In what seems to be a transcript of a period review, the legendary motoring correspondent Archie Vicar reports on the ‘all-new’ Bristol 411.
This article could well have first appeared in the Sheffield Sunday Post, 25th Jan 1970. Due to the poor quality of the original images (by Douglas Land-Windermere), stock photos have been used.
It’s all change at Bristol. The fast-moving Filton manufacturer has responded to the challenges of the times with a veritable flotilla of improvements to their latest car, the 411. Bristol has many unique attributes to help it stay ahead of the competition in these increasingly competitive times. First among them is the remarkably high level of quality on which they insist: the cars are hand-made by craftsman steeped in aviation engineering and versed in production methods that go back decades. While Rolls-Royce and indeed Bentley have switched to monococque construction – making them little more than Cortinas with wood and walnut, some say – Bristol have retained their separate chassis with hand-beaten aluminium panels.
If Ferrari can carry two people quite swiftly, they can’t compete with Bristol’s spacious four-seat interior. The same goes for Maserati with their vaguely assembled collections of parts. The Germans have Porsche and Mercedes for high performance (and BMW and NSU for breakdowns) yet these cars are almost common, both. And remember that Porsches have their engines attached at the wrong end of the car to the detriment of safety, handling and appearances.
In truth, Bristol is an a class of one and it leads that class, by a wide margin meaning it did not even have to revise the previous model to keep it competitive. But Bristol did because their engineers never rest.
The 411 is, according to Bristol’s sales director, an entirely new car. For the 411 no change was deemed too difficult or costly to undertake. The front windscreen and rear glass are now larger to improve both aerodynamics and outward visibility. Two more lamps have been added. The boot shape has been adjusted so as to improve what was already excellent access. A fine new grille makes the car even more attractive than the previous model but unlike customers of Vauxhall, Ford and Singer, those who already own a Bristol will not feel as though they are suddenly in possession of an obsolete vehicle. One can detect certain continuities between the 410 and 411 if you look with a very educated eye.
Additionally, to improve weight, there is to be found less brightwork on the car and the firm’s badge is now very tiny indeed, saving precious ounces and improving the power to weight ratio somewhat. Most importantly, there is as much leg and headroom in the car, front and back. Those stepping from a Rolls-Royce or indeed a Bentley will find they are no less comfortable but they will also find themselves travelling considerably faster.
Helping the Bristol 411 retain its fleetness of foot, radial tyres have been adopted as they have now been proved to have some merit in handling, security and wear behaviour. This last point was of most concern to Bristol as it is important the car spends as little time being serviced as possible. The Bristol’s engine has also seen some modification. The displacement is now a recorded 6277 cc and is a V8 Chrysler unit.
Reportedly, Chrysler engineers were very interested in Bristol’s modifications to the engine which have been duly translated back to Detroit (and ignored, no doubt). Again, improving servicing requirements, the new unit has hydraulic tappets of a design unique to Filton and this means less time in the service bay. Many Bristol owners live a long way from a Bristol dealer and it is important they are not inconvenienced in a way more usual for owners of lesser cars like Morrises, MGs, Fiats and Ferraris.
The result of this enormous list of amendments – too many to adumbrate here – the 411 is now faster than the best the Germans have to offer and leaves Rolls-Royce waiting at the forecourt to finish yet another refuelling operation. One thing that has not changed is the car’s width. This, added to excellent aerodynamics, means the vehicle works less to maintain forward momentum and it improves the sense of tranquillity in the cabin no end.
So, having appraised the car’s static qualities, let us turn now to the road test. In order to assess the multitude of changes to this entirely all-new 411, I decided a slightly longer trip would be needed and, as it happened, I needed to collect a consignment of cigars from Davidoff in Geneva. Rather than entrust them to the postal service I felt it would be safer to collect them in person. What better way to transport fine Havanas than in a Bristol?
So, on a particularly cold and icy morning in early December, I set off from the Bristol showroom in Kensington and headed south to Dover. The first leg of the trip revealed a firm but very well-judged suspension. It manages to control body movements but also to insulate the driver from imperfections in the road surface. Part of this effect is due to the very stiff ladder frame which allows the suspension components to be properly located (with telescopic “Koni” dampers all around). The Bristol simply dismisses the worst of British roads with disdain. Other makers might try to achieve the same effect but would destroy their cars or their passengers if they used these suspension settings.
At Calais I turned south to Rouen and finished the day in Hambye, south west of Caen, having spent about ten hours at the wheel. The French skill at suspension (Peugeot, I mean) is the corollary of their ineptitude at road-building. The Bristol showed its mettle and dealt with it all very commendably.
I have never got out of car so light of body nor so refreshed. The Bristol’s engine simply ticks over at 90 miles per hour, with lashings of power left in reserve for overtaking. The Torqueflite converter slurs seamlessly and one is simply unaware of changes up or down the ratios. All I had to do was keep an eye on the Michelin map perched on the passenger seat and let Land-Windermere out for some exercise every three or four hours.
On a small but important note, smoking in the Bristol is very enjoyable indeed. Bristol’s engineers have thought to place the ashtray on the top of the dashboard, a short movement away from the steering wheel. While I might prefer a very slightly bigger ashtray, in the light of the car’s performance requirements, I can see why Bristol have selected a smaller, lighter receptacle. Niggles: as it stood I was able to work my way through the Craven “A” cigarettes and a pack of Wuhrmann culebras without worrying about space running out.
Bristol see the chairs as part of the car’s suspension system and the ones supplied with the car conform to the latest research findings from the aeronautical industry. They absorb the highest frequency vibrations without being spongy. Reutter’s seats as fitted to earlier Bristol cars were first-rate. Bristol have since taken the manufacture of the furniture “in-house” and it is beyond reproach. Aston Martin, take note, with your execrable seating. The rear chairs were also exceptional, meaning I did not hear a word from photographer Land-Windermere until such time as he made noises regarding nourishment sometime around 9 pm.
The following morning, rather late thanks to the especially heavy red wine (two bottles counts for three, I’d say) and especially heavy desert wine and four especially heavy armagnacs, we trickled off. I should note that Land-Windermere is teetotal at present so I have to drink his allocation. Feeling somewhat brittle despite a good night’s sleep, I was very thankful for the Bristol’s steering. It is wonderfully light and communicates only relevant data. It is fully power assisted but while the likes of Jaguar have eliminated all feel entirely in their desperate attempts to anaesthetise their somnolent customers, Bristol have judged very well how to make a recirculating-ball system both refined and informative. It can be done, Mercedes.
The roads around Hanbye are as bad as the road-signs yet the Bristol managed to provide only rapid, smooth and effortless progress. I note with pleasure the supreme neutrality of the handling which one can put down to a very low polar moment of inertia, superb chassis balance and the astonishing tuning of the suspension elements. Bristol won’t explain exactly how this is done. My theory is that only one man inside Bristol knows what to do and he can’t properly explain it. It is my earnest hope he never retires. Bumpy corners, of which there are many in this part of France, do not unsettle the car and when one needs to accelerate hard there is no trace of wheel-spin. As one opens the throttle the car’s attitude shifts, tightening the line.
As readers of this paper’s wine column know, Monbazillac is home to a few of France’s less well-known makers of desert wine. It would have been foolish to be so close to the area and not stop in. That district thus became the target of the second day’s drive, over some of the more challenging back roads of rural France. Land-Windermere remained very comfortable and deeply asleep for most of the day but emerged to take the five excellent photos that accompany this article. Personal acquaintance with the owner of Chateau de Monbazillac afforded a rare chance to stay in a 16th century castle and also to sample the chateau’s production from 1958 onward.
Another late start, just after lunch, and at this point I felt it was time to press a little more firmly upon the Bristol’s accelerator pedal. Travelling via Clermont Ferrand, we reached Geneva in six hours, with an average speed of 81 miles per hour. Having eaten rather royally the evening before I did not feel the need for any feeds en route. The Bristol engine’s ample torque made short work of the steep roads across the Massif Central. Hats off to Girling for their brakes’ remarkable resistance to fade. On more than one occasion I needed to effect a rapid halt: slow Renault 4s, slower Citroen DSs (they all are) and walls in silly places. It is one thing to make a car go fast, quite another to make it slow down. Maserati and Ferrari need to start taking stopping more seriously than they do.
When we arrived in Geneva towards nine o’clock it was with not a small measure of regret. I was ready for another eight hours at the tiller. The Bristol performed impeccably; my notebook is full of comments, too many to repeat here. Suffice it to say, that while one could not have imagined Bristol making a better car than the 410, they have done so. The remarkable thing is that in a few short years they will improve even upon this peerlessly high-quality, high-performance luxury express.
Having collected my cigars the following morning I was able to see how useful the Bristol’s luggage compartment is. It is very well-shaped, deep and wide and not so much fitted with carpets but tailored with them. Had we been unable to find accommodation in the Hotel D’Angleterre I would not have minded resting in the boot of the Bristol. Naturally I would have let Land-Windermere sleep in the passenger compartment. With another assignment calling him home, I entrusted the cigars to Land-Windermere and delivered him to the airport and set off. In Land-Windermere’s opinion, the Bristol was the most comfortable car in which he has ever slept. Praise indeed.
The return trip required a detour to Cologne, to have a friendly chat with the engineers at Ford about their forthcoming new large car, rumoured to be a Lincoln-derivative with a gas-turbine motor. Thus I set off northward via Lac Leman and on to Lac de Neuchatel. As I said at the start, the conditions were wintry and this held as true for Switzerland as Chiswick.
Towards the middle part of the esplanade along Lac de Neuchatel I was challenged to a race by the rather aggressive driver of a blue Maserati. I politely overtook him at a traffic light at Yverdon only to be overtaken in return halfway to Concise. The Bristol managed to regain the lead with little trouble. The slim pillars mean one has a fine view and the motor can help one surge ahead with confidence.
Finally I tired of the game, having felt I had tested the Bristol sufficiently and with icy patches causing some worry. In order to put some distance between the Bristol and Maserati, I stamped firmly on the accelerator pedal and charged to 90 miles per hour, which speed I maintained for about four or five minutes despite the rather sinuous nature of the lakeside road and several slippery patches. The Maserati disappeared in the rear view mirror.
With my point made and petrol beginning to run low, I pulled into the drive of the charming-looking Hotel du Lac et Gare (of which Mr Bolster at Autosport has spoken warmly) and stopped behind a hedge. As I reached into the glovebox for a fresh box of Craven “A”s I was subject to a most unpleasant jolt and was thrown down and sideways into the footwells. Simultaneously there was loud crash and then the sound of steam being released.
I extracted myself from the car, somewhat confused since the privet I was looking at earlier was replaced by a view of the lake. I opened the door and found that the Maserati had quite simply careened into the back of the Bristol. My cigars, I thought first, before remembering they were safely with Land-Windermere, high over the Alps at this point.
Point proved, I should say, regarding brakes and also point proved regarding the solidity of Bristol Cars’ methods of production. While the 411 was unable to complete the journey back because of the damage to the lights, the rear suspension (Watts linkage) was unscathed. The same could not be said for the Maserati though the embarrassed driver was unharmed. The Maserati’s body looked as if it had fallen nine stories. I offered the chap a cigarette and we had a jolly laugh while awaiting the police.
To summarise, the Bristol is almost faultless. A marginally larger ashtray would make it perfect.
Engine: eight cylinders, 107.9 mm x 85.72 mm (6,277 cc), pushrod operated overhead valves. Carter four-barrel downdraught carburetor.
Transmission: Chrysler three speed Torqueflite with fluid torque converter.
Chassis: separate reinforced steel box section with aluminium panneled coachwork.
Steering: power assisted recirculating ball with three piece track rod.
Brakes: Girling power-assisted disc brakes and twin master cylinders.
Tyres: 185-15 Avon radial tubed.
Equipment: 12-volt lighting and starting; speedometer, rev counter, ammeter, clock, heater and demister, oil pressure and fuel gauge, two-speed wipers; indicators with hazard warning, reversing lights, radio and tape player.
Dimensions: Wheelbase- 9 ft 6 ins; front track 4 ft 6 ins; rear track 4 ft 7 ins; length 16 ft 1 in; weight 1 ton 13 cwt 1 qr.
Performance: maximum speed 138 mph; standing quarter mile 15 sec; acceleration 0-30 mph 2.2 sec; 0-50 mph 5.1 sec; 0-60 pmh 7 sec; 0-100 mph 18.8 sec.
MPG: 13-17 mpg.
Price: 6,997 pounds sterling.