I was five years old when the Bristol 404 was announced to the motoring press. Because my father had been the inspiration behind the founding of the Bristol Aeroplane Company Car Division and was variously its managing director, chairman and in later years its owner, I was privileged to travel widely in RAE 345 (Chassis No. 404/2001), the first of the line. It was as well that I was five because I was still able to occupy the tiny back seats, which I was certain had been designed especially for me. The experience was exhilarating and instilled in me a love of motoring that has never gone away. At seven though, I was sent to boarding school. My mother’s 405 generally acted as the tumbril in which I was carried unwillingly from home at the start of each term. Its boot could fit my trunk, my tuck-box, my modest tin of sweets and my football. The 404 in contrast, which could not accommodate any luggage bigger than a five year-old, was the car that brought my father to watch matches and far more significantly, that would take me home for a few hours on occasional Sundays. Who could fail to love a car that promised liberty? Besides it was steel-grey, always polished like glass and was fitted (uniquely) with a substantial vertical tail fin, so that even when it returned me to incarceration, it raised my street credibility amongst my fellow pupils to heights unimaginable.
Astonishingly, I was still a school-boy when I came to acquire a 404 of my own. This time the school was far from my native Bristol, in a suburb of north London. Apart from academic subjects, the school offered driving lessons through the Hendon Police College. In anticipation of my learning to drive sedately to Police Standards my father (with immensely generosity) began to cast around for safe car for a young man to drive. Something with a chassis, he considered, would provide best protection. The choice came down to a Bristol-engined Frazer-Nash Le Mans replica, (if its owner could be persuaded to sell), the prototype Bristol 400 (then stored at the factory), or a good third-hand 404 he had identified at Fuggles, then Bristol agents. Considerable pressure was exerted to encourage me to take the ‘sensible’ option (i.e. the reasonably modern car with a roof), so in the end, the 404 it was.
It was unfortunate that the police sergeant detailed to teach me, turned out to have been born at Filton, as his father had been a Bristol Aeroplane Company employee. In his youth he had won the three-legged race at the Bristol Aeroplane Company Sports Day and receiving his prize from my illustrious grandfather he told me, was one of the proudest moments of his life. To repay my family for this honour, he insisted that he would skip the ‘learning to drive’ part of the course and teach me rally driving instead. I cannot say how many times we were stopped by squad cars in the streets of Wembley and North Harrow, while practicing the techniques necessary to win the Monte Carlo, only to be sent on our way again with encouragement to drive faster, when the arresting officers discovered that my instructor was their “sarge”. Suffice it to say that although I had been given my 404 (WPC 868, chassis No. 404/2037) at the age of 16, I failed two driving tests ( at speeds of which Erik Carlsson himself would have been proud) and only qualified to take the 404 on to the open road alone, when I was just short of 18. While I could not have been more thrilled by this turn of events, my friends could not believe that I had a car which they considered so quaintly out of date. They urged me to part-exchange it for an MGB. I didn’t. After more than half a century, I still haven’t and nothing short of death will prise it from my grasp now.
It and I experienced many near-misses and hairy moments in the early days, while I un-learnt my rallying skills, but like a well-trained horse with a less than competent rider, it saw me safely through. 404s originally had a reputation for skittishness on corners, but WPC 868 was fitted early on with heavier gauge wheels and slightly wider tyres, which transformed its road-holding.
Major George Abell, the original General Manager of the Car Division used always to urge drivers of anything with a Bristol engine to “keep the revs up” and in a 404 one must. Driving in a 30 limit is a question of constant activity, endlessly changing up and down through the box. But what a pleasure! What a gear change! What quality! What a car! As the “Irish Statesman” said of Bristol Aeroplane Company products in earlier days “One does not find ‘good’ or serviceable’ machines at Bristol. There they tolerate only those that are perfect”. In sedate circumstances WPC 868 can be prevailed upon to drive (as my father used to say) “like a town carriage”, or with the flick of its neat little gear-lever and application of pressure on its throttle, to take off like an aeroplane company product should. Rapidly.
A combination of high manufacturing cost and an unexpected change in taxation law meant that the 404 was an expensive car when new and as a consequence, only 48 production cars were built. It is reasonable to assume therefore that there are more hens’ teeth in the world than Bristol 404s. For that reason and for the sheer pleasure of piloting a proper car, the opportunity of acquiring a 404 should never, never be passed by.