C. W. P. Hampton, well-known member of the Bugatti Owners’ Club and Vintage S.C.C., and now a lieutenant in the Guards, continues the story of his 22 cars in 12 years’ ownership, and expresses a decided preference for Continental productions. The Editor and proprietor of this paper do not necessarily endorse his views.—Ed.
In 1937 I decided to have a crack at winning the Bugatti Owners Club’s Victor Ludorum Trophy, having been runner-up the year before; and with two Bugattis and the 1.5-litre Mercedes it wasn’t very difficult. I was also lucky in that Col. Giles, also after this Trophy with his Type 57 and supercharged 4.9-litre, had the worst possible luck, his cars going away during or just before the two major events. The first event (apart from the J.C.C. Opening Rally in February, where I gained a 3rd class award with the Mercedes) was the Monte-Honiton Rally. I covered about 1,100 miles, proceeding to Honiton via Aberdeen in the Type 55. The car gave no trouble at all, and, with my cousin as co-driver, we really “went to town” between some of the controls. One was the 118 miles from Doncaster to Newcastle, in the dark, in 2 & 1/4 hours, an average of 53 m.p.h.; and an average of 48 m.p.h over the not too straight 147 miles from Aberdeen to Edinburgh. We made fastest time of the day in the final hill climb, incorporating a stop and restart test, recording 57.54 secs. and finished second in the final classification to the Giles brothers, who had gone via John o’ Groats in the 4.9-litre. By way of a change, I entered the Type 55 for the Brighton and Hove M.C. Spring Cup Trial, and once again the car did its stuff and walked off with a 1st class award. The next event was the B.O.C. Half-day Trial around Surrey, and for this I entered the Type 49, much to my surprise making best performance of the day and fastest time in the acceleration test, beating, amongst others, Donald Munro in his 100 m.p.h. “Invicta”. I took this 3.3-litre to Paris for 10 days in April, and it behaved in a most impressive manner. It cruised happily at 65-70 m.p.h. all day and could easily average 50 and over in France, in any kind of weather. On the run down to Dover from my home at Effingham I covered 49 miles in the last hour; also, on the way home from Chantilly to Calais, 151 miles, at an all-in average of 51, covering 56 miles in one hour’s running. For the most part the roads were wet; but the car always felt just as steady as on a dry road. As a model it is quiet, extremely flexible and reasonably fast. Instantaneous starting in all weathers and absolutely 100 per cent, reliable, except that after about 40,000 miles it was inclined to oil up on No. 8 cylinder (two plugs per cylinder) in heavy traffic. Maximum speeds were approximately 65 and 86 m.p.h. on third and top, with powers of acceleration and top gear pulling at low speeds and on steep hills that would put most American cars to shame. Steering, cornering, etc., were fully up to Bugatti standards, and the brakes were good, but the springing was inclined to be hard at the front end. Petrol consumption averaged about 19 m.p.g. This model has the Type 55 gearbox and dry clutch, which, though equally noisy, is a great improvement over the smack-’em-in gears and wet multi-disc clutch fitted to the Type 43 and 3-litre Type 44. At 50,000 miles, just before I sold the car, I had it thoroughly overhauled, rebored, new pistons, crank reground, etc. The bearings were found to be in a pretty bad state of disintegration.
At the United Hospitals’ Meeting at Donington in May I ran the Type 55, securing a 2nd and 3rd and winning the 3-lap scratch race for sports cars over 1,500 c.c. at 66.97 m.p.h., having a grand scrap with Kidston in his ex-Howe 2.3-litre Alfa-Romeo, but the Bugatti was faster on acceleration. I had high hopes of a place in the final 10-lap handicap, but, unfortunately, a petrol pipe broke and the car burst into flames. Luckily, it happened as I came round Starkey Corner and past the pits, so that Pyrene satellites were soon on the scene, and all was well. At the 1937 J.C.C. Meeting I ran both the Type 55 and the Mercedes, securing two special awards and averaging 73.5 and 66 m.p.h. respectively. I had to scratch the Mercedes from the afternoon events as the control rods operating the blower had become deranged, with the result that the blower could not be brought into operation. At first I feared the blower itself had seized up, but, luckily, this was not so. Actually, the whole time I had the car the blower never caused me a moment’s trouble. After this event, while cleaning down the Bugatti’s engine, the rag caught on something rough on the crankcase. This proved to be an ominous-looking bulge in the aluminium opposite No. 1 cylinder. I was perturbed, to put it mildly, but still determined to run both cars at the combined B.O.C. and Vintage S.C.C. Donington Meeting the following weekend. I drove the Mercedes and my cousin drove the Bugatti for the 150 miles run from Effingham. We kept a steady pace and stopped every 40-50 miles to observe the bulge. It grew no bigger; so I decided to run in the scratch races (which counted points towards the Victor Ludorum) and scratch from their handicap events (which did not). I won two 3-lap scratch races with comparative ease, never going any faster than was necessary to keep the Bugatti just ahead of the next man. I kept the revs, as low as possible on all gears, and was still able to keep ahead of K. W. Bear on his special 3-litre racing Bugatti in the 1,500-3,500 c.c. racing car event, which I won at 66.1 m.p.h., running, as always, with full touring equipment intact. On the Mercedes, too, I scored a second place in the up to 1,500 c.c. sports car scratch race. After this very satisfactory day, which virtually put the coveted Trophy in the bag, we returned home. Next day I took the Bugatti along to Wolfe and Wilcockson for full investigation. They dismantled the engine and disclosed to full view our worst fears. Some ham-fisted mechanic (not theirs) had dropped a nut into the sump, which, during the High Speed Trial, had been thrown up and caught between No. 1 cylinder connecting rod and the side of the crankcase with devastating results. Bits of metal started flying in all directions, which in turn got caught up in the big-end and main bearing cages (roller bearings throughout). This was all most distressing and expensive, and meant new big-end and main rollers practically throughout. Part of No. 1 cylinder, where it projects below the block, was also missing, but didn’t really matter very much. This work was put in hand and completed a week before I had arranged to leave for the South of France. The running-in, therefore, had to be done along the French straightaways, my speed being restricted to 75-80 m.p.h. The A.C. petrol pump diaphragm had seen better days, and so, for the 700 miles south, the pump put two-thirds of the essence on to the road, increasing the consumption to 5 m.p.g., instead of the usual 12-13 m.p.g. This, and badly juddering front brakes, were remedied by M. Friedrich at the Bugatti depot in Nice. But that nut-in-the-sump business was the beginning of the end. On the way home, when leaving Cannes, I noticed the oil gauge read zero, and investigation showed that no oil was circulating. So I motored on slowly, through Grasse and up into the mountains over the route Napoleon towards Grenoble, as I had to contact some friends who had left an hour earlier and had arranged to meet me at Digue. The water got hotter and the oil cooler, and no vestige of smoke from the exhaust. I averaged, however, 36 m.p.h. over this mountainous route for the first two hours, and actually covered 80 miles with no oil in circulation.
Admittedly, for the last part of the journey the engine was squeaking like a pig in distress and a good amount of throttle was required to exceed 40 m.p.h. But, due to the roller-bearing crank, the journey was possible and the only part that suffered was the camshaft on the exhaust side, which nearly melted from the heat. At Digue it was discovered that the oil pump had seized up and sheared, due to a small particle of metal from the original shambles in the sump having concealed itself in an oil-way and eventually found its way into the pump—the work of a really evil-minded Gremlin. The car was sent back to England by train, arriving at Wolfe and Wilcockson’s garage two weeks later, the English part of its travel causing the screen to be broken and taking as long and costing as much as the far longer French rail journey. Again the engine was dismantled, a new oil pump fitted, the camshaft “gingered up” and a large Tecalemit filter fitted on the oil pipe leading to the sump. Once again the car was on the road, but I thought it might be as well to change it. I had then covered about 18,000 miles.
A month later, at the Motor Show, the latest 3.3-litre unsupercharged Type 57S Bugatti appeared at the greatly reduced (rate of exchange only) chassis price of £860. This, I thought, is the car for me, and if I sold the Types 55 and 49 at a good figure it might only cost me the price of the new body. And so it turned out, luckily. I had a trial run up the Barnet by-pass with Williams, the Bugatti works demonstrator, who had brought over a Type 57S electron coupe, “Atlantic”. It was simply terrific; 112 m.p.h., still accelerating over the cross-roads past the Barn—and the roads cluttered up with the usual Friday evening traffic. Along the next stretch we did 122 m.p.h., and I thought, under the circumstances, that was enough, and said so in no uncertain fashion. Thereafter we “cruised” along at a mere 90-95 m.p.h., once doing just over 100 in third gear. Except, possibly, for the run I had with Jean Bugatti in France, it was the most alarming experience ever; yet Williams drove superbly, absolutely at ease and complete master of every situation. But the speed constantly maintained was prodigious and there appeared to be a “phenomenal avoidance” along almost every yard of the crowded thoroughfare.
Apart from the amazing engine, which was remarkably silent, the suspension (aided by de Ram shockers), cornering and roadholding were a whole street better than anything I had previously experienced, which, together with the extremely powerful cable-operated brakes, made the whole show feel considerably safer than would have been the case in a lesser car. So we returned, rather to my amazement and great relief, to the Bugatti stand, and an order was duly placed with Col. Sorel for a chassis, to be delivered through Wolfe & Wilcockson. I then started to design a coupe body on the lines of the works “Atalante” coupe, ,but with more consistency of shape about it, a less streamlined front and a larger roof to provide room for a third, crosswise seat behind the front seats. I then placed an order with Corsica Coachworks, as they were well acquainted with the numerous snags and difficulties of building such a body on this very low and rather awkward chassis. I must say they made a first-class job of it, and there is hardly a square inch anywhere that is not a container for something or other, from fitted suitcases in the tail down to spare petrol pipe connections. It was around this time, by the way, that I tried the 12-cylinder Lagonda, per Gaffikin Wilkinson, to satisfy myself and a few sceptical friends that the Type 57S really was the tops. I was fully reassured, as mentioned earlier. I also tried a magnificent looking Chapron coupe-bodied 100-m.p.h. Delage, specially fitted with four S.U. carburetters. But what a disappointing car; it had a glorious exhaust note like bath-water running away, good steering and superb appearance. But the suspension was altogether too sloppy and kept bumping on Brooklands, where I could not coax more than 85 m.p.h. out of it, in spite of the fact that the demonstrator said he had attained 88 m.p.h. in third on the way down from London.
In the meantime, I set about selling the Type 55 and was fortunate in finding a willing buyer in a very old friend of mine, namely, Richard Shakespeare. He ran this 2.3-litre very successfully, at Prescott and elsewhere, up to the out-break of war, but has, I believe, sold it since he went to the Middle East. The next thing was to sell the Type 49 as, much as I liked that car, I couldn’t possibly keep it and the new Type 57S. Again I was fortunate in finding a willing buyer without much trouble. A Dr. Lee, a member of the club, had seen my advertisement in “Buganties”, and I demonstrated the car to him at the club’s opening Rally at Cheltenham in April, 1938. It was still not fully run-in after its complete overhaul, but he liked the car and paid my price. The next problem was to find a cheap car for everyday transport, and I thought in terms of Alvis “Silver Eagle”, Lancia, or some other good vintage motor.
I tried a 3-litre Bentley, never having owned one, but didn’t like the brakes, steering or roadholding. Otherwise, it was a pleasing car (short chassis red-label saloon) and was purchased by Shakspeare. I wish now I had bought it. Instead, I paid £30 for an 8th Series Lancia “Lambda” long-chassis 4-light saloon (UL 6103) per Windrum & Garstin. I should think that it had done a large mileage and was in pretty bad order. I took it along to West & Chittenden and had them “go over it”, having a new propeller shaft, new needle-roller universals, brakes relined and new cables, new clutch, trapezoidal frame welded, etc. Corsica’s then recellulosed it grey with red wheels, so that my “cheap” hack had then cost me over £100. But it did me well for about 12,000 miles, and I kept it until December, 1939, when I sold it for £20, as, in view of increased h.p. taxation and petrol rationing, it became an uneconomical proposition. The new transmission was an improvement, but the engine vibration and noise was pretty excessive. It was very reliable and gave a maximum speed of about 73 m.p.h. I always have liked “Lambdas”, as they feel so solid and are great fun to drive. I entered for several Vintage S.C.C. and Bugatti Owners’ Club trials, but not with any conspicuous success, though on each occasion providing a most entertaining outing. I did, however, manage a 2nd class award in the B.O.C. 1938 Welsh Trial, aided by very deflated tyres and several Leyland lorry flywheels in the luggage-boot to keep the stern down. The effect of this weight way out behind, coupled with soft tyres, caused the most remarkable crab-fashion cornering when dicing along the main highway in pursuit of Col. Giles in his 4.9-litre Bugatti. The back half of this very long carriage behaved as though it was in no way connected with the front wheels. I also gained a 2nd class award in the Brighton and Hove M.C. 1939 Spring Cup Trial.
The year 1938 saw the opening of the club’s Hill Climb at Prescott, near Cheltenham. I ran the Mercedes at all three meetings, each time making fastest time in the 1,500 c.c. supercharged Sports class, my best climb taking 55.51 secs. At the J.C.C. Members’ day I gave the High Speed Trial a miss for the first time in five years, but competed in the afternoon events with the Mercedes, winning a 1-lap handicap at 75.23 m.p.h. for the standing lap and attaining 95 m.p.h. (by speedometer and rev, counter) along the railway straight—a pretty staggering speed for a 1922 fully equipped 11-h.p. car. With its 113-mm. stroke, I can’t think how the connecting rods stood up to such high revs. At the Vintage S.C.C. Meeting at Donington in April, the Mercedes again behaved in its usual exemplary manner (except for the bottom gear band in the gearbox, which was hardly gripping at all), and was the Vintage winner in three scratch races, averaging 64 m.p.h. for one 3-lapper.
In June my Type 57S Bugatti chassis arrived in London, at least three months overdue. The body was, by then, constructed so that the complete car left Corsica’s eight weeks later—precisely one week before I was due to leave for France for the start of the Paris-Nice trial. Obviously, therefore, something pretty urgent had to be undertaken in the way of running-in. The evening I collected the car (GPK 1) from Bugattis at Brixton Road I set off, with my cousin, for Edinburgh at a steady 2,500 r.p.m. (56.25 m.p.h.). We arrived there for breakfast, turned round and came home again, increasing the speed by 500 revs. (11.25 m.p.h. in top) every 500 miles. The next day I went to Plymouth and back, some 200 miles each way, and, as on the previous run, felt perfectly fresh at the end of the day and highly delighted with the car. At such speeds the engine was making no effort at all, yet surprisingly high averages were attained, due to the very rapid acceleration and altogether remarkable roadholding. When eventually my cousin and I reached Paris, the car had covered around 2,000 miles and I had not yet exceeded 90 m.p.h. The full story of our experiences in the Paris-Nice is too long to be retold here. But it was a grand “do” and I enjoyed every minute of it. Had the car been more fully run-in and teething troubles remedied, it would have been even better. As it was, I finished 21st, largely on account of two things. First, water entered the Scintilla Vertex, through the scuttle ventilator, after having the car washed in Paris. At the time this cause was not detected, and the car’s failure to start on the morning of the speed test at Montlhery was thought to be due to magneto trouble (I only diagnosed this failure several weeks later, when the same thing happened again after a wash). Scintilla’s removed the magneto, found it perfectly O.K. and replaced it, but, unfortunately, they refitted it too far retarded, which caused overheating and loss of speed in the test which took place an hour after the magneto was refitted, allowing no time for adjustment. In addition, there was a heat wave in full swing and the temperature within the concrete confines of Montlhery was over 120 degrees in the sun. Nevertheless, we made fastest time of all British competitors, beating the S.S. 100s and Lord Waleran’s works – entered 12 – cylinder Lagonda, with a lap of over 101.5 m.p.h., not fully extended for the whole lap, as it was the first time the car had exceeded 90 m.p.h., and I was not going to over-stress the still new engine. Le Begue, in his streamlined 2-seater Darracq, averaged 125 m.p.h. for the lap. The second bother was the de Ram shock absorbers, which, being new, had not been properly adjusted and lost all their oil. Monsieur de Ram in Paris couldn’t help me, because these shockers form part of the engine mounting, and to refill with oil they have to be removed from the chassis, necessitating the car being off the road. I had to wait, therefore, till I returned to England, when they were removed and sent back to Paris, where also they were modified and never gave any more trouble. They are quite the finest shock absorbers ever, and contribute largely to the amazing roadholding of the Type 57S and the 3.3-litre Type 59 G.P. Bugatti. But I had to complete the Paris-Nice with virtually no front shockers, which caused excessive bouncing and such severe juddering when the brakes were applied that I could hardly use the brakes at all, and had to keep a sharp look-out for hidden bumps or potholes. This, of course, completely spoilt my effort in the final braking test at Nice and prevented me from going really fast in the La Turbie Hill Climb, which is 4.5 miles of fast, rather rough surfaced straights of not more than 100-150 yards with innumerable bends and hairpin corners cut out of the mountain-side. Even so, on the run south we averaged 62 m.p.h. through the night for the 124 miles to Dijon, keeping close up behind the works Darracqs and Delahayes, which were being driven extremely fast.
During that winter Lemon Burton informed me that he had just purchased a 1910 10-h.p. Bugatti (BJ 2305) from a man at Great Yarmouth, who had owned the car since 1912 and had laid it up for the last nine years. Would I like to buy it? I would, and did. It was a little gem, with wooden wheels and beautiful little overhead camshaft (wick lubricated) 4-cylinder engine, mostly finished in bronze, copper and aluminium. It was in pretty good condition, but I thought it was worth rebuilding and restoring to 100 per cent. condition. So I took it to my firm’s works and had it completely overhauled, rebored, crank reground, new pistons, etc., and repainted (paint and varnish) in dark and light blue to match the Type 57S, reupholstered, new hood and screen, the wooden wheels rebuilt and varnished and fitted new India tyres and a set of brass oil and acetylene lamps, etc., fitted. It was completed by March, 1939, and I got it back a day or two before the B.O.C. Opening Rally at Huntingdon. I drove it there very steadily at 25 m.p.h., as the new pistons and bearings felt very stiff. It behaved magnificently and, in addition, walked away with the prize for the best kept car. Later on, I drove it up to Prescott and won the Vintage Handicap with a gross time of 82.87 secs. Although it was then 29 years old and only 10.4 h.p., it would ” cruise ” along very happily at 45 m.p.h. and go from Effingham to Cheltenham and back in top gear. It caused a good deal of surprise to many other road users as I passed them in their modern buzz boxes on the level and up long hills. Just before we got home the rear box-type universal sheared, and I finished the journey hitched to the Mercedes and the oil lamps flickering in the darkness. I soon had a new and stronger universal made up, and have had no further trouble at all. I used Hobson non-oil plugs, which seem well suited and never gave any bother. I ran it again at the Vintage S.C.C. Meeting at Lewes, an unsuitable course for this particular style of car, recording 46.26 sees. and being placed fourth on formula handicap. This car’s biggest successes were the two races for pre-1914 cars at the Crystal Palace, over four laps of the full circuit, in July and September, 1939. I won the Vintage Cup at both events, averaging 39.32 m.p.h. for the July race, and, after being re-handicapped, just won the September event—a week before war was declared— from Dick Nash, who started from scratch in the big Lorraine “Vieux Charles”. The little Bugatti went like a bird, was very steady on the corners, and caused quite a stir with its modern-sounding exhaust, from which I had removed the baffle plates. As a result of this second meeting, an enthusiast wrote and said he had a very old Bugatti, in pieces, which he would sell for a “fiver”. I duly inspected it and brought the whole lot home, chassis, frame and all, in my “Lambda”. I am not certain what type it is; I rather think it is a 1914 8-valve Type 22. It is at present in store to await rebuilding after the war. It has the very early pear-shaped radiator as opposed to the earlier squarish radiator of my Type 13.
During 1939 I again ran the Mercedes at Prescott, scoring second place in my class at the first meeting, with a rather slow time of 61.06 sees. I also ran the Type 57S once at a Bugatti Club members only meeting. But the car is too high-geared – 3.85 to 1—for such a course, though my time of 59.98 secs. secured second place in the over 3,000-c.c. sports class. I had another cheap and trouble-free day’s sport with the Mercedes at the J.C.C. Members day in July, scoring a second and a third in 1-lap handicaps, doing a standing lap at somewhere around 80 m.p.h. and crossing the finishing line in one race at exactly 100 m.p.h., the fastest ever with this car, the rev. counter showing 5,000 r.p.m. I held the blower in practically the whole way round the track, making a wonderful scream. The machinery showed no sign of distress whatever—a great credit to the car and to the work carried out by West and Chittenden. It is interesting, and surprising, that I covered in all about 7,500 miles in this car over a period of 3.5 years, using it quite extensively for speed competitions; yet, once rebuilt, I never again had the engine opened up, not even for a decoke. The tappets were adjusted once only. I used only one set of K.L.G. plugs for 100 m.p.h. at Brooklands, Prescott, or ticking over in Piccadilly. I never had a plug oil up or burn out, nothing was ever adjusted, other than brakes and gearbox, and I invariably competed at Donington and elsewhere without raising the bonnet from the time I left home till my return, except possibly to check the oil level, using Price’s “C” de luxe. That, I think, is real reliability for any car, let alone a 1922 high-revving motor. At the Stanley Cup Meeting at the Crystal Palace, I got a second place in one handicap with the Mercedes, it scoring on acceleration on this course, as the blower could be held in on all the short straights, but, with its rather long, high and spidery chassis, cantilever springs and very direct steering, it was never a car for really quick cornering even with the tele-controls screwed down hard. At the United Hospitals’ Meeting in May, I managed second place in one race, again with the irrepressible Mercedes, at 61.96 m.p.h. In July I again went to the South of France in the Type 57S Bugatti, in company with my brother in his “Speed 25” Alvis. I had a no-trouble run, and this time with everything “au point,” cruising along the N.7 at 95 m.p.h. in complete comfort and no bouncing in front was the rule rather than the exception. Petrol consumption averaged about 17 m.p.g., and oil (dry sump, with 3.5 gallon tank) about 400 miles per pint of Castrol R. Plug trouble on car is virtually non-existent, using Champion LA.10, 14 mm., or LA.11 for really fast work. But it will not start in really cold weather using the latter plug. The gearbox is delightful, with really silent second and third gears giving a maximum of 80 and 100 m.p.h., respectively. The clutch also is smooth and powerful, though, like the brake pedal, it is heavy to operate. The gearchange is too slow, and a “12/60” Alvis type of clutch stop would be a godsend. The only other snag is the rather limited ground clearance, being 3.5 in. under the exhaust, which is, of course, less on uneven ground. The brakes are the best I have ever had with a Bugatti, and can be fully applied at any speed on any road surface due to the de Rams. The Dunlop racing tyres, 18 x 5.50 on the front and 6.00 on the back, are worn out in about 4,000 miles, which will be an awkward problem after the war. I got back from France about three weeks before war was declared, and very reluctantly had to lay it up in December, as it would not run on Pool with its 8.3 to 1 compression ratio, the normal fuel required being two-thirds Discol and one-third pure Benzole. The total mileage to-day is 18,300, and after the war I hope to convert it to a Type 57SC, as I have recently purchased a complete Type 57C engine and supercharger, etc., which had only covered under 2,000 miles when a piston seized at the top at 5,500 r.p.m., doing a large part of the works no sort of good. Since my car, with its special body and fittings, is about 6-7 cwt. heavier than the works coupe, a blower should be of great value in stepping-up the already first-rate acceleration and advancing the maximum speed from about 112 to a quickly attained 125 m.p.h., retaining the existing axle ratio, which is quite high enough for modern traffic conditions. I have done 120 m.p.h. in the ex-Campbell Type 57S Corsica 2-seater, which I persuaded a great friend of mine, one Jimmy Gardner, to buy.
In December, 1939, I gave my Lancia “Lambda” in exchange for a 1936 2-litre Type 45 B.M.W. 2-door saloon (CMP 757). After purchase, I took it to Wolfe & Wikockson and had it overhauled and fitted new gears, universals, clutch, rear axle casing, brake linings, etc., and had the body recellulosed dark and light opalescent blue (like the Type 57S) and reupholstered, by Corsica’s. This is an excellent little car with a very quiet, smooth and lively engine, and I am still running it to-day. The last long run I did was in October last, when I did over 200 miles to rejoin my unit, averaging 40 m.p.h. and 30 m.p.g. I have so far covered 8,500 wartime miles and had very little trouble. The brakes are poor and the clutch is a bit weak, needing a fair amount of adjustment. Starting trouble was experienced for a long time, but has since been completely overcome. A big end went last March, and, on dismantling the engine, the cylinder block was found to be cracked, due to the whole water system having been frozen solid on several occasions during last winter. These troubles have now been rectified, and I hope to go on using this car for as long as maybe, during the war.
In the early part of 1940, before I joined the Army and while I was still waiting in vain for the Fleet Air Arm to call for me, I purchased from Capt. Bertram Wickens his beautifully preserved 1936 3.300-litre Type 57 Bugatti tourer (DLD 471). In those days the Bugatti works at Molsheim, near Strasbourg, were right in the front line, being in the immediate vicinity of the Maginot and Siegfried Lines. It seemed fairly clear, therefore, that spare parts for the marque might be few and far between in days to come, and it was with this in view that I purchased Wickens’s car, as I hope to keep my Type 57S for many moons— it will certainly be several years before this latter car is outmoded, and, in any case, it is extremely doubtful if I shall ever again be able to afford a new car of similar style. Also, it is doubtful if Ettore Bugatti will ever produce cars again, since, apart from Jean Bugatti’s tragic and untimely death just before the outbreak of war, nothing whatever has been heard of M. Le Patron since the fall of France and the hasty removal of the Molsheim works to the Bordeaux area.
This Type 57 (which, of course, has the usual 25.7 h.p. 8-cylinder in-line engine, with twin overhead camshafts, bore and stroke of 72 x 100 mm., giving a capacity of 3,257 c.c., and 4-speed gearbox with silent second, third and top, but a wheelbase of 10 ft. 10.5 in. instead of the 9 ft. 9.5 in. of the Type 57S) is in such perfect order that I hope it will never be necessary to sacrifice it as a going concern in order to keep my Type 57S on the road. It originally belonged to Mr. Ronald Leon (husband of Kay Hammond, the actress), and was fitted with a James Young drophead coupe. In 1937 he had the body fitted on to a new Type 57 chassis and Wickens bought the old chassis, had it overhauled and fitted with a new Corsica 4/5-seater open sports tourer, cellulosed dark blue with beige leather upholstery and Bugatti discs. I believe the total mileage when I purchased the car was around 40,000 miles, but only 2,000 miles previously it was thoroughly overhauled and fitted new radiator, new bearings throughout, new pistons and a new, latest type cylinder block with 14-mm. plugs— a 1938 modification on all Bugattis. It was, therefore, mechanically and otherwise, virtually as new. Sam Clutton and I collected the car in April, 1940, and took it straight to Mackenzie to have the brakes relined and one or two other odds and ends rectified. I ran it until mid-June, when I joined the Army. I then laid it up and used the B.M.W., but the temptation was too great and, in June, 1941, I relicensed the Bugatti. Up to the end of June, 1942, I had covered 4,800 kilometres in the car and did some very worthwhile pre-war style motoring during last summer while I was stationed at Newmarket. It is now, to my sorrow, laid up at my home in Sussex, alongside the 57S and Type 13. This Type 57 ran very well on Pool, though starting was rather difficult and, of course, a great tendency to pink; the standard compression is, about 6.5 to 1. Running on Pool, I have never tried for maximum, but the car cruises very comfortably at around 70-75 m.p.h., is very quiet and smooth (although, being a fairly early model, it has the solid-mounted engine), comfortable and very typically Bugatti in the matter of steering and roadholding. It is every inch a Bugatti, with considerably greater speed and acceleration than the Type 49, and with much better suspension and gearbox, which is also far more silent. Petrol consumption varied quite a bit, but I once did Stevenage to Piccadilly in the hour and averaging 23 m.p.g. On faster journeys it dropped to around 16-17 m.p.g.
My next purchase was a supercharged Alfa-Romeo twin overhead camshaft 1,750-c.c. Grand Sport model (GN 57), fitted with a light drophead coupe body by James Young, of most attractive aspect. This is the only Alfa I have ever owned, though I have often thought in the past that my education was lacking in this respect. But I still think that the Bugatti will do everything that an Alfa will do, and more; and in an even more exciting and individualistic manner. This was certainly true of their respective 2.3-litre models (as I have proved on every occasion), and also, I think, of their respective 3.3- and 2.9-litre models. But I liked this little Alfa very much, and certainly wish it had been possible to run it in times of peace and plenty. As it was, the petrol consumption was so excessive (somewhere between 9 and 14 miles to the gallon) that I had to lay it up after covering only about 600 miles. I purchased it from a doctor in South-West London for £85 in December, 1940, and it had obviously been very well maintained and chauffeur-kept. I used it during my week’s leave over Christmas and then took it back to Banbury, where I was then stationed. The weather was appalling, the roads being snow and ice-covered most of the time, though I did get one or two decent runs, particularly the last run home to Sussex late in March, 1941. The suspension was rather hard in front, but the steering, cornering and general roadholding were excellent. The long, low bonnet line gave unusually good vision forward, and the whole car had a very solid feel after the style of the Type 55 Bugatti. It was indeed good, in wartime, to be driving such a car again. For its type, the engine was amazingly silent; also the blower. Acceleration was excellent and the engine revved willingly and smoothly, the gears whining beautifully at high revs. Unlike the Bugatti, which, be it 2.3-litre, Type 49, 57 or 57S, possesses the most remarkable slow-running flexibility and power of pick-up on hills, the Alfa was very poor in this respect. I had 96 m.p.h. on the speedometer, which, I should imagine, was about 85, and 70-75 m.p.h. (on the speedometer) seemed a very easy cruising speed. The clutch wasn’t too good and seemed rather weak, becoming extremely fierce in heavy traffic. I used Champion R3 or R7 plugs, which were very inclined to wet up when starting from cold, and soot up unless the engine speed was kept up. This was probably due to the fact that the Memini carburetter must have been out of adjustment.
Having laid up the Alfa, I sought something more economical, and purchased a 1938 600-c.c. P. & M. Panther motorcycle and sidecar. It was a pretty hot-looking outfit, with a rip-snorting exhaust note and an almighty compression. It would clock 65-70 m.p.h. with two people, luggage, gas-bags, etc., on board, and accelerate in keeping. As a solo machine I should imagine it would be extremely potent. But the weather was so cold and I got so filthy that I decided it was not a practical means of conveyance for an officer in H.M. Forces (that’s not meant to be as pompous as it sounds!) I was also getting married in April, 1941, and had no real desire to go honeymooning on such a contrivance; my wife-to-be concurred in no uncertain way. So I sold it to a Guardee captain, and once more put the B.M.W. on the road.
I had, for quite a while, been searching for an Edwardian Delage, and the opportunity came along in December, 1941, when Boddy sold me his 10-h.p. model, of about 1911 vintage and fitted with a typical high-sided 2-seater body. It was duly collected in the back of a van and is now stored to await complete renovation and rebuilding after the war. It is at present in a pretty derelict condition, but should eventually make a very worthy stable companion to my 1910 Bugatti. My father owned two of these grand little cars during and after the last war (a “10/12” and a “12/14”), and I always remember them as being extremely quiet, reliable and smooth running in their day, though with a performance that was more imaginary than real, the larger model particularly. Incidentally, my interest in Edwardian motors dates from the early ‘thirties, when my brother owned two 8-h.p. 2-cylinder Renaults of 1906 and 1908 vintage, and both open 2-seaters of almost identical appearance. They were a great source of fun and amusement alike to ourselves and the local inhabitants of the Weybridge district. The later model was slightly the faster of the two and could do around 40 m.p.h. Unfortunately, however, they were both virtually given away for lack of garage space at a time before the Vintage S.C.C. had fostered the great historic and competitive interest in such cars.
Towards the end of 1941 I advertised the Mercedes and Alfa as being for sale, and received a number of replies. I was very sorry to see the Mercedes go, as I had had it for six years, and, although covering a total mileage of only 7,000-8,000, it had proved to be a most amazingly reliable, successful and fascinating little car. But it had been in store since September, 1939, and Lord Ridley (who had it “railed” to his home in Northumberland without ever having seen, let alone tried the car) paid my price. A week later I sold the Alfa to a doctor friend of mine at Guildford, who already owned an exactly similar model and is now, with his partner, running the two Alfas on daily calls in and around that area. I only hope his patients appreciate the gentle whine of the Alfa blower and gears, especially in these motorless days. But rumour has it that the matron of the Ideal hospital is not amused, has said so in an unmistakable manner, and demands that the cars are pushed within the confines of the building. Shame! The Alfa sale practically provided the necessary number of greenbacks to enable me to buy two more cars of vastly different type and proportions. One was a 1939 “1,100” Fiat drophead saloon (HPJ 849), which I purchased in February, 1942, from Wolfe & Wilcockson; and the other was a “38/250” Mercedes-Benz (G11 4530), which I bought a month later from a great friend of mine, Dick Wilkins (the originator, first owner and the “W” of the 4.9-litre Bugatti-engined B.H.W. racing car, subsequently sold to Parnell). This Mercedes is a very fine example of its type, being a 1931 model which had a considerable amount of money spent on it before the war, being completely overhauled and fitted with the modified light steering. It is fitted with a modern sporting 4-seater drophead coupe body with small, inswept mudguards and the whole outfit cellulosed opalescent light blue. It has six huge wire wheels fitted with virtually new 7.00 in. x 21 in. tyres. Before Wilkins bought it, it belonged to the manager of Claridges Hotel, who had the body altered and modernised by Corsica Coachworks in 1938, where I often saw and admired this very car when my Type 57S Bugatti body was being built. It is, of course, laid up at present alongside my Bugattis, but I managed a 60-miles run in it when I was on leave last June, and had occasion to go to Guildford and back, from my home at Bolney. Having unjacked this massive pile of motor-car, tipped about 8 gallons of water into the radiator and a similar quantity of petrol into the huge rear tank, pressed and pulled the multitude of switches (all labelled in German and conveying absolutely nothing to me), I pressed the starter and the engine fired— first time for nearly three years. I’ve never before owned a car with such a large, slow-revving engine, firing about every other telegraph pole, and, after the B.M.W. and Bugatti, it seemed most odd. I never exceeded 2,000 revs. on this journey. but that was sufficient to give me approximately 80 m.p.h. on one short stretch of road. The blower sounded identical with my little 1.5-litre model, screaming to high heaven at only 2,000 revs., though relatively, the kick in the back when the blower is brought into operation was not so pronounced on the “38/250”, due probably to the much lower revs, and far greater weight of the car. It was surprisingly light to handle, accelerated well, and did nine miles to the gallon. But the gearchange was tricky at first and required dead accuracy. I found this 2 tons of motor car needed a bit of holding on a steeply cambered road, though with shockers correctly adjusted it would probably be all right, as the suspension was very flexible and comfortable. The enormous length of strap-fastened bonnet with massive radiator cap, and the huge cord-bound steering-wheel was altogether a great change from previous motoring experiences. On long straight roads, such as are found abroad, I should imagine this slow-revving 110-m.p.h. Mercedes would be a great joy; but I am convinced that, with all its 37 h.p., it couldn’t hold a candle to my Type 57S, either at Brooklands or on a cross-country run, especially in this country. I hope, after the war, to be able to enjoy it to the full, as, obviously, one needs petrol and tyres in plenty for such a pastime.
The Fiat, which had covered 24,000 miles when I bought it and was mechanically sound, but bodily poor, is a most delightful little car, and is still used by my wife as often as her very limited petrol allowance will permit, though, with the addition of a hot-point gadget, it does about 35 m.p,g. The tyres were practically bald when I purchased it and no replacements were available. So it is now fitted with the cast-off boots from my brother’s “500” model when he fitted oversize, so that my “1,100” model now looks rather like a car on roller skates. The outstandingly good suspension and cornering has suffered slightly as a result.<.p>
Last March, when a big-end ran on my B.M.W. while on my way from Banbury to Marlborough, it became necessary to buy another car pending repair. Thus it happened that I purchased my eighth Bugatti—a Type 44 3-litre, fitted with a drophead coupe with dickey seat (UW 4171). I drove the B.M.W. very steadily from Marlborough to Bristol to collect this Bugatti from its vendor, Seton Peacey, the purchase having been arranged through Gordon Wilkins. I put the B.M.W. on a train at Bristol, and it was despatched to my firm’s works at Battersea, London, for reparations. The Bugatti, a 1929 show model, originally fitted with a Weymann saloon and used by Col. Sorel, of Bugatti’s (the existing coupe body was once, I believe, fitted to one of K. W. Bear’s 3-litres), had been virtually converted to a Type 49, as far as the engine department is concerned, having 3.3 cylinder blocks. It had, at one time, been the subject of considerable expenditure by some rather extravagant and enthusiastic previous owner, and, inter alia, now has special outsize gearbox bearings and two independently operated carburetters—a rather complicated and Heath Robinson arrangement which, however, seemed to work quite well and was reputed to provide 100 m.p.h., or 26 m.p.g. I have been unable to confirm either claim as, a few days later, I was “got at” by Gremlins again, and a sheared rear halfshaft was the result, having to leave the car by the roadside until Steel’s Garage, of Cirencester, could tow it in to their premises for repair, a new half-shaft being sent down to them by Lemon Burton. When ready, about a month later, my unit had moved to Newmarket, so the Bugatti was sent to London by train, by which time I was again using my Type 57 Bugatti and the B.M.W., anyway, was nearing completion. So this latest Bugatti purchase was taken into store and will remain there for the duration.
My 22nd and last car to date is a 1911 16.9 h.p. Sunbeam (DA 831), which I purchased last August from Guy Warburton. It is reputed to be in super condition, though I have not yet seen it, and, once again, this car is also stored for duration.
This, then, is the end of my tale. Nothing is less likely than my owning as many similar cars during the next twelve years or so, even assuming that goddamn Hitler and his band of loathsome Huns are overthrown in the not-too-distant future. But I hope I shall always be able to have at least one Bugatti in my garage, as without them my motoring would not have provided the fun and excitement it has, though, maybe, I would have more “jingle-jangle” about my person to be taken, eventually, in taxation. There are a few cars that I still wish to own, primarily a 1939 Lancia “Aprilia” (absolutely without equal in its class), a 1.5-litre or 2.3-litre Type 51, or 3.3-litre Type 59 G.P. Bugatti, fitted out as a road car, and a 12-cylinder Hispano-Suiza. I very nearly purchased such a Hispano during 1941—a magnificent short-chassis 120-m.p.h. saloon, which belonged to some diplomat in Paris. But, to my regret, the dealer and I didn’t talk the same language where values were concerned; also, the tax and insurance question, with its 75 horses and post-war uncertainties, rather scared me. But when I read Clutton’s very interesting article in the December issue of Motor Sport, on the romance of 12-cylinders (with which sentiment I entirely agree), I again regretted losing this car, quite the finest, fastest and most imposing of all twelves. Roll on, the piping days of peace!