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Driven: Bristol 406S

Simon Charlesworth November 7, 2012 4 Comments on Driven: Bristol 406S

Bristol 406S profile

Smouldering with Fifties Cold War aeronautical cues, the 406S appears to have been designed by Dan Dare as a replacement to Filton’s delightfully petite 404. The 406S’s body design slots between the 404 and the first generously bewinged 406 saloon prototype (TLN 246) which was inspired by a Beutler Bristol. It’s not as seductively curvaceous as its forebear nor as subdued and conservative as the production 406, instead its aesthetics are more square-jawed, more aggressive.

Bristol 406S reflection

Underlining this effect is the prominent air intake and carburettor inlet (a touch Formula 2 Cooper Bristol) that endows the 406S with an almost Warsaw Pact function-first demeanour. Pretty and diminutive, the 406S is not. Yet its proportions are arguably more elegant than the 404 due to its longer wheelbase affording a more graceful roofline which tumbles into that gloriously flowing fastback.

Built on a 9ft chassis – placed exactly halfway between Bristol’s standard 9ft 6in chassis and the 404/Arnolt’s shortened 8ft 6in chassis – only two of these chassis were built. The other being bodied by Zagato – creating the equally unique 406S Zagato, which mustn’t be confused with the six 406 Zagatos that were built on the standard chassis. Anyway enough chassis talk…

Bristol 406S front 3/4

Some photographs don’t do the 406S any favours, but with the perspective of observing in person, the styling really does schmooze your fancy. As with all captivating designs, the longer you observe, the greater its resonance. It’s bristling with enticing stylistic devices, such as the scalloped feature lines that run from the headlamp, kick up over the door handle, and sprout those fabulous wings.

The specification of the 406S will be familiar to Bristol aficionados, it owes much of its drivetrain and suspension to pre-war BMW thinking – but in the case of the A-frame chassis that evolved from the Dixi (a licence-built Austin Seven). Factor in over 10 years of considered development and quiet innovation from a company whose industry trades on the creed ‘there’s no hard shoulder at 30,000ft’ and the 406 is regarded as the pinnacle of the Bristol ‘six’ models.

Bristol 406S rear

The 406S’s unique body was styled by Dudley Hobbs and Dennis Sevier in late 1956/ early 1957 by extending the 404’s body buck. The alloy over steel and ash bodywork was fabricated at Filton following initial prototype work by Bristol Coachbuilders Ltd on Merton Rd. Although the chassis was familiar fare – independent front suspension via a transverse leaf spring and anti-roll bar with a torsion-bar suspended beam axle (featuring improved Watt linkage location) – the engine was something special. Running the bored and stroked 2216cc Type 110, the 406S featured a hotter, higher compression engine – designated Type 110S – which produced 130bhp compared with the saloon’s 105bhp.

Registered in June 1958 and bearing the registration 406 CHU (the first production 406 saloon is 406 BHU, the press and publicity car) the reason for this model failing to make production is essentially two-fold: market realities and the restructuring of the parent company in late 1955.

Bristol Engine Division badge

After BOAC delayed acceptance of the turbo-prop Type 175 Britannia airliner due to development problems, the Bristol Aeroplane Company’s cashflow was impacted so severely that it was almost bankrupted. Management therefore decided, after this close call, to re-organise the Aircraft, Engine and Car Divisions into three separate subsidiary companies.

The Britannia incident had shaken BAC and had far reaching consequences for what became Bristol Cars Ltd in early 1956. Add to this the terrible De Havilland Comet crashes (caused by catastrophic fuselage depressurisation from metal fatigue) and its wider implications to all Britain’s aircraft industry – and a choice had to be made. Make a serious go of Bristol Cars Ltd – by introducing new models, a new engine and increasing production – or concentrate on the aeronautical business.

Bristol 406S front grille Pegasus detail

The expansion of BAC’s aircraft production at Filton soon meant that Bristol Cars would lose the space and ability to produce its own bodies and instead, production had to be outsourced for the 406.

After some governmental encouragement and tentative co-operation, Bristol Aero Engines Ltd merged with Armstrong Siddeley Motors (the engine division of Hawker Siddeley Group) in April 1959 to form Bristol Siddeley Engines Ltd (BSEL). Bristol Cars Ltd then ceased to be a subsidiary of BAC and instead, along with Armstrong Siddeley Motors, became a subsidiary of BSEL. Again, the future of Bristol Cars – along with the models built by Armstrong Siddeley Motors – was discussed. Eventually it was decided in 1960 that Armstrong Siddeley Motors would stop building the aging Star Sapphire and that Bristol Cars Ltd would be sold off due to its low production figures and limited profit potential.

Bristol 406S rear 3/4

The reason for low Bristol Cars sales was the same as it always had been. The longer the 2-litre ‘six’ continued in use, the harder it became to justify an expensive sporting car with comparatively modest performance. Although Bristol had tested prototypes of the Type 160 engine (a 3.65-litre of pre-War BMW design) the project was axed, so the only immediate solution was a capacity increase to 2.2-litres. However, compared with GT market opposition from the likes of Aston Martin and Jaguar, it would still be regarded as too large, too expensive and too underpowered. So at some point in either 1958 or ’59, it was decided not to proceed with the 406S.

Post BSEL and Bristol Cars Ltd was taken over by Sir George White (from BAC’s founding family) and Anthony Crook – who would end up running the prototype for 60-70,000 miles.

The 406S was later sold to an Aberdeen vet who put a further 500,000 miles under its wheels, and even transported sick sheep around in it. After a few more owners, the 406S was taken off the road and dismantled. Three tea-chests and a chassis would eventually return to the factory for restoration under Bristol’s workshop manager Jeff Marsh in the early Nineties.

The S was pre-assembled using factory photographs from Tony Crook, which also showed the 406S with various wheel, side-trim and bumper choices – illustrating how close the S made it to production. The restored S was then acquired by an established Bristol collector, but was then sold to 406 CHU’s current owner in 2005.

“It’s one of a number of cars which I’ve admired from a far,” says the S’s owner. “I’d made it known in Bristol circles that, if the car were to ever become available, then I would very much like the chance to buy it. The well-known Bristol specialist, Andrew Blow, put me in touch with the owner…

Bristol 406S front 3/4 detail

“As it had been restored in the early Nineties and been part of a collection, it hadn’t done very many miles. So one of the first things I set about doing was bringing the car up to a standard where it could be driven – which I did with the help of specialists, Andy Mitchell and Spencer Lane-Jones. The car was finished in early 2008 and we’ve had great fun with it ever since.”

In addition to recommissioning, it was decided to fabricate the missing items of trim. Both front and rear sidelamps and indicators were frenched with chrome bezels, unique chrome side trim had to be made, as too was the inlay trim for the front intake. A great deal of head-scratching was also invested into discovering the source of the 406S’s bumpers – the Arnolt-Bristol – before deciding not to fit them to retain a cleaner appearance. Cosmetically, the only thing left to do is to obtain a set of 406 wheel trims which feature metal relief badges.

Inside and the dark timber and leather 2+2 cabin mimics the hushed business-like ambience of a chap’s study. The fixtures and fittings are familiar, with the exception being a Moto-Lita wheel standing in for the Bluemels two-spoke, and the driving position being spot on for yours sincerely. Indeed, sat on the immensely comfortable Reutter seat, nursing the wheel with my right elbow perching on the door armrest, legs outstretched and with tootsies instantly familiar with the excellently laid-out pedal box, well, it feels tailor made.

Underway and it’s like driving an old friend. Visibility fore and aft – through the rear Perspex screen – is good and thanks to the 406S’s sensible girth, all manner of roads are soon quickly and confidently enjoyed. Even the layout of the instruments assists your calm ease whereas with some classics, you can feel as if you’re the one who doesn’t get the joke when searching for a vital control.

Bristol 406S rear

Fleeing Bristol in a Bristol, searching for familiar flowing tarmac and hi-speed carriageways. The 406S may be wearing radial tyres, but it really is startling to realise that this is a 1958 car with a separate chassis because stability at speed and its torsional rigidity are superb.

Unfortunately the intriguing Type 110S engine – also used in the 406S Zagato – parted with the 406S before the tenure of the current owner (it still exists and currently powers a 405) so power is provided by a 105bhp 2.2-litre. Therefore instead of indulging in something with the level of histrionics approaching the whip snap, crackle and pop of a shrieking 100D2, progress is far calmer and more relaxing. The torque starts to come on tap at 2000rpm and at 3000rpm all 129lb.ft is boiling away in the furnace. Keep your right foot in, and the 110’s smooth vocals alter at 3500rpm, turning into a deliciously smooth yet guttural hum as the Smiths tacho needle climbs.

Bristol 406S interior

Work the gearbox then into top, flick on the overdrive, and the cruising 406S is beautifully mannered. Only the whispered twitter of the leather trim apologetically interrupts the hush with all the volume of a molecule’s sneeze. Again this gives the driver time to appreciate the evolution of the Bristol’s strong separate chassis and its strictly controlled yet supple live axle. Plus it will also make you wonder what on earth other contemporary manufacturers were playing at with their vague, slow-witted, breathless behemoths.

Playtime arrives with the appearance of sensuously shaped bitumen. Flick out of overdrive and lose a cog or two. Across the gate, the gearchange possesses the sort of deft precision that Fred Astaire enjoyed across the dance-floor. The disc brakes possess good bite, good stopping power and are not afraid of working long hours – thus avoiding the common Fifties motoring practice of pleading for divine retardation.

Corners, bends and esses are gleefully dispatched. Take aim with the gloriously contoured bonnet. The exemplary, quick Bristol rack and pinion steering is full of feel, its weighting nicely judged and yes, it even transmits a good deal of positivity and information. Roll is fastidiously governed, the ride remains limber and, unlike the shorter 404, the 406S combines its appetite for feasting on enjoyable corners with greater composure and stability.

Bristol 406S Pegasus badge

Doubtless the 130bhp 2.2-litre 406S wouldn’t have made much sense to produce. It would have fallen in line with Sir George White’s 1946 plan to charge more for lower volume niche models, so would have cost more than the saloon’s ex-works price of £4,493 17s 0d. Compare that with the £4084 11s 5d price of the 240bhp 3.6-litre Aston DB4 and its appeal would have been limited. Especially given that AC was also building a Bristol-engined 2+2 coupé in 1959, the Greyhound, which sold for just £2910 10s 3d, so whatever demand there was for a screaming Bristol-engined 2+2 was already being supplied.

Heading back into Bristol in a Bristol during rush-hour and a city whose drivers were once described by George Bishop in Car as possessing more dubious traffic manners than Parisians. Yet it doesn’t matter. Road rage won’t infiltrate the Zen-like serenity of this cabin.

After recently being thoroughly non-plussed by a shiny-new over-assisted prestige saloon, I feared the Bristol might be underwhelming. I was wrong. The 406S is as effortless as it is involving and thus represents everything that’s so enjoyable about a great GT.

Thanks: to the Bristol Owners’ & Drivers’ Association (www.bristoloda.com) and the BOC Heritage Trust.

Tech Spec Bristol 406S

  • Body front-engined two-door coupé with separate chassis
  • Engine (Originally: Type 110S, 2216cc, OHV, ‘six’, triple Solex 32B.1 carbs, 69 x 100mm, CR: 9.0:1) Now: Type 110, 2216cc, OHV, ‘six’, triple Solex 32B.1 carbs, 69 x 100mm, CR: 8.5:1
  • Transmission RWD, four speed manual incorporating freewheel, overdrive
  • 0-62 mph 10 secs (est)
  • Top speed 115mph (est)
  • Max power Type 110S: 130bhp @ 5750rpm; Type 110 105bhp @ 4700rpm
  • Max torque Type 110S: N/A; Type 110: 129lb.ft @ 3000rpm
  • Fuel consumption Type 110: 25mpg (est)
  • CO2 emissions N/A
  • Price from N/A

Bristol 406S Type 110 'six'

The Truth & Nothing But…

Bristol 406S

+ A stunningly original design which manages to be both enjoyable to drive yet incredibly calming.

– They only built one. Damn it!

Another fine motor car from ‘the Cars’. A quality, understated machine devoid of the Tommy Try-Hard factor

Dep-O stars 55 Bristol 406S

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