What Was the Phantom Thread Car?
Written by Jack Stewart in Classic Cars, Entertainment, Luxury Vehicles, Sedans, Sporty/Performance Cars, TV/Movie Car, What was...
Instead of a Rolls Royce or Bentley, Phantom Thread producers put wealthy and successful lead character Reynolds Woodcock in a Bristol 405 sedan.
The recently released period-piece drama Phantom Thread is a noteworthy film for many reasons. For starters, it was written and directed by celebrated auteur Paul Thomas Anderson, it’s been nominated for six Academy Awards (including Best Picture and Actor in a Leading Role), and it stars Oscar-winning thespian Daniel Day-Lewis in what Day-Lewis himself says is his last acting performance. For car enthusiasts, however, the film’s Bristol 405 four-door saloon is the real star.
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The Day-Lewis character, Reynolds Woodcock, is a successful fashion designer in England in the Fifties who drives his Bristol aggressively. This is excellent vehicular casting, since the 405 was one of the best handling, most aerodynamic cars of its day—it was built to be driven fast.
The Bristol 405 was technically a product of the aviation industry. The Bristol Aeroplane Company built the Blenheim light bomber and the Beaufighter fighter/torpedo bomber (among others) during World War II. With the end of hostilities, Bristol diversified into auto production and bought the rights to the prewar BMW 328 engine and 326 chassis—the products of another firm with roots in aviation. The 328 engine was a 2.0-liter six with unusual “cross-pushrod” valvegear—a complex system that gave some of the advantages of a dual-overhead-cam layout, including hemispherical combustion chambers.
Bristol tapped into its aircraft roots with aviation-quality materials and construction, as well as a body design honed in a wind tunnel for excellent aerodynamics. An aluminum body kept weight down to a reasonable level. The 405 soon gained a reputation as a “businessman’s express,” with its steady handling, a top speed above 100 mph, understated styling, and a plush wood and leather interior.
The 405 saloon was built from 1955 through 1958, and was Bristol’s only 4-door sedan. Most Bristols were coupes, with the occasional convertible thrown in (the 405 itself was also available as a four-seater drophead coupe). Since Bristols were hand built, they cost several times the price of a contemporary Jaguar. Understandably, production was low—only about 300 405 saloons were built. Still, Bristol had a small but loyal clientele that allowed the company to produce cars until 2011. By the Sixties, Bristol’s small six couldn’t generate enough performance to keep up with rival sports cars, so the company bought Chrysler V8s. In 2004, Bristol introduced the Fighter, a gullwing supercar with a Dodge Viper V10 engine.
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Bristol went into bankruptcy in 2011, but was bought by a firm that plans to resume production with an all-new model called the Bullet. The preproduction Bullet harks back to Bristols of the Fifties with retro styling and a BMW engine—in this case a BMW 4.8-liter V8. The Bullet has yet to enter production, but it’s not hard to picture a future iteration of Reynolds Woodcock blasting through the English countryside in a fast Bristol.
Bristol 405 four-door saloon
Manufacturer Bristol Aeroplane Co. (now Bristol Cars)
52 Bristol 404 units
308 Bristol 405 units
Body and chassis
Class Luxury car
Body style Two-door coupé (404)
Four-door saloon (405)
Two-door drophead coupé (405)
Layout FR layout
Engine 1,971 cc ohv I6
2,216 cc ohv I6
Predecessor Bristol 403
Successor Bristol 406
"In this latest product from Bristol Cars Ltd, I am in the happy position of having very little with which to find fault"
Bill Boddy in Motor Sport, February 1956
"One starts to throw this car into corners after a very few miles of motoring. The high geared steering responds to a single quick turn of the two spoke wheel, and the 405 goes round, as uncompromisingly upright as a Calvinist pastor ... "
Mike Brown in The Autocar, May 1955
The Bristol 404 and Bristol 405 are British luxury cars which were manufactured by the Bristol Aeroplane Company. The 404 was manufactured from 1953 to 1958, and the 405 from 1955 to 1958. The models were successors to the Bristol 403. The 404 was a two-seat coupé and the 405 was available as a four-seat, four-door saloon and as a four-seat, two-door drophead coupé.
Unlike previous or later Bristol models, there is considerable confusion in nomenclature when it comes to the Bristol 404 and 405. The 404 was a very short-wheelbase (8 feet (2,438 mm) as against 9 feet 6 inches (2,896 mm)) version of the 405, but was introduced in 1953, whereas the 405 was not introduced until 1955 and continued until 1958.
The 405 itself was seen in two versions. The more common (265 of 308 built) is a four-door saloon built on the standard chassis of the previous Bristols, whilst the 405 drophead coupé or 405D (43 built) had a coupé body by Abbotts of Farnham. The body used aluminium panels over a steel and ash frame, mounted on a substantial horse-shoe shaped chassis. Most cars built had a highly tuned (through advanced valve timing) version of the 2 litre six-cylinder engine called the 100C which developed 125 bhp (93 kW) as against the 105 bhp (78 kW) of the standard 100B 405 engine. Even the 105 bhp engine was fitted with Solex triple downdraft carburettors. With UK fuel supplies no longer restricted to the low-octane wartime "pool petrol", all engines for the 404 and 405 came with higher compression ratios than predecessor Bristols — 8.5:1 as against 7.5:1. Rack and pinion steering was fitted and the car's handling won accolades from press reports when the car was introduced (and subsequently).
Compared to the 403, the 404 and 405 had an improved gearbox with much shorter gear lever which improved what was already by the standards of the day a very slick gearchange. The 405, though not the 404, had overdrive as standard apart from the earliest models, and front disc brakes became an option apart from the earliest models, and were fitted to almost all 405 drophead coupés. A few late 405s were fitted with the torquier 2.2 litre engine introduced in the later 406.
Externally, a notable feature of the 404 and 405 was the abandonment of the BMW-style radiator grille for one much more like an aero-engine. The 405, although the only four-door car ever built by Bristol, had styling that the company was later to refine for many years on their later Chrysler V8-engined cars during the 1960s. It was also the model that introduced the Bristol feature of sizable lockers in the front wings accessed externally by gullwing doors. The locker on the nearside held the spare wheel and jack, whilst that on the offside housed the battery and fuse panel.