Bristol 403
Brian Sewell looks back at a British classic with Italian style and hints of Germany
05 July 2005

Bristol 403

  It was by chance that I, then a student studying Rubens, first saw a Bristol 403 in Genoa, parked against the rusticated wall of a palace whose powerful princes had employed him as a portrait painter. The backdrop of heavy, rough-cut, aggressive masonry made the perfect contrast with this machine of gleaming smoothness in metallic grey; this line, this shape, this form, this abstract sculpture that reconciled the serenity of Modigliani with the fury of the Italian Futurists who had made a god of cars that sputtered flame from their exhausts, as they sped across the land that gave us the Renaissance.
How odd, I thought, that it should be a car from the land where the respectability of the Rolls resided in the razor's edge, and the lethargic trundling of the Austin Heavy 12 still influenced the family man when he chose his Wolseley or Rover. For this was a body that spoke, not of that upright English generation, but of the Italian affair with aerodynamics in the Thirties that had resulted in great Fiats (yes, great Fiats) and Alfa-Romeos. Later I learned not only that Carrozzeria Touring, the brilliant Milanese designer, had inspired the Bristol's body, but that it had worked on pre-war designs for the BMW 328, the very car on which all early Bristols were intimately based.
Should one then regard the Bristol as an Italo-German hybrid built in Britain only because the motor industries of Europe had been shattered by the Second World War? That would not be fair, for it denies the genius of those rare Englishmen who, more than half a century ago, recognised the superiority of the BMW engine, the aerodynamic efficiency of Italian coachwork, and saw in their combination the future of design.
The very first Bristol, the 400 of 1947-50, was very much a BMW, even to imitating the radiator grille. The second, the 401 of 1948-53, was the far-sighted Touring design that between 1953 and 1955 became the 403, the numerical sequence interrupted by the 402, a rakish convertible on the 401 chassis, of which only 23 were made for a celebrity clientele that included Jean Simmons and Stewart Granger.
When we speak of the 403, we discuss a design that reached back to the Milanese drawing boards of 1947. The Bristol's bonnet line is long, as was the fashion in those days, but the rounded nose with four proportionally balanced lights set almost flush, part-framed in upward-sweeping curves that flow into the wings, abandons the formal radiator flanked by headlamps. The wings themselves have such height and curvature that the eye can find no fault in their proportion, or in their easy mating with the engine-bay and doors, into which, in turn, they flow.
The large wheels are close-framed by round wheel arches - no ugly gaps, no mannerisms, no wavering of clarity and purpose for the sake of wayward style.
The beauty of this essential rightness of design is even more startling in the rear. There the groundplan, as it were, is almost semi-circular, and into this defining line are brought the downward curves of roof and wings, accommodating to perfection the frameless rear windows and the boot- lid. To gaze on this Bristol from behind is to contemplate a work of infinite abstract, aesthetic and sensual pleasure.
All this is essentially by Touring, one of whose prototype bodies survives. Comparison with the production 403 is intriguing, for it makes Bristol's interventions clear; these were in the hands of Dudley Hobbs who, in stripping the form of fussy detail, dramatically clarified the fundamentals of the design.
Did the 403's performance match its looks? With the BMW 2-litre straight-six engine tuned to give 100bhp at 5,000rpm, it was more sprightly than the 401 and could top 100mph, but the 0-60 sprint in 14 seconds and recommended cruising speed of 80mph (at 4,000rpm) now look leisurely. The fault lies in its weight; for all the body's aerodynamic subtleties, at a ton and a quarter to the 18cwt of the pre-war BMW, the engine was hard put to equal pre-war performance.
I once drove a Bristol 403 with Anthony Crook, high panjandrum of the marque, in the passenger seat; it was a mildly dismaying experience for a short man (as I am), for he sits low in the car and can neither see nor sense its nose and tail and flanks. I had just surrendered an AC Cobra, and the Bristol seemed ponderous in every comparison, its whippy gear stick, reaching far under the dashboard, particularly hateful (though many 403s have a shorter, floor-mounted version). On swapping seats, however, Crook - a tall man - made it seem a thing of period perfection.
But it is not what it does now or did when the first of 281 403s emerged into the light from Bristol's bottega - a term often used for a Renaissance artist's studio - that matters, it is the body; far more than any Cisitalia or Renault, the shell of the Bristol deserves to hang in great galleries of modern art. Many cars have, like prostitutes, been more immediately seductive, but none has been more purely beautiful.