Jay Leno’s Bristol 403 Is “the Most British of British Cars”

In-period exclusivity often turns to modern obscurity when it comes to classic luxury cars. While the Citroen DS is fairly well-known, for example, not many remember Facel Vega’s well-appointed wheels. It’s a similar story for premium British marques. Jaguar, Aston Martin, Bentley, and Rolls-Royce are all prominent names. But the lesser-known subject of Jay Leno’s latest video may out-Brit them all: a 1955 Bristol 403.

The Bristol 403 is an overbuilt classic luxury car with aircraft ties

Like Saab and BMW, Bristol was originally an aircraft company before it started making cars, Hagerty reports. In fact, the British brand’s vehicles even used BMW engines, albeit modified to in-house specifications. Its first car, the 1946 400, has an engine from the pre-war BMW 328, Autoweek reports. And its body is a customized version of the 327’s design, Popular Mechanics reports.

After the 400 came the 401, which had a Superleggera-style aluminum-on-wood design sculpted in a wind tunnel. The 401 would later race in the Monte Carlo Rally and Targa Florio, placing 3rd and 2nd respectively. And in 1953, Bristol launched the 403 coupe.

A black 1953 Bristol 403
1953 Bristol 403 | Bonhams

Like the earlier models, the Bristol 403 has a 2.0-liter straight-6 engine based on the 328’s engine, Hagerty reports. It makes “just over 100 hp,” Silodrome reports, which admittedly doesn’t sound like much today. Ditto its 13.4-second 0-60 mph time and 104-mph top speed. However, for the time these were impressive numbers.

And the engine has 15 more hp than the BMW equivalent, Bonhams reports, and a full-synchro 4-speed manual. Plus, like the 401, the Bristol 403 is built in the Superleggera style, so at 2700 pounds, it’s fairly light, The Drive reports.

The red leather seats and wood dashboard of a 1953 Bristol 403
1953 Bristol 403 interior | Bonhams

The Bristol 403 has some upgrades and aircraft-like touches sprinkled inside and out. It may have drum brakes, but they have aluminum cooling fins. The suspension has leaf springs, but there’s a front anti-roll bar to improve handling. The 403’s gauges are vertical and easily-read, like the ones in airplanes, Autoweek reports. The dashboard is finished in walnut and features aircraft-style pull knobs. It doesn’t even really have door handles, just buttons you push to open the doors.

Jay Leno took a risk by buying his 1955 Bristol 403

While the Bristol brand is somewhat obscure, it’s one that several prominent journalists raved about in-period. Particularly one whose writing Jay Leno rather enjoyed, L.J.K. Setright, Hagerty reports.

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It was Setright’s writing that inspired Leno to seek out a Bristol of his own. He bought his 1955 Bristol 403 sight-unseen without a pre-purchase inspection because he wanted it so badly. Luckily, besides some minor smoking, it ran fine.

One thing Jay Leno’s 1955 Bristol 403 doesn’t have is A/C. That’s because the company wanted its customers to “enjoy ‘the pastoral smells’ of the British countryside,” The Drive reports. But for Leno, the lack of A/C isn’t a problem.

While the engine is a pre-war design, it still works “tremendously well,” Jay Leno says. And with its aeronautic-style tweaks, it’s very durable. Also, the hood can open from either side for easier maintenance. Plus, the manual has a freewheeling function in 1st gear. Meaning you don’t have to worry about the clutch if you’re slowing down to a stoplight.

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The aircraft-level quality continues inside. The switches, dashboard, and leather upholstery all feel solid. It’s also fairly roomy; four adults can comfortably sit inside with no issue. There’s even a pass-through for the trunk built into the rear center armrest.

Although the Bristol 403 isn’t fast, it’s an excellent long-distance tourer. Especially on two-lane backcountry roads. Jay Leno has spent, by his admission, hours inside, no problem. Seems like that risk paid off well.

Finding one today is tricky

In its day the Bristol 403 was fairly expensive; appropriate, given that it competed with Jaguars and Rolls-Royces. And in keeping with its understated image, the automaker didn’t advertise its cars much.

The rear 3/4 view of a gray 1953 Bristol 403
1953 Bristol 403 rear 3/4 | Bonhams

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As a result, the 403 is rather rare, though sources sometimes differ on the exact production numbers. According to Bonhams, Bristol made just 281 examples in the 1953-1955 periods. RM Sotheby’s, meanwhile, reports 287.

Interestingly, this rarity hasn’t translated to terribly-high market values. A good- to excellent-condition 403 can be found for $40k-$65k, Hagerty reports. A 1953 example went for $61,600 at an RM Sotheby’s auction in October 2020. And the few that have featured on Bring a Trailer have gone for less than $70,000. The hardest part is finding a certified mechanic and spare parts.

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