3 December 2013

A Bristol Back Home: Beloved family car returns to its roots

Imagine that as a child you had the wisdom, foresight and clout to convince your father to store his lovely old classic car in a temperature-controlled facility, with regular maintenance checks, perfectly preserved for when you yourself reached an age where it could be appreciated and enjoyed. Say, 40.

You didn’t? No, neither did I. But it happened just the same, and fortunately, it was a lovely old Bristol.

In January 1973, my father, Glyn Jones, an admirer of all things well made, and having previously enjoyed ownership of a good 403, decided to move up the ranks and purchase a 406 from, unsurprisingly, a certain Mr. Anthony Crook. Though it was already 14 years old, he felt a car of this pedigree could perhaps have been kept in a little better order; however, with it being in fairly average condition, he had the option of acquiring what was surely the connoisseur’s choice of family car for a very reasonable price.

As an engineer, the superior mechanical build, perfectly balanced straight-six, and flowing lines of an aluminium-bodied car built to aircraft standards was obviously quite an appeal. And, as I was recently informed, having only two doors also prevented excitable young children from exiting independently from a moving vehicle. Speaking of which, come July of that same year I joined the world, and it is therefore highly likely that I took my first journey in one of Great Britain's most exclusive cars.

There are certain moments that I do genuinely remember quite clearly: Driving to Yorkshire from Cornwall, more than once, to see my grandparents there; as well as many trips to and from my primary school, driven by mum, who recounts the daily routine of having to gingerly poke the long nose of the Bristol beyond the gate posts and onto the busy main road, before she could even check for oncoming traffic.

There were times too when the car was off the road for minor restoration and maintenance, gradually returning it to a condition that was more befitting of such a motor still only in its mid-teens. I distinctly recall, on many an evening, clipping past the Bristol on my two wheels at far too close a quarter, while both my parents painstakingly rubbed down the paintwork in preparation for a complete respray.

It would be fair to say that I remember the exterior of the car more clearly in this bare metal and primered state, than in its final guise of a glorious oxblood red — a coat expertly applied by a local spray painter, whose premises I also remember visiting. The unmistakeable smell of thinned, freshly sprayed paint will always bring back that little scene: A small, isolated workshop that sat on a windswept Cornish hill with the backdrop of a china clay tip, the building itself holding little more than a compressor and a man with a good eye for detail.

When it comes to smells, though, nothing is more nostalgic for me than the whiff of a well-patinaed leather interior, as can be found in most high-end cars from that era, bringing back the memory of sitting in complete (unappreciated, of course) luxury, with an armrest at the centre of the seat providing, if not a rest for the arm, a barrier against physical sibling rivalry. Occasionally, I would slide to the centre and wedge my head between the two front seats for a better view, a few miles could pass before I'd be noticed and returned, encouraged by a free forearm.

A play with the rear quarter windows would help pass the time, repeated opening and closing causing rapid fluctuations to cabin pressure, or peering into the deep leather-lined pockets just forward of the rear wheel arches for some trinket lost on a previous journey. An image of a small red blinking light somewhere in the front of a car has always stayed with me. It is only recently that I realised it was the indicator switch perched on top of a 406 dash.

Additionally, an engineless 405 sat on the drive for a few years, a project that perhaps would have served as a logical next step, being a four door, but unfortunately never became more than a play-thing for us as children before being sold on.

So, for the first few years of my life I was unwittingly exposed to the World of Bristol, enhanced by regular visits to Cornwall by an uncle, Terry Martin, by now a Bristol convert himself, who over the years further enabled me to sample a 401, 405, 407, 409, 411(s) and a 412, not to mention a couple of Astons. I don't pretend to remember all of these models individually, but I see now that my formative years were a completely unrealistic introduction to average British motoring, fully at odds with the tinny, uninspiring, mass-produced dross that was being experienced by my peers. I'm not complaining.

There are doubtless many Bristol-related stories that I know nothing of, but one I am aware of is worth a note: My aforementioned uncle, whose past is peppered with countless harmless pranks, had acquired a 409 and was in Cornwall for a family visit. Dad was managing an engineering company at the time on behalf of the local clay industry, and had privilege of a designated parking place just below his first-floor office window. Thinking it would be most humorous to upset the ranks of the well-established parking hierarchy, Terry quietly arranged the removal of the other cars blocking his access, and surreptitiously swapped his 409 for the 406. It was all done silently and under the unwitting nose of its owner, who was consequently faced with a somewhat surreal morphing of the Marque’s models for his ride home.

As often seems to be the case with second-hand Bristol Cars, rarely recognised for how good they are both in quality and looks and therefore often under-valued, it was possible to enjoy them throughout that era without real concern for high running or maintenance costs. However, by 1979 we were a growing family of five, and after nearly seven years of memorable motoring, my parents decided to sell. Having revived the car back to a very respectable standard, Dad has often stated that — despite my little statement there to the contrary — the 406 was the only car he ever made any money on, selling for a sum three times that at which it was purchased.

Despite riding in many models through the years, my own personal Bristol driving experience is actually very limited. After dabbling with various other mostly shambolic, but nonetheless entertaining makes (2CVs, Lancia, Alfas, and a Mazda pickup with a Rover V-8 engine inexpertly dropped in), I finally got behind the wheel of a Bristol and drove a Beaufighter when I was 19.

A few years later, freshly married, my wife and I enjoyed a nice silver 411 as our wedding car. Both of these opportunities were again due to the continuing generosity and interest of said uncle — the Beaufighter nicely re-sprayed in blue belonged to him, and the 411 was also his but from quite a few years prior, and was loaned back for the special day by the owner of the time in typical trusting Bristol fashion. This is an act of faith that I can't imagine taking place in many other motoring circles. My wife has often reminded me that my first words to her as a newlywed were, "What did you think of the car, then?" Probably not the best chosen.

As much as I kept a passing interest in the developments of Bristol cars, I was never in a position, financially or practically, to experience personal ownership. We emigrated to Western Australia in 2004, and the realities of life, young family, new business ventures, etc., took precedence. A couple of half-hearted calls to Australian owners / vendors of Bristols did take place, but in truth I was not immediately taken with the models on offer.

I was impressed, however, to find a fairly strong following in Australia, which gave me a subconscious confidence at least that such a car could be supported for spares and maintenance.

About three years ago, with business steady, and (most) other financial priorities having been met, I found myself regularly checking the various models for sale on the UK market. Initially veering toward the V-8s — the thinking being that maintaining such would be slightly easier given the huge following here in Australia for engines with that particular piston count (albeit mostly in designs that I consider inferior, both in looks and function) — I made gradually more serious enquiries with regard to some of the nicer examples on offer.

I started to pick up quite a bit of information about these cars — seemingly trivial tidbits of individual Bristol peculiarities that actually ended up having a surprisingly valid impact on my eventual choice of model. By now I was looking back toward the 6-cylinder engined cars: I liked the sound, the racing pedigree and the subsequent originality; I wanted a manual gearbox; I wasn’t keen on the idea of an ash frame; and I preferred the shape that carried through to the 411. But I still wanted the aero-inspired intake. So a 406, then.

It would be fair to mention that at this point I was sidetracked by a shiny new, red Alfa Romeo 3.5V6 GT, not least for the big tax advantages being glibly handed out by the Australian Government on new vehicle purchases. Whilst we then had two years of "fun" at very intermittent intervals, I came to realise that if I was actually caught having said "fun" by our hard-working law enforcers, I might find myself writing a very different story from behind a fairly solid, double locked door with a hatch for meals.

The Alfa was ultimately returned from whence it came, in one piece, and without too drastic a drop in value. It was this little side-step that further inclined me to the alternative: to be the owner of an interesting-to-drive car that wouldn't necessarily cost me my licence, and possibly freedom, on a daily basis. A couple of more serious enquiries on 406s ensued, both with no engine, and both of which I felt were too hard for me to re-engine and orchestrate a rebuild from the other side of the World.

I can't be sure now of an exact timeline, or indeed the exact turn of events, but roughly parallel to this a gentleman by name of Douglas Reece, himself a Bristol owner, called in to my father’s engineering business in Cornwall and inevitably got going on the subject of Bristol ownership. He offered to look up the whereabouts of the old 406, I assume by registration number through the BOC, and returned some days later with information that it was now residing, rather resplendently I might add, in a fantastic new museum in Athens — the “Hellenic Motor Museum.”

Dad was otherwise occupied with the day-to-day running of the business for this to be anything more than an interesting update on a car that, for all he knew, could have met its end at any time in the last 30 odd years. Of course, this was of great interest to me, if only on a nostalgic level, and a short search on the Internet by my younger brother Richard (another Bristol passenger/convert, also residing here in Australia) uncovered photographic evidence to support it, and though it was only a picture posted by some random visitor to the museum, it was quite exciting to see that the car still actually existed.

As is my somewhat impulsive nature, it was of course now imperative that a phone call be made to the museum. If asked what the Dickens I was going to say at that point, I think I would have been hard pressed to come up with a sensible answer. Nonetheless, I found myself speaking to the HR Manager of the Museum, Ms. Marina Philipoussi, who fortunately for me, the lazy linguist, spoke excellent English.

On establishing that the Bristol was indeed in the Museum collection, and me vaunting that I was once chauffeured around in it as a child, I proceeded to enquire in the "nothing-ventured-nothing-gained" vein as to whether the owner of the museum ever sold any of his cars. Interestingly, and to my surprise, yes, on occasion he would sell a car from the museum, if only to replace it and keep the collection fresh. I needed no second bidding. So followed a flurry of emails and phone calls via Marina to the museum owner himself, in pursuit of a car that not only fitted my (by now) ideal as far as model and engine type were concerned, but was also the very same car that had sparked my Bristol interest in the first place! And yes, he very graciously agreed to sell the car to me.

I then proceeded to learn a little of its life in the intervening years, and it just got better and better. The car was sold by my parents to a lady in Watford, who did next to no miles in it before selling to a gentleman in Harrow. He in turn kept it in his private collection until 1998, whereupon the car was sold, via auction, to the Museum in Greece. So, after 34 years, the Bristol that I remembered so well as a child had done a grand total of 80 miles!

Add to that the incredible care the museum takes in keeping all of their cars in completely original, but well-maintained condition, and I felt I had myself the rarest of opportunities to relive something from my past that had not been spoilt in any way, or changed in any detail. It is conceivable that I, along with my two brothers, was the last person to sit on the rear seat!

In hindsight, I think Mr. Theodore Charagionis, a prominent Greek architect, businessman, and the owner of the museum, was quite taken with the whole thing — the connection to my past, and the plan I’d now hatched to surprise my family with the possible ‘buy-back’ of this wonderful car. I feel obliged to make mention here that despite this car obviously being of more value to me than the next man, Mr. Charagionis was absolutely fair in coming to an agreed price, taking his cue from other examples in a similar condition, though arguably none as original.

As most of this negotiating took place around Christmas 2012, I had time to arrange a trip to Europe to coincide with a UK family reunion in June 2013. We managed to entice my sister Alison (who by now was privy to the plan as I had used her services in transferring funds, relicensing and the like) and her husband, and very importantly, my parents, to meet us in Athens for an ‘innocent’ Museum visit to see the old family car. Despite a few things threatening to derail this plan in the lead up to June, not least my father taking the opportunity to have his hip replaced two weeks prior, we all actually managed to hit the agreed time and place: Thursday, 13 June at 10:00 a.m., at the Hellenic Motor Museum, Athens, Greece.

With the privilege of a pre-opening time slot for the occasion, we were introduced to Marina and, with some anticipation by now, after six months of planning and having travelled half way across the globe, we were guided to the third level of this extraordinary Museum.

And there, gleaming under the spotlights, was the Bristol. Our Bristol! Absolutely as we all remembered. Better even. Despite being surrounded by all manner of motoring exotica, there was no distracting from this lovely old car. (Well, it was on prominent display, rotating grandly on a turntable in a world class museum, after all!) Marina, who had diligently worked with me, emails to and fro for months in bringing all the finer details of the ‘buy-back’ together, stood smiling to one side, I think waiting for me to officially claim the car. Instead, my mother went up to her and announced, “We used to own this car you know!” And when Marina laughed, mum obviously felt her point hadn’t translated well and repeated, “No, really, we used to own this car, I used to drive the children to school in it!!” This had to be the moment, and I smugly announced that while they had indeed owned it all those years ago, it was now my turn.

Ridiculous, perhaps, but fun!

Had the intervening years diluted my memory of this car? Not in the slightest. The smell of the interior — so exactly the same. That tiny rear view mirror — yes, I remember that. And the blinking dash-mounted indicator switch, so this is where I’d seen it! Dad meanwhile quickly reacquainted himself with the driver’s seat and controls, giving us a great photo to boot.

I felt bad for the mechanics who’d polished the paintwork to perfection and stood by as we all poured (and pawed) over the old family car, opening the bonnet, the boot, the spare wheel cover, and generally lifting the Bristol’s skirts.

Originally I had intended for Dad to drive his old car away from the museum, but with his very new hip joint not yet clutch-tested, it fell to me. Roles reversed from all those years ago, Mum bravely took a seat in the rear.

As I had never driven the car before, being the grand age of six at the time of its sale, I had no preconceived idea of what to expect. Of course, compared to any modern vehicle, you immediately notice the need to actually have to use your arms to steer the thing. Initially, from what I’d read, I felt the ride should have been a bit softer, but since the tyres were also 35 years old, I think I was perhaps pushing my luck both with expectations of a smooth ride and the risk of pneumatic failure at every corner. To be honest, though, we spent a good deal of the trip in heavy Athens traffic so we were more concerned with keeping the engine cool.

We headed to a Warehouse about an hour away where a forwarding company was tasked with transporting the 406 by road, across Europe to North London, in order to tie in with our own UK travel plans.

So, a week later, we collected my new acquisition, and I finally had chance to properly sample a Bristol for myself on the open road. Concerned that I could do a lot of damage if I pushed too hard after such a mammoth layover, I erred on the side of caution and cruised along at 60 on the inside lane of the M25. I couldn’t help but feel that we belonged in another lane — in fact my memory from childhood was distinctly formed from the ‘fast lane’ — but maybe not just yet. We called in to the Bristol service centre for a tune-up, and quite a few miles later, via the well-regarded Bristol enthusiasts; ‘Spencer Lane-Jones Ltd’ in Warminster. The tyres and engine mounts were duly replaced, whereupon the ride has indeed been transformed.

It was highly enjoyable re-introducing the car back to those who remembered her, and then introducing a Bristol for the first time to a whole new generation — my own children, who were as much taken by the fact that we could travel along legally without seatbelts as they were with the car itself, and my teenage nephews who are currently restoring a Triumph Herald themselves, also from 1959, as their first car.

Yes, there’s hope for this generation yet!

And so there it proudly resides, in Cornwall, back to where I feel it belongs. A couple of gasket issues are being resolved, then hopefully my parents can put a few memorable miles on the clock before I steal it back across the oceans to Australia, where I think it might be the only 406. Regardless, it’s unique to me, and unlikely to be up for sale for a very long time.

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