Meet Jay Leno’s 1955 Bristol 403

  • Originally solely an aircraft maker, Bristol began building cars after World War II. The aviation influence is seen in the 403’s sleek silhouette and smooth sheet metal.
  • Bristols are very high-quality cars. The interior of Jay’s 403 has an acre of wood for the dash, and the entire vehicle is immaculately constructed. Yet the Bristol is also understated, which is why Jay likes to call it the thinking man’s Rolls-Royce.
Date:22 May 2013 Tags:,

Jay’s 1955 Bristol 403 is a rare British coupe that represents the finest in English carmaking.

If you’re a serious car enthusiast, you may have heard of the Bristol, but unless you live in the UK, you’ve probably never seen one. The Bristol is a legendary sports car built in small numbers by a British aircraft company. I’d only seen pictures of these cars, but I’d read about them and decided I wanted one.

Last year, I spotted a late-model Bristol at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in the south of England, but I had never actually seen the most coveted model – a 1955 Bristol 403 – until the one I bought rolled off the transporter and into my garage.

Bristols were built by a subsidiary of the Bristol Aeroplane Company, which manufactured pursuit planes and bombers during World War II. After the war, British aircraft production plummeted, and the government didn’t want the company to go under. So it helped Bristol diversify as an automaker.

As part of winning the war, the British government could pick and choose German manufacturers it wanted to work with or even acquire. It looked at the Volkswagen plant and said, in effect, “We don’t want that car; it’s ugly. It’s not going anywhere.” Given the VW Group’s success today, that was a very expensive mistake. Instead, the Brits settled on BMW.

The UK sports car manufacturer Frazer Nash had already worked on BMW engines before the war, so Bristol bought the rights to the 328 engine from Frazer-Nash and BMW, and worked with them to refine it. Bristol started production in 1947 with the model 400, which combined successful elements of the pre-war BMW 326 and 328 models and used a slightly enlarged version of a custom 327 coupé body. Bristol built only a small number of cars each year, progressively improving the design.

The BMW 328 six-cylinder engine was very unconventional and advanced for the time. A single camshaft is located low in the block. A complex inclined valve train consists of 12 rocker arms and both short and long pushrods that cross over each other into a single cylinder head with big valves and hemi-shaped combustion chambers. The cylinders themselves are siamesed, meaning there are no water jackets separating them, and the cylinder sleeves touch. This makes the block short, rigid and compact. The engine revs very freely, and over time, Bristol was able to increase its output.

For the chassis, Bristol used its aircraft engineers and a lot of aircraft technology, such as a tubular-steel body skinned with aluminium. When you look at a Bristol, you have a sense of its aircraft origins. Everything is smooth. There are no exterior door handles. It’s very aerodynamic, which endears it to many pilots. Some people think the 403 looks like a giant Porsche 356 – except the 403 seats four adults quite comfortably. The twin-kidney grille is similar to grilles on BMWs of that era.

My 1955 model 403 is the fourth iteration and the best of the 403s, because it has the updated 100-horsepower (74,5 kW) engine. That doesn’t sound very powerful, but you’re not pushing much weight: only about 1 200 kilograms.

The motor is a 2-litre, but it feels like a 3-litre or even a 3,5-litre. My car easily goes 170 km/h. You can’t believe the engine is so small. Plus, it’s quiet and gets up to 9,8 litres/100 km. Before Carroll Shelby built the Cobra with a Ford V8, AC Ace roadsters used the same engine.

The oil pressure was low when my car arrived, so I turned it up a bit. Now I’ve got to replace the valve guides because the engine is a tad smoky. Ten or 15 years ago, you would have said, “It’s an old car, and it smokes a little”. But these days we’re more environmentally conscious, so we want to be more responsible.

If you’ve driven a lot of cars from the ’50s, the Bristol will be an epiphany. With its excellent aerodynamics, you feel like you’re freewheeling when you take your foot off the gas at interstate speeds. You just cut through the air. There’s hardly any wind noise.

It’s a very solid car, and it has that classic English wood dashboard with wonderful period gauges and dials. It’s funny when you read why they didn’t do certain things. For example, in the early ’50s, the Bristol did not have air conditioning because, to paraphrase the owner’s manual, you would miss the pastoral smell as you go through the countryside.

The Bristol has a nice amount of road feel; hardly any steering effort is required. But to really appreciate these cars, you have to drive them on the roads they were designed for. On a freeway at 110 or 130 km/h, the Bristol may not feel that different from other cars. But drive it on one of the fast two-lane highways that Britain built in the ’50s, where you cruise at 90 to 100 km/h, and you get a strong sense of connection with the road.

My 403 is usually the first Bristol most people here have ever seen, so they want to know what it is and where it was made. They think it’s a much newer car than a 1955 model. Some people even mistake it for a BMW. It’s understated and very sophisticated, like a Rolex watch or one of those high-end Holland & Holland shotguns – another great British product that has stood the test of time. Although Bristol was new to the car business, it attained a build quality that’s still impressive today.

Bristol remains a small automaker. Its cars are bought and sold in England with hardly any advertising, which is almost the exact opposite of the flamboyant Italian companies. The members of the Bristol Owners Club are all quite proud of the fact that their cars have hundreds of thousands of miles on them. The club has a programme that makes the hard to-get parts available to members. If you’re so inclined, you can even send your 50- or 60-year-old car back to the factory, and they will rebuild it for you as new. In fact, some of the same guys who originally built your Bristol are still there. I’m never going to restore my car, though. It’s got a wonderful patina, and it deserves to stay this way.


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