The Briford Sports
— DOE S I T COME W I T H P E T ROL?
Brian Ford is no stranger to building cars. In fact, cars had been part of his family history right from his childhood, when his father would bring home vintage cars to restore. As soon as they were old enough, Brian and his brother, Kevin, were in the garage, helping Dad with his projects. As a boy, Brian developed an interest in mopeds and started to tinker with them. Even now, decades later, he and a few friends meet in his workshop on Saturday afternoons, once a month, to restore and create modern mopeds inspired by classic motorcycles. But that’s another story.
By the time the boys became teenagers, petrol had long replaced blood in their veins. If it moved, they had to make go faster. They even managed to convince their dad to start building hot rods or, more to the point, help them hot-rod their own rides.
Brian’s first real build project was when he purchased a unique Christchurch car called the ‘Puma’. It was one of about six cars manufactured by Frank Cantwell during the late ’50s. This very rare locally manufactured
Trailers and hobbies
After building some trailers in his father’s garage, at the tender age of 19, Brian started Briford Trailers, and, to date, his company has manufactured over 40,000 of them. By the 1980s, the business was steaming along at such a pace that Brian decided he could afford to spend some of his spare evenings on his hobbies. Again, he purchased a locally made car, this time one called the ‘Mistral’. Having heard of one being sold for $100 in Dunedin, he could not believe his luck and bought it sight unseen. After driving to Dunedin to pick up the car, though, he came to the conclusion that his luck needed a good kicking! The body and chassis were in such a poor state that he had probably paid $100 more than it was worth.
The most sensible idea would have been to put the whole thing down to experience and take the car to the tip, but Brian was not one to let good sense get ahead of enthusiasm.
During the 1980s, there were over a dozen kit-car manufacturers in New Zealand. Inspired by the Devin SS and AC Cobra, and on a tight budget, Brian decided to produce an AC Cobra–ish car to his own unique design. In doing this, he blended two plans — that of the Mistral and the Cobra. The car which eventually emerged was named the ‘Briford Sports’.
Because the Mistral’s original body was in such poor condition, it needed a lot of work, and, with hindsight, it would have been a better idea to start from scratch. But then hindsight is never around when you need it!
Starting with the rough Mistral body, he widened the rear wings in a similar style to the Cobra, made a bigger boot, and reshaped the rear of the body. The front of the body was cut off, as it had deteriorated to the point of no return. The distinctive air vents in the wings were retained to set the car truly apart from other kit cars that were on the market. Brian also raised the bonnet height, changed the sill line, and lowered the front wing height. After applying 210 litres of bog, a lot of masking tape, expanded foam, copious amounts of sweat, and the mandatory muttering, eventually, all this work produced a shape Brian was happy with. It took three full years to finish the plug before moulds could be taken off it — which is not bad for somebody who had to learn on the job. Brian constructed a ladder-frame chassis with roll bars and intrusion bars for added stiffness and safety. Fortunately, the chassis was a more straightforward job than the bodywork because of Brian’s existing skill in working with tubular steel.
The car, which was first registered in 1989, is a hairy beast. If asked to describe it, I would say it is an outrageous track car that just happened to be road legal. Brian had combined his love of the classic sports car and the best of ’50s and ’60s hot rods in one package. Examples of cars of this era that were similar are the Cheetah; the Devin; and, of course, the Cobra.
Anybody thinking that this is a Ford 10– powered Mistral would have that illusion shattered once they saw the hole that Brian cut in the bonnet for the air cleaner. That air cleaner is attached to a 350 Chevrolet V8 that had every possible go-faster bit that Brian could think of squeezed into it. It was an out-and-out dragster that could go around corners as well as any British sports car.
Right from the start, Brian intended it to be a production sports car, or, at the very least, a cost-effective sports car body for people who wanted to build the same sort of thing. Still, he was quite pleasantly surprised when Tim Gurnsey commissioned him to build a second car to rolling-chassis stage. With the help of Chris Coles, he built a new chassis — again of tubular design. However, this second chassis was stronger than the first rendition, and gave excellent impact protection. Looking into the future, he took the opportunity to gear up and create a set of chassis jigs for mass production. When the chassis was certified, it became known as the ‘Gurnsey Roller’, and it was used on seven of the 15 cars produced over the next few years.
Briford number three
Everything was just starting to calm down when Brian’s wife, Sue, thought that Brian’s car would be a good one in which to take the children grocery shopping. Brian decided to go one better and build her a car of her own that would be more suited for everyday street use, rather than allow her to use his car, which had been designed purely for racing — and built for speed, not for slow. Not that this stopped Brian driving around town in it; it just meant his arms got a workout.
Having proven that he could build a hairy car he decided to prove that he could do the same again, but this time it would be sublime. The V8 would be replaced by the elegant Toyota 2.0-litre fuel-injected sixcylinder engine, and it would be a smoothlooking street car with the air cleaner actually under the bonnet. This would be Briford number three, and it was started during 1990.
It could have been built quite quickly, but Brian became somewhat distracted. Being the creative sort, he found it very difficult to build the same car twice. His intentions were good, but he had always been curious about how a 350 Chevy V8 would perform when used in a motorbike. So he built one. Sue proved to be very patient, to the extent that she did not complain even when Brian helped his father finish his ’34 Chevy hot rod. At 76 years old, Brian’s dad was still playing with big cars but occasionally needed help from the youngster. Still, in spite of this and many other distractions, he eventually got back to it, and Sue’s car was on the road for the start of the new millennium.
Brian still enjoys blowing the cobwebs off, and still owns and drives the very first Briford sports car. On occasion, Sue still does do the grocery shopping in her Briford — albeit with the grandchildren these days. It is doubtful that these cars will ever be sold. Sue’s car is definitely the more manageable of the two and provides all the experiences and sensations you would expect from a modern sports car that weighs less than 1000kg. The gutsy six-cylinder engine provides it with a level of performance that keeps it ahead of the pack.
So, what of the future? Over the years, Brian has acquired several bits and pieces that are potential projects. These include at least two Mistrals, plus lots of motorbikes and mopeds. He is just finishing his latest project, a 350 Chevy V8 sidewinder motorbike — if it’s not cars, it’s bikes! The chassis was made by his good friend Tom Novak, and Brian has been problemsolving the rest of it. Why would he do this, you may ask? Well, I did ask, and the answer I got was: “It has been done before, but I wanted to see if I could do it.”
With a warehouse full of potential projects, it is unlikely that Brian will ever put his feet up and just watch the telly.