Best of British – Bristol 403

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Updated: January 3, 2019

This super-rare 1953 Bristol 403 was years ahead of its time in terms of construction, performance and aerodynamics, and remains a privilege to see on our roads.

We live in an age where luxury and exotic car manufacturers exploit the cult of exclusivity. Limited edition specials and tiny production run models have proved money spinners for the likes of Ferrari, Porsche, Aston Martin and Rolls Royce, where the super wealthy demand a model driven by only a select few on earth.

The idea is not a new one though. Bristol Aeroplane Company was England’s largest aircraft maker during World War II, but when peace broke out it had to put its machinery and expertise to new use. Bristol Cars was formed, and with the company’s aeronautical expertise, plus access to technical plans for BMW’s famed pre-war 328 model, it was little wonder its first effort – the Bristol 400 – was aerodynamic, graceful and with uncompromised build quality. Exclusivity was guaranteed too with these low volume hand-built tourers being similar in price to Rolls-Royce and Bentley alternatives.

Sydney born but having spent his formative years in England, and having a doctorate in aeronautical engineering, means Bristols are a fine fit for Chris Stafford. His graceful 1953 Bristol 403 was one of just 281 built, 40 of which were exported to Australia. With the 403’s aero shape, all-aluminium body built to aircraft standards of engineering and a top speed of over 100mph, these Bristols must have looked like spaceships at a time when post-war roads were awash with Morris 8s and Austin 7s.

Chris’ 403 is no less striking today. A curvaceous two-door grand tourer, it is elegant in a way no modern car can match. “Artistically it’s a wonderful expression of an almost art deco look with its aerodyne appearance,” Chris said. “I appreciate aerodynamics and the way these were wind tunnel designed, at a time when most cars were like driving a brick.”

Chris has owned four Bristols, and alongside this 403 he has a 1955 405 set for complete restoration, is building an AC Ace replica with a full Bristol drivetrain, and only recently sold his Bristol 407; the first of the marque to use a V8 engine.

This 403 uses a straight-six engine however, a modified version of BMW’s pre-war 1971cc overhead-valve unit, the same found in the 1940 Mille Miglia-winning BMW 328. With its new camshaft, head with larger inlet valves and triple Solex carbs, Bristol’s tuned engine was good for 100bhp and was the first Bristol to crack the 100mph mark. Bristol was proud of this feat and placed the registration plate MPH 100 on its show and test car, something Chris has mimicked with his Queensland plates.

“It’s a lovely cruiser and has no problem keeping up with modern traffic,” Chris said. “It particularly likes open roads without traffic, as does the driver, and the best drives we’ve had have been on the South Island of New Zealand and Tasmania.

The Bruce Highway’s a bit boring by comparison.”

The gearbox is a Borg Warner CR5 fourspeed – synchro on the top three ratios and a freewheel on first – which Chris says is beautifully constructed. “It’s reminiscent of some pre-war Alfa Romeo gearboxes. It’s very lightweight and splits into two so it’s easy to work on. Mechanically it’s beautifully designed, albeit rather complicated.”

The 403 was renowned for precise steering, quiet on-road manners due to the lack of wind noise, quality ride on the independent front suspension and torsion bar rear, and powerful enough brakes to shake off high speeds. “For long distance driving it’s like travelling business class,” Chris said. “But on winding roads with no other traffic around it urges you to try harder and go a bit faster around the next corner.

Steering is light, handling predictable and when it breaks away it tells you about it. You have to plan ahead for the hills though as if you need to keep the revs up.” Chris has done numerous rallies in his 403, preferring to properly enjoy his Bristol rather than tuck it away for polishing. In their day Bristols were sought out by race and rally drivers with deep pockets, and for good reason. In 1948 a Bristol won the Polish International Rally, while the next year at the famed Monte Carlo Rally a Bristol was first British car home and third overall. Special racing Bristol 450s took class wins and sevenths overall at the Le Mans 24 Hours in both 1954 and 1955.

Even without such on-road ability, the style justified the 403’s mighty price when new. Bristol looked to Italy’s Carrozzeria Touring’s Superleggera construction technique – used so famously later by Aston Martin – with different gauge aluminium body panels fitted to a lightweight steel framework. Such elegance simply can’t be found on modern cars, and was a strong factor in Chris seeking this car for his collection, which currently numbers 42 classics, mainly British.

“This car has the original guarantee from Bristol Motors in Kensington High Street, London, and I’d known the car for many years before I bought it,” Chris said. “It was owned by friends of mine in the Bristol Club, and then I eventually bought it from Paul Samuels, an ex-racer who developed Wakefield Park race circuit. It has been part restored a couple of times, but used as an everyday car when possible.”

The light green colour respray has been as closely matched to original as possible, and looks wonderful alongside the fine chrome detailing, BMW-esque twin front grille and chassis-mounted body-colour bumpers. Clever details include a bonnet that opens sideways in either direction – operated by an internal release button – and beautiful aero-inspired push buttons to open the doors. It keeps the car’s smooth aesthetics even more slippery, and again exudes class.

Chris said the 403 has proved pleasingly reliable, hence his faith in travelling long distances in the Bristol for rallies and classic events. “Nothing major has gone wrong with it, although it’s not the sort of car you treat like a Ferguson tractor. It needs to be properly maintained with the right parts, and as the Bristol company is still going, they have an outfit to get original parts. They’re very robust, they don’t often break, but you don’t try to cobble it up if it does break.”

The cabin is as exceptional as the exterior with fine Connolly tan leather, veneered timber dashboard and glorious 1950s Smiths black and white dials and instruments. The seats can be adjusted for comfort in numerous ways and apparently the heating system was one of the best of its time: qualities required for the well-heeled spending fortunes on these Bristols.

Being such a rare model and marque, Chris said the 403 always attracts attention on the road and at events. ‘Sometimes people wonder what it is and have a really close look at the badge. Those who know Bristols recognise it immediately because they’re so distinctive, while others confuse it for a Jaguar, Humber or something European. On the road the problem is people rubbernecking at it and not concentrating on their own driving!”

This incredible rarity of a car from another age looks just as mind-blowing today as it must have done in the 1950s. This 403 isn’t ready for retirement yet as it dazzles in the Australian sunshine, and Chris’ safe hands ensure it will remain that way for many years to come.