Bristol Sports Cars


The Bristol 405 signaled a new change in direction toward a more modern and independent style. See more pictures of sports cars.

Bristol traces its automaking origins to 1945, when Bristol Aeroplane Company sought new life as wartime demand for its aircraft engines dried up. Discover how it found the answer in the battle-scarred remains of Germany's BMW, and appropriated not only engineering and engines, but Fritz Fiedler, BMW's chief engineer.

The repurposed British company's inaugural car, the Bristol 400 of 1947, was basically an amalgam of prewar BMW components and design, including the engine and even the twin-kidney grille.

The Bristol 401, 402, and 403 models that followed between 1948 and 1955 carried on in this vein, even as they gained their own reputation as desirable high-quality, low-production sporting cars. The Bristol 404 model signaled a more modern, independent, and stylish direction for the company, and even spawned a suave sedan.

Though it was slow to relinquish its BMW engineering origins, Bristol increasingly asserted itself as a maker of quintessentially British performance cars. The Bristol 406 of 1958 shed the last of its forbearers' aircraft inspired styling cues, and the 407 of 1961 finally cast off the BMW-derived inline-six for a robust Hemi V-8 supplied by America's Chrysler.

In the 1960s, Bristol set about a pace of model changeover remarkable for a small-volume independent. The result was a quick succession of expensive, performance oriented touring cars that included the Bristol 408, 409, and 410, and culminated in the Bristol 411 of 1969. Handsome but reserved styling, a businesslike but plush interior, and a storming American V-8 made the Bristol 411 a classic of its type and typical of the great cars celebrated in these articles.

On the next page, we will begin with two of the earliest Bristols -- the 401 and the 402.

To learn more about Bristol and other sports cars, see:

Bristol 401 & 402

The Bristol 401 was designed to be a serviceable, luxurious vehicle, though it proved quite capable in rallies, as well.
The Bristol 401 was designed to be a serviceable, luxurious vehicle, though it proved quite capable in rallies, as well.

 

The Bristol 401 and 402 were an attempt to salvage profits as business fell off rapidly after World War II as military contracts ran out. It happened almost by chance. Somehow the firm managed to acquire the services of long-time BMW engineer Dr. Fritz Fiedler, as well as blueprints for and several examples of late-Thirties B­MW cars. A key figure in these acquisitions was H.J. Aldington, whose Frazer-Nash concern had been BMW's UK distributor before the war and would build postwar sports cars using Bristol's "purloined" engine and transmission designs.

Bristol's first automobile emerged at the 1947 Geneva Salon as the Type 400. It was pretty dull stuff, too heavy for its available power and stylistically dated. But it was built with precision and the best materials money could buy -- and was priced accordingly, of course. But Bristol wasn't planning to outproduce General Motors -- or even Rolls-Royce. Just a few cars built patiently for a discerning monied elite would do fine, thank you.

The 400 set a pattern for future Bristols in other ways. Its chassis, for example, has continued without significant change for some 40 years now. A sturdy, advanced box-section structure based on the prewar BMW 326 design, it employed steel floor members for extra torsional rigidity and spanned a 114-inch wheelbase.

Front suspension was independent via a Ford-like transverse leaf spring. Longitudinal torsion bars sprung a live rear axle located by radius rods and A-bracket. Steering was rack-and-pinion, very rare for the period.

Under the hood was an evolution of the legendary 2.0-liter inline six from BMW's prewar 328 sports car, with the same complicated "cross-pushrod" valvegear, hemispherical combustion chambers, and downdraft intake ports. It was a tall but efficient powerplant, initially rated at 80 horsepower.

Topping all this was a fulsome "almost four-seat" coupe body clearly patterned on that of the prewar 327 Autenreith coupe. The similarities even extended to the grille, a slim, BMW-like "twin-kidney" affair.

After 700 examples through late 1949, the 400 gave way to the logically designated Bristol 401. Aside from a nominal 5 extra horsepower, its main distinction was more streamlined styling "such as might be expected from an aircraft builder intent on showing his skill," as a Bristol historian put it.

However, the new body design came not from Bristol but Carrozzeria Touring of Italy, and thus had the coachmaker's patented Superleggera construction (aluminum body panels attached to a strong, multi-tube framework). Though still a two-door 2 + 2, the 401 looked more aerodynamic than the 400, and undoubtedly was. Its top speed was somewhat higher, now 95 mph, while mildly modified examples could do 100 mph.

The Bristol 401's interior took its design cues from late-30's BMW cars.

It was with this smooth-lined machine that Bristol began to make its mark among GT cars -- and in motorsport. The Bristol 401 competed in rallies, but was still hampered by comparatively high weight despite its new "superlight" body.

Accompanying the Bristol 401 was a derivative convertible designated Bristol 402. Pinin Farina had a hand in modifying the coupe's lines, but the result was less than satisfying, especially the longer, more rounded rump. Bristol itself handled this model's body building.

Chassis and running gear came straight from the 401. Though a little garish by Bristol standards, the Bristol 402 was nicely detailed. Its soft top folded completely away, and removable cant rails were provided for snug wind and weather sealing between the top and the upper edges of the side windows.

The Bristol 401/402 saw lower production than the 400, just 650 coupes and a mere 24 convertibles. Not that this bothered Bristol. In fact, the firm had something even better to show as early as 1953. Well, at least it was faster.

To learn more about Bristol and other sports cars, see:

Bristol 403

The Bristol 403 retained prewar BMW origins, looking little different from the 401 but boasting 15 extra horsepower, good for a top speed of around 100 mph.
The Bristol 403 retained prewar BMW origins, looking little different from the 401 but boasting 15 extra horsepower, good for a top speed of around 100 mph.

 

Four years after Bristol put its 401 on sale, the prestigious British aero-enginemaker-turned-automaker was ready with something better. But the firm saw no need for anything radically different given its chosen low-volume/high-price market (that would follow a few years later with the 405), so the new Bristol 403 was no more than a thoughtful update.

Launched in May 1953, the Bristol 403 looked almost identical to the 401. Appearance changes were limited to silver grille bars (still in BMW-style "twin-kidney" surrounds) and new red model badges (instead of yellow) on trunklid and hoodsides -- all very subtle. There was also no companion convertible this time.

Mechanical changes were more substantive, encompassing drivetrain, brakes, suspension, even the heater. Because of the ex-BMW engine's numerous racing successes (mostly in Frazer-Nash cars), Bristol now knew a great deal about its performance potential. Though the firm simply reprofiled the camshaft and fitted larger, sturdier main bearings for the Bristol 403, it gained 15 horsepower, now up to 100 bhp total, plus a little more torque, that made for easier low-speed slogging and more eager mid-range response.

The Bristol 403 served as an updated version of the 401 -- it received a few upgrades under the hood, but most of the cosmetics remained largely unchanged.

Continued from late 401s was an improved gearbox with Borg-Warner synchromesh. As before, a flywheel was incorporated in first gear, and the shift lever was long and willowy. Late Bristol 403s carried a more satisfying remote-control linkage with a shorter shifter. Chassis changes included the addition of a front anti-roll bar to trim the handling, and the use of larger, heat-dissipating Alfin drums for the brakes.

With its extra power, the Bristol 403 was even more the sports tourer than the 401. The factory claimed a 100-mph top speed, though no magazine road-test figures exist to back it up.

There's not much more to say about the Bristol 403, except that it was the shortest-lived Bristol to date, lasting just two years. Production totalled exactly 300, all built at the Filton factory near the facilities then being erected for manufacturing Brittania turboprop aircraft.

To learn more about Bristol and other sports cars, see:

Bristol 404

The lighter, short-wheelbase Bristol 404 was the most sporting Bristol yet.
The lighter, short-wheelbase Bristol 404 was the most sporting Bristol yet.

 

Bristol had been building cars for six years by 1953, so its reputation was well and truly established. About all its cars lacked was outright performance, and a new model launched that year, the Bristol 404, would take care of that.

Designated 404, Bristol's latest was soon nicknamed the "Businessman's Express," for it was a compact two-seat fastback coupe with a top speed of more than 110 mph. Trouble was, only rich executives could afford it, which helped keep sales very low even for a Bristol. Another problem was Jaguar's XK120/140 coupes (see entries), which were faster yet cost half as much.

The Bristol 404 rode a short-wheelbase version of the familiar Bristol chassis (96 inches versus 114). The BMW-inspired six was normally supplied in 105-horsepower tune, slightly higher than in the 403, and there was a new 125-bhp option to make this the most potent Bristol yet. Brakes were also improved, with new Alfin drums and, on early examples, dual hydraulic circuits.

Styling was both smoother and more modern than the 403's, with tiny tailfins that were obviously flash rather than function. In profile, the simple grille resembled the leading-edge air intakes of Bristol's unsuccessful Brabazon airliner.

The Bristol 404 was the first outright performance car for this automaker.

The Bristol-built body was a clever mixture of steel and light-alloy panels over a wood frame, and introduced a packaging feature that would become a Bristol hallmark: a housing in the left front fender for the spare tire. That was matched on the right by a hatch concealing the battery and most electrical components, mounted on shelves no less.

Few got to drive the Bristol 404, but those who did loved its balance, character, and thoroughbred manners. Still, a two-seat Bristol proved just about impossible to sell.

Not to worry, though. A year after the Bristol 404 arrived, Bristol introduced its first-ever four-door sedan, the 405, basically the standard-wheelbase 403 chassis with the 105-bhp Bristol 404 engine. The four-door also shared frontal styling with the two-seater, but its generously proportioned body was a notchback style with rounded lines that made the 405 look more aerodynamically efficient than the 403 it replaced.

It was definitely roomier inside, and airier too, thanks to a modest increase in glass area. Body construction again mixed steel and aluminum panels over a wood framework. Aside from a few more horsepower, the only mechanical difference from the 403 was standard electrically actuated Laycock de Normanville overdrive (effective on top gear only).

Though the 405 was a versatile, high-quality executive sedan, it wasn't as fast as most competitors. No cars were ever released for press appraisal, but a 105-mph top speed seems reasonable -- and not all that impressive. Still, Bristol patrons thought this a dandy successor to the 403, and the 405 sold well by the standards of this tiny company.

While the Bristol 404 lasted through just 40 units built over three years, the 405 saw 294 units in four years. A promised Bristol 404 convertible never materialized, but Abbotts of Farnham produced about 46 open 405s with two-door coachwork.

To learn more about Bristol and other sports cars, see:

Bristol 406

The updated Bristol 406 was the first square-rigged Bristol and the last with six-cylinder power. All-disc brakes were laudable for the day.
The updated Bristol 406 was the first square-rigged Bristol and the last with six-cylinder power. All-disc brakes were laudable for the day.

After five years of attempting to "divide and conquer" with the split-wheelbase 404/405 arrangement, Bristol returned to a single long-chassis coupe in 1958, albeit ­with more contemporary styling. In fact, the new Bristol 406 was the first Bristol that looked like it had been designed by an automaker instead of an aircraftmaker.

This was a transition model in many ways, which gives it minor historical distinction. On one hand, the Bristol 406 set the style pattern for future models well into the Seventies, yet was the last Bristol to use the aging "cross-pushrod" six inherited from BMW, and the only six-cylinder Bristol with more than 2.0-liter displacement.

Steadily rising weight (now at 3010 pounds versus 2670 for the 401) and its negative effect on performance was behind the engine size increase. This was accomplished by stretching both bore and stroke (from 66 × 96 to 69 × 100 mm) for a total 2216 cubic centimeters versus the previous 1971. Even so, rated horsepower was unchanged, though torque improved and peaked 500 rpm lower for a small gain in mid-range performance. As on the 405, drive was to the rear wheels through a 4-speed manual gearbox with electric overdrive.

Predictably, the Bristol 406 chassis was much like that of previous Bristols, with the same 114-inch wheelbase and curious wishbone/transverse-leaf independent front suspension. But signs of progress were evident elsewhere. Track widened by two inches front and rear, and there was a new rear axle located laterally by a more modern Watt linkage instead of the previous A-bracket, with single forward-facing torque arms to handle fore/aft loads. Springing remained by longitudinal torsion bars. An important safety item new to Bristol was four-wheel disc brakes, big 11.25-inch-diameter Dunlop units.

Some Bristol partisans were horrified by the new Bristol 406 styling, though others muttered that it was overdue. It was far from pretty -- especially the gaping "bigmouth" front -- but at least the angular notchback body wasn't stuffy, and Bristol would get around to cleaning up details. The bodies themselves, now supplied by a London builder, employed steel inner panels overlaid with aluminum skins.

The Bristol 406 was heavier still than any previous model, and even its larger engine struggled to perform under the body's cumbersome weight.

The Bristol 406 was less slippery than the 405 but made up for it by being considerably roomier despite riding the traditional Bristol wheelbase. For example, it stood 2.5 inches taller for a consequent gain in headroom, especially noticeable in the rear.

It was also quite a bit longer -- by over a foot, in fact -- most of it apparently in the front fenders. Still, this only made it easier to retain one of the 404's more novel features: a spare tire neatly hidden in the left front fender; a similar compartment in the right fender housed battery, brake servo unit, and windshield washer-fluid reservoir.

Perhaps the Bristol had grown too large. The Bristol 406 was certainly still too heavy despite its larger engine. But Bristol had an answer to the performance problem -- an expensive one -- in the form of six lightweight Zagato-bodied specials endowed with tuned 130-bhp engines.

With the extra muscle and 540 pounds less weight than the standard Bristol 406, they could reach 125 mph (versus only 105), though their four-seat coupe bodywork looked as bizarre as anything this Italian studio ever did. If you run across one of these today, consider it a miracle.

As for the standard issue, the critics were right. Though its handling, steering, and ride were all quite impeccable, the Bristol 406 had to be rowed along with the gearlever for maximum performance -- which wasn't all that "max."

Still, the addition of disc brakes and the new rear suspension meant the aging Bristol chassis could now handle a lot more power. The only questions were, would Bristol provide it, and if so, when? The answers were yes and 1961.

To learn more about Bristol and other sports cars, see:

Bristol 407

The Bristol 407's full instrumentation was as expected from this airplane maker.
The Bristol 407's full instrumentation was as expected from this airplane maker.

 

With the Bristol 407 the importance of a powerful engine came to the foreground. Great though it was, BMW's prewar cross-pushrod six couldn't last forever in a postwar world increasingly dominated by high-tech, high-compression V-8s. By the end of the 1950s, it had reached the end of its development road. Bristol Cars -- which was still making it, after all, and planning for the Bristol 407 -- knew this only too well. And with its cars seeming to put on weight each year, a larger, more potent engine was clearly needed.

The firm duly went to the trouble of designing one, a replacement six-cylinder unit designated Type 160, Bristol's first automotive engine. But cars were still a sideline operation for the British aircraft company. And with the car subsidiary's low annual volume, tooling up a new engine would have cost far more than it was worth -- or than the firm could afford.

Accordingly, management cancelled the Type 160 and suggested its engineers look around for a suitable proprietary engine. As Bristol also wanted to offer automatic transmission on its next-generation cars, America was the obvious place to start looking.

After lengthy deliberation, Bristol settled on the efficient, thoroughly proven hemi-head V-8 and matching 3-speed TorqueFlite automatic from Chrysler Corporation. Trouble was, Chrysler wasn't building hemis anymore, at least not for cars, and Bristol would have to contend with high tariffs and complex regulations if drivelines were imported direct from the U.S. But the problem was easily solved: Chrysler would send engines from Canada -- part of the Commonwealth, you know -- built to Bristol specifications.

The result of this alliance appeared in the autumn of 1961 as the Bristol 407, first in the long line of Chrysler-powered Bristols that extends to this day. As was almost expected by now, Bristol's latest retained the 114-inch-wheelbase chassis that had originated way back in the Thirties, albeit with all the improvements applied to the outgoing 406.

And the Bristol 407 had an improvement of its own: a new wishbone/coil-spring front suspension, thus ousting the old transverse-leaf setup at last. Rack-and-pinion steering was abandoned in favor of cam-and-roller, something of a retrograde step but also necessitated by the bulkier, heavier engine.

The Bristol V-8 wasn't pulled from any shelf in Highland Park. For one thing, it was sized at 313 cubic inches, a displacement not previously seen in Chrysler's U.S. lineups. For another, Bristol insisted on hemi heads, not the cheaper and more common polyspherical kind, plus mechanical instead of hydraulic tappets, a different camshaft profile, and a larger-capacity sump. Even the much-vaunted TorqueFlite automatic, then barely six years old, was modified somewhat for this application.

The Bristol 407: A specially built Canadian Chrysler hemi V-8, which transformed the Bristol 406 into a true high-performer.

But the effort paid off. Though it tipped the scales at close to 3600 pounds, the Bristol 407 was the quickest Bristol yet, the V-8's quoted 250 SAE horsepower seeing it to 122 mph. Standing-start acceleration was similarly improved.

So was Bristol styling. Though the basic 406 shell was retained (and still supplied by the London-based Jones Brothers company), the shorter engine permitted a lower, flatter hood, and there were detail revisions elsewhere. Fortunately, perhaps, there were no Zagato specials.

An irony of the Bristol 407 is that it gave Bristol Cars a big image boost just as Bristol Aeroplane Company decided to abandon automobiles, selling the carmaking operation to Anthony Crook and Sir George White. Crook would ultimately take complete control of Bristol Cars, and still runs it in a very personal way at this writing.

With the Bristol 407, Bristol no longer meant "just" an expensive, superbly built, fully equipped four-seat touring coupe but a car that was genuinely exciting to drive -- a "gentleman's sports car" in every sense. Considering how it started, Bristol had come a mighty long way.

To learn more about Bristol and other sports cars, see:

Bristol 408

The Bristol 408's standard adjustable shock absorbers was the only chassis alteration from the 407.
The Bristol 408's standard adjustable shock absorbers was the only chassis alteration from the 407.

 

The Bristol 408 arrived during a time of change for Bristol. With the V-8-powered 407, Bristol Cars began a period of rapid change, not just in technical specifications but styling and model turnover. Bristol had issued just seven models in the 16 years before 1963, but would go through five in the following eight years, including the Bristol 408.

Though basically a warmed-over 407, the Bristol 408 that was introduced in 1963 was sufficiently changed to justify a new type number. Most of the alterations involved body design, basically the 407 outline with a more squared-up nose and flatter hood and roof.

The most noteworthy mechanical change was adoption of adjustable Armstrong telescopic shock absorbers at the rear, thus enabling the driver to compensate for heavy loads in the trunk and resulting fore/aft attitude changes. Other chassis specs and running gear were as before, though the last few of the 300-odd cars built carried the successor 409 model's drivetrain.

A squared-up front distinguished Bristol's 408 from the previous 407.

While the giant American automakers would consider frequent running changes in a low-volume model as suicidally incompetent, Bristol Cars, like other contemporary European specialist producers, built its products mostly by hand and had very little tooling to amortize over a longer production run. Thus, even fairly frequent running changes were not only possible but economic.

Besides, Bristols had always sold on the basis of exclusivity, and customers for "bespoke" cars such as this liked to feel that improvements were always being made. Call it snob appeal or one-upmanship, but the fact is that many buyers enjoyed being able to point out the subtleties of the latest model to friends, never mind that further changes might soon render it "yesterday's" model.

It's also true of handbuilt cars that no two are ever completely alike, which enhances the aura of exclusivity as much as limited production. And when you're paying upwards of $12,000 for a car, which is what the Bristol 408 cost new -- a lot of money in '63 -- it's nice to feel you're getting something unique. Bristol buyers did and still do, one reason the firm survives today.

To learn more about Bristol and other sports cars, see:

Bristol 409

The Bristol 409's main improvements were suspension revisions and a slightly larger Chrysler V-8.
The Bristol 409's main improvements were suspension revisions and a slightly larger Chrysler V-8.

 

Continuing its 1960s policy of fairly frequent model changes, Bristol dropped the 408 after only two years in favor of the new Bristol 409. This was a more ambitious update than the previous one, though it bore few alterations to styling or equipment.

The same could be said of the chassis: still the proven, 114-inch-wheelbase box-section platform design with wishbone-and-coil-spring independent front suspension and a well-located Salisbury live rear axle on torsion bars. What warranted the new model number was a Canadian Chrysler V-8 enlarged by a mere 5 cubic inches and sporting the same nominal power ratings as the previous 313-cid version.

Still, there must have been some "hidden" gains in power and torque since 1961 (or perhaps the latest styling was more aerodynamic) for top speed was now up by 8 mph, to 130 mph, and 0-60 mph acceleration was quicker by 1.1 seconds.

More significant, the revised powerplant was mounted further back in the chassis, which improved fore/aft weight distribution. So did a light-alloy case for the TorqueFlite transmission (replacing cast iron), which contributed to a modest 60-pound reduction in curb weight. Also new was a second-gear hold feature, allowing the driver to delay the automatic upshift into third for faster standing-start pickup.

At the same time, suspension was softened with lower spring rates, though geometry was adjusted to minimize negative effects on handling. There was also a change in the braking department: still four-wheel discs but supplied by Girling rather than Dunlop. Reason? Dunlop was closing out its brake business and Girling was taking it over.

On the Bristol 409, relative narrowness betrays its Thirties-era ex-BMW chassis design.

Like earlier Bristols, first-year Bristol 409s were available only with manual steering, but optional ZF power assist became available in late 1966 and it appreciably changed the car's character. Of course, refinement had been steadily improving over the years, but this latest Bristol was more civilized and "gentlemanly" than even its most recent forebears -- equally at home charging down a fast highway or slipping quietly through the urban jungle. The successor Type 410 and 411 models would take this trend several steps further.

To learn more about Bristol and other sports cars, see:

Bristol 410

Bristol's 410 was mainly a plusher 409, improving slightly on a proven design.
Bristol's 410 was mainly a plusher 409, improving slightly on a proven design.

 

Bristol Cars adhered to its remarkable (for a low-volume producer) two-year model-change cycle of the late 1960s by transforming the 409 into the Bristol 410. Though very closely related to its predecessor, this new Bristol was superior in several ways.

Air conditioning became available -- but not standard equipment -- at last, paint was switched from enamel to acrylic, and controls for the Chrysler TorqueFlite automatic transmission were switched from the American company's infamous pushbuttons to a conventional floor-mount quadrant.

The Bristol 410's stodgy styling was offset by GT performance and careful craftsmanship.

The Bristol 410 received no major styling or mechanical changes except for an important update to the Girling all-disc hydraulic brake system: new "fail-safe" twin independent circuits. Top speed remained 130 mph, which seemed quite adequate for the more mature buyers attracted to -- and able to afford -- this car.

Though not initially publicized, the Bristol 410 handled significantly better than the 409, as suspension was modified in every detail, from bushings to shock-absorber rates, to take advantage of the superior capabilities of modern radial tires. Another factor was undoubtedly the switch from 16- to 15-inch-diameter wheels, which lowered the center of gravity for crisper, flatter cornering.

As ever, this Bristol was built strictly to order, but Bristol 410 demand was apparently as solid as that of earlier models. The firm again completed some 300 cars in two years before moving on to its next offering, the 411.

To learn more about Bristol and other sports cars, see:

Bristol 411

The Bristol 411 maintained its stoic, blocky aesthetic, though the exterior belied an impressively powerful machine under the hood.
The Bristol 411 maintained its stoic, blocky aesthetic, though the exterior belied an impressively powerful machine under the hood.

 

The Bristol 411 appeared in 1969, just two years after its predecessor debuted. But the days of biennial model changes were over, and the new Bristol 411 would remain in production for the next six years, the longest-lived Bristol to date.

Also once more, the Bristol chassis and squarish four-seat coupe body were little changed. That the former was still around at the turn of the Seventies now seems truly remarkable. Remember that Bristol had copied this box-section platform from a late-Thirties BMW design and had first put it on sale, under the original 400 model, in 1947.

The intervening 23 years had seen changes to front suspension and rear-axle location, but basic structure, the 114-inch wheelbase, and the cars' general stance had all stayed the same. Even so, Bristol followed through on its suspension tuning for the 410 model by making radial tires standard on the Bristol 411.

There was one other change, and it was literally a big one, as the Chrysler 318-cubic-inch hemi-head V-8 was exchanged for the same firm's heavier but considerably more potent 383-cid wedge-head unit. The result was an extra 85 horsepower and a lot more torque.

While this engine had long been a staple in Chrysler's U.S. lineup, it was also familiar in the UK, having powered various Jensens over the years, including the limited-production Vignale-bodied Interceptor and four-wheel-drive FF grand touring coupes of the late Sixties. Here, as there, it was teamed with Chrysler's latest TorqueFlite automatic transmission.

Even if it did increase weight, the 383 made the Bristol 411 appreciably faster than any previous Bristol. Magazine road tests reported a healthy 10-mph gain in top speed -- now a thrilling 140 mph -- and standing-start acceleration of around 7 seconds flat, enough to rival that of the larger Ferraris and Maseratis of the period and very much in American "muscle car" territory.

In appearance, of course, the Bristol 411 was about the farthest thing from a muscle car you could imagine: as conservative as any Bristol, resolutely blocky, and rather staid. At least it was cleaner than recent Bristols and more attractive for it. More modest bodyside chrome strips -- one on the rear fender, the other trailing into the door from atop the front wheelarch -- replaced the former full-length twin strips, the rear end was simplified (bringing a slightly larger trunk), and there was a bit more rake to windshield and backlight.

The Bristol 411 was subtly but sensibly refined in succeeding years. Late 1970 brought a Mark 2 version with automatic self-levelling rear suspension, achieved via load-sensitive compensating struts powered by an engine-driven hydraulic pump. The big V-8 already drove the power steering and still-optional air conditioning, but it was designed for this sort of workload and didn't mind the extra job. Wider wheels all-round accompanied this upgrade.

As if to return to its two-year cycle, Bristol launched the Bristol 411 Mk 3 in 1972, marked by a lower-profile nose with very powerful seven-inch-diameter quad headlamps (replacing the familiar dual head/driving lamps foursome) mounted horizontally in an oval cavity either side of a rather awkward square grille. A slim paint stripe replaced the previous front-fender chrome trim, though rocker panel moldings remained. At the rear were no fewer than four exhaust outlets, the result of minor tuning changes.

The Bristol 411 was the final evolution of Bristol's 406. Lines were cleaner if still conservative, and gadgets more plentiful than ever.

But the Mk 3 didn't last long, for 1973 brought the revised Mk 4 with the latest 400-cid evolution of the Chrysler 383. This was adopted to meet European emissions standards (less stringent than America's but just as vexing to automakers and also tightening every year) and permit the use of British-grade "two-star" leaded regular gasoline. Rear styling was revised yet again, now quite plain.

After a short run of minimally modified Mk 5 models, the Bristol 411 was laid to rest in 1976. Bristol's production pace slowed by about a third, to an average three cars per week, so only 600 Bristol 411s were built in a little over six years.

To learn more about Bristol and other sports cars, see: