Type 401

early 401

Pictured above an early 401

The type 401 was produced mainly as a two door saloon. It has the distinction of being the first Bristol not to have timber in the body frame. ‘Aerodyne’ is the adopted generic name for the style. The body is aluminium on a steel tubular framework demonstrated on a short batch of cars initially commissioned by Bristol and executed by Carrozzeria Superleggera Touring of Milan. The construction method of these cars was adopted, though modified in a minor structural form, relating to the jointing at the crossover points of the tubular framework, used as the means of supporting the body shell. 'Superleggera' means lightweight. The jointing was cruciform not crossover. The body design was also much modified. The basic shape inspired by the Italian design was adopted, but the re-sculptured frontal treatment has to be credited entirely to the British design team. The shape, once determined, was wind tunnel tested at scale size and the body of the prototype airflow tested on the Filton runway at high speed using wool tufts to illustrate the airflow pattern. The result still stands comparison with its peers as a Bristol masterpiece.

General Specification

One of the `Superleggera' Saloons bodied by Touring of Milan. A styling exercise used to help determine the shape and construction of the successor to the 400 Touring saloon
Farina cabriolet 401 Cabriolet by Farina of Turin
A Bristol 401 with unusual additional sidelights added, and not included in the auxiliary fog lamps as was normal on earlier cars 401 in 1972

Paint Colours

The standard colours taken from the brochure are described as follows: black, Bristol maroon, Bristol green, surf blue, azure blue, Cambridge grey, heather grey. Grille inserts were black.

401 Special or Non Standard Body cars

These have been listed first because according to the identified chassis numbers this is the correct position for the bulk of them and also because of the factors described above. There are three main groups.

Group 1

Those built in batches on a new chassis for the manufacturer; these include:

401 TOURING

Saloon bodied cars. 8 known for sure, a 9th reported. It is possible that there were one or two more made, but it is thought the total was 9. The Aldingtons were closely involved with this order, especially HJ, then managing director of the car division, who was pictured at the Touring factory fabrication unit ca.47, holding a design scale model of the Superleggera body. Given the date, it was probably chassis 129 that was shown being clad as a trial. Two prototypes were built on type 400 chassis and delivered to Filton though the chassis plates generally were seen to be marked 401. These cars all have the type 400 steering wheel, not the two-spoke 401 unit.

401 FARINA

Cabriolet bodied cars. 4 now known to be plated as 401s on random chassis, between 200-220. 5 other Farinas reside presently in the 400 list; of these 5, only 2 are so far confirmed plated as 400s. In addition, a Farina registration has been notified, but it is not known whether it is on, or was on, one of the forementioned cars, or whether this could be a tenth Farina. The summation adds credence to the possibility (see previous type description) that as many as 12 of these cars were made in total. Again, HJ Aldington was involved with this order.

Group 2

Those built singly or in much smaller numbers than group 1, on new chassis for the manufacturer or for private clients; these include:

401 BEUTLER

It has been confirmed that only 2 saloon bodies were executed on the 401 chassis. See also 402 and 406 special body notes for other single examples of this marque.

401 BRADBURN & WEDGE

These were drophead bodied cars. 2 are known. possibly 1 other made, all reported in association with Riverlec Motors, [see also Richard Mead]. The car identified by chassis number is illustrated in BRISTOL An illustrated History on page 64. The lower of the two pictures is the car confirmed by Jonathan Bradburn. A line drawing of the rear of the car stated to be the second version and the design adopted, was included in Bulletin number 82. Part finished cars including body to rear door posts and fitted with front screen and seats. were delivered from Bristol Cars to Bradburn & Wedge in Wolverhampton. Rear body skin completed by Richard Mead of Riverlec Motors to commission from Bradburn & Wedge. Completed body believed trimmed and painted by Bradburn & Wedge. It would be incorrect therefore to call these Richard Mead cars as they were (very approximately) 45% Bristol, 20% Mead, 35% Bradburn & Wedge. They were certainly all sold by Bradburn and Wedge.

401 MEAD

Another Cabriolet reputed to be by Richard Mead, but not yet identified by chassis frame number. I am almost certain that this is one of the 2/3 cars reported commissioned by Bradburn & Wedge of Wolverhampton having been wrongly attributed to Mead. See remarks under Bradburn and Wedge. This car is the top illustration on p.64 of BRISTOL, An illustrated History. It appears to differ only slightly from the other illustrated, in the way that the folding roof meets the front windscreen. The body appears to be identical.

401 GHIA-AIGLE

This was a saloon body design based on a 401 chassis from late 1952/early 53. It was previously listed with the 400 special bodied cars. I now have pictorial evidence that it is a 401 chassis and has been dated as the 1953 exhibit at the Motor Show in the UK. It was pictured in the Classic Cars magazine in both January and April editions of 1993. It was shown with light coloured paintwork and a fabric covered roof. Interestingly, it also featured the raised wings to be round in the styling of much later types. See 411 Prototype.

401 R.G.S.ATLANTA

A reinforced glass fibre bodied car, after the style of the 404.

401 UNIVERSITY MOTORS

A drophead car bodied by University Coachworks Ltd, a wholly owned subsidiary of University Motors Ltd., 1 known, possibly 2 made?

Group 3

Those cars with major modification on damaged or second hand chassis for private owners; naturally these left the factory as original saloons.

401 CREED

The previously reported unidentified but complete re-body on chassis 1023 was, according to Autosport of January 1954 built by a tuning expert, David Creed of Shepherds Bush. The car was reported in Motor Sport to have been clocked at 110 mph on test thanks to its aerodynamic new body. Now where have we heard that before?

401 DB "Trojan Horse"

There are further enquiries in progress in respect of this exercise, but it is too important a development to omit from this publication. With luck the vehicles may be identified from the archives of the David Brown tractor company. Someone may even have pictures. You will not therefore find any reference to these hybrids in the spreadsheet at the end of this section, for reasons that will become apparent as you read on.

The following information now provided in respect of David Brown Ltd's Aston engined Aerodyne bodied cars may actually relate to 401 or 403, or one of each of these types of car, but for the moment, because of the dates and background information established thus far, the story is installed within the 401 Chapter which will probably be the correct location.

It has been reported that in the mid 1950s, George Abecassis, son-in-law of the then owner of David Brown Ltd, having acquired two examples of Bristol aerodyne saloons, almost certainly 401s traded in part exchange at his company premises HWM Ltd., was determined to demonstrate the level of refinement achieved by the Bristol Aeroplane Co. Ltd in these cars. The object, hoping to prove it to be a much better package of quality and performance than that then being produced in the form of the DB 2/4 Mk 1 and the developing DB3.

It had by then been suggested by Aston Martin owners that their own cars were too rough and characteristic of the pre-war Astons.

It is reported by RW Ladbrooke that the two cars were purchased from George Abecassis by David Brown Tractors Ltd and were test driven by various persons. David Brown himself, perhaps understandably, appears not to have been convinced.

Some time after this when RW Ladbrooke, who apparently was then in a senior position in the David Brown Tractor Division, had enjoyed the use of one Bristol for an extended period, covering a very large number of miles, the decision was taken to fit the originally Lagonda designed 2.6 litre engine and David Brown gearbox to both of these cars! These engines, the rights to which had been acquired as part of the purchase of the Lagonda company by David Brown, had been designed by the WO Bentley design team at Lagonda. By the early 1950s they were being manufactured by the Tractor Division, and shipped south to the AM-L assembly plant located first at the airfield complex at Hanworth Park, later to be relocated at Newport Pagnell. With the merger by David Brown of the Aston Martin and Lagonda companies, the products were attributed to newly formed Aston Martin-Lagonda Ltd.

I was told by Bill Ladbrooke that the task of fitting the engine proved easy enough although it was somewhat heavier, but the David Brown gearbox and its mounting position proved much more difficult. However, thanks to the skill of a good factory engineer, and expert casting facilities available within the tractor group, a special adaptation to the DB gearbox casing was manufactured and the complete package was then successfully fitted to both of these cars. Not surprisingly, the two 401 hybrid cars now had much more performance, albeit of a nose heavy nature. Because by this time the Lagonda engine had been in service for two or three years these vehicles were not ‘mules’ in the trade sense. More aptly they might be described as a pair of ‘Trojan horses’. Since Aston Martin-Lagonda car plant staff were presumably not directly involved, it is quite conceivable that they might not have had any knowledge of these hybrids.

They were then both used for a period until one of the pair, whilst parked in Salisbury, on a break in a trip from Plymouth, was severely damaged by a less than observant driver. Sadly, of the two cars, this particular unit had been used the least. It was taken back to the factory and the Lagonda components were removed. The car was not repaired but with the original engine and gear box out of the chassis, was sold without chassis plate and engine number plate, to a motor trader. This is known because it is reported that there was a search at the Hanworth Park* premises for these items at a period when most of the Aston Martin-Lagonda staff had by then been transferred to Newport Pagnell.

*During the AM-L period at Hanworth Park, the Tractor Division spares section was moved to another David Brown acquired accommodation across the river from the car plant. In addition there was a David Brown organisation construction group in occupancy of an old hangar building formerly used by the AM-L experimental department, actually on the Hanworth site. This probably would account for the search for the missing chassis plates being executed at Hanworth Park, but at the locus of the Tractor division spares unit, or the construction group accommodation, and not at the AM-L car plant.

The remaining car continued in service for an unknown period, after which it too was thought by its main user to have been returned to its original trim and disposed through the trade. The date was thought by then to be about 1958.

It is surprising therefore to note that a Bristol was reported seen with an Aston Martin engine in the early sixties. Could this have been the same car?, or another Trojan horse?, for it has also been indicated during joint club research that earlier there was indeed an even more clandestine exercise executed in which at least one example of the Claude Hill designed DB 1 2 litre push rod engine was installed into another Bristol car. The Aston Martin Owners' Club are now researching this particular story and their findings will be reported in due course. To say that these disclosures have astonished some senior ex-employees of AM-L would be a great understatement.

A lot of help has so far been given by the Aston Martin Owners' Club which is now also keenly interested in this hitherto (to them) undisclosed subject. To my knowledge our club members are the first to read of it.

As registrar I would particularly like to acknowledge the assistance given by the following people: Jim Whyman, AMOC Hon.Secy and their Archivist Alan Archer; Arnold Davey, the Lagonda Club Registrar; Angela Abecassis; Harold Beech, Designer at Aston Martin Lagonda (retired); EJ Cutting, Engineer and designer at Aston Martin and now an automobile consultant; Mike Harting, Managing Director of HWM Ltd; Fred Hobbs, the long time associate of George Abecassis and Workshop Manager of HWM (now retired); RW ‘Bill’ Ladbrooke; Roger Stowers, Company Archivist and Historian of Aston Martin Lagonda Ltd; Gordon Sutherland, the owner of Aston Martin Ltd. 1932-46; Rex Woodgate, AM-L Ltd Service section (now retired); and finally but not least, club member John Christie, who brought the matter to my attention in the first place. I'm sure John won't mind me saying that the subject came to light during discussion in the course of the purchase of a socket spanner! “from little acorns…”

In the course of further research something even more astonishing was revealed. It was discovered that the person who most used this hybrid was also at an earlier stage in his career involved in the organisation of the transport of the BMW Eisenach factory equipment, data and certain key personnel, the object first to effect a move to a secure location in the American zone, and later from Germany back to the UK. It is understood that it took a fleet of 10 tank transporters and trucks only one week to complete the initial removal. The task was completed just before the lines of military jurisdiction were redrawn. Amongst the 5 key personnel relocated to the American zone was one Dr Fritz Fiedler. That's right, the Chief Designer of BMW. He was to be the only one of these five who accepted the invitation to be transported to the UK. Another who had contact with the situation was HJ Aldington who wished to bring all of these specialists, with whom he had worked pre-war, back to the UK. He was apparently told that there was space on the transport plane for only one. Once in the UK, and having been through arrival requirements, Fiedler was allotted the task of developing the Frazer Nash-Bristol as a post war project. It's a small world indeed!

Perhaps our respective club and marques' sporting links might have been even closer, had this ploy been jointly sponsored by the British Aeroplane Co. Ltd and David Brown Ltd, instead of the British Aeroplane Co. Ltd and AFN Ltd?

It will be most interesting to see if, like those hostages of fortune, any further detail of this venture can be liberated now that the veracity of the information and the very existence of this long suspected ‘Trojan horse’, the non standard 401 DB, is at last confirmed.

As a footnote to this story, Gordon Sutherland told me that he had his own 405 supercharged to +5lbs boost to improve the lower and intermediate speed response. Like the pitch of George Abecassis's amazing idea, when he put it to David Brown, it was not a resounding success. Further, as an ex-owner of the company, Gordon was also able to provide some background information of the ED Abbott operation relative to the 405 Drophead, which is yet to be pursued.

Others

Series

As with its companion in production the 400, the cars were again not identified by the company as different series in sales or in literature, but unlike the 400, the car body numbers on the vehicle identity plates are stamped in a much more logical sequence. Initially starting with body number only, very soon thereafter cars were stamped with the prefix 1/, 2/, or 3/, followed by the body number. It was obviously not necessary to stockpile in volume the 401 aluminium bodies because of the chosen method of fabrication. It is a probability that the production line simply became more organized instead of having surplus manpower thrown into unit production as must have happened in the case of the 400. As you will see, the mechanical changes are more diverse than any other model. Once again, only to simplify matters, the main groups are described hereon as ‘series’. It is accepted that this is not technically correct.

How to recognize 401 early and series 1 cars

The 401 has proved almost impossible to categorise exactly because, as you will see, there are so many changes occurring throughout the various series and we still do not yet have sufficient detail of the Car Number or Body Codes finally to determine the salient change points.

How to recognize 401 series 2 cars

How to recognize 401 series 3 cars

S3 rear
401 chrome dash

One of two reported fitted with chromium plated brass dashboard fascias.