The Bristol Company is probably best known for its aircraft ranging from early biplanes to the Bristol bombers which featured prominently during World War II as a major part of the RAF attack force. After the war the Bristol Company ventured into car manufacture and their first model, the Bristol 400 introduced in 1946, looked very much like the pre-war BMW on which it was based.

The Bristol 401, announced in 1949, was only the second model built by the fledgling car builder. As it was a car built by a traditional aircraft manufacturer, where quality is a matter of life or death, there was no room for penny-pinching compromise in design or construction.

The 401’s alloy body was just one example of high-minded extravagance permeating the car’s design. Alloy panels, wrapped around small diameter tubes, were graded in thickness according to function, heavier on top of the wings, for instance, where mechanics would lean during servicing. Under the skin was a separate chassis, derived from the first Bristol.

A throaty straight six engine of 1971 cc, appropriated from BMW after the war as reparations, was a real gem. Producing 63 kW from a 2.0-litre engine was an extremely admirable performance in the late 1940s. Cars carrying famous marques such as Bentley and Jaguar needed double the capacity to do the same job. To drive this car with its beautifully slick four-speed manual gearbox was a constant delight and with a top speed nearing 160 km/h it was a great performer.

Outright speed, however, was not what this car was all about. Excellent handling, especially in the days before motorways, was even more important, and the 401 was well blessed with light precision rack-and-pinion steering and a general feeling of poised good manners that made the marque many lifelong friends.

The body was an opulently trimmed four-seater. The memorable “Aerodyne” body shape, inspired by Touring with its elegant teardrop tail and smooth contours, was evolved in streamlining experiments and honed on Bristol’s two-mile-long runway at Fulton in England and was truly aerodynamic for the time. In wind tunnel tests carried out 20 years after the 401’s demise, only four modern cars were found to be more aerodynamic. Low levels of wind noise, even at high speed, were one side benefit from this attention to aerodynamic detail; another was fuel economy – around 11.5 litres for every 100km – and that was using the poor grade petrol that was still all owners could get in 1949.

In total, 650 Bristol 401/403s were produced between 1949 and 1953. A variant with a special short-chassis and only two seats, the model 404, was also produced but in very limited numbers and is still probably the most sought after of the Bristols today. By staying small – never making more than 150 cars a year – the Bristol marque survived into the 1990s whereas its rivals such as Aston and Jensen faced liquidation and disaster in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

About Alistair Kennedy

Alistair Kennedy is Automotive News Service and Marque Publishing's business manager and the company's jack-of-all-trades. An accountant by profession, he designs the Marque range of motoring book titles, operates the company's motoring bookshop on the NSW Central Coast and the associated web site, as well as its huge digital and hard copy database. Whenever we can escape from the office he does so to cover new vehicle releases and contributes news stories. Alistair's other interests include cricket and family history on which he has written three books.
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