1953 BRISTOL 403


The late LJK Setright, that flamboyantly bewhiskered and knowingly eccentric doyen and grandee of motor journalism, regularly opined that Bristol made the world’s finest automobiles. (In later life, LJK bestowed the title of world’s best car upon the Lexus LS400.)

This was an opinion held by LJK Setright, all owners of Bristol automobiles and hardly anyone else.

And yet it’s the very contrariness of that opinion that is the key to understanding the quiet devotion to the marque shown by Bristol owners.

Ownership of a Bristol has always said something about the owner. It says that here is a free thinker, an iconoclast, a contrarian; someone who ploughs his or her own furrow, takes the road less travelled and is resolutely beyond the reach of anything as vulgar as fashion, fancy or whim.

Yes, for a similar amount of money in 1953 you could have bought a Rolls-Royce, Bentley or Lagonda, but to the Bristol-buying demographic these choices would have been too ostentatious, too caddish and too aggressive, respectively.

And, worst of all, you would have looked just like everyone else with a bit of money. You know, like some arriviste social climber with more cash than taste.

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

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.

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 an 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. 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 also 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.

Bristols are not and never were for the common herd.

They are for people who inherit their father’s Savile Row morning suit and their grandmother’s dinner service. They are bequeathed, handed down, entrusted.

Or they are bought by rock stars, actors, writers, artists, designers or other similarly one-off individuals.

They are not part-exchanged or parked on a dealer’s forecourt with a price stuck on the windscreen.

And Bristols are very rarely advertised for sale – which can make buying one something of a challenge.

So, the question is, do you feel it’s time to give external expression to your inner contrarian?

Are you ready and willing to join the ranks of illustrious Bristol owners and drivers past and present - people such as Jack Brabham, Paul Smith, Jay Leno, Richard Branson, Stewart Granger, Jean Simmons, Mike Hawthorn, Bono, Liam Gallagher, Stirling Moss and Tina Turner?

(We’re willing to bet those last two have never appeared in the same sentence before.)

If so, we can help you realise that noble dream with this magnificent 1953 Bristol 403.

The Vehicle

This car is in excellent overall condition and, while it’s some way shy of concours status, it is mechanically and structurally sound and has been sensitively restored, we think around about 2018, with an eye to preserving its authenticity and unique character.

These 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.

You can feel that heritage, pedigree and quality everywhere you look in this car.

No, it’s not perfect. There’s stuff to be getting on with. But from what we can see all the really heavy lifting has been done.

This is an honest, solid, authentic and original canvas for whatever fine tuning, finishing or fettling you feel compelled to undertake. If, indeed, you feel compelled to undertake any, because this car is eminently driveable (and enjoyable) today.

We’ve taken it out for a spin and, having driven quite a few cars of a similar vintage, we can say that it really must have been something of a revelation at the time.

It’s light and responsive to the touch: it handles with real balance and agility; it doesn’t have a steering wheel that’s bigger than something you’d find on the Cutty Sark; and it has plenty of pep and vim to offer from that fine engine.

The brakes, however, are pretty much what we’d expect from a 1953 car. You really do need to think ahead.

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

On the Outside

The gloriously curvaceous panels are largely free of any dinks, dents, scuffs, scratches, warps or folds. The maroon paintwork is in excellent post-restoration condition and has a deep, rich lustre to it.

The shutlines and door gaps are, mostly, crisp, even and consistent. The exception being the bonnet, which is sitting somewhat proud of the surround at present.

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

The chrome work is bright and shiny, as is the badging. The wheels, save for the odd nick here and there, are in decent fettle and the matching Michelin radial X ‘Taxi’ tyres look almost new.

The kidney-shaped twin grille (the most obvious nod to the car’s post-war involvement with BMW) looks good.

The push-button door openings look good and work exactly as intended. As far as we can ascertain, all exterior lights work, as do the wipers, which incidentally don’t seem to match, and the trafficators.

The boot, which also has no door handle and can only be opened internally, 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.

There’s the odd stone chip here and a spot of orange-peely paint there but, all things considered, it’s a fine looking car with no obvious signs of rust anywhere and, as far as we can see, nothing that needs doing other than a bit of cosmetic pampering and buffing.

On the Inside

The cream upholstery is in really very good condition both front and back, and the seats are comfortable and supportive.

The carpets and mats, too, are in far better nick than they should be for their age and, although they would thank the next owner for a thorough cleaning, they’ve got a few years of life in them yet.

In the main, the door cards are also holding up well. The gear lever (which is so long you’ll feel as if you’re holding the wrong end of a 3-iron) looks (and functions) as it should.

The surprisingly modern-looking two-spoke Bakelite ‘sports’ steering wheel is just the right size and manages to deliver steering with an unexpected degree of lightness.

The headlining and dashboard are areas that might thank the next owner for some elbow grease and a few quid. The former is past its best in several areas and is flapping loose at the rear. Some of the rear windscreen surround has also come away and is clearly past its sell-by date.

With the dashboard, some of the wood veneer has cracked and lifted and the whole panel looks a little desiccated. That said, we feel it could be at least partially restored/refinished as is and, in any case, replacements are not as expensive or hard to come by as you might think.

We’re reliably assured that these dashboards were never highly polished but had a rather more restrained satin-like finish. Professor Google seems to confirm this.

The delightful sun visors with their wire-braced fabric roll up and down as necessary.

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.

You’ll also see no rust to speak of.

The boot is sparse but tidy and reveals a corrosion-free aluminium deck beneath the carpet.


Overall, the undersides look surprising good for a car of this age and everything visible seems to have plenty of structural integrity.

The engine bay is of its time (and is a uniquely Bristol thing) but it’s clean and tidy with just the usual blooms of rust visible here and there.

New leads, cables and wiring bring a little modern colour to the scene. Everything appears to be where it should be and there is nothing we’ve seen in the photographs to raise a frown or prompt a tut.

History Highlights

This car has had four owners from new and has covered fewer than 77,000 miles in 68 years. It has only just managed 300 miles in the last 12 years.

As you can see, the car comes with a great deal of ‘before and after’ photographic evidence of the work it has had done to it.

This Bristol 403 doesn’t have a current MOT certificate, and while it is exempt by virtue of its age, we would strongly encourage the new owner to have the car re-MOT’d at the earliest. The cost of an MOT is a small investment when offset against the purchase and upkeep of any classic car, and it gives an independent, third-party assessment of the car’s condition, which not only provides reassurance to the owner (and any subsequent purchasers) but might also be invaluable in the event of a bump when negotiating with the police and any interested insurance companies…

If you are unable to come in person to inspect the car, then please give us a call and we can perhaps arrange a video call with you - honing in on any areas you’d like us to concentrate on.

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 car, we feel confident, is a fine example of a model that represents the heyday of the marque.

It is a worthy standard–bearer for the company’s commitment to engineering innovation and integrity, modernist aesthetics and superb workmanship.

We thinks it’s a good ‘un, and we’re more than happy to offer it for auction with an estimate of between £25,000 and £35,000.

Viewing is always encouraged, within Govt. guidelines of course, and this particular car is located with us at our premises in South Oxfordshire. 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, please remember we have a list of contacts who can help you with transport, shipping and/or storage.

IMPORTANT: Please note that whilst Bonhams|Cars Online 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 the vehicles 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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  • Location: Abingdon, Oxfordshire
  • Seller Type: Private
  • Odometer Reading: 76000
  • Chassis Number: 4031417
  • Engine: 1970
  • Gearbox: listings/auction-view.Manual
  • Color: Maroon
  • Interior: Cream

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