The driver’s door is light and shuts with a clang. Ahead of me should be a dashboard, but there isn’t one. There’s a frame with a few dusty gauges but none of them are plumbed in. Seatbelt? Per-lease! This car was born in 1952. Speedo? Not at the moment, so I’ll have to rely on my seat of the pants one – an organic instrument which has been finely calibrated by many years and miles of tom-hoonery.
Brabazon’s Jeff Marsh turns on the ignition and fires up the engine because I have no idea what does what – save for the bare essentials, the steering wheel, pedals and gear selector.
Project 04/07 is powered by a 6.5-litre ‘400’ V8 Chrysler, an engine rated at 300bhp or over thrice as much power as the original and long-since disappeared Bristol 2-litre Type-85 ‘straight-six’. It coughs and roars into life. Weather? Well, it was a bit icy earlier. Is my ‘speedo’ puckering ever so slightly? Oh yes, most definitely…
Since we first caught glimpse of this Brabazon street rod, it has grown seats, functioning lights, signals and Perspex windows. The idea is to see if there is any mileage in the concept which is designed to show the world that Brabazon Motors really can do pretty much anything bespoke and automotive – from polished gentlemanly carriages for the suited chap, to mad, bad, almost feral machines for people with RON-rated blood cells.
Using the running gear of a 411, this 401 is equipped with an assisted ZF-Gemmer steering box and Chrysler Torqueflite automatic gearbox – gone is the Bristol four-speed manual ’box and rack and pinion steering due to the fact that they were replaced when power came via Canada rather than Filton.
You’d expect the large diameter Bluemels two-spoke wheel to make the steering feel horribly over-assisted, but it isn’t – it is nicely weighted and makes a good fist of being progressive and linear. Indeed, once you’ve got over the novelty of burbling past frozen bystanders with their lower jaws waving in the breeze, you discover that this 401 really does have an impressive front end to it. It’s poised and grippy with well-governed roll. And lest, you should forget, Charlesworth likes a gert front-end does he.
Packing little trim and no sound deadening or headlining, the Chrysler’s hypnotising hollering really does get inside your very being, tickling your chops and making you grin so broadly that the top of my head is in danger of toppling off. I’m not the only one. I can’t hear him, but I’m sure Jeff is chuckling away too as we’re both flung into the middle distance.
Each dab of the throttle produces instantaneous wallop from a tidal wave of single-minded torque, thankfully – unlike some rods – the brakes are also equally effective. The first time you touch the brake pedal though, your face will leave the front of your skull, because it’s more Citroën than Bristol in travel (roughly half an inch), but with a nicer, heftier pedal with all the stopping power of ‘Dirty’ Harry Callahan. The other factor, in this rebooted Brabazon Aerodyne’s dynamic re-awakening, is its light streamlined Superleggera bodywork, which consists of alloy panelling over a mesh of interwoven small-diameter tubing.
Ultimately, the only limiting factor in regards to this Brabazon beast’s cornering prowess are the old 401 seats. Beautifully patina’d they may be, but they offer little support when apex bothering, which makes matters tricky given the width of the cabin and the lack of any seatbelts. In the end, it’s just a case of how long and hard you can doggedly clutch on to the steering wheel.
All of which leaves me a little befuddled. You see, this car has great handling potential and I’m willing to put money on that lightly burdened aerodynamic rear being a real hoot in extremis. Successful realisation though, would necessitate changes to this Bristol-built rod – a smaller wheel and bucket seats with harnesses – and I love this unpolished gem for its sheer unpretentious honesty far too much to even contemplate such changes.
This 401’s body and interior looks like this purely because that’s how it came out of storage, not because someone decided to get down ‘wiv da’ kids and go for the RAT look. This stealth bomber has been built on a budget, yet if you were to leave it parked anywhere there would be few clues – bar that exhaust quartet – about that Canadian grizzly beast dwelling under the bonnet.
Once the steel wheels arrive – trust me, they should look fantastic – there are many people out there who could kill to have a car so honest, novel and original in concept and condition. So, for once in my life, I’m not going bang the drum in the name of achieving dynamic bliss. Instead I say, leave it be – and please, please, please may I have I another go?
And next time, I promise we’ll bring along the video gear so you can hear it too.