is a fuel-reserve switch and a facia-mounted indicator switch that, originally, would have worked the trafficator arms that are nothing more than a quaint distraction for modern drivers. 

Bristol 402

We take Taylor’s extraordinarily ridged and rutted track to the main road at a cautious pace. Here, you note the scuttle shake as the ’screen shivers occasionally, but it is hardly excessive and once on the road, with the hemi-head straight-six carefully warmed through, you don’t notice any lack of rigidity. This glorious engine, tall and handsome under the ingenious bonnet that hinges on both sides, accelerates cleanly with an authoritative exhaust note that strikes at the essence of six-cylinder sophistication. Crisp and urgent, it seems to tell you that it is making every stroke of the crank and every alternating click of its cross-pushrods count, and that it is an expensive mechanism – which of course it is. 

Just as the engine provides you with a pleasing mental picture of its internals at work, so does the gearbox. It’s an effortlessly pleasing change, with a freewheel on its non-synchromesh bottom gear. The 402 is not a lazy car and you need to work it through its well-spaced ratios to get the best from it, but the performance is there. 

Bristol 402

I’m not sure how Bristol managed to make such smooth, accurate and high-geared steering so relatively light. The result is a car that never feels ponderous, but just goes where it is bidden, rolling little on its firm springs yet managing to ride quite luxuriously at the same time. Glimpsed through the steel wheels, the steel drums don’t promise anything special in the way of brakes. When the car is driven briskly they are adequate, but feel heavy in a vintage way. Taylor says that they will fade if you’re really trying. 

Actually, ‘Hollywood Special’ was not an unreasonable description of the only Bristol you could imagine a film star owning. From the rear in particular it is quite beautiful: the redistrib-ution of the original 401 saloon proportions results in a flowing, long-tailed profile of almost cartoonish elegance. It could be some suave and swarthy playboy’s one-off Alfa, built from filler and spit and intended for squiring starlets around Lake Como, not an ever-so-correct aluminium-bodied Bristol with its fine shutlines and supposed aeronautical detailing. Perhaps this car is a bit too conventionally pretty for the average Bristol owner, its appeal too obviously decadent, its engineering elegance for once subservient to its outer beauty. I hesitate to use the term, but the 402 was, and is, a ‘sexy’ Bristol, perhaps the only one in the history of the firm. 

Bristol 402

This article was originally published in the August 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see the terms and conditions.

Words: Martin Buckley; pictures: Tony Baker