Bristol beauty: diving into a British classic with German ancestors
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Tony Bushell bought this 1951 Bristol 401 two years ago to fulfill a long-held ambition sparked when he attended night school in the UK.
“When you got off the bus in the centre of Bristol, there was the Bristol Cars showroom. I used to ogle, and I’d say, ‘I’m going to get one of those one day’.”
Bristol Cars had launched as an offshoot of the British aircraft industry, as the Bristol aircraft factory struggled when the end of World War I slashed demand.
But, during World War II, the company’s management planned for post-war survival, and forged a link with AFN, maker of Frazer Nash cars and, before the war, importer of BMW cars. When the war ended, talks with the War Reparations Board ended in Bristol owning the rights to build three BMW models, and the 328 engine.
“But they anglicised it,” Tony says, “By replacing all the metric nuts and bolts with British Standard Fine, and swapping the badge on the front.”
Yes, this Bristol 401 was a beneficiary, and though its looks were less slavishly BMW than the previous model, it still used an updated version of BMW’s M328 six-cylinder motor. Back then, a plan to buy one must have seemed a bit of a stretch as they cost £3000 at the time.
“And when you’re earning £2.50 a week, that’s a lot of years. Thank God for inflation,” said Tony.
Around 1963, Tony’s older brother and a friend drove overland from Bristol to Bombay in a DKW, en route for New Zealand, where they opened a garage in Auckland’s Grey Lynn. Tony followed in 1969.
Here he shelved his Bristol plan in favour of MGs, hill climbing and racing them, and eventually joining the Vintage Car Club. Time passed and one day he decided to ask if anyone knew of a Bristol for sale.
“Two popped out of the woodwork. The one in Whangarei hadn’t been on the road for 10 years, and the owner wouldn’t put a price on it.”
But this one was nearer — and its owner had spent years restoring it.
“It had a hole in the alloy petrol tank so we couldn’t take it for a drive, and the brakes weren’t clever — the back-wheel brake cylinders were leaking.” Long story short, the price dropped on condition Tony took the car as is, and the deal was done.
“The funny thing is, he delivered it, whipped the bonnet up, took the battery out and said, ‘This is for my Capri, I need it’, and left.”
It had been off the road for a few years, but getting it sorted was a rush job as Tony’s daughter needed a wedding car.
Removing the fuel tank was tricky as it’s shaped around the spare wheel, beneath the boot. But with that fixed, he took the car for its WoF – and it failed, on a front suspension swivel pin.
Disaster — you can’t get them now, and an internet search as far afield as the UK drew a blank.
“I decided to see exactly what it needed, jacked the car up.” He discovered that the pin wasn’t on the shoulder. “All I had to do was push it further in, put it back together, and it passed its WoF!”
This beautiful car is standard, apart from a modern radio and speakers, a modern petrol pump, and radial rather than cross-ply tyres; its hue is a Honda blue similar to the original. The brakes were converted from drum to discs, which were standard on the 1953 to 1955 cars.
Tony drives it at least twice a month, to MG club runs, on Euro and Brit car jaunts and for drives around the Auckland area.
My first ride in it, nestled into the plush cream leather, is taken up by admiring the many quirks. To get in or out you push a button — there are no handles.
Another button hidden beneath the rear armrest opens the boot, and one under the left armrest releases the fuel cap — there’s no way anyone could syphon petrol without a key.
As for that tapered bonnet, it opens sideways. How to access the opposite parts of the engine? Close it. Then open the other side — it hinges either way.
The boot is huge, and the spare wheel is tucked beneath it, but it’s easy to remove.
Tony twiddled inside the open boot, a drawer dropped down, and there was the spare wheel, clean and ready for use.
The matte Honduras mahogany dash is home to a wide array of aircraft-style dials, with the oil temperature gauge in front of the driver — allegedly Bristols were prone to trouble when the oil got hot. By the foot pedals, there’s a button Tony pushes every 100km to lubricate the suspension components.
He says it’s comfiest cruising at around 80km/h at 3000rpm, but they used to do “the ton”(160km/h). Apparently quite a few of the 611 built came to NZ as racing cars when new.
I can’t see Tony racing this one; clearly it’s destined for an elegant retirement, cruising country roads, and fulfilling this former apprentice’s automotive dreams.