Why you’d want a Bristol 401-403
Bristol’s 401-403 was outrageously expensive for a 2-litre saloon in its day – only the likes of Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Lagonda cost more in 1949 – but it feels like a spacecraft in comparison to most of its contemporaries.
A stiff chassis, effective suspension, a smooth and powerful engine, plus a lightly built yet well-insulated body combine to make a car that feels taut, lively and sophisticated.
Some would argue that Bristols only went downhill from here, losing their streamlined styling, gaining weight and retaining ‘advanced’ engineering until it became archaic.
The heart of the car’s success was its pre-war BMW-derived hemi-head straight-six, a superb unit, intelligently developed by Bristol, that was sought-after for sports and racing cars at the time.
But Bristol made the most of it in the 401. The first 2-litre production saloon to hit 100mph, its all-aluminium body was exceptionally aerodynamic, helped by push-button door opening and internal bonnet/boot releases.
Bristol adopted Carrozzeria Touring’s Superleggera construction long before Aston Martin. Even the gauge of aluminium varied: 16 for the tops of the front wings and the bonnet, where pressure might cause dents in a thinner gauge, and 18 elsewhere.
Contoured, body-coloured bumpers with chrome inserts, mounted to the chassis via rubber blocks, were decades ahead of their time.
Other clever details include a bonnet that opens sideways (which is safer) in either direction, or can be removed by undoing a bolt, and a bootlid with a spring-assisted strut.
Early 401s even had Tufnol floor and engine bulkhead, later replaced by steel.
Where the alloy panel edges were wrapped around the steel tubes at the lower parts of the body, however, the sacking between gets wet and electrolytic corrosion can occur. Letting in new metal is the only cure.
The paintwork is critical, too: check that it has been done properly, not blown over (which will flake off).
The rare drophead 402 attracted Hollywood stars, early examples going to Stewart Granger and Jean Simmons.
In 1953 the 403 refined the idea, its engine boasting a stronger crank and larger valves, with greater oil capacity, to give 100bhp and power the car to 106mph.
It boasted fresh-air or recirculated heating/ventilation, automatic reversing lights, multi-adjustable seats and an alloy petrol tank.
Images: Tony Baker
Bristol 401-403: what to look for
See above for trouble spots
Check for a cracked block on the right-hand side; it costs c£2500 to repair.
Skimming the alloy cylinder head can drastically raise compression; listen for pinking and inspect for signs of overheating or head-gasket leaks.
If the radiator is more than 10 years old, it should be recored and the engine coolant passages cleaned out.
Steering and suspension
Both the steering and the suspension wear if neglected: look for signs that the one-shot lubrication works and has been used, and that the springs have leather gaiters.
Axle oil lubricates the torsion-bar link-arm pivot bearing; if it wears, the oil leaks out. This, plus rear hub leaks, can wreck the axle if left to run dry.
The drum brakes are okay on 403s (but fade on steep descents); 401’s are heavy.
Front discs and a servo can be fitted. Reproduction master cylinders vary in quality.
The Bristol-made gearbox is sturdy and can invariably be rebuilt.
Adding a compact J-type overdrive is worthwhile; the kit requires no chassis modifications.
The leather-upholstered seats are comfy and the front backrests can be set to four angles. A full retrim costs c£12,000 and the thickness of the factory hide is unavailable.
Instruments can generally be rebuilt if complete; secondhand ones can be found. Check the wood all matches and is good; replacement is relatively easy.
Bristol 401-403: on the road
The Autocar was hugely impressed by the 401’s comfortable 80mph cruising when tested in 1949, and by ‘handling qualities very much above the average’.
Only the heavyish brakes (improved on the 403) were criticised. Dunlop front discs (with servo) became optional on the 405 and are often retro-fitted on 401/3. A Coopercraft four-pot disc conversion is also available, but care must be taken to get the balance correct with the rear brakes.
Having a good engine is critical: rebuilds are costly. Check which unit is in place, because upgrading to later, more powerful ones is not unusual; 401s should have 85C engines and 403s 100As, but you may well find alternatives such as the 125bhp 100D2, the more torquey 2.2-litre 110-series or the 130-155bhp BS (Bristol Sports) motor.
The engine should be driven gently until warm – check that the vendor does – and when oil is at 70ºC, should show 60psi oil pressure at 3000rpm.
Well cared for, these sixes ought to last 100,000 miles between rebuilds. One-shot chassis lubrication (every 100 miles) needs checking to ensure that the pipes haven’t become blocked.
Some oil dripping is to be expected, but confirm that it is not leaking from rear axle hub seals, which are a pain to replace. Inspect the loom, because only two circuits are fused and it’s pricey to renew.
Semaphore trafficators are often replaced with flashing indicators – the function built into the spotlights and reversing lights to avoid adding extra lamps.
Bristols were built to take crossplies, but work well on Michelin X radials, Pirelli Cinturatos or Vredesteins. Heavy taxi tyres spoil the feel.
Bristol 401-403 price guide
- Excellent: £45,100
- Good: £36,200
- Fair: £21,100
Bristol 401-403 history
1948 Oct: 401 and 402 launched: 400 chassis and 85C engine, new, more spacious, aerodynamic Superleggera body (400 continues)
1950 401 Second Series: Brivadium dry liners in cylinder block, improved cooling, optional oil cooler, freer-flowing exhaust, plain (not pleated) leather seats, chrome inserts not rubber in bumpers, bigger lip over top of dash. 402 production stops (21 built); also 400 ends
1951 401 Third Series
1953 May: 403 replaces 401 (618 built): 100bhp 100A engine, front anti-roll bar, Alfin drums all round (later finned iron rear); 404 short-wheelbase 2+2 also launched
1954 Four-door 405 joins the family
1955 Final 403 (281 built); last 12-15 had 100B2 engine, CR up from 7.5:1 to 8.5:1, 105bhp, sidelights on top of front wings, rear reflectors
Venerable ohc ‘six’ in a leaf-sprung alloy-on-ash two-door saloon was refined, but lacked Bristol’s performance and modernity; also made as rakish Buckland tourer, DHC and four-door saloon.
Sold 1947-’58 • No. built 1129 • Mpg 20-28 • 0-60mph 19.9 secs • Top speed 80mph • Price new £1456-1636 (’53)
The 2.5-litre Riley ‘four’ wasn’t as smooth as the Bristol ‘six’, but was potent enough with light alloy bodies. Appealingly sporting, with great heritage.
Sold 1946-’54 • No. built 466 • Mpg 18-26 • 0-60mph 14.6 secs • Top speed 104mph • Price new £1726-1797 (’53)
Bristol 401-403: the Classic & Sports Car verdict
Respected for their exclusivity and quality, early Bristol cars are special – buy a good one and you will not regret it.
Beware down-at-heel cars – they were cheap for a long time and many owners couldn’t afford the high parts and repair costs.
Neglect of the body and engine lead to severe restoration costs, so choose a project with caution.
- Superb performance for a 1950s 2-litre
- Delightful details and quality throughout
- Practical for everyday use or long tours
- Comfortable and quiet, with fine handling
- Superleggera body is expensive to fix and paint
- Complex cross-pushrod engine is pricey to rebuild, and can disintegrate through age
- Specialist nature means costly parts and repairs
Bristol 401-403 specifications
- Sold/number built 1948-’55/920
- Construction steel chassis, aluminium body over thin steel-tube framework (Superleggera) welded to steel underbody
- Engine iron-block, alloy-head, cross-pushrod 1971cc straight-six, with triple Solex 32BI carbs; 85bhp @ 4500rpm-105bhp @ 5000rpm; 107lb ft @ 3000rpm-123lb ft @ 3750rpm
- Transmission four-speed manual, with synchro on top three and freewheel on first, RWD
- Suspension: front independent, by upper wishbones, lower transverse leaf spring; anti-roll bar on 403 rear live axle, longitudinal torsion bars, A-frame; telescopic dampers f/r
- Steering rack and pinion, three turns lock-to-lock
- Brakes Lockheed 11in iron drums f/r (403 Alfin front, finned iron rear, Alfin f/r on early 403s)
- Length 15ft 11½in (4865mm)
- Width 5ft 7in (1700mm)
- Height 5ft (1525mm)
- Wheelbase 9ft 6in (2895mm)
- Weight 2786-2814lb (1266-1279kg)
- 0-60mph 16.4-13.4 secs
- Top speed 94-106mph
- Mpg 19-28
- Price new £2976 (403, 1953)