Buried Alive – The Bristol 400 Rebuilt In India

1948 Bristol 400
1948 Bristol 400

To outsiders, it may look as if I am a midget driving a rather large car, but let me assure you, that’s not the case – it’s only the sporty seating position and not my physical attributes. I am seated well back and low and have to peer through the narrow windscreen. It takes time to get used to the driving position compared to today’s cars.

The undulations of the road come through the steering wheel and I am making tiny corrections all the time. The engine is ticking over at a comfortable pace and the rumble is making itself heard through the firewall. Thankfully there is enough torque even in fourth gear – ‘thankfully’ because I am happy I don’t have to shift gears more than necessary. Why? I’ll tell you later. The needles on the black dials, inspired by aviation, tick smoothly and steadily. The road is clear, but I am gentle on the pedal.

It’s not that the 1948 Bristol 400 is incapable of better speeds. In an earlier life, it has crisscrossed the Indian subcontinent, travelling to places in the mountains where “roads” back in the day meant rutted, gravel-strewn paths. And in what was then known as Bombay, it strutted its stuff in front of burly American metal during the endurance races held at the Juhu aerodrome. It’s been there, done that, gone beyond… And come back.

1948 Bristol 400
The splendid 1948 Bristol 400

When you are driving the only car of its kind in India, and possibly in Asia, you wouldn’t want to tempt fate. The Bristol 400 is quite rare, but that’s not the only reason it’s special. Not too long back, this car was a rusted wreck, crushed and lying in pieces in suburban Mumbai, ignored and dismissed as a lost cause. But not forgotten. Now it is chafing at the reins I am controlling it with, it wants to make up for every moment it has lost. It wants to revel in the feeling of being alive.

1948 Bristol 400 – The Lifesavers

This car did not exist. Definitely not this way. It looked wholesome and perfect like it is today only in sepia-tinted photographs pasted in carefully labelled albums of some families belonging to the Parsi community in Pune. But in real life, it was crushed and in pieces that were subsuming themselves into the earth.

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But there were some highly motivated – and perhaps foolhardy – individuals of India’s vintage and classic car community who saw life where others saw only inevitable death. They may or may not be religious, but it looked like these gentlemen firmly believed in the concept of reincarnation. Amit Sapre is a Mumbai-based architect with a penchant for collecting young timers. He came upon the Bristol’s remains and on a whim, scavenged all the pieces he could get with an idea of putting it all together as a long-long-term project.

1948 Bristol 400
1948 Bristol 400 – Looked a lost cause

The salvaged sections were sent off to Niki Garage, a highly characterful restoration workshop in the buzzing Opera House area of the city run by the two aptly-named Engineer brothers, Kaizad and Nekzad. Whatever was left of the inline-six was sent off to Pune, to Captain Sachin Ogale’s machine shop. Yes, the Captain in his name indeed means he flies large passenger aircraft for a living but he is worryingly obsessed with getting ancient internal combustion engines working perfectly. The general idea was to start work on restoring the Bristol over a couple of years. But a phone call received one day in mid-2016 changed everything.

1948 Bristol 400

Manvendra Singh Barwani, the curator of the Cartier Travel With Style Concours d’Elegance wondered if the Bristol could be entered in the fifth edition of the prestigious event in Hyderabad: “It would be a privilege,” he said. The Cartier Concours, as everyone in the circuit knows, is India’s finest beauty contest for vintage and classic cars. It attracts global attention and high profile guests from around the world; the perfect occasion for a rare car with impeccable provenance to be showcased.

Sure, but there was a tiny problem. The event was going to be held in February 2017, which was just eight months away! Would it be even possible? Well, there was no harm in trying, right? What needed to be done after all was to simply bring a car back from the dead and make it look as if it was as good as new – they way it looked in 1948. Little did they know what they were getting into.

Dead and buried
Dead and buried

When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it. When Paulo Coelho wrote that, perhaps he had the restoration of the Bristol 400 in mind and the role of the universe in it. When the team was trawling through eBay to source some parts for the 400, it came to the notice of a member of the British chapter of the Bristol owners club: Why would someone in India be asking for parts for the 400 when there is no mention or record of a 400 ever reaching there?

Well, what do you know, a Bristol 400 was indeed despatched to India (see: “Bristol to Bombay”) and the Bristol register could finally tick a box in their ‘Mysteries Yet To Be Solved’ section. And they helpfully pointed out the team towards someone who would aid them in their task – not somewhere close-by in Ol’ Blighty, but all the way Down Under.

1948 Bristol 400
1948 Bristol 400 dashboard

Sydney-based Geoff Dowdle is acknowledged as the Bristol 400 guru. Once the team got in touch with him, a flurry of emails and calls kept the undersea communications cables between Mumbai and Sydney busy. Parts, measurements, knowledge, information, little tips and tricks – Dowdle would provide whatever he could to the Indians, but the one thing he couldn’t offer was moral support. The deadline was ridiculously close and the task was well impossible.

Giving up now was something Sapre and the Engineers would not accept. Once all the parts were ready, Kaizad flew down to Sydney. Dowdle helped him further to get parts by scouring flea markets in Australia and New Zealand while Kaizad also took precise measurements of Dowdle’s 400 for reference. From tiny fasteners to body shell sections, all were shipped off to India. Oh yes, the all-important steering wheel was sourced by a friend at the autojumble at Beaulieu. Dowdle now understood the intensity of the Indians; his scepticism was overcome by their passion. With a renewed vigour, Dowdle would go on to put the car back for them virtually – without leaving Australia.

1948 Bristol 400
1948 Bristol 400 – Smiling owners and restorers

Now it would be a fill-in-the-blanks exercise. Donor parts were fused with the existing original ones and good old Indian ingenuity filled in where parts were not available – they were simply manufactured using craftsmanship and talent. Experienced workers toiled over wood, metal and leather. The Bristol was slowly coming back to life. A stroke of luck was the well-preserved dashboard, housing all the meters which still carried the signatures of the technicians who worked on them back in the 1950s and 1960s! Captain Ogale’s team in Pune meanwhile put the complicated inline-six back together and the engine was fired again after decades.

1948 Bristol 400

It may all be a blurry eight-odd months and a few paragraphs cannot possibly bring to life the efforts the team had taken. Did they also dry the freshly-applied metallic green paint while taking trial runs? I wouldn’t be surprised.

Happy Returns

Suzukis and Hyundais around me slow down a bit to take in the flowing lines of this magnificent automobile. Goggle-eyed drivers and passengers give their thumbs up while camera phones are fished out. The Bristol is basking in the attention. And to demonstrate what this car could do, I depress the throttle pedal even further, the roar of the engine gets busier and it picks up the pace – even in the fourth gear I was cruising in.

The inline-six that owes its existence to BMW’s pre-WWII days got additional gusto via a complicated set-up comprising hemispherical combustion chambers and a single camshaft that operates 12 pushrods. With three carburettors doing the breathing duties, the 1971cc straight-six develops around 80 bhp at 4200 rpm, which in turn is transferred to the rear wheels via a four-speed gearbox. Bristol claimed a top speed of 140 kph, which is something I have no intention of testing – after what I have told you so far, I am sure you understand.

in-line 6
In-line 6

But there’s one more reason why I was not going hell for leather. You see, the brakes can best be described as bureaucratic – you need to fill up a dozen forms in triplicate, affix passport-size photographs with a white background and sign with a blue ballpoint pen to apply for permissions for the car to stop. You could either do that or ensure you have the distance equivalent of a runway used by Bristol aircraft to get the car to halt. So, as a wise man in India once said, ‘Mind Braking Is The Best Braking.’ Amen.

Mastering the gearbox is another matter. The lever is a long, crooked shaft that’s independent-minded. It is best slotted like the way some women search for their incessantly ringing cellphones in their commodious handbags – eyes half-closed, mind inside the dark recesses of the bag, the fingers groping feverishly and hoping something resembling a cellphone can be felt. But you cannot do that when you’re driving a rare car on a public road. So I do most of the same things that the women do, except that my eyes are wide open. This car, in fact, offers synchromesh in the top three gears – thankfully. Else, along with the gears, the Engineer brothers’ teeth would be gnashing watching me slot in the cogs.

1948 Bristol 400

It is nearly 70 years old, yet the Bristol feels very much in control. Once you get to know its individualistic traits, the Bristol is a responsive and enjoyable car to drive. The chassis engineers at Bristol should take the credit for tweaking the original BMW chassis design to make it offer better driving dynamics and road holding. This chassis layout was good enough for Bristol to keep it virtually unchanged well into the 1990s.

1948 Bristol 400
1948 Bristol 400

An independent front suspension with a transverse leaf spring and a live axle at the rear with torsion bars do the duty of keeping the road surface where it belongs, most of the time. And of course, its handling confidence comes from the fact that 400s were campaigned at the Targa Florio and the Mille Miglia – so underneath the aerodynamic skin, something indeed must be right.

That’s all in the distant past. Old glories may have been there, but what matters is now. What matters is this moment. Oil is coursing through its veins. The motor is hungrily swallowing the air-fuel mixture fed by three carbs. Moving parts in the engine are, well, moving. The engine is fired up with energy. The suspension set-up is being pushed to work hard by Mumbai’s unpredictable roads. The steering mechanicals are being challenged by other cars cutting in front of it. The warm summer morning air is slipping over those flawless aerodynamic curves. It’s nice to be alive.

Post Script: During the judging at the Cartier Travel With Style Concours d’Elegance, Master of Ceremonies Alain de Cadenet was struck by the epic survival story of the Bristol. When he started the car, he remarked that it sounds right, just the way a Bristol should. The team members exchanged glances – each one of them realised that they had no idea what a Bristol should sound like! The 400 would, of course, go on to win the Resurrection Cup.

Bristol Motor Werke!
A quick look at the Bristol 400, and you would think it was a BMW. And there is a reason for that. Bristol was originally an aircraft manufacturing firm and the planes it built fought in both the Great Wars. The firm decided to get into the manufacture of premium, sporty motor cars after WWII. As part of war reparations from Germany, Bristol managed to get access to 1930s BMW designs. Using the BMW 326’s chassis design, the BMW 327’s coupe body style and the BMW 328’s inline-six, Bristol developed its first passenger car – the 400, an amalgam that seems to have come together quite well as one can see here. Reportedly 487 units of the 400 were built between 1947 and 1950. Over time, Bristol persevered in making sporty cars in limited numbers for wealthy clients.

Bristol to Bombay
Bristol and Bombay – in this case, one is the eponymously named carmaker, specialising in making limited numbers of cars. This British marque is pretty uncommon the world over, so how did a 400 end up in the financial nerve centre of India? Badridas K Daga was ostensibly a wealthy Indian living in Chesterfied Court, Curzon Street, London, who ordered a 400 in metallic green. Why he ordered a Bristol is lost in the mists of time, but the car was indeed delivered to him on May 13, 1948. Daga would send it off to Kolkata where he and his family hailed from. Eventually, it passed on from the Dagas to royalty, to Yashwantrao Holkar in Central India. And from there on to Dara Pundole, Soli Captain and Zavareh Wadia, between Mumbai, Pune and Kolkata. During the time it was with these Parsi owners, the Bristol went back to the UK for some upgrades and it returned.

It was driven extensively around the subcontinent (sepia-tinted pictures of the car show it in locations near the Himalayas) and it was even raced in Mumbai. Whatever is known of its rather busy life ends by the 1960s. It was then spotted in suburban Mumbai in the 1990s, collecting garbage, dust and guano. Ignored and written-off as a hopeless case by most car collectors, it started its eventual descent towards its demise. Amit Sapre came across the car in 2012 and he would decide to pick it up later, nursing the fantasy of putting it together over some years. Little did he know it need not take that long!

By Srinivas Krishnan (@SriniKay)
Photos: Jatin Lodaya
Pre-Restoration Photos: Karl Bhote

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