Bristol: The Astonishing Resurrection Of A Rare Classic Car That Was Left For Dead
In all probability, you have never heard of a carmaker called Bristol. Even if you have, you will know that they built cars only when they were in the mood for it. That means even the streets of its home base in the UK, Bristol, were not exactly filled with these eponymous cars. Bristol was originally an aircraft manufacturer, and their planes had a role to play in WWII. After the war, the company decided to get into the manufacturing of low-volume (but high quality) sportscars. With some pretty deft moves to partake in the spoils of war (Germany had to offer reparations, after all), Bristol acquired the rights to some pre-WWII BMW models and a special inline-six 2-litre engine. They were all set.
As early as 1947, the first car to wear the Bristol badge – the 400 – rolled off the assembly line. It was a slinky two-door saloon with flowing lines, but was really an agglomeration of the best aspects of the BMW 326, 327 and 328. Until production ended in 1950, only 487 units of the 400 were built – and one of these was delivered to a certain Badridas K Daga of Curzon Street, London.
Why an ostensibly wealthy man of Indian origin would order a Bristol 400 in 1948 is lost in the mists of time. What is known is that the car was subsequently exported to India and once here, it changed hands several times. Thankfully, as it sometimes happens in our country, some of its previous owners were some fine Parsi families with a penchant for taking photographs and keeping records. Between them, the Bristol was extensively driven around in India, and it even made a trip back to the UK, sometime in the 1950s, to visit the factory for a service. It traversed the seas again and then crisscrossed the northern parts of India. There are also reports of it participating in endurance motorsport events in the Bombay of the 1960s.
This sort of legacy (provenance, in classic car circles) is something collectors pay top dollar for worldwide. And then, there is its rarity. Records kept by the faithful UK-based Bristol Owners Club show that this is the only Bristol 400 in India – and the only one on the subcontinent. Oh, and also the only one on the entire continent – so naturally, an expensive and rare car like this literally ended up as scrap in a suburb of Mumbai. It was slowly degrading and sinking into the earth, with parts missing and its main sections rusted, as if crushed under a giant hammer and left to rot. Those in the classic car collector circles who knew of its existence had written it off for good.
But a Mumbai-based architect, with an appetite for collecting modern classic cars, decided he would pick it up anyway and figure out what could be done with it; behind the boyish looks of the lanky Amit Sapre hid a steely determination to bring the dead back to life. He reached out to Kaizad and Nekzad Engineer, two aptly-named brothers who run a vintage and classic car restoration workshop in the buzzing Opera House area of Mumbai. A commercial pilot called Sachin Ogale was roped in to get the heart of the car beating again. Though he flies aircraft for a living, Captain Ogale has an obsession with back together in his well-equipped machine shop in Pune. So far, so good, right?
There was no urgency, as Kaizad says, as a major restoration such as this “goes on for fucking ever.” However, a call came in from Manvendra Singh Barwani, the curator of the Cartier Travel With Style Concours d’Elegance. He said he would be honoured if the Bristol could enter the 2017 edition — the fifth iteration of the event — to be held in Hyderabad in early February. The team had eight months to not only resurrect a car from the dead but also put it back in showroom condition, as of 1948. After all, it had to be presentable to the high profile, knowledgeable and expert judges at one of the most prestigious and exotic automotive beauty contests in the world.
Challenge accepted. Calls were made and bids were placed on Ebay for parts. Providentially, a curious seller on Ebay wondered why someone in India was bidding for a Bristol Owners Club badge – there was no record of a Bristol, let alone a 400, in India. One thing led to another, and the BOC member pointed the Engineers in the right direction: not somewhere in the UK, as one would assume, but Down Under. Sydney-based Geoff Dowdle is acknowledged as the Bristol 400 guru. Though he helped the Engineers via calls and emails, he was still sceptical that this 400 would come back to life. He was not sure these ‘Indian nerds’ were capable of pulling it off – not an encouraging sign coming from an expert.
But the Indians were persistent. Kaizad flew to Sydney and gleaned whatever he could get from Dowdle. Under the Australian’s directions, he scoured scrap markets in Sydney and Melbourne, laying his hands on virtually anything that could help him with the project, including sections of the chassis, body shell and fenders. Dowdle put him on to others who helped him with more spares. Measurements of Dowdle’s 400 were taken as a reference, since the Bristol team was literally starting from scratch.
Seeing their determination and passion, Dowdle realised they were dead serious – the passionate Bristol 400 guru had found his dedicated pupils, and they him. The Bristol was getting a second shot at life. The rapid and extremely detailed correspondence between them went right down to the brass tacks, in this case, the threading on the screws. More parts were sourced from Adelaide and even New Zealand. A friend pitched in with the all-important steering wheel from the Beaulieu auto jumble in the UK.
In Mumbai, a talented bunch of interior craftsmen put together the seats, the upholstery and the linings. Despite the treatment the Bristol went through, the instruments were entirely salvaged; they didn’t have to make a dash for it (pardon the pun). Remarkably, the signatures of the mechanics who repaired or serviced the instruments back in the 1960s were also found, unblemished, at the back of the dials.
The body and wood work had begun, using Kaizad’s measurements. It was virtually a fill-in-the-blanks exercise – donor parts and sections were combined with old ones, and what could not be recovered was recreated using good old Indian craftsmanship. Captain Ogale, meanwhile, put the complex but unique BMW-derived engine with its Bristol head back into action. The engine still breathes via triple Solex carburettors borrowed from the helpful Dowdle’s 400 (it will eventually find its way back to its owner). After several decades, the engine finally fired up – it was ready for a marriage with the four-speed gearbox and the body shell. Participation at the Cartier event was now a distinct possibility.
Mechanically, after several trials, the car was declared sound. A fresh coat of metallic green paint, which almost matches the original shade it first came in, was added. Lots of spit and lots of polish later, the car was ready for the beauty contest.
Television presenter and classic car guru Alain de Cadenet, the master of ceremonies at the Cartier event, was taken in by the Bristol and its epic survival story. When he started the car, he remarked that it indeed sounded like a Bristol. The team members exchanged glances – each one of them realised that they had no idea what a Bristol should sound like.
The herculean efforts of Amit Sapre, Kaizad and Nekzad Engineer, Captain Ogale, Geoff Dowdle and all the others who contributed in no small measure paid off. The Bristol 400 won the Cartier Resurrection Cup.