The aluminium-bodied Bristol 400 is a rakish beast, and this particular one (of 700 built) is a peach. Frazer Nash was a handy choice of automotive partner for Bristol because it came with ready-made BMW models like the 327 and 328, on which the 400 is based. You can still see the BMW ‘kidney’ in its grille…
The BMWs being prewar designs, you feel it might be just as hard to disguise the 400’s roots – already a decade old when the car was launched. But not so. The 400 is a car you can quickly get to know and enjoy, with qualities that would shine on long distance drives.
Bristol’s industrial-estate Brentford premises spill straight on to the Great West Road, not great for a test drive in an unfamiliar 70-year old car. Hardest thing to master are the pedals: all very stiff and with incredibly short travel. Not good for a bit of heel and toe action you’d think, but then with an all-synchro four-speed ‘box (even freewheeling on first) there shouldn’t be much need; there isn’t. The gearchange itself is again notably short travel and rather stiff. The steering? You guessed it, very stiff when you apply some lock, but mercifully free of slop around the straight-ahead. Despite all this, after 10 minutes of avoiding the trucks, all is fine and smooth (well, ish).
Better than fine actually, since now there’s time to sit back in the well-plumped armchair, stretch the legs in the spacious cabin, take in the characterful detailing inside and enjoy the responsive, and free-revving, 2.0-litre straight six engine. Based on the BMW 328’s 80bhp unit, it feels as strong and durable as you would expect of an engine that would go on to power so many great road and racing cars.
The ride is superb, and the 400 lopes along even a potholed mess like the A4 with real assurance and plenty of refinement. That’s helped in this car by the addition of an overdrive to keep the revs down. What a civilised tourer! And room for four six footers, as Bristol would claim for subsequent models? Just about. And there’s a huge boot!
Great for the smoker, too. I have never seen so many ashtrays in one car before. Typical of the period of course, and typical of the attention to detail and emphasis on ‘bespoke luxury’ (or quirky, if you prefer) that Bristol has always done so well.
It was a rare treat to drive it and see just how far back Bristol’s signature qualities – as much to do with space, comfort and practicality as performance and nimble handling – go.
Question is, will Bristol’s new model this year share them?
Photography by Tom Shaxson