THE BRISTOL 409
The ‘409’ was quietly introduced by Bristol Cars in 1966 as a logical evolution of the ‘408’. The improvements made on its Chrysler-based drivetrain were significant: the 409 adopted the excellent alloy-cased TorqueFlite ‘727’ heavy-duty, three-speeds auto gearbox, the parking brake safety lever under the square buttons of its rectangular ‘typewriter-style’ gearchange buttons and the improved 318 c.i. ‘Poly’ V8 engine that really made a difference with the first 408 and its 313 c.i.. Some of those refinements had been introduced in 1965 in the much modified ‘MkII’ version of the 408 (15 units produced between 1965 and 1966); one is tempted to consider these 15 408 MkIIs as being early versions of the 409, as they are much more similar to the later model than to the early 408s. Another difference was the fitting of a Girling brake system, as Dunlop, supplier of Bristol up to the 408, was closing its brake division; a heated rear window with ‘invisible’ electric elements and an alternator were now standard equipment. The styling was also decidedly evolutionary: the respected Dudley Hobbs just rounded slightly the large radiator grille opening, fitted thicker kick plates and made some very minor detail modifications, but the overall impression was little different from the earlier model and still owed a lot to the Beutler-inspired body style introduced with the ‘406’ in 1957. The 409 was the first Bristol to be offered with a power steering option (by ZF) though this desirable system was not available until January 1967, when #7355 came out of the Filton atélier thus equipped. The first 409 had chassis number #7301, the last one #7379.
The elegant but not very exciting styling and the high price of the 409 meant that one had to be a comparatively secretive gentleman, and a wealthy one indeed, to fork out the whopping sum of £5,238* that Sir George White and Mr Tony Crook asked in exchange for one of these exquisitely hand-made conveyances. Big money in 1966, especially comparing this price to the £4,068 of a DB6 or £3,743 for a Jensen Interceptor… Bentleys and Ferraris cost a bit more, of course, but the 409 was anyway an astonishingly expensive car: the E-Type 4,2 Coupé would put its buyer aback ‘only’ £2,068. The direct consequence was that buyers did not exactly rush out in big numbers to buy a 409: as ‘Practical Classics’ put it “(Bristols) …were built to customer order at a rate that makes Morgan look like a high-volume manufacturer.”
No Filton model deserves this footnote more than the brilliant but rare 409. The orders were few, as its formidable purchase price did not sit well with the elegant but somewhat mimetic styling of this eccentric machine. The front was criticized for the large anonymous radiator grille and the flat panels on its sides, whilst the lack of any apron under the front bumper exposed the suspension arms in a frankly crude way; for many, the 409 was not a beautiful car, surely not a ‘modern’ one. Small wonder, therefore, that LJK Setright titled his eulogy of the 409, on CAR Magazine, ‘Not so fashionable Bristol’; but he subtly added that ‘as long as you are inside, it’s splendid’. Mind you, these words were a real compliment from that secretive gentleman. He was a six-cylinder man but switched to a 409 later and was mightily impressed by it.
Its sales were not helped by the fact that in 1966 many considered the 409 old-fashioned also from the technical point of view. In a world that had been shattered by the antics of the fashionable front-wheel-drive Mini and fascinated by rear-engined exotics like the Lamborghini Miura, the 409 proudly sported a massive chassis of pre-war design, rear-wheel-drive, a live rear axle and a huge American-sourced pushrod V-8, specifications that conjured to give the impression of an outdated bruiser. But its recipe was in fact perfectly calibrated to fulfil the needs of its ideal customer, the wealthy, London-based gentleman of slightly eccentric (and fiercely individual) taste. Its body is hand-beaten from aluminium panels, its large reclining seats being covered in Connolly’s finest to convey the ambience of a classic drawing-room; the instrumentation is extremely generous and, thanks to the ingenious moving of the spare wheel and battery in the vanes aft the front wheelarch (a peculiarity of Bristols since the 404), the boot is indeed cavernous. The styling, understated to the point of looking bland, was perfect for blending in the London landscape without glamour nor aggression. ‘To be truly elegant one should not be noticed’, was allegedly Beau Brummel’s most famous quip, and Bristol, in their V8 range, went to this concept with hammer and thongs from the 406 to the first 411, the 409 being one of the most elegant (read: understated) cars of the family.
Being the third iteration of the Bristol V8 range, the 409 benefitted from the experiences gathered on the 407 and 408. Engine cooling was therefore less of a problem, though the innovative twin Kenlowe electric fans are not always up to the task of keeping under control the calories irradiated by that huge iron-block V8, and performance was extremely good, thanks to the 240 cv (SAE) of its V8. Its 132 mph top speed was formidable in 1966 and is still very satisfying today, especially because reaching it does not require any special effort, due to the smooth changes of gear of the new Torque-Flite box and the excellent road manners of its well-developed chassis. As it fits its image of a splendid long-range, high-speed cruiser, the 409’s comparatively soft springing, generous interior space and 16” wheels make it also very comfortable even by today’s standards, especially when its sophisticated (and now extremely rare) ‘Selectaride’ rear dampers are working like they are supposed to. In terms of silence one cannot say that it still compares favourably, as LJKS put it, to ‘a well-carpeted morgue’ but any other classic of those years was either much more expensive (Bentley, RR) or much noisier (everything else.)
When buying a 409, one must look for the usual weak points of every hand-made thoroughbred, and having a complete one with matching numbers engine/chassis is very important. The rear shock absorbers mounting bracket is an infamous weak point, as is the condition of the radiator; some electrolytic corrosion may have damaged the aluminium skin where the fabric insulator strips have broken or disappeared. The drivetrain is usually quite strong, though one must tolerate a failure of the gearbox or engine or both after 50 years, most of whom might have been spent in a barn. Finding a Selectaride-equipped car is very rare nowadays, which is a pity. Most drivetrain parts are readily available for USA suppliers like Summit Racing at very good prices; other spares can be supplied by Bristol Cars and renowned specialists like Spencer Lane-Jones.
At the end, the 409 was in fact what the Bristol connoisseur was (and still is) asking for, and Tony Crook was eager to provide: a fast, luxurious, bespoke four-seater with superb performance and comfort. But its high price and understated styling meant that not many wealthy buyers could be found, and the production of this British masterpiece ended after less than 2 years with 73 units built as listed in the BOC Cars List. As Classics & Sportscars wrote (admittedly about the 406, but it fits perfectly the 409 as well) in 2000: “This is a car for the connoisseur, someone who will appreciate for what it is – an idiosyncratic, infuriating yet utterly intoxicating blend of almost Bohemian variety. Ideal transportation for the charming eccentric with no love of committees.” Amen.
* Price quoted by ‘Motor’ in 1966