It makes you think.It makes you drive’. Reader Martin Roberts had an eclectic wishlist, so we couldn’t wait to hear his reaction when we put him in a Bristol 411. Words: Andrew Noakes. Photography: GF Williams.
Rarely does any discussion of Bristol cars get very far before the name of LJK Setright pops up. For decades Setright penned erudite articles for Classic Cars – and other, lesser, organs – which more often than not sang the praises of the cars from Filton. Fie wrote the definitive marque history, the vast two-volume A Private Car in 1998, in which he confessed he was ‘barmy about Bristols’. It was Setright’s unstinting praise over so many years that prompted reader Martin Roberts to put a Bristol on his dream drive list, and we’re about to make that dream come true.
Sitting in the wood-and-leather-trimmed cabin of a 411 Series 5, Martin explains why this is the Bristol he most wants to drive. ‘I like the things that are most developed, when there’s all that constant engineering over a long time – and it’s not done down to a cost, it’s done to get it exactly right,’ he says. In some ways the 411 marks the apogee of the V8 Bristol line, gradually developed from the 407 in 1961, combining the effortless elegance of the early cars with a decade and more of development under the aluminium skin.
That perfectionist engineering work is still going on at Bristol, though no longer in Bristol. The new management team at Bristol Cars is as keen to maintain and enhance older models as it is to introduce new ones (a hybrid Bristol is due in 2016). There are plans to remanufacture parts for older cars and re-issue workshop manuals. Bristol bought this 411 last year to act as a development vehicle, and it now sports some discreet modifications, including a Seventies-style Becker radio that cleverly hides a satnav system, and a big brake kit engineered by the Bristol service department at Brentford. At the front the massive ventilated discs are clamped by AP Racing calipers, and to clear the new brakes there are 16-inch alloy wheels carrying modern Avon tyres. A four-speed automatic transmission, as used on later Bristols, is planned.
When Bristol re-acquired this 411 it was painted a bright orange with a brown interior, a colour scheme that would probably look great on a Seventies Lamborghini but is a bit peculiar for a Bristol. It has since been repainted a more sober midnight blue, which suits the 411’s restrained curves and provides an excellent contrast to the chrome exterior details. ‘It doesn’t show its identity easily,’ says Martin, surveying the subtle badging on the Bristol’s nose and tail.
‘You have to get up close. That’s part of the appeal – it’s discreet.’
Inside, NYF 813P has been treated to a full retrim in cream leather with dark blue piping, and the veneered dash has been refinished. The big rocker switches operating electrical accessories are spread across the dash, each one labelled with words rather than symbols, while the white-faced dials are all grouped into a binnacle in front of the driver. The instruments are all lined up exactly where you would want them,’ says Martin. ‘You can see it’s done by an aircraft manufacturer. And all the woodwork puts to shame the glossy tackiness of a lot of modern cars.’
There are two schools of thought on how to start the Chrysler V8s, according to Bristol’s Philip White. The guys in the service department say put your foot down and turn the key. Others say you just flick the key and it should fire immediately.’ Martin gives the V8 some throttle, but it takes a few churns of the starter before the big Chrysler V8 bursts into life. It settles to a tickover so quiet and even that it’s barely noticeable.
Earlier Bristols had Torqueflite automatic transmissions operated by push-buttons, but by the Seventies there was a floor-mounted lever. Martin clicks the selector into Drive and we waft gently into the Berkshire lanes. The power steering is beautifully weighted. It doesn’t feel over-light, but it isn’t heavy at parking speeds at all,’ he says. Conscious of the Bristol’s long wheelbase, he’s taking care to leave plenty of space at the apex of tight turns. ‘It’s the length of it, not the width, you have to be careful with. I love narrow cars,’ he says, pointing out that there’s still plenty of shoulder room inside because the doors are so slim. ‘They’re not full of crash bars and loudspeaker housings and who knows what.’
Chrysler-derived V8 provides plenty of surge, but in a refined, gentlemanly manner. Its just so British – even with an American engine. It has that sort of quality. Floor-mounted gearchange marks this out as a Seven-ties incarnation. The badge for those who have a disregard for badge obsession.
The Bristol’s engine note is always subdued, not that it would bother us if it was a little more vocal. ‘I just love the sound of V8s,’ says Martin, who owns Rover and Chevrolet examples himself. They’re addictive. Put me next to a stock car or a power boat, Pm happy.’ With a prod of the accelerator he kicks the transmission down into second gear, and the 6.6-litre V8 burbles urgently ahead of us. ‘It doesn’t feel like a muscle car,’ he says. ‘It’s just so British – even with an American engine. It has that sort of quality.’
It also has enough presence to turn heads. Other drivers crane their necks for a better view, and as we thread the Bristol through the country roads around Maidenhead we pass a party of ramblers who smile and wave. Martin is revelling in the 411 ’s involving nature. ‘It makes you work a little bit – it doesn’t do everything for you. If you’re not having to put a bit of effort in, I think you’re missing out on a lot of the enjoyment. In a modern car you get that feeling that you can’t remember the last few miles you’ve driven. I don’t imagine you would ever have that problem in this, because it makes you think – it makes you drive. And yet it’s very relaxing. Look at this broken road,’ says Martin, indicating the pot-holed tarmac of the B-road we’re on. ‘You don’t notice it. It’s just very sophisticated. This is quality beyond anything I’ve experienced.
‘You’re not a person driving a car, you’re working in something that’s been designed to fit around you’
The thing I most like is the way it makes you feel a part of it – you’re not a person driving a car, you’re actually working in something that’s been designed to fit around you. It’s possible to get a comfortable driving position, the visibility is wonderful, the brakes are fantastic. Pm sure if I drove a modern car of a similar quality straight after it would be much more silent, far less wind noise – and with zero character,’ says Martin. ‘And people would think I were a retired night club owner.’
It’s my turn behind the Bristol’s Moto-Lita steering wheel. It’s easy to get comfortable in the big, manually-adjustable leather armchair, and the straightforward driving position is as good as it gets. Visibility in every direction is excellent thanks to the slim pillars, and from the driver’s seat the curved front wings frame the long bonnet stretching out ahead, making it easy to judge the 411 ’s width. Despite its length – at nearly 17 feet, the Bristol is a foot longer than a modern Bentley Continental – manoeuvring is easy thanks to light steering and excellent lock.
On the road it’s the steering that is one of the Bristol’s most impressive features. The wheel never fights in your hands, even when the 411’s fat Avons bump over imperfections in the road surface or splash through the pools of standing water that collected when the heavens opened. Yet there’s constant subtle feedback through the rim, reporting what the front tyres are doing, and the big Bristol steers with a delicacy and precision that belies its size. Good balance and relatively light weight help: the 411 has less mass to shift than contemporary rivals like the Jensen Interceptor, Aston Martin V8 and Rolls-Royce Corniche. It will hustle down a twisty road with aplomb, the gearbox locked in second and the V8 using its mountain of mid-range torque to haul the 411 out of the corners. Any excess of tractive effort tends to spin the inside rear wheel rather than set the tail sliding.
Performance, though, is brisk rather than bellicose. The stiffly sprung accelerator needs a hefty push, and then the Bristol doesn’t do anything so uncouth as ‘accelerate’ – it merely surges forward until it reaches cruising velocity, before oozing into the long-striding top gear. Its real forte is sweeping A-roads or along motorways, where it eats up miles in comfort.
‘Series 5s are good cruisers,’ agrees Philip White. ‘They’re very relaxing. Series 1s are more of a driver’s car. They’re slightly undertyred at the back, and they have the 6.3-litre engine, which is actually a little more plucky than the 6.6. It’s a little more nimble, and you get slightly better miles per gallon.’ Fuel consumption is, by modern standards, epic: 12-14mpg is about the best you can expect day to day. ‘They’re good for motorway mileage,’ says Philip. ‘You’d get 18mpg.’
Martin agrees that the fuel consumption would one of the downsides of Bristol 411 ownership, but can see plenty of compensations. ‘It’s the sort of car you might find yourself rationalising your collection for,’ he says, and you get the impression he might be thinking of doing just that. ‘Not only is it enormously high performance, but it’s also the sort of you car that you could gently cruise around in when you’re not in a screaming hurry. And it doesn’t provoke a nasty reaction,’ Martin enthuses. ‘It shrinks around you and it feels part of you. It is difficult to see how anything else could combine such good taste, luxury, engineering and sheer roadability. I think it’s wonderful. It’s the complete car.’
Bristol 411 the list Bristol engine development
From the Fifties onwards, V8 power was sourced from Chrysler, giving muscle car grunt in a genteel package. Chrysler V8: Bristol’s US. A British glove. From the Fifties onwards Bristol’s engines came from across the Atlantic, and the long-lasting connection garnered benefits in the UK and at Chrysler – we chart the history of a very special relationship.
Bristol’s first cars, and the engines which powered them, were all based largely on pre-war BMW designs. Filton acquired the rights as war reparations. The engine was a novel 2.0-litre straight-six with part-spherical combustion chambers, its opposed valves all operated from a single camshaft located low down on one side of the engine. Pushrods and rockers operated one row of valves, and a set of horizontal ‘cross pushrods’ was laid over the top of the engine to operate the valves on the other side. The design worked well in the pre-war BMW 328, and Bristol eventually developed its version into a 2.2-litre with 105bhp. The engines for the 450 Le Mans cars produced as much as 170bhp.
The switch to Chrysler power for Bristol’s road cars came as a by product of searching for, andfinding, a suitable automatic transmission. In the mid-Fifties, Bristol was already aware of growing demand for self-shifting transmissions. The one most suitable was Chrysler’s Torqueflite, which was light and strong, so Bristol started to look at Chrysler’s V8 engine. The BMW-based six was really at the end of its development, and Bristol had already considered replacing it with a new in-house design, or adopting the 3.4-litre (later 4.0-litre) Armstrong-Siddeley six. The Chrysler A 313ci (5130cc) engine, with a genuine 200bhp, turned out to be an ideal alternative, once Bristol had upgraded the bearings to withstand continuous hard use. At first Chrysler objected to Bristol’s modifications, but came to appreciate Filton’s experience of building engines for reliability. The Americans established an engineering team not only to ensure Bristol got the engines it needed, but also to feed the best of Bristol’s ideas back to Chrysler.
‘Chrysler came to appreciate Filton’s experience of building engines for reliability’
The switch to the 318ci (5211cc) V8 for 1965 was caused by rationalisation of Chrysler’s range, but the 411 took advantage of a new family of big-block engines, adopting a 383ci (6276cc) ‘wedge head’ unit that weighed about the same as the small-block but produced around 276bhp. But not for long. Environmental concerns led to the strangling of American engines with ‘anti-smog’ equipment and reduced compression ratios, and to maintain performance the engine was enlarged to 400ci (6555cc) in 1973. That year’s oil crisis threatened the survival of the big-block engines, so Bristol switched to Chrysler’s latest small-block unit, in 360ci (5899cc) or 318ci (5211cc) capacity, for the 603 in 1976.
The pursuit of power led to a turbocharged (but still carburettor-fed) derivative for the 1980 Beaufighter and 1982 Brigand. Producing around 330bhp, it sufficed until the Nineties when leaded petrol was outlawed and catalytic convertors mandated, and Bristol switched back to a normally-aspirated unit with multi-point fuel injection. This survived to the end of Blenheim production in 2009.
407 1961-1963 The first Chrysler-engined Bristol. Almost identical to the Bristol-engined 406 of 1957-1961, but 407 is longer and every panel is different. New 5130cc V8 engine, which powers 407 to 125mph.
408/409 1963-1968 Rectangular grille with inset driving lamps is the main change for 408. For 1965 the 408 Mkll adopts larger 5211cc V8 with a claimed 250bhp. This is carried over to the softer-riding 409.
410/411 1967-1976 Nose is revised for 410; 6277cc engine arrives with 411 in 1968. Four-headlamp front end marks Series 3 in 1972. Reducing compression ratio is compensated for by 6555cc capacity from 1973.
412/Beaufighter 1975-1994 Vast flat bonnet and targa-type removable roof featured on the 412 body. Turbo version is called the Beaufighter, and Bristol developed a full convertible, though possibly just one built.
603/Britannia/Brigand/ Blenheim 1976-2009 Fastback saloon has similar front end to the late 411, before adopting rectangular lamps in 1982 when Brigand arrives. Continues to 2009, latterly called Blenheim.
1975 BRISTOL 411 SERIES 5
Engine Chrysler 6566cc OHV V8, Carter 4-choke carburettor
Power 264bhp @ 4800rpm
Torque 335lb ft @ 3600rpm
Transmission Three-speed Chrysler Torqueflite automatic, rear-wheel drive, limited slip differential
Brakes Discs front and rear, servo assistance
Steering Recirculating ball with power assistance
Front: double wishbones, coil springs, anti-roll bar. telescopic Koni dampers.
Rear: live axle, Watt linkage, longitudinal torsion bars with self-levelling telescopic Koni dampers.
Weight 3775lb (1712kg)
Top speed 130mph
Fuel consumption 13-18mpg
Cost new £12,587
Value now £100,000
Drive-MY will make a dream drive happen for one reader in every issue. All you need to do to be in the reckoning is to send us your list of the ten cars you dream most of driving, plus a CV of the classic cars you’ve owned, then fire it off to us. You’ll need to be prepared for the possibility of longdistance travel and an early morning start, but the experience will be unforgettable.