Curbside Classic: 1953 Bristol 401 – Grey Eminence

Few marques have the mystique of Bristol. The uniqueness of their hand-crafted two-door cars (they only ever made one four-door model) produced in infinitesimal quantities for eons, initially using prewar BMW technology and later moving on to big Mopar V8s, makes for a unique trajectory in the automotive firmament. Add the aircraft connection and the dogged, against-all-odds independence of the firm, and only Morgan can rival them. Let’s examine their early work by way of their best-seller, the 401.

There aren’t too many Bristols about, as a general rule. Production numbers are hard to come by for the later V8 models, but they’re likelier in the dozens than the hundreds. As for the 6-cyl. cars, it seems that the 401, made between 1948 and 1953, was the most popular. It’s all quite relative, of course: 611 units (or 618, depending on the source) of the 401 left the Filton factory, including a couple of handfuls of rolling chassis.

One could add the 402 (above), a drop-top version of the 401 subcontracted to Abbott and only made in 23 units in 1949-50, to that impressive tally. And then there was the 403, essentially a slightly improved 401 made between 1953 and 1955 (281 built). All totted up, we’re almost reaching the thousand unit mark – almost common, in Bristol terms.

If this was Bristol’s best-seller in their early years, one might wonder how this business model was ever supposed to work. Yet it worked well, and for a very long time. Bristols were very expensive, very well engineered and very well-built, but these early ones, with their BMW-derived 2-litre engines, were not exactly rocket ships.

We’re talking about 90hp to haul a four-seater; the 401 couldn’t really reach 100mph and would take 15 seconds to go from 0 to 60mph. I realize that standards were different in the early ‘50s and 2 litres isn’t all that much to work with, but still. An Aston Martin, a Cisitalia, a Delahaye or a mere Jaguar XK120 were far more capable than the 401, and not as expensive – some by a long shot. But the snob appeal of the Bristol was without parallel, and amazingly remained so for over six decades.

But there was the aircraft-grade bodywork to take into consideration. What the 401 lacked in engine oomph, it tried to make up for in slipperiness and lightness. Bristol had asked Italian coachbuilder Touring for a prototype on their new chassis, with a view to get a licensing deal for the carrozzeria’s famous Superleggera (“super-light”) all-metal body-making technique.

Touring did provide the goods, but Bristol allegedly stiffed the coachbuilder and went with their in-house design, coupled with a reverse-engineered Superleggera tubular steel frame (though some of the structure kept on using wood, notably the roof) and aluminium body panels. After all, Bristol’s decades-long experience in aircraft and car bodies meant they had plenty of qualified craftsmen to manufacture their cars.

The 401/403 was the last Bristol to have had one-off bodies fitted from a wide variety of coachbuilders. The above examples, made between 1948 and 1954, do not constitute an exhaustive list. Clockwise from top left, these Bristol specials were made by PininFarina, Touring, Beutler and Ghia-Aigle — two Italian and two Swiss houses. This goes to show that, back in the ‘50s, a few Bristols were sold (and even bodied) in Continental Europe. Twenty years later, hardly any foreign sales were happening.

Of course, this was also a time when one-off bodies were still a thing. But the other motivating factor for some clients might have been the factory body’s appearance. Yes it was light and exceptionally well-made, but that front end takes a bit of getting used to. The words “graceful” or “beautiful” hardly apply, though “impressive” and “unique” certainly do. The BMW lineage is quite literally a bit on the nose, which must have caused some confusion, though the one-offs all respected the double-kidney theme. On the other hand, the rubber-mounted body-coloured bumpers, with a grille insert on the front ones, look like they came off a car two decades younger.

I must apologize for the Impressionistic quality of this photograph (also known as a bad blurry pic), but at least you’ll get some sense of the beauty of that cockpit. The aircraft vibe is still present, tempered by lush carpets, burr walnut veneer and Connolly leather of course. The car has to be light, but it does have to have some luxury to it as well. None of those vulgar painted dashes here – what do you think this is, an Alfa Romeo?

It looks a bit tight back there, but for a ‘50s two-door, this is pretty spacious. The headroom looks acceptable, too – not a given on fastback sports cars. All in all, the loveliest and most truly special cabin I’ve had the pleasure of seeing this year.

Eagle-eyed CC readers might have recognized the backdrop in these photos, as this 401 is kept by the British car collector in my general area, whose cars are scattered about a couple of blocks. Although most of his energies seem to be directed towards Rolls-Royces and Bentleys, he usually keeps his 406 (which I wrote up not too long ago) next to the 401 in his personal garage these days. Two 6-cyl. Bristols – now that’s a fantasy garage if I’ve ever seen one!

I have some misgivings about the Bristol’s front end. It’s a mite too long, bulbous and BMW-flavoured for my taste. But the interior is perfect and this tail end is just gorgeous, so it’ll be a fine photo to end this post with. I could watch this 401 drive away all day.


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Cohort Outtake: 1952 Bristol 401 – Timeless Elegance Of An English Spa Town, by Roger Carr

Automotive History: British Deadly Sins (High-Brow Hybrids, Part 2) – Bristol 603 / Britannia / Blenheim: Arrested Development, by T87