Summer Reissue : Peak Bristol

The Bristoliste’s Bristol? The 411 turns 50.

Bristol 411 Series 5. Image: (c) bristolcars

The Bristol Motor car, from its 1948 inception has always proven to be a rarefied and somewhat piquant recipe. Because for every individual who admires and covets the earthbound products of Filton, there are those who find them ungainly, crude and overpriced. But even amongst the former group, there are Bristols and there are Bristols.

Like so many articles of faith, aficionados of the marque tend to split down the middle, dividing their loyalties, not to mention their critical faculties between the six-cylinder cars (400-406) and the later-generation eight-cylinder models. Of these however, the 411 remains perhaps the definitive variant. Certainly, for those of a certain age, it remains the model which immediately springs to mind when the subject of the former South Gloucestershire carmaker is raised.

Introduced in 1969, the 411 combined the familiar bodyshape, chassis and suspension layout with a larger capacity 6.3 litre Chrysler B-series V8 engine, producing a claimed 335 BHP. To cope with the additional torque, a limited slip differential was fitted as standard. The jump in performance (said to have been in the region of 30%) meant that the 411 became a 140-mph automobile, described by Autosport’s veteran scribe, John Bolster as the “fastest true four-seater touring car” of the day.

Certainly, whether or not one cleaves to the LJK Setright theory which stated that odd-numbered Bristols were invariably superior to their even numbered equivalents, the 411 was not only a notable improvement upon the previous 410 model, but a cogent argument could also be made to suggest that it represented peak-Bristol in overall desirability terms.

Over its lifespan, the 411 was continuously revised and improved – the 1971 Series II adding self levelling rear suspension, while the Series III of the following year received a sleeker four headlamp nose, which is said to have lent it the most powerful lighting of any production car at the time. The tail lamps were also revised.

Two years later, the series IV was released, which was fitted with a larger capacity 6.6 litre Chrysler V8 (400 cubic inch), producing a more realistic 264 bhp at 4800 rpm, the result of a dramatically lower compression ratio, but more torque and lower emissions, in line with tightening economies being enacted in the US.

The Series V, produced for the final year of 411 assembly (1975-6) was visually and mechanically as before, but came with additional safety features – inertia reel seatbelts, fog lamps, rear head rests, while a black-finished grill and optional alloy wheels provided visual differentiation. 1976 saw the introduction of the 603 model, the last all-new bodystyle to be offered upon the traditional Bristol chassis.

However, such was the timeless appeal of the 411, that in response to customer demand, the carmaker rather belatedly offered a Series VI version – essentially a remanufactured 411 employing the chassis, 5.9 litre engine and running gear from the contemporary Blenheim model – very much the best of possible worlds for the tastefully well-heeled.

Arguably then the Bristolian platonic ideal, the 411, combining as it does a more harmonious overall style with relatively contemporary dynamics, still maintains its power to seduce. And with less than 300 built, you’re unlikely to encounter another on the weekly shopping run. So by way of marking its half century, we invite you to revisit the definitive 1969 review of the model from legendary motoring scribe, Archie Vicar.

Editor’s note: No Bristols were (seriously) harmed in this report.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. Content Provider.

18 thoughts on “Summer Reissue : Peak Bristol”

  1. Although I do like the original 603, before it was besmirched by increasingly ugly facelifts, I agree that the 411 was a purer and less compromised design. I notice that it was also subjected, albeit to a far less destructive degree, to attempts to “modernise” it. The Series III’s quad-headlamp front end was fine, if slightly heavy-handed, but the slim and elegant elliptical tail lights from the Hillman Minx Series VI were replaced by the rectangular units from the later Minx/Hunter, which sat uncomfortably within the curves of the 411’s rear end. Perhaps this change was driven by parts availability rather than aesthetics? I would hope so, otherwise it’s indefensible.

    Looking back through the DTW archive, I notice that the 412 has escaped the attention of DTW’s gimlet-eyed scribes. Is that simply because the design is irredeemably awful? It certainly doesn’t look like money well spent by Bristol with Zagato:

    Some of the details are eye-wateringly bad, like the ugly shut-lines for the spare wheel and battery covers that surely could have been moved up and hidden beneath the deep bodyside fold above. The effect of that “step-out” fold running around the perimeter of the car is to make everything below it look weak and undersized, almost as though the upper body is just too large for what sits beneath. Weird.

    Incidentally, can anyone else identify the origins of the 412’s head and tail lamps? I think I recognise both.

    1. Front light units:

      Rear lights:

      The Lancia also has the same weird kink in its bodyline at the base of the roll bar and a large ‘Z’ in its rubber boot lining.

    2. Hi Dave, correct on the rear lights! I thought that was quite obscure, so well done. Regarding the front lights, something has got lost in translation, but I’d be surprised if you didn’t get that as well, as they’re from something rather more mainstream, albeit not a Zagato design.

    3. Further on the Beta Spyder, I thought the design was rather less “challenging” than most of Zagato’s output. I’ve just read this on Wikipedia:

      “The Spyder was designed by Pininfarina but actually built by Zagato. The construction process was complex, with coupé bodies-in-white being delivered to Zagato for the roofless conversion, then back to Lancia for rust-proofing, then back to Zagato for paint, interior and trim, and then back to Lancia for a third time for engine installation and final assembly. Lancia probably lost money on every car built.  Number built: 9390.”

      “back to Lancia for rust-proofing” made me smile, although I don’t know if the Spyder had quite the same propensity to disintegrate in damp climates as the Beta Berlina.

    4. Hi Mick. Not correct, I’m afraid. The Cortina never had its indicators integrated under the headlamp glass. They were always separate plastic units.

    5. Look at the following pictures and see where the Bristol’s front lights originated:

      Opel Rekord D:

      Ford Granada Mk1:

      The tell tale detail is the concave inner edge of the integral indicator unit.

      The rust proofing action at least shows that Italian car manufacturers have a specific sense of humour. The beta spider was even more prone to corrosion than the already fully bio degradable coupé. The folding rear half of the roof never was really water tight and the water invariably found its way through the side panels and into the sills. My own spider (chassis no. 1849, a 1978 two litre) needed new sills and side panels after five years and that’s before the bonnet fell off because the hinges had lost contact with it.

    6. The Beta Spider seems like yet another car where they specifically designed it to meet anticipated US rollover standards that never went into effect, yet didn’t do the emission controls so they had to leave the US market anyway.

    7. Well done again, Dave, another cigar! The other clue is that the Rekord D’s headlamp units are canted forward, not vertical like the Granada’s. If you fitted the Granada’s units to the 412, you wouldn’t get much forward illumination!

    8. The beta spider actually was sold in the US, around 2,000 of them with the asthmatic carburator engine also used in the Scorpio with all of 87 hp and around 800 with 108 hp fuel injected engine.
      The roll bar probably was designed for the US but it also was necessary for body stiffness. Mk1 spiders had no bars between A and B posts and frameless windows, from Mk2 on there were lateral stiffening bars connecting them. Even with them the spider was about as rigid as a piece of wet toilet paper with cracks appearing in the bodywork around the B post and lots of creaking noises.

    1. Bristol 410.

      Although I love the Jensen Interceptor, there’s something slightly brash about it that is not quite in character for the quintessentially English Lynley.

      That said, I couldn’t see him for a moment driving the 412. I notice that nobody has taken issue with my description of the latter as “irredeemably awful “. Your polite forbearance does you all great credit, although I’m still not sure whether it’s directed more towards me or the car!

  2. As I believe has now been established, the Bristol 412 headlamps were taken from a Ford Granada MK I, with the Pininfarina-styled Lancia Beta Spyder (Zagato in the USA) providing the tail lights (as well as the left over door handle stock from the earlier Zagato-bodied Alfa Romeo Junior Z and Lancia Fulvia Sport Z models).

    Sticking with Bristol lighting, to gently correct Eoin’s original piece, the 411 Series 3 gained the distinctive revised twin headlamp front end with the BBQ grill, but the rear Series 3 rear lamps (and wings) remained unchanged, as per the 411 Series 1 and 2, plus all other V8 Bristols since the 408, with the rear lamp units taken from the Hillman Minx/Super Minx. The rear lamps (and wings) changed on the 411 Series 4 onwards, using sideways-mounted Hillman Hunter tail lights in a reshaped, squared-off rear wing.

    Until very recently I owned a 411 S3 myself (a September 1972 registered example) which many consider (myself included) to be the most resolved of all Bristol V8 models; the later flatter rear wing Series 4 variants spoiling the line of the car. I also still own a 1951 Bristol 401 which is altogether a more serious proposition than the later V8 models, the Aerodyne being far more satisfying to drive and beautifully considered and engineered by real craftsmen, which can not always be said of the 411 and other later Bristols. The average 8 mpg of the 411 was also troubling for my bank balance, whereas the 401 will comfortably achieve 25 mpg+!

    On a final Bristol lighting point, the headlamps of the later Bristol Brigand are taken from a Talbot Tagora (a car possibly now rarer than the Brigand) and if any RHD Tagora owners out there are looking for some new headlamp units, the Bristol Cars service centre still has brand new items in stock, still in their Talbot-branded boxes!

  3. Hi Djetset. Interesting stuff, thank you, but I think that the 412’s original single headlamp units came from the Opel Rekord D, not the Mk 1 Granada.

    1. Good point Daniel. A friend of mine in the Bristol Owners Club had a slight front-end bump in his 412 and smashed a headlight. I’m sure he replaced it with a Granada MK I unit, but I will double check as looking more closely at it now, the Opel lamp does look to be a strong possibility.

  4. Good morning Djetset. That Bristol Brigand to Talbot Tagora connection would have made a platinum-level spotter’s puzzle! Here’s the evidence:

    As you say, the mass-market donor vehicle is possibly now more rare than its bespoke recipient.

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