Classic Coupé: Bristol 404

Bristol 404It is hard not to fall in love with the Bristol 404. Quick and agile, small and beautiful and just a little eccentric with it, we were fortunate enough to take one for a spin around the Cumbrian countryside recently. The 404 that we took to the road is one of only 50 built and despatched from the Filton factory in Bristol, way back in 1955. Worthy of its classic status on looks alone, it took only a few throaty revs and shifts up and down (and back up) the gears to appreciate that the performance more than matches the aesthetics. 

Launched in 1953 and built on a short wheelbase chassis, the 404 was the first Bristol whose look was directly inspired by the world of aviation and in particular, the sweeping aerodynamics of aeroplanes. The result was a sleek, low-slung two seater coupé that at the time looked positively futuristic.

That much is no longer true, of course. More than futuristic, the 404 seems like the spirit of a distinctly 1950s style distilled into steel. But the way the 404 drives is certainly not archaic.

On the road - as we slipped and twisted through the narrow lanes of the Cumbrian countryside - we marvelled at the Bristol's superb handling and very real feeling of speed from behind the wheel. So close to the road surface, everything zips by that little bit quicker. It's an exhilarating ride.

Weighing in at less than a ton, back in the 1950s the 404 came with a choice of BMW engines - a 100B version with 105bhp or a 100C sports version with 125bhp. It boasted a powerful braking system that allowed it to cope well with a top speed in excess of 119mph. Our ride for the day had the smaller of the two. At no point did we feel shortchanged, or that a little extra firepower was needed.

When Autocar magazine reviewed the 404 not long after its initial production, they were suitably impressed. ‘Very occasionally,' the magazine said, 'the wine of experience overflows the glass of expectation and a would-be connoisseur is aware that he has approached perfection.’

True enough, but a little portentous maybe. After a few hours in the company of one of these magnificent things, we'd sum them up a little more simply - the Bristol 404 is one of the best English-made classic cars ever. We love it to bits and if you ever get the chance to pilot one yourself, chances are you will too.