Driving the 'fighter pilot's delight'

Dr Stefan Cembrowicz's classic Bristol 400 car is an example of superb aero-engineering

My first three months’ salary as a houseman was invested in a Bristol car. In those days £280 was enough for a 15-year-old two-litre Bristol 403 — first owner a cardiologist. Close-ratio gears, disc brakes, aircraft engineering, and highly-tuned engines made these exotic aluminium cars, built in the Bristol Aeroplane Company factory, a ‘fighter pilot’s delight’.

My current Bristol, a 1948 model 400 (pictured), is now used for weekends with occasional long runs across France. Race-bred engineering makes for competent handling at circuit speeds at Prescott, Le Mans and Silverstone. The 400 is eligible for the historic Mille Miglia — other traffic seems surprised at our 80mph-plus cruising speed on local autobahns.

By a fluke of niche marketing and character, Bristol Cars is almost the last surviving British car maker. It has just pulled out of the hat its latest 1,000hp model, the eight-litre Bristol Fighter T, costing £351,000.

Living in Bristol, it is a privilege to visit the factory — still in a 1950s time warp — for spares and advice from this most terminally exclusive of British car makers. Some of the original staff from 1947 are still involved. Almost everything is still available from the stores, even for 59-year-old cars. And in the street, old aero-engineers from factory floor or boardroom acclaim Bristol engineering when they see a car they may have worked on.

Nowadays, those who want to get their hands on one should be able to find the 1950s two-litre models in good condition at £15–20,000, though expect to double this for a good short-wheelbase 404, or a 405 drophead. After 1960, Chrysler V8s replaced the BMW-derived two-litre six engine. These start from £12,000.

And, my advice is buy the best that you can afford, and have it checked first by a specialist garage — an engine rebuild alone will cost you almost as much as a sound runner.

But these 50- to 60-year-old cars are surprisingly easy to drive on modern roads — as well as offering visual pleasure. Some years the Bristol needs only an oil change and a polish, other years a four-figure sum and many hours spannering up this non-depreciating asset — an investment which always pays great dividends. If you enjoy the finest engineering and style, and would appreciate a British-made Bugatti, look no further.

Dr Cembrowicz is a GP in Bristol

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