The magic of Molsheim or the experience of a Bugatti enthusiast
Photographic Studies by LOUIS KLEMANTASKI
My introduction to Bugattis was caused by a gradual awakening to the deficiencies of my first four cars: the first three, a Salmson, Cup Model Austin and twin-camshaft G.P. Salmson, did much to improve my knowledge of engineering, but little else, as call be shown by their fates: the scrap-heap through repeated big end maladies, a broken crankshaft and a ditch, respectively. My final disillusionment came in the form of’ an almost new M.G. Magnette, which whilst being an admirably reliable touring car, so shook my faith in speedometers that I have disconnected them ever since.
One spring, whilst I was suffering from my annual attack of Bugatti-fever, I encountered N. A. Blount, who had just had a regrettable meeting with a New Forest pony; the radiator of his Type 43 had suffered, which necessitated an immediate journey to the late L. G. Bachelier’s garage at Wimbledon; the delightfully friendly atmosphere there, and the immaculate line-up of Bugattis convinced me I would succumb, after four years’ resistance. The result was a visit to J. Lemon Burton where after much searching we found our objective: a Type 37 Bugatti (four-cylinder 1½-Iitre G.P.) modified with a full-pressure lubrication system, which my experience already demanded. After a discreet interval of three or four days, during which we came to a common understanding as to the respective values of an M.G. Magnette and a Type 37, I called to take delivery of my first Bugatti.
It was a great event and was suitably celebrated by driving the G.P. across London in the evening rush hour: the Marble Arch witnessed my first plug-change, and seemed quite reasonably impressed.
There followed a period of normal use on the road, which provided many thousands of miles of enjoyment, and an insight into the Molsheim sense of humour. I also learnt, what I had long suspected, a sad lack of skill being a common deficiency in the average garage mechanic.
In July1937 I found myself on A5 (now of glorious pre-war memory) en route for Donington, to compete in my first race. Tragedy—the G.P. gearbox, already the delight of my heart, which had withstood all my initial onslaughts without a tremor began to fade on the journey up, third gear showing a marked disinclination to remain in mesh above 3,500 r.p.m. With the optimism of the complete novice I retired to bed in Donington Hall, hoping against hope and completely thrilled. The next morning dawned raining gently, to add to my anxiety. An R.A.F. friend and I slipped the lid off the gearbox before practice, but had to replace it sadly, much wear having obviously made the third gear pinions beyond help. Enthusiasm could not be damped, so replacing the lid, we started up. Even holding a steadily deteriorating third gear in mesh could not rob me from appreciating to the full my first experience of a road circuit. I shall not forget those first few practice laps, though everything conceivable caused trouble through my lack of experience in preparation. We finished our qualifying laps with no more memorable happening than nearly departing backwards through the hedge at Coppice corner, through endeavouring to leave a following 2-litre G.P.; he seemed very amused! It was all to little purpose—third gear was by now non-existent, so I had to fill the role of spectator.
A further spell on the road and one speed-trial followed, during which we noticed the depressing frequency with which the oil-pressure relief-valve had to he screwed down to maintain pressure— it was quite true, big ends again, even on a Bugatti . Fortunately, at that time I was finishing my flying training by taking ground engineer’s licences, so I decided my education would benefit by completely overhauling the car in the shops. I had the hope that it would be in my power to create a Type 37 that would never give trouble again. [Not the first young man with such ambitions!—Ed.] This overhaul was carried out with extreme thoroughness, my lack of experience causing me to neglect one item, the fitting of special exhaust valves. Christmas found my creation on the road with two new carburetters, new manifolds, a re-ground crankshaft, new main bearings, and new big ends, rings and valve-guides, polished ports, etc. Boxing Day was spent searching for correct carburetter settings, which would not necessitate a tow to start, and my leave finished with about twenty people push-starting me in snowstorm after a dance at Folkestone; the drive back to London in “tails” behind a solitary aeroscreen being the climax of an experience only a Bugatti owner can appreciate.
April, 1938, found Derek Eveleigh and I on A5, loaded up with jets, plugs and benzole cans, determined that my “1½” should be successful at last. Watling Street still possessed all its narrow humpbacked bridges, including that level crossing where the signalman watches for the unwary with malicious delight. A splendid dinner of beer, steak and Stilton fortified us for the last stretch after Ashby, where every corner seamed charged with the atmosphere of Donington, the rising whine of the Bugatti indirects pure intoxication. . . Practice in the sun the next morning confirmed my fears that I should be a Bugatti addict for life. Carburation and plug problems were quickly settled. A six-lap scratch race which followed gave my old car the chance she desired, and I finished in third place behind C.W.P. Hampton’s Mercedes; Hampton exercised admirable restraint over engine revolutions in allowing my car to pass him each lap on the “Hump” before descending the hill to the new Melbourne corner. Fracture of a remote control lubrication cock provided an unusual reason for retirement in the next race.
In May the regulations at Donington provided a golden opportunity for overcoming my more modern competitors, as freedom of fuel was accidentally allowed in the scratch sports car race: “Mr. Shell” was promptly consulted and he produced a most potent dope. This resulted in a metamorphosis, practice leaving me with rosy dreams that my ambitions might be realised. The race brought hard reality. On the second lap Bailie Hill’s H.R.G., a supercharged Magnette and my Bugatti accelerated out of Melbourne together; we were abreast all the way up the slope, my engine producing more power on third gear than ever before. Alas, a broken exhaust valve can do a lot of damage; in this case it ruined the block, piston and inlet valves. . . . C. I. Craig kindly towed me home, his “4.9” Bugatti sitting proudly on the lorry, conscious of having leapt as high in the air as any G.P. Mercedes on the crest of the hill by the pits. I have little doubt George Bachelier, the passenger, will consider this an understatement.
A matter of a transmission which had always been slightly out of line, plus the “oddness” of my engine, which was causing ghoulish delight to the casual loafer in Craig’s garage, convinced me that a change of Bugatti would not be out of place, especially as I now had insufficient spare time to do the work myself. Fortunately, a Type 43 (supercharged 2.3-litre, single cam, eight-cylinder) was standing alongside my tired 1½-litre, so after a very brief interval of mourning, I drove out in the “2.3.” This car, whilst not delighting the eye in the manner of the old perfectly proportioned G .P. possessed real soul-satisfying performance right from the start, without any special tuning or maintenance; the drawback was the touring body and the rather slow and clumsy gear-change, which proved extremely disappointing after my G.P. gearbox, which always appeared to be above praise. The summer was spent working hard to recuperate my deplenished exchequer, my desire to race my new possession being firmly curbed. “Vintage” meetings at Lewes and Prescott saved my reason and conscience, and provided me with intense surprise that an unprepared Type 43 could be successful in Open as well as Vintage Classes.
Winter gave me the finest advertisement a Bugatti could wish, “Tuthree” providing regular transport between Heston and Croydon during a six months’ spell on the Berlin night mail service. Visualise landing at Croydon at about 05.30 on a frosty morning, exchanging a few sarcastic words with a sleepy Customs official, and then jumping straight into a Bugatti which has been standing for thirty hours in the open. (I think I can assume that it is generally agreed aerodromes are quite the coldest and draughtiest places available for parking.) Pressure is pumped up, the engine doped, blower-cock turned on, a touch of the starter and, “Wrreuph — Wrreuph — Wrreuph” — the car is firing evenly on all eight cylinders. We warm up for a brief period and then commence our thirty-mile journey home. Along the Kingston by-pass the whine of the supercharger rises clear above the exhaust as the car accelerates hard above 90 m.p.h. before cutting for each round-about—”Rreuph”—third gear, “Rreuph”—second gear, an odd assortment of tyre complaints and we are round, accelerating hard for the next corner. That was living; just a delightful, unbelievable dream now. . .
On the strength of such amazing reliability, I entered “Tuthree” in four races in the 1939 Stanley Cup Meeting at the Crystal Palace. This fixture provided enthusiasts with the best amateur racing possible, from a Bugatti owner’s point of view. My entry demanded careful preparation as the car had now covered 11,000 miles with little maintenance and no repairs or overhauls. Unfortunately, I was too busy to attend to the preparation myself and it had to be left to a garage. The initial conversion of “Tuthree” for sports car racing consisted of a careful top overhaul, new rings, brake cables, steering-ball joints and many incidentals. Cycle-type wings and twin straight-through exhaust pipes were also fitted.
The car was collected one cold, dark night, all old G.P. impressions being revived as I sat behind the shapely bonnet, seeing the whole of both shadowy wheels in front. My pulse rose as the crackle of the unsilenced exhausts mingled with the familiar supercharger whine. Our racing “expert’s” knowledge of carburation proved superficial, so I undertook this work myself, spending two very pleasant 5 a.m. mornings on a certain section of the Great West Road near Slough. Three miles almost dead straight provide perfect facilities for carburetter-tuning and safe speed, and soon showed up a slight tendency for the float chamber to run dry. Press of business prevented this being properly rectified before we proudly arrived at the foot of the incline leading to the paddock gates. Here the question was forever settled as to whether I, like my Bugattis, am temperamental; the provocation of watching a lorry complete with racing-car run back on to one’s own entry is considerable; the damage was only superficial. . . .
Practice produced a racing phenomenon I had never encountered before, in the form of an attractive pair of overalls in the neighbouring pit; unfortunately, the overalls persisted in questioning me as to why I was not a member of the Bugatti Owners’ Club (the fact that I had made the charming discovery that my carburetter float-chamber was running dry, fifty yards before my braking-point on both straights, irrespective of air-pressure used, did nothing to sooth my replies). The pair of overalls is now my wife and the owner of “Tuthree”; incidentally, I find I have also become a member of the desirable club in question. The gods of racing surely possess a sense of humour!
The first race saw “Tuthree” sitting in a dignified position on the scratch mark, watching a procession of small cars ten to twelve years her junior scamper away. We made a good getaway, the needle of the rev, counter rapidly revolving to its customary 5,200 r.p.m. position. The change to second gear came through with unaccustomed ease and the reason was obvious as I free-wheeled to rest with a gear-lever in my hand. The “Phenomenia” then regrettably appeared again, and suggested that I rammed a small box spanner over the selector in lieu of a gear-lever. I carried out this diabolical suggestion, with the result that I ran in the next two races using third gear only, the “2.3” handling marvellously in spite of its complete lack of a gearbox. The surface of the Palace suited the car extremely well, the rigidity of the chassis and perfect road-holding making the evolutions of a certain modern English sports marque seem somewhat unnecessary. The winding gradient up to South tower was the height of desire. Derek Eveleigh (whom I regret exceedingly has since been killed in a flying accident) had by now secured a new complete top for my gearbox by paying a rapid visit in his B.M.W. to “Craigs.” As a result of this excellent example of borrowing, we started on the last eight-lap scratch race with four gears instead of one. It was not “Tuthree’s” day, for after a good start in third place, Mrs. Thomas (328 B.M.W.) passed during a “dry” carburation period on the seventh lap, to take third place, after I had seen her radiator draw level with my left shoulder about a dozen times on the short straights during the preceding laps.
After this meeting I at last met that “Admirable Crichton,” Arthur Baron; he quickly installed a G.P. gearbox for me and a transmission which turned out to be perfectly balanced, in spite of its somewhat peculiar shape; a fuel pipe of colossal dimensions was also fitted! A rendezvous was fixed with the Bugatti Club’s champion at Brooklands to test “Tuthree” thoroughly and discover if there were any further necessary modifications to be made. The tests were completely satisfactory, a consistent lap-speed of 98 m.p.h. being maintained with full road equipment. The G.P. gearbox altered the character of “Tuthree” out of all recognition, it now being a sprightly youngster just begging to be raced, and bearing no resemblance to the somewhat staid touring car I had purchased a year previously.
In May a visit was paid to Donington, resulting in a win from scratch in a handicap race, old “Tuthree” now being one hundred per cent. reliable, and reaching a comfortable 108 m.p.h. on the straight. I wish I could reproduce Donington’s atmosphere on paper: the long journey up in the dark after a hard day’s work, opening up at occasional intervals to shoot by one’s attendant car; snatched meals at lorry-drivers’ pull-ups; vigorous hammering on the gates of Donington Lodge with a copper clouter at 2 a.m., accompanied by the steady blipping of the Bugatti; the brilliant sunshine which seems to prevail on the lawn in front of Donington Hall for breakfast; the perfect air of peace, tinged with excitement; the marvellous winding “straight “; the agonised yelps tyres make as one brakes hard for Melbourne corner; the snatched gear-changes as one enters a corner rather fast, and the long gentle slide as one accelerates away. Elysium! Elysium, indeed! !
Alack, the sands were running out. June provided a non-start at Donington on account of business; July a visit to Lewes, where we were successful in Vintage Classes but outclassed in the Open category. “Tuthree” made a debut in the Ladies’ Class here. August produced another entry at Donington, but unfortunately I caught fire whilst flying the day before and spent my last chance to race in a French hospital. Kismet!
Came the war. “Tuthree” was now doomed to a period of retirement, being stored for the “duration,” but in April, 1940, there was a glorious lease of life. I called for him complete with the necessary trade plates, lent as a most acceptable wedding present by a friend, and the eight cylinders burst into song with little trouble after many months’ storage, happy in the possession of a tank full of Benzole and Discol. That day was a glorious blaze of colour against the drab half-tones of the present. The throttle was firmly depressed to produce the well-remembered note, only being eased in deference to Brighton’s inevitable police escort, who were allowed out of pawn to honour the passage of a child of Molsheim right through their town. “Tuthree” is now having an honourable future planned by my wife, who intends to build the complete engine, clutch, gearbox, axles, wheels, instruments and equipment into a G.P. chassis, to make a SUPER sports car.
Early in 1940 another flying crash in the unenviable capacity of second pilot provided me with time to commence plans for the future, who knows how far ahead. One snowy morning I called on Arthur Baron, who had just rebuilt the ex-Embiricos Type 55 (twin camshaft, 2.3 litres, eight-cylinder sports) and suggested that it was gross selfishness for any one man to own five Bugattis. Fortunately he agreed, so, after a pleasant demonstration-run on a frictionless surface, the Type 55 changed owners. The car was a pleasure to drive, the twin camshaft engine making acceleration from low speeds unbelievably better than on the Type 43, but I never drove far enough to become fully acquainted, the intention being to convert the car to a G.P. “2.3” with special transmission, “3.3” type body and numberless modifications. Arthur and I could never agree as to whether a pre-selector or G.P. gearbox should be fitted, which possibly was the beginning of the idea that it might be considerably cheaper and a lot less trouble to find a standard Type 51 (the normal G.P. model).
Throughout the spring this ideal became more concrete, especially as it seemed sacrilege to convert a Type 55, which has the most beautiful lines, even if they are rather too flowing for my personal taste. The decision was made, “Fifty-five” must go, even if possessed of acceleration bordering on E.R.A. standards.
A lengthy accidental exile flying in Central Africa prevented me from witnessing a lot of the humour in endeavouring to sell a Bugatti, preferably at a profit, in war-time. I missed the comedy of the Canadian who bought “Fifty-five” at a figure which would have made Ettore blush for my shame in extracting considerable profit from an enthusiast who desired the car so much that he left meals untouched, and could not sleep at night.
Unfortunately, our Canadian could find no insurance company to couple him with his beloved Bugatti, so “Fifty-five” returned home and we gained a friend. Being intrigued by another typical disciple who squandered three months’ rations in driving from Yorkshire, only to discover he loved his own Bugatti too much to change it, I returned to England by ship. At least, I started my journey in a luxury liner and finished in a very overcrowded cargo-boat, a tragic story which cannot be told here. My arrival in England was marked by the finale of our war-time “Sale,” when a well-known racing manager became so worried as to whether to buy “Fifty-five ” or to be sensible, that he overturned his Opel and settled the problem. This example of neurosis convinced my wife and I that it was time we really found a Type 51, and ceased endeavouring to profiteer by grace of Magic Molsheim.
The desired exchange was recently made when we towed “Fifty-five” to the stable of a famous unblown 3-litre Bugatti and returned triumphantly with the late R. O. Shuttleworth’s Type 51 (twin camshaft supercharged G.P. 2.3 litre, eight-cylinder) on the same tow-rope. Our wartime ambitions are achieved and “51” and “Tuthree” now stand side by side in a delightful old converted barn, eagerly awaiting the future.
In conclusion, I should like to pay tribute to my exemplary Fiat 500, which has given such perfect performance during the last twenty-four months, and to congratulate two clubs—The Vintage Sports Car Club and the United Hospitals & University of London Motor Club, on doing so much to help the impecunious amateur to commence racing. Thank you!