1954 BRISTOL 403

Background

"This [the 403] is a car which is built almost regardless of cost with the sole purpose of providing the sporting driver with all the performance he wants - in luxury.” The Light Car magazine, December 1953.

With the introduction of the 401 - the first of its exquisitely styled aerodynes - Bristol began to move away from the pre-war design the company had inherited from BMW.

Carrozzeria Touring provided the Superleggera method of body construction that overlaid alloy panels on a lightweight tubular-steel framework, while the low-drag shape was achieved after hours of experimentation in the Bristol Aeroplane Company's wind tunnel.

The 401 continued to use its predecessor's running gear and BMW-based, 2.0-litre, six-cylinder engine with its ingeniously arranged, pushrod-operated, inclined valves. The gearbox remained a manual four-speed unit with first-gear freewheel.

With the introduction of the 403 in 1953, Bristol improved on what was already an exemplary Grand Tourer, the newcomer's apparently unchanged appearance disguising a number of important changes.

The engine remained a 2.0-litre six of basically BMW design but the alloy cylinder head was new and helped liberate 100bhp, up from 85. The increase in straight-line performance (top speed was now in excess of 100mph) was matched by improvements to the running gear in the form of a front anti-roll bar and finned light-alloy brake drums.

The Bristol 403 was manufactured from 1953 to 1955 by the Bristol Aeroplane Co., which later became Bristol Cars.

Only 287 403s were ever made.

As with its predecessors in the 400 series, it had the highly distinctive ‘aerodyne’ shape that helped it slip through the air like an oiled otter through a carp pond.

In common with all the early Bristols, it was way ahead of its time when it was launched and was fabulously modern - in design, in engineering and in features.

Even 68 years later you can still see the imagination of the aircraft designers and visionary engineers behind the aerodynamic, flowing, sculpted aluminium body, push-button doors, internal bonnet/boot releases, fresh-air or recirculated heating/ventilation, automatic reversing lights, multi-adjustable seats and alloy petrol tank.

It must have made other cars of the time seem positively antiquarian.

It looks like a car that’s been designed by people who’ve never been shown previous examples of what a car looks like, where the levers and switches are ‘meant’ to be and how things usually work.

It’s been conceived and built from first principles and on the basis that conventional wisdom is there to be challenged.

And it’s all the better for that, in our opinion.

Powered by the legendary, BMW-derived pushrod straight-six ‘328’ engine,

the 403 was a revelation in terms of performance and handling. Capable of 106mph in an era when very few cars were, the car’s low weight, supple suspension and light steering gave it remarkable degree of agility, sophistication and liveliness.

In our opinion, this could very well be the most expertly, comprehensively and expensively restored Bristol 403 in existence.

It is, quite frankly, in extraordinary condition and is a revelation to drive.

It’s very special indeed.

The Vehicle

This beautiful 403 is the result of a painstaking restoration - exterior and interior by Classic Restorations (Scotland) Ltd, engine and mechanicals by INRacing of Nottingham – which was carried out between 2018 and 2020 and cost over £160,000.

Yes, you read that correctly.

A look at the paperwork with the car (and there’s a vast amount of it) will show you that this car was winning concours competitions BEFORE the restoration work started.

That level of excellence would be enough for most people, but then the vendor really isn’t ‘most people’.

He took the car to Classic Restorations who pointed out that, in the world of concours, beauty is sometimes just skin deep.

Their investigations revealed that underneath the superficial good looks lay all manner of structural and corrosion issues.

The vendor decided that while these issues were being rectified, he might as well instruct Classic Restorations to also undertake a full nut and bolt restoration, inside and out, of pretty much everything on the car.

The car was taken back to bare metal, all panels were repaired, new sills were fitted, all chrome work and wood was refurbished, and the car was repainted in its delightful shade of lavender blue.

He applied the same ‘no expense spared, no stone left unturned’ philosophy when instructing INRacing on the engine and mechanicals restoration.

The engine was completely stripped and rebuilt with a new block, pistons, cylinders and uprated carbs. An overdrive was added to the gearbox and a front disc brake conversion fitted.

And, of course, absolutely everything else mechanical was restored, refurbished or replaced as appropriate.

We have driven the car and can report that it starts, goes and stops far better than anyone might reasonably expect of a 68 year-old car.

The steering is predictable, accurate and relatively light. The acceleration builds momentum with ease. The car is balanced, poised and nimble.

Everything feels solid, honest and properly screwed together.

These cars were hand-built bespoke cars constructed to the highest quality by exceptional craftsmen and engineers.

Chaps called Claude and Godfrey who smoked briar pipes and wore tweed jackets with lots of pens and micrometers sticking out of the top pockets.

We think they would be particularly impressed with this one.

All in all, it is a joy both to behold and to drive.

On the Outside

The gloriously curvaceous panels are free of any dinks, dents, scuffs, scratches, warps or folds.

The lavender blue paintwork is in excellent post-restoration condition and has a deep, rich lustre to it.

The shut-lines and door gaps are, crisp, even and consistent.

The bonnet, by the way, is another typically Bristol innovation, in that it opens sideways (apparently for safety reasons) in either direction.

The restored chrome work is bright and shiny, as is the badging.

The wheels, are in fine fettle, as are the matching tyres.

The kidney-shaped twin grille (the 403 was the last Bristol to feature the BMW-style grille) looks immaculate, as do the bumpers, front and rear.

The push-button door openings look good and the driver's side works exactly as intended, but the passenger door currently does not open. As far as we can ascertain, all exterior lights work, as do the wipers and the trafficators.

The boot, which also has no door handle and can only be opened internally from behind the rear central armrest, is a thing of beauty from the outside and gives the car a delightfully sleek and sensuous silhouette perhaps more reminiscent of the art-deco period than the 1950s.

Below the boot is the spare wheel (which is in good nick) in a drop-down tray.

The undersides of the tray retain the original lavender paint.

Even entirely standard stone chips and road-rash are conspicuous largely by their absence.

On the Inside

The time-warp condition continues on the inside, where everything looks pretty much showroom-fresh and "as good as new".

The blue leather upholstery is comfortable, supportive and functional. It is in really very good condition both front and back.

The door cards are equally untroubled by time or use, as is the headlining.

The carpets are so unused and new that they are still ‘pilling’.

The carpet around the gear lever and along the transmission tunnel has one or two loose threads showing through in places.

The wood and veneers on the dashboard are as sumptuously rich and glossy as anything you’d find on a Sheraton side table.

All of the dials, instruments, buttons, knobs, levers and switches are in excellent condition and, as far as we know, they all do what they’re supposed to do.

Even the Bristol-logo-embossed rubber covers on the pedals look fabulous.

The sun visors and rear screen visor are, typically, unlike anything other, lesser manufacturers might have considered.

They roll out like blinds – to a length of your choosing – and they are, of course, in irreproachably good condition.

Open the doors and you’ll see door hinges that look like they’ve been borrowed from a bank vault and sills that appear to have come straight from the fuselage of a bomber.

There is a small scuff where the paint has rubbed away inside the door jamb on the driver’s side

The boot is in excellent condition. Lifting up the carpets here or elsewhere on this car reveals…nothing to worry about whatsoever.

Underneath

The undersides look solid, honest and full of structural integrity. We weren’t expecting anything less.

The engine bay is of its time (and is a uniquely Bristol thing) and everything appears to be clean, tidy and in its right and proper place.

Despite having the car running & driving sweetly, multiple times since its arrival to our HQ, we are currently unable to start the engine. The could very likely be due to a lack of fuel, but since the fuel release is inside the passenger door shut (which currently is not opening) we cannot add more fuel. This is an issue for the eventual winning bidder to rectify, though it should prove to be relatively simple for someone with the right skills.

History Highlights

This RHD car was exported new to France in 1954 where, we’re told, it lived happily in and around Lyon for much of its life.

It was imported back to the UK (by Bristol Cars Ltd) in 2001.

Shortly before returning to the UK it was painted red (except for a bit they missed under the spare wheel tray), only to be repainted lavender blue some time after its return to these shores.

This car comes with more history than the Parthenon.

Every penny of the £162,847.87 that we added up from the invoices is accounted for and documented.

The massive history file also includes all manner of correspondence (including letters from Anthony Crook), articles, tax discs, MoT certificates, entry details for London to Brighton rallies and concours events, and loads of other stuff.

This Bristol 403 doesn’t have a current MoT certificate, though it is of course exempt due to its age.

If you’d like to inspect the car prior to placing a bid – something we always encourage – then please use the Contact Seller button to arrange an appointment at our Abingdon HQ.

What We Think

Early Bristols eschewed air-conditioning because, to quote Jay Leno paraphrasing an owner’s manual, it would mean missing out on the charming pastoral smells as you drove through the English countryside.

Bristols are every bit as eccentric as the people who own, drive and love them.

And we mean that in a good way.

They are an important and highly influential part of Britain’s automotive history.

This very special 403, we feel confident, is as good or better than it was when it left the factory at Filton in 1953.

And that’s saying something for a marque whose automotive products, almost uniquely, were engineered to the far more exacting standards of the aeronautical industry.

This car has had almost limitless amounts of dedication, expertise and money lavished upon it.

All the heavy lifting has been done – leaving you with the enviable task of simply enjoying it.

We like it a great deal.

We are happy to offer this car for auction with an estimate of £40,000 to £60,000.

Viewing is always encouraged. This particular car is located with us at The Market HQ near Abingdon; we are open weekdays between 9am-5pm, to arrange an appointment please use the Contact Seller button at the top of the listing. Feel free to ask any questions or make observations in the comments section below, or try our ‘Frequently Asked Questions’.

If needed, Footman James classic car insurance and Classic Concierge offer storage options plus we have a list of contacts who can help with transport and shipping.  

BORING, but IMPORTANT: Please note that whilst we at The Market always aim to offer the most descriptive and transparent auction listings available, we cannot claim they are perfect analyses of any of the vehicles for sale. We offer far greater opportunity for bidders to view, or arrange inspections for each vehicle thoroughly prior to bidding than traditional auctions, and we never stop encouraging bidders to take advantage of this. We do take a good look at those vehicles which are delivered to our premises for sale, but this only results in our unbiased personal observations, not those of a qualified inspector or other professional, or the result of a long test drive.

Also, localised paint repairs are common with collectable and classic cars and if they have been professionally carried out then they may be impossible to detect, even if we see the car in person. So, unless we state otherwise, please assume that any vehicle could have had remedial bodywork at some point in its life.

Additionally, please note that most of the videos on our site have been recorded using simple cameras which often result in 'average' sound quality; in particular, engines and exhausts notes can sound a little different to how they are in reality.

Please note that this is sold as seen and that, as is normal for used goods bought at auction, return policy does not apply. See our FAQs for more info, and feel free to inspect any vehicle as much as you wish.

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Seller

GraemeJ2474

  • Location: The Market HQ, Abingdon, United Kingdom
  • Seller Type: Private
  • Odometer Reading: 13471
  • Chassis Number: 403/1463
  • Engine: 1971
  • Gearbox: manual
  • Steering position: RHD
  • Colour: Lavender
  • Interior: Blue
  • Estimated Price: £40,000 - £60,000

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