MOTORING / Me & My Motor: The beastly beatitude of a Bristol 405: British clothing guru Paul Smith, tired of flash cars, fell for a gentlemanly classic. Matthew Gwyther reports

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The Independent Culture
ON BOXING Day back in 1981, Paul Smith was sitting around at home, not doing very much. 'But I wasn't at a loose end,' insists the head of the pounds 54 million-a-year fashion empire, which now has 84 shops worldwide. To Smith, inactivity is unthinkable. Eschewing the Bond movie and the Morecambe and Wise re-run, he browsed through a copy of the Bristol Owners' Bulletin which a friend had given him.

Smith had 'never been a car person', having got through five Porsche 911s during the 1970s simply because they were practical for his breakneck commuting between London and his home town of Nottingham. His best time was an hour and 30 minutes. 'I got Porsches out of my system in my twenties and started to go off them when they got too spoilered and finned,' he says. 'I knew it was time to change when my last one got written off as it was being delivered.' By contrast, the thought of a British classic appealed to him. It also suited the image his business was developing - a typically woody, English blend of the conservative and the brightly eccentric. In the Bulletin's 'For Sale' section he saw a 1956 Bristol 405 for pounds 2,300.

The car was being sold by a man in his seventies. It had been kept for 17 years in a garage with central heating and seemed a sound buy. The man wept as the machine was driven away for the last time.

Its life for the next eight years was to be less cosseted. Smith drove the car from his home in London's Holland Park to his HQ in Floral Street, Covent Garden, and left it on a meter. It sat outside his house at night in all weather. It passed 160,000 miles, but the Bristol never let him down. 'Then it started to deteriorate,' Smith says. 'When I got it, the paintwork was sort of stone-washed nicely, like a pair of Levis. But it developed leaks and drips. The carpets started rotting. The paintwork got very dodgy. I was willing to give it away to a loving owner.'

But Smith hung on. Over nine months, the car was restored by the manufacturers at a cost of pounds 18,000. 'It was more than I could afford,' says Smith, 'but you pay as you go along.'

Parked outside the Floral Street shop, the Bristol is an unmissable burgundy-coloured beast. We waited for its owner, your man sweating inside his best threads, brand new, GQ-recommended linen-mix suit, crucial Memphis tie and dark brown, hand-stitched brogues. (None of these, sadly, merited a mention from the great man.) The Bristol's beauty, if you can find and behold it, is not conventional; more a case of jolie laide. The lines do not flow like an old Jaguar. The nose, with its centrally-placed single headlight, looks like the intake to a jet engine. This is not surprising as Bristol also made aircraft in those days down at Filton - the wartime Blenheim, Beaufighter and Beaufort were followed by the Bristol Freighter and the Britannia. The 405's designer, Dudley Hobbs (who is still alive), used to work on aircraft wings.

When he arrives, Smith cannot wait to get inside and start playing with the chrome switches and Bakelite buttons. Most people who meet Smith, now nearly 47, remark on his boyish enthusiasm; when it comes to his car he might as well be wearing shorts. 'Look at this,' he says, pointing to the radio. 'When the car was restored I wanted them desperately to keep the old valve radio, but they couldn't find another. They put this traditional-looking push button one in, but the bizarre thing is that it refuses to pick up anything except Radio 4.' The single speaker is in the ceiling. 'These seatbelts make me smile,' he says, as we fasten our webbing, aircraft-like harnesses. 'Look, they're even made in Savile Row.' More shy laughter.

Smith pushes the dashboard button to start and we're off. 'Do you know, I hadn't used the car for eight months until this morning as I've been abroad so much,' he says, negotiating Covent Garden's narrow streets with great care. 'But it started first time. It's really great. Ooops] I'm in the wrong lane here.' The indicators are operated by an odd-looking chunky Bakelite switch. 'I call it the egg-timer,' he says. 'It used to be on a little squeaky spring but now it just flops back to the middle.' Smith refused to allow the leather seats to be refurbished or the wooden dashboard to be touched. The latter retains its scorched and peeling varnish.

While we wait in traffic, Smith recounts his alarming number of road scrapes and near-misses over the years. He spent six months in hospital as a teenager when he was knocked off his racing bike; his first car, a split-windscreen Morris Minor, was written off when he drove it into a tree - 'I'd had one of my hectic weekends in London and was nearly home but I fell asleep at the wheel . . . the engine wound up in the passenger's seat'; and he later wrote off a Reliant Scimitar.

In the Bristol, however, a gentleman's drawing room on wheels, progress is stately and he is a careful, reformed driver in love with his tiny chrome rear-view mirror. The 405 has a 2-litre 105 bhp engine which is about as powerful as a current 1.6 Astra, so there is no sprinting about. We proceed like a long, narrow barge. He pulls out the ignition key which leaves the engine unaffected. More laughs.

Smith loves holding the wheel by the two leather-bound spokes, which are indented to fit the fingers - the classic driving position of the English gentleman road cruiser. He remained unruffled later when, during an impromptu photo-shoot in Battersea Park, we were approached and interviewed by the parks police for inadvertently breaking the bylaws covering photography for commercial gain. 'Name?' 'Smith.' 'First name?' 'PB Smith.' 'Address?' '41, Floral Street.' (Smith had also been stopped a few years back and told his middle headlight was illegal unless, Escort XR3i-like, it formed part of a pair, and he should remove it.) This police interview over, he steered himself off over Chelsea Bridge for a meeting at home.

Afterwards I telephoned Tony Crook, the chairman and managing director of Bristol, which began life as the British and Colonial Aeroplane Company in 1910 and turned out around 800 450s before production ceased in 1958. 'Ah, Mr Smith. Such a nice gentleman,' said Mr Crook. Crook, now 68, drove Formula One cars in the 1950s and still flies himself down from London to Bristol a couple of times a week to oversee the business. Crook refuses to divulge current sales figures, but one suspects that, in common with other luxury producers such as Rolls and Aston Martin, recession may have driven him to the brink. All offers for the company have, however, been politely declined.

Bristol's Britannia Saloon comes on the road at a cool pounds 90,727, and the Brigand Saloon Turbocharged (to be said in that order) pounds 96,963. 'They're less than a Merc with all the things on it,' he offers by way of encouragement. 'There have only been three people killed in our cars in 47 years. They are easily maintained, quick and hold four people. A Bristol is discreet, not flamboyant.'-

(Photograph omitted)

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