Motoring

Motoring

As Ron is a classic motoring enthusiast, we are pleased to offer you some of his thoughts in this area

The Bristol 408 is a British luxury car made by Bristol Cars between 1963 and 1966. Bristol Cars was a manufacturer of hand-built luxury cars headquartered in Bristol, England. After the Second World War, the Car Division of the Bristol Aeroplane Company was formed, later becoming Bristol Cars Limited. Bristol had only one sales showroom, on the corner of Kensington High Street and Holland Road in London. It was always a low-volume manufacturer; the most recent published official production figures were for 1982, which stated that 104 cars were produced in that year. The Bristol 408 has its history in post war Bristol cars, going back to the 400 in 1949. Its predecessor the 407 had been a major departure for Bristol with its use of a Chrysler V8 engine and automatic transmission.

My Bristol 408

One fine day in 1982 I thought I saw a “James Bond” car at Sunnyside shopping Centre in Pretoria, namely an Aston Martin DB5, in the hands of a purveyor of second hand cars. Rushing into the premises I was slightly deflated when I realised that it was in fact merely a DB6 and an automatic one at that. Nevertheless, it was gorgeous and following a talk with the bank manager it was soon mine.

I then joined the Aston Martin Owners’ Club of South Africa (as one does) and, at the first AGM I attended of this august body, I was confronted by two interesting fellows who owned not Astons but Lagondas. “Why”, they wanted to know, “was it not the Aston Martin and Lagonda owners’ Club – since the company made them both”. After some discussion, the Club duly changed its name, and neither interloper was seen again in the next three decades that I was a member!

How does this relate to a Bristol 408?” You might ask. Well, in summary, one of those Lagonda fellows did become a friend and he had a Bristol 408 amongst the many cars cluttering up his home. He had the car collector disease, and he had it in spades. When my Aston Martin revealed the reason for its cheapness and my daily driver broke too, in about 1985, he said to me “well, you could use the Bristol if you like”. Now THAT is the very definition of a friend! He even drove it over to my house and instructed me in the finer points of driving it as I gave him a lift home.

Inside it is not unlike an Aston Martin of the earlier years, or Jaguar, or Lagonda for that matter, with its acres of burr walnut veneer, Smiths gauges and upright seating position with swathes of Connolly hide. What was unusual was that it had a push button selector for the automatic gearbox and it had a Chrysler Torque-Flite instead of the awful Borg-Warner Model 8 that plagued the DB 6. The Torque-Flite was one of the best of the early automatics and it was Chrysler’s solution to selection to use the push buttons until 1964 or thereabouts when the company was forced by US legislation to standardise on a column or floor shift lever. The other great thing about the 408 is its Chrysler (Canada) 319 V8 engine, reputedly good for 250 hp – good because it is absolutely reliable.

“Why”, thought I, “have I not noticed lots of other Bristols tottering about?” I soon discovered that this was because Bristol appealed to a very specific clientele and cost vast sums of money without having the cachet to the great unwashed that James Bond movies had lent to the Aston Martin marque. The aim was to transport 4 gentlemen and/or ladies (with luggage, naturally) comfortably with the minimum fuss and ostentation at an average of 100 mph on standard English A roads. This may not sound like much today, but when the average sport car’s maximum speed did not quite make 100mph, it was quite special.

In the end 67 Bristol 408’s were manufactured largely by hand at Filton with aluminium bodies and aircraft standard electrics. By far the majority were RHD. Rumour has it, however, that two, possibly three, were made in LHD and shipped to the USA. The first 67 were followed by 16 “Series 2” cars which had the Chrysler 418 engine and square rather than round push buttons. It was apparently one of these which became LHD car number 3 – so 3 out of 83 were LHD.

A feature of these cars which I applaud is that they have side panniers for things like the spare wheel and tools on one side, and the battery and circuit breakers on the other. So, if one suffers a flat tyre on a long trip, there is no need for anything so vulgar as unloading the boot to access spare wheel and tools – one simply produces the carriage key and opens up the side.

So, who would buy a Bristol rather than the more overtly sporty Aston Martin, Jensen, Maserati or Ferrari offerings costing less, or rather than more conventionally upmarket offerings by Rolls Royce or Bentley? My own 408 was delivered new to Mr J T MacFarlane in March, 1965 and I know nothing about him. However, a friend in the USA, who lives on Cape Cod, has one of 3 left hand drive 408’s built and that one’s first owner was a VERY interesting character – Sir John Thouron. A GOOGLE search disclosed the following:

“John Thouron was born in Cookham, England of an American father descended from Huguenots, who was taken to England as a child, and a British mother descended from the first chairman of Lloyd’s of London. He was educated at Sherborne in Dorset. Thouron married Lorna Elliot in 1930, with whom he had a son, John Julius Thouron, who died in 2006. This marriage was dissolved in 1939 and in 1953 he married Esther duPont who died in 1984.

On the outbreak of World War II John Thouron enlisted in the Gordon Highlanders and was subsequently commissioned in the Black Watch. Later, he was seconded to the Special Operations Executive, headquartered in Bletchley, with the primary mission of sending personnel, including both U.K. and escaped European military personnel, into occupied countries to sabotage communications and create resistance movements.

For a period of time, he was seconded to the General Staff, Scottish Command, to undertake responsibility for instructing the Glasgow Home Guard battalions in the tactics of street and house-to-house fighting, a form of warfare in which the British Army at that time was virtually untrained. Later in the war he became part of an organization formed for the purpose of foiling any attempts to massacre prisoners of war as the war drew to its close. The plans of the organization involved parachuting behind enemy lines in the vicinity of prisoner-of-war camps, and Thouron had many parachute jumps, including a number at night, behind German lines.

Inspired by seeing British and American troops fighting side-by-side during the war, John Thouron sought a way to foster continued Anglo-American friendship through an academic exchange. In 1960, he and his wife created the Thouron University of Pennsylvania Fund for British-American Exchange, destined to become one of the world’s leading graduate fellowship programs. Since that time more than 700 students have studied abroad at either the University of Pennsylvania or at British universities. Chosen by a competitive process culminating with interviews by the British and American Selection Committees, the Thouron Scholars receive funding to pursue studies in any field of their choosing.”

So, Sir John was very much the archetype English gentleman, a sort of subtle blend of fictional characters like James Bond and Gimlet and real ones like Freddie Spencer Chapman and David Stirling with the added eye to the future of Cecil Rhodes.

He apparently used his Bristol from delivery in 1963 until his death in 2007, so must have been a great fan of it. The history since his death is unknown but it was acquired as barn find two years ago by a recently retired maths professor who lives on Cape Cod and who will be restoring her. Mine is also slowly making progress…

Ron Wheeldon