Airplane Heritage Find: 1952 Bristol 401

I have heard the term “gentleman’s express” used to describe Bristols in the past. When an airplane company decides to build cars, they typically go their own route to some extent (ask Saab owners), and Bristol was no exception. This particular 1952 Bristol 401 is available here on eBay UK for 37,500 pounds ($48,376 as of today). It’s located in Brentwood, Essex, UK and we have Dik S. to thank for this unusual and cool find!

Think about the other 1952 cars you can think of; I’ll bet few of them are as aerodynamic as this one–the coefficient of drag is rumored to be in the 0.35-0.36 range and a lot was done to minimize frontal area as well. The car was last taxed in 1999, and has been stored carefully in a barn with a large collection ever since. The seller is convinced that it wouldn’t take a lot to put it back on the road; I’m not quite as confident but if you want one of these, there aren’t many opportunities–there were only 601 made between 1948 and 1953.

Of course, as with any somewhat elderly British car, a large portion of the attraction of the car is the interior. This one is no exception.

These seats have seen 80,000 miles, and I love the worn but intact look. A lot of work with hide food should make this leather soft again, and I’d try like heck to keep that original material.

Can you see the airplane “look” of the dash? That’s a very distinctive steering wheel as well. The company itself has been in and out of business several times, but right now exists at this site and can actually still provide parts for all Bristols. There’s also a great owner’s club here.

The Bristol 6-cylinder engine is based on the BMW pre-war six. It’s fairly small at only 2 liters, but made 85 horsepower even then. Apart from the abomination of an electrical connector just below the fuse box (sorry, I’m not a fan of those) the under hood area looks pretty good. Are you interested in recommissioning this cool classic?

Fast Finds


  1. RoKo

    Looks like a sporty version of an early SAAB

  2. Jay M

    Absolutely Gorgeous!!!

    -said no one ever…

    • Martin Horrocks

      You haven´t seen one, have you, Jay? These are indeed gorgeous.

      The clever aerodynamics and the detail are outstanding. The cars are very similar in shape and concept to the mould-breaking post war output of Pinin Farina and Touring on Alfa 2600C chassis, but better engineered..

      The only negative is in fact the engine. Fantastic quality unit, but at 2 litres lacks power for a heavy coachbuilt car. Once moving, the aerodynamics allow for excellent dynamics and touring, but no fireball at the lights.

    • Andy

      No one ever? I’m saying it right now. Also “said no one ever” is one of the most annoying sayings in the English language, even more so than “on Opposite Day!”

  3. Wade Treadway

    The side profile has shades of an E-type Jag

    • Howard A Member

      Hi Wade, that’s true, but the front screams BMW. Who copied who? And so soon after the war, remember, Britain took a pasting from the Germans. I’m surprised Bristol wanted anything to do with the Germans.

      • Andy

        It was part of war reparations. The first Bristols were even more BMW-like. There was a lot of this right after the war. BSA and Harley-Davidson​ both suddenly had small 2-stroke singles after the war, that seemed just about identical to prewar DKW’s, and the Kiev camera plant in Ukraine made cameras until the ’90s that were dead ripoffs of the prewar Zeiss Ikon Contax. In fact, rather than not wanting anything to do with German tech, the Allies recognized good German tech and couldn’t wait to steal it. Witness Operation Paperclip for a more political version.

      • Mark-A

        Actually thought I was looking at a BMW 507 in the first picture!

  4. Dolphin Member

    A certain amount of credit is due BWM for the Bristol 401—-the straight-6 hemi-head engine as mentioned in Jamie’s writeup, which is the dominant engine layout at BMW to this day. And this one has 3 carbs. Also the kidney grille openings.

    There is a lot of influence from Carrozzeria Touring in the overall body shape, but I think things like the recessed door handles are most likely the creation of aircraft designer/maker Bristol itself.

    Overall a very desirable saloon car from the early ’50s.

  5. Howard A Member

    Just an incredible car. I always heard Bristol’s were top shelf. The front has some odd styling, but an incredible car. We NEVER saw anything like this in Wis cawn sin, but I knew they existed. I couldn’t even imagine taking something like this on. I have to say, that is an unusual shifter, I imagine, the lever actuates a rod to the box.
    Btw, Jamie, I hate “Scotchlock” connectors too. I hope your collection is dry, I heard some flooding by you.

    • Jamie Palmer Jamie Staff

      I’m fine, Howard, but some other areas aren’t–thanks for thinking of me :-)

  6. Per Member

    There are several cars from the same seller. Some of them are special.1939 Panhard et Levassor X81

  7. jdjonesdr

    You’d never have to worry about running into yourself at a stoplight. I like it.

  8. glen

    The side view looks like a e-type on steroids.

  9. KEN TILLY Member

    Back in the day, about 1982, I was offered one of these beautiful 401’s in exchange for my 1969 BMW 2002. They were both 2 litre engines and the BM would drill the Bristol at the lights but that was all it was better at. I was as keen as mustard but the wife didn’t like the rear end, the 401 not hers, so it didn’t happen. The Bristol is now worth about ten times what the 2002 is here in UK. The BMW is long gone but if the swap had gone ahead I am sure I would still have the Bristol.

  10. Andy

    Bristols have fascinated me for a long time, even the more non-descript ones of the last 40 years. This one looks like a great combination of traditional British bespoke car building and postwar aero.

  11. Rich

    It’s in the town where I grew up! I think I used to see it out and about too.

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