Leaving the traffic lights and aiming the Bristol 411 up the M32 slip-road… When it comes to acclimatising to an unfamiliar car, this really is straight in at the deep end – or should that be straight in at the fast stuff.
As the four-speed auto slips through the ratios and the speedo needle climbs, a glance at the flat grey sky is snatched. Thankfully, the rain hasn’t turned up to spoil our test drive.
When we were invited to test this Bristol 411 Series Six which has been modified by Brabazon Motors, it was an opportunity we just couldn’t turn down.
Yes these cars have been and are likely to remain exclusive but whereas many cars of this ilk have an enthusiastic base with an unquestionably purist bent – Bristols are different. Far from tutting about modifications and then launching into a tedious diatribe along the lines of: ‘I think you’ll find that is a non-original fitment. You’ve fitted XYZ045B, when it should have the earlier XYZ045A specification of mudflap…’ Bristol owners embrace improvement, modifications and progress.
So what if your car didn’t come with an overdrive or disc brakes. Fancy a larger or different specification of engine? Well, why don’t you just fit one then… It’s an attitude which is almost as refreshing as the marque’s Q-car status. Driving this car here and now – even in its namesake city – and few if any passers-by notice. Try doing that in a Bentley WAG-chariot.
The M32/M4 roundabout looms and despite having a vast fuel-injected 245bhp Chrysler 5.9-litre V8 packing 335lb.ft of torque up front, the 411 turns in quickly with controlled roll and not even the faintest sniff of understeer. The throttle is then opened and we’re flung onto the motorway bound for the roads around Castle Combe.
I really could get used to this – the driving position is spot-on and it just whispers at the national limit. Well, save for a subdued burble and intake hiss coming from that folded eight-cylinder.
Belonging to Brabazon Motor’s boss, this Series Six is being used to develop a range of Bristol V8 upgrades. Despite being completed by ‘the Cars’ just under two years ago – think of the Series Six as a factory-executed rebuild with updates – this 411 already has nigh-on 31,500 miles. Proof positive that Bristol owners use their cars and are known for clocking up intergalactic mileage.
Although a long car, it is also a slim-hipped one. The elevated driving position and narrow windscreen pillars, also make it incredibly easy to place on the road and bless the cabin with oodles of daylight. Unlike the machines 99% of my fellow motorway users are driving which appear to resemble either a Portaloo or a squashed toad.
In here, the cabin is dominated by oxblood leather and pale wood veneer. Behind the Motor-Lita wheel lies the distinctive Bristol seven-clock binnacle crammed with magnolia-faced Smiths dials. The ergonomics might appear almost anarchic, but the details really hit the retro spot – the eyeball vents, the metal rocker switchgear and the driver’s cigarette lighter. Look closer, and the 411 has all the toys you’d expect in a top-flight 2012 executive – electric windows, heated seats, cruise control and a Becker stereo.
At 80mph it’s cruising with just 1,750rpm on the tacho, meaning that three-digit naughtiness – by my calculations – is provided at just 2,500rpm. The redline is at 5,500rpm but it may as well be on the moon, for the 411 is so long legged that I doubt it is ever bothered at the 140mph top speed.
Although recirculating ball steering can never match the precision of rack and pinion, the 411’s power-assisted set-up is good. Indeed, compare the Bristol to the last PAS recirculating ball I drove, an E39 BMW M5, and the meatier 411 set-up gets my vote.
Whilst there is plenty of history about Bristol Cars, there isn’t quite so much out there on the company behind this 411, Brabazon Motors.
Just over a year ago, in March 2011, when the receivers were called in to Bristol Cars in Patchway, the future looked bleak. The local TV reporter didn’t have much to go on, save for the fate of the 22 members of staff, who all instantly lost their jobs.
This 411 Series Six was actually in the process of being completed at Patchway when all this happened. However, its owner – Stuart Cullen – had built up quite a rapport with the workforce, so when Patchway was closed down, an idea was sewn.
The aforementioned idea has now grown into a company with fantastic modern premises based in Eastville, Bristol. Although Brabazon Motors has no link whatsoever with Bristol Cars or their current custodians – Kamkorp Group – it does employ staff who have run up enviable service records and massive experience at ‘the Cars’.
Unlike some specialists, Brabazon Motors – which can work on anything classic or retro but concentrates on the Bristol V8 types – doesn’t just focus on original equipment restorations. You see, Jeff Marsh – former workshop manager at the Cars, who now runs Brabazon’s workshop – is intent on modifying and improving these handbuilt cars, too.
One M4 junction later and rather than head south for the beige tourist pit, we head north for the quiet Cotswold roads.
Externally, the big change to this Series Six is the set of 18in wheels, which are necessary to clear the uprated grooved and vented discs and calipers (six-pots at the front and four-pots following up behind). Available for £7,600 plus VAT, this upgrade includes discs, calipers, wheels and tyres – with customers able to choose from a range of different wheel designs. Smaller brake set-ups are available to suit both 16 and 17in diameter wheels, but these 18s show what can be done.
So yes, the braking performance is a vast improvement on the originals, and the Brabazon upgrade also endows the 411 with a good pedal too – packing a nice balance between feel, effort and confidence. Given the 235/45ZR18 footprint, it would be easy to assume that this combined with recirculating ball PAS would make the 411 wander around more than Wordsworth o’er vales and hills – but no.
Despite the roads’ rough and ready state – complete with vicious bouts of camber – the Bristol proved far more controllable and stable than some much younger spicy hatchbacks.
The front is independent via coils with rear suspension provided courtesy of an LSD-equipped live axle suspended by torsion bars with eight-link location. Yet the ride quality is good and the damping has a beautiful deft touch to it (modern German saloons take note), giving the 411 a comfortable, calming character.
Yes, it’s a refined cruiser – but it also knows how to have a good time on minor roads. The steering is swift and well-geared, turn-in is keen, roll is well-governed and the chassis is nimble, encouraging and stable. The rear’s ability to transfer all that torque to the Tarmac – even when exiting tricky off-camber double-apex corners – is impressive. The rear axle just tucks in and faithfully follows the front without any tantrums.
The spread of torque can only be described as wall-to-wall, with kickdown providing an enjoyable dose of hearty wallop. Indeed, compare this with a V8-packing Seventies R107 Mercedes SL and the 411 soundly thrashes the vague, stand-offish and lethargic sport leicht.
Admittedly, as someone who prefers to stir the cogs manually, fast driving with two pedals doesn’t come quite as naturally. Doubtless it’s the inner control-freak who insists on dictating when each gear is selected to either accelerate or provide engine braking. Therefore, fast A and B-road sprinting takes a bit of adjustment. This brake upgrade though, certainly does allow you to not merely exploit the 411’s performance through twisty roads – but to relish it.
Sensible dimensions, big effective brakes, positive steering and a chassis which communicates are all essential, and this Brabazon-fettled 411 has all of the above.
All of which is proof positive that the way forward is to improve and modify old cars, rather than try to coax a connection with a cold, dead, lump of plastic which is brimming with microchips rather than personality. So, as the traffic lights go green and we hurtle onto the M4 bound for Brizzle, I feel like I’ve really got to know and appreciate the character of this rarely spotted enigma.
Needless to say, the journey home took quite a few minutes less than the outward bound one – and the frown of unfamiliarity had been replaced by a grin on full beam.
Bristol 411 with Brabazon Motors brake upgrade – Technical Specification
- Body: 1975 Bristol 411 Series Six
- Engine: 5,900cc Chrysler V8, 101.6 x 90.93mm, multi-port fuel injection, electronic ignition. Compression ratio: 9.25:1. Power: 245bhp @ 5,000rpm; torque: 335lb.ft @ 5,000rpm.
- Transmission: Front-engined, rear-wheel drive with limited slip differential. Four-speed automatic. Final drive: 2.88:1; overall gearing 40.72mph per 1,000rpm.
- Suspension: Front: independent via coil springs, unequal wishbones, adjustable telescopic dampers and anti-roll bar. Rear: Eight-linked live axle suspended via torsion bars, adjustable telescopic dampers. Steering: hydraulic power-assisted recirculating ball.
- Brakes: Front: 345 x 32mm grooved and vented discs with six-pot calipers. Rear: 300 x 28 mm grooved and vented discs with four-pot calipers.
- Wheels & Tyres: 18in Team Dynamic alloy wheels with 235/45ZR18 tyres.