Jay Leno’s 1955 Bristol 403 Is the ‘Most British Car of All the British Cars’

For starters, it doesn’t have air conditioning so passengers can take in the “pastoral smells” of the countryside.

byMáté Petrány|
Jay Leno’s 1955 Bristol 403 Is the ‘Most British Car of All the British Cars’

Once the Allies of World War II had won, Bristol Cars was founded in 1945 as a response to the declining demand for the Bristol Aeroplane Company's aircraft. What's more, to get a jump start at this business, the British were also allowed to take the pre-war BMW 328's straight-six engine as war repatriation from Bavaria, along with the grille design that Bristol then used for a decade. The 2.0-liter Bristol 403 represents the final evolution of this borrowed technology, with Bristol's crew having hand-built just 287 units between 1953 and 1955. One of the 403's fans in America is Jay Leno, who bought his '55 over the phone, sight unseen.

Bristol produced cars for respected gentlemen who felt that driving a Rolls-Royce, a Bentley or a Daimler would be showing off. Operating from its headquarters on Kensington High Street, London, Bristol sold its cars pretty much through word of mouth, after having re-engineered the BMW bits to offer superior quality worthy of the brand's reputation. Made of more durable alloys and fed by a trio of Solex carburetors, the 403's 2.0-liter pushrod engine with the hemi head produced 100 horsepower, sent to the rear via a four-speed manual that engages freewheeling in first gear.

Thanks to its tubular Superleggera construction, the 403 is also light at just over 2,700 pounds. Couple that with Bristol's streamlined styling and flush door handles, and the result is a top speed of 106 miles per hour, along with quiet and comfortable cruising at highway speeds. To aid the leaf springs, Bristol also added an anti-roll bar to the front suspension while tossing on improved drum brakes known as "Alfins" due to their aluminum cooling fins. 

Inside, Bristol combined an aviation theme with materials recycled from old grandfather clocks. It also added a unique two-spoke steering wheel design, a dash featuring several flight-ready gauges, and windows that roll down completely instead of just sliding open—but no air conditioning. Apparently, this was so that passengers could enjoy "the pastoral smells" of the British countryside.

Sixty-five years later, it's Jay Leno enjoying the California climate in his understated luxury coupé, which is one of the most pleasant classics on top of being "the most British of all the British cars."

Got a tip on Solex carburetor jets for Mr. Leno? Send us (and him!) a note: tips@thedrive.com