There can be few of us who wouldn’t own many different cars if they had the money and the space. I certainly would and, as last year was a good one for AVI and my Bentleys have reached the stage where little more than servicing is required, I thought it a good idea to investigate the purchase another of the cars that have always fascinated me.
I’ve always loved the look of Bristol 400s, they are elegant and unusual and it’s extremely hard to find anything uncomplimentary written about them anywhere.
Their competition success in the Forties was remarkable and the engine went on winning races in Frazer Nashes, Coopers and Bristol’s own 450 for many years after production of the 400 had ceased in 1950. They were a remarkable car and are still beautiful and remarkable today, I had to have one.
In late summer last year (2005) I searched on the web and found Andrew Blow who is a broker specialising in Bristol’s and related cars and he edits the club bulletin.
He had a Cambridge Grey (pale metallic green to non Bristol people) 400 that was in basically good, original condition, had only three previous owners but needed a bare metal respray and gearbox layshaft bearings. I fell in love with the car and decided to sell a Bentley and buy it. As it happened various would-be Bentley owners didn’t materialise and I’d decided I couldn’t afford it when my accountant told me I could. Andrew was terrific, put up with all sorts of agonising from me and the deal was struck in Feb ’06. My wife shares the driving of the Bentleys but was noticeably keener on the 400 and even insisted on driving it home when we collected it. Although frozen to the marrow because she couldn’t find the heater controls, she loved the thing and was smiling from ear to ear by the time we’d arrived.
When I eventually got to drive it I loved it too, it makes wonderful noises and corners and steers extraordinarily well by any standards. MKVI Bentleys drive well but Bristol 400s are better and they have a completely different character. A Bristol 400 came second in the touring class of the ’49 Targio Florio and third in the Mille Miglia the same year and if you wind the car up a bit on country roads it’s not difficult to see yourself as a competitor in just such a race! I hope Darling and Ladyman aren’t reading this!
Once the excitement had subsided the faults became more obvious and plan was necessary to return the car to something approaching “as new” condition. The clutch action was awful, the gearbox and a wheel bearing howled like air raid sirens, the paint was falling off, the boot was rotten, the front seats had sagged, the temperature gauge was reading far too low, the windscreen wiper gearboxes were stripped, the radio wasn’t working, the heater tap leaked, the carpet and headlining were shot, the woodwork needed attention and; well I expect you’ve all bought old cars.
I decided to fit a water pump with integral thermostat from a later model, rebuild the gearbox and then run the car and decide what else to do.
Trouble is the engine compartment paintwork wasn’t good and rust was showing through, there were twice as many holes in the bulkhead as needed and there would never be a better time to get the engine out (as the gearbox was out) – especially as it’s a fiddle on the 400.
The result is that I’ve completely stripped the car, it’s now a bare shell and I’m removing the old paint as “Dicer” (he races motorbikes), can’t have it for a few weeks. He’s used to Bristol’s, he’s painted Jab Taylor’s 402 and Geoffrey Burgon’s 405 DHC and at the moment, he’s got one of Geoffrey’s Mercedes. I’m worried the queue is longer than described so stripping paint takes my mind off the delay. Trouble is dismantling cars is depressing, they look sad and the more I take off, the more I realise that I must put on again!
I have rebuilt the gearbox, the radio, the woodwork, re-stuffed the front seats, ordered a new loom from www.autosparks.co.uk, tracked down appropriate carpet and headlining and had various dials repaired.
I found the car ran straight into the red in top gear, it felt terribly under geared, so on the advice of BOC member Andy Gibbs I contacted Mike Robinson, 20 Wood Lane, Timperley, Altringham WA15 7QB Tel: 0161 980 4870 who, amongst many other things, makes an overdrive conversion that fits in without requiring chassis mods and includes a new propshaft.