Article by Brian May, The Beutler Bristol 401

Back in the 1960s, anyone interested in collectibles and secondhand items – cars, motorcycles, bicycles, guns, clocks and almost anything else you can think of, made sure they had early sight of the Exchange and Mart magazine that appeared on the bookstalls and newsagents shelves every Thursday morning.

This included myself, because where else would you find Bristol cars advertised, apart from the odd one now and again in the monthly motoring magazines, which tended to be the more upmarket examples. Also, there are only 12 of these magazines per year, whereas the Exchange and Mart gave you 52 weekly opportunities of finding something that might tickle your fancy. It was in one of these issues I came across the Beutler being advertised for sale – I seem to recall as a “Special bodied Bristol”. This was back in the mid 1960s, not long after my introduction to the Bristol 401, by which time I quickly appreciated the skill and craftsmanship that went into developing and building these iconic cars.

This achievement was created by the unique circumstances that existed after World War II, when no more weapons of war were needed. If anything good did come out of the war, the production of the Bristol motorcar was certainly one. But getting back to the Exchange and Mart advertisement, the “Special bodied Bristol” was for sale somewhere in Greenwich, South London. There was no price, just a telephone number. At the time I was sharing a flat in Neasden, Northwest London, a suburb that most visitors pass through but don’t dally on the way. It was convenient to me at the time as I was working at the GDC research laboratories in Wembley which were about 3 miles away. I always made a point of getting Exchange & Mart before going to work and made sure I had change for making a call from a nearby phone box. There were no mobile phones then, and not many houses had telephones, including the flat I was in. I made a call on the way back from the newsagent but there was no reply and then again at lunchtime. This time I got a response and arranged to go and see the car that evening. Thinking back, this is in the autumn of 1968 – Good gracious, that means I have owned the car almost 50 years – how time flies!

I duly arrived at the appointed time and was met by a man in his late 20s, who informed me the car was parked up in a garage a couple of streets away. He said he was negotiating the sale on behalf of a lady owner who had imported the car from Ceylon, as it was then called. I never met the lady owner, nor was I able to acquire any history for the car which was a little disappointing, although back then bills and history were not so important.

The guy asked if we could go to the garage in my 401 as he had never had the Bristol experience, so we had a little run before seeing the car. He really appreciated this and thought perhaps he should buy the Special bodied Bristol himself. I said nothing – I didn’t really want any competition at this stage. We soon got to the somewhat dilapidated garage with graffiti scrawled across the doors – “Up the Gunners for ever”. The car was a non-runner in the garage that was so narrow that it had been pushed in with the doors shut. We couldn’t pull it out because there was so little room, so I had to make a decision on what I could see which was a white car with black roof – black roof on a car used in Ceylon? Surely someone had made a mistake.

It all looked reasonably straight, but with little dents and dings, showing it had been used as an everyday car. The first owner was apparently a director of a mining company, hence the dents and scratches etc.

I liked the car – or what I could see of it – and we spoke about the price. It was £375, and and not a penny less, and he could sell there and then at that price. . “Yes” I said, “I will have it” and gave him £50 deposit and said I would collect it the following evening with my towing dolly, which I had adapted to be towed with my Bristol.

The following evening I collected the car and took it back to my workshop in Neasden – that was a tarmac section of the pavement by the road. I parked it ready to commence recommissioning work on the weekend. By early on Saturday morning I had fitted a new battery and put a couple of gallons of fresh petrol into the tank; after cleaning and setting the ignition and plugs, the engine burst into life..
This was reassuring, especially as the oil pressure was maintained correctly as the engine reached its normal running temperature. There is something exciting about buying a car you haven’t tested. It’s like being given a parcel, but you don’t know what’s inside. Will I be pleased or disappointed? Is it good ? Is it bad? On this occasion I was lucky.

A weekend’s work and I had the car roadworthy, but I wasn’t very sure about the body styling. The long sweeping line along the sides finishing off with a very long boot – and certainly the black-and-white colour was too stark. I drove it for a while then advertised it for sale. Several people came to see it but were not keen on the styling and went away not saying anything, except that they would think about it. Then, as sometimes happens, I started to glance at the car from certain angles and think “That’s a nice shape”. This gradual appreciation continued until I really saw it for what it was. Strangely enough, other people came to like it in the same way, with some anxious to buy it.

The sweeping descending line on each side of the car cut through the rear wheels, which were covered with simple, cleverly fitting slats so the line was continued, and the long boot enabled that line to end naturally at the rear. I was also impressed with the craftsmanship that went into every aspect of construction; internally and in all aspects of the body it seemed as if the car was mass produced by machine duplication, because it had that precision about it. But no, it was a handbuilt car, one of only two made, and had the quality required in a good Swiss watch. What you can’t see is as important as what you can see.

By that time I had moved to Birmingham and I decided I would change the colour. What should it be? Red. Now, that’s a nice colour! I tried it, but it didn’t seem right, so why not two shades of Renault Green. Yes, I liked it.
I also fitted new leather, as the original had suffered from the tropical sun.

At that time many Bristol owners were talking about the100 D2 engine as being the ultimate engine for the 2 Litre car. When one became available I fitted. It. This was great until my wife said on one occasion “Why do you keep revving up the engine and changing the gear so much?” My enthusiasm had blinded me to some extent to what I was doing, and I realised the 100 D2 was not the right engine for the car. I replaced it with a 2.2 110 engine from a 406, with more torque lowdown which was much more driveable.

Here we are 48 years later, and the car has just taken part in the 2016 London New Year’s Day Parade which had, so I’m told, a worldwide TV audience of something like 300 million viewers. It was a good trip for the car and for me; but I’d never thought I would still have it 48 years after that trip to Greenwich, all those years ago when the car was advertised in Exchange and Mart.
Brian May, January 2016