Described to the Editor in a recent interview
I have good reason to remember the Bugattis raced before the war by that tall, exceedingly handsome young man, Aubrey Esson-Scott. For one thing, they were always absolutely immaculately turned out in his personal all-black finish. I knew this from seeing them at Brooklands and elsewhere, and in closer proximity when I called on their owner at his London Mews garage to write a story about one of them for Bugantics, the Bugatti Club magazine. In addition, I would have been knocked over by his Type 51 Bugatti at the Opening Meeting at the then-new Crystal Palace race-circuit when Esson-Scott “lost it” and came backwards off the course, had I not run away — apart from possible severe injury, there would have been a fuss if I had been knocked down, because I was in forbidden territory without the essential Track Pass . . !
It was to relive these nostalgic times that I drove the other day in the thrifty comfort of a Ford Fiesta Ghia to Brighton, to remake acquaintance with this pre-war racing driver. As I was soon to discover, he has lost none of his keenness for fast cars, maintained in near-perfect condition.
Esson-Scott thinks that perhaps he derived some of his love of working on his cars from his father, who had a Mors, knew nothing about machinery, but who set about finding out how to keep this car in good order. Also, being a Scot, he has never shirked hard tasks! Then, although it was during the First World War, he was at school at Weybridge, although he had known about Brooklands before that. With a love of hunting and shooting, he became friendly with Baron Max Fould-Spranger who had a chateau near Paris. At about the time when the Bugatti Owners’ Club was being formed in England the Baron made Esson-Scott a present of a rather nice two-seater Brescia Bugatti, which cost him nothing, apart from the cost of getting it into this country, which was £28. Esson-Scott fitted vee-windscreen and disc wheels to this Brescia Bugatti and, of course, painted it in glossy black.
I should explain here that he was with Hooper’s, the Royal coachbuilders, and had, indeed, been through all their Departments, including the Drawing Office where they prepared those full-size body plans, before becoming a salesman there. So he knew all about maintaining a proper paint-finish. This association with Hooper’s came about because a family relation was the “Stratton” of Stratton-Instone Ltd. and he thought the training would be good for the boy. The Brescia Bugatti was used for many BOC events, including those speed hill-climbs at Chalfont St. Giles, although it only had rear-wheel brakes. There was also fun with it at BOC Gymkhanas (where an ex-Prince Chula Ford V8 and a friend’s Invicta were used). Eventually it was sold to Selwyn Hamlin and it is now in the hands of its second owner since then, Mr. John Hearne of Auckland, New Zealand. It is apparently in very good, original order, although Mr. Hamlin sprayed it Bugatti blue. It was through the Bugatti OC that Esson-Scott was introduced to punt-racing by Eric Giles, who was one of that Club’s three Founder-Members. Esson-Scott says that in those days, although not rich, he had three main interests. First came motor racing. Secondly, there was this very skilful punt-racing on the Thames, in lightweight Best and Best punts. If you “dropped a pole” there would be no time to recover it, and to hang on to it would be fatal, so the drill was to pick up another pole from the deck of the punt without losing the rhythm of the action! The subject of this interview took the Punting Championship, and won punt-racing prizes innumerable. He used, in later times, to drive from his home in Regents Park to Laleham to practise in one of his Grand Prix Bugattis, in stripped racing-trim, with the police almost laying wait for him! Later he had a gun-punt, firing with the aid of two Bugatti valve springs, that was lethal to geese.
Esson-Scott’s third interest was Savile Row clothes. He always dressed to perfection and his wardrobe of those pre-war days is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, where the catalogue devotes a page to them, against a much shorter reference to those donated by the Duke of Windsor! Back to racing cars, the Bugatti OC infected Esson-Scott with enthusiasm and he had to have another, quicker, Bugatti. This was a single-cam 2-litre, Type 35 Grand Prix model acquired from the jam-millionaire, Keiller, for £150. It had a half-circle metal “suitcase” on the off-side of the body to match the spare wheel on the opposite side and the car was in such good condition that it could be driven in white flannels without spotting them with oil. Essen-Scott lined the cockpit with patent leather, gave the body the all-black treatment, and used it as a fast road car. It had Reg. No. YM 9538 and he would like to know what has become of it. It was seldom on all eight cylinders at once, in spite of putting solder down the valve cotters to try to stem the excess oil!
While he had this single-cam Bugatti Esson-Scott acquired another of the same make, his well-known twin-cam 2-litre, the ex-Count Czaykowski, which he bought from the works, going to Molsheim to collect it. He found the Bugatti factory with horses and storks mingling against a background of nissan-like huts. Setting off for England in his new possession the clutch bolts broke and white metal was found in the oil-filter. So Esson-Scott returned to Molsheim and spent some two weeks there, getting the car roadworthy. It was then that Jean Bugatti introduced him to the Molsheim cocktail, which really was blue. . . .
The twin-cam Bugatti, with this short-stroke 2-litre engine, had been entered for the 1934 JCC International Trophy Race at Brooklands, and to improve its handicap chances the supercharger was removed and twin Solex carburetters substituted. Although Esson-Scott did almost all his own tuning work, in the garage at Eaton Mews North, he let Robin Jackson garage the new Bugatti before this race. After a lap or so the clutch packed up, so he had to change gear without it, and then the aluminium handle of the double-barrel cockpit oil-pump broke off, making life really strenuous for the driver. Nor was that all, because one of the carburetters was flooding, which the plugs did not like. Fielding, the Shelsley-Walsh Bugatti exponent, was in Esson-Scott’s pit and after a plug-change left one h.t. lead off. Finally, the driving-seat broke away, so the remainder of the race was agony. However, after he had received the flag Esson-Scott found that he had finished 12th in spite of all these misfortunes, at an average speed of 81.77 m.p.h. and that with Earl Howe and Tim Rose-Richards the Bugattis had won the Team Award. The carburetter flooding was found to be due to the bonnet cowling causing air to suck the mixture from out of them, this dope, which cost £1 per gallon, spraying back along the car, removing the skin from the driver’s right arm and also some of that immaculate black paint from the car’s bodywork. After the race, too, although the recommended revs. had not been exceeded, all the valve-seats were cracked and the valve springs had broken. Also, Brooklands gave Bugatti exponents a very rough ride, so that many parts shook loose. To combat the effects of this Esson-Scott says he had a brandy bottle and tube in the car, to sustain him. . . .
Space does not permit a full account of all the races and sprint events in which this driver did well in this twin-cam Bugatti. But it performed outstandingly at such places as Lewes (where because the gearbox was over an inch out of line the prop.-shaft broke, causing Esson-Scott to rise rapidly from his seat) and at Shelsley Walsh, for which the blower had been reinstated, sucking from a Zenith carburetter, and where twin rear wheels were later used. At the Bugatti OC’s Chalfont St. Giles speed hill-climb Esson-Scott made fastest time of the day at one meeting, on a single run, in a time of 2.28 seconds, and the Bugatti got up Shelsey Walsh in the very good time of 44 seconds. At first a flat-radiator Morris-Cowley fixed-head coupé had been used as a tow-car. This was as smart as the Bugatti and the black overalls Esson-Scott wore when racing and I used to imagine it had had some of his Hooper’s expertise spent on it. In fact, it was in the condition as bought, for £37 10/-, from someone in Chelsea. Amusingly, Esson-Scott recalls that the rent for his Belgravia garage and flat was a mere £150-a-year in 1934. But smart-sounding as the address was, it was a case of a Bug in the workshop and bugs in the bed. . . . Later, when he was using Fielding’s big trailer to take the Bugatti to race meetings, a late-model Ford V8 was used for towing, and his wife’s open Singer Nine towed the Bugatti to Shelsley Walsh on one occasion. (The Hon. Mrs. Esson-Scott was a friend of Prince Chula’s, who encouraged her motoring by giving her an Austin Ten-Four saloon.) Another recollection of those days was going out in two Grand Prix Bugattis with his friend C. Penn-Hughes and racing round Belgrave Square without mudguards, lamps or silencers, and of going out to the Hog’s Back near Guildford to practise skidding on the muddy grass. Before he lost track of his single-cam Bugatti it was sold to Houldworth, who was unfortunately killed while racing it at Brooklands when he pulled over to allow Whitney Straight’s Maserati to pass and got one wheel over the straw-bale corner, which flipped the car.
At Brooklands Esson-Scott was a well-known competitor. In 1933 he won the first race at the Whitsun Meeting by a narrow margin from Eileen Ellison’s Type 37 Bugatti, lapping at 108.27 m.p.h., to win by a fifth-of-a-second at over 100 m.p.h. For the 1934 JCC International Trophy Race Esson-Scott made up special square-section inlet manifolds to give the twin-cam Bugatti four SC carburetters in place of the twin Solex it had used before that, when running sans supercharger. He did not run in the race, however, nor was the performance much improved over that of the car in two-carburetter form. The compression-ratio was retained at 7.85 to 1, as it was when the blower was in use. At Brooklands in 1934 Esson-Scott won the Third August Esher Mountain Handicap at 69.05 m.p.h. with no trouble, lapping at 71.39 m.p.h.
The four-carburetter layout for the Bugatti was tried at Brooklands during the 1935 season but it was awarded a heavy re-handicap. However, the car once lapped in this form at 108.74 mph from the “owes five-seconds” mark, and it went round the Mountain course at 73.89 m.p.h. when it was back in supercharged guise. Then, at the 1935 Autumn Meeting at the Track, the black 1,990 c.c. Bugatti with the silver wheels lapped at 123.28 m.p.h. in the Second Long Handicap, in which Esson-Scott had started from the same mark as “Tim Davies'” single-seater “Shelsley” Frazer Nash driven by Miss Margaret Allen. He finished third, very high on the banking, unaware that John Cobb was close behind in the Napier-Railton, having done the standing-start lap at 97.65 m.p.h. and his second lap at 122.97 m.p.h., which left the chain-driven car a long way behind. The race was won by Charles Follet’s Alvin Speed-25 from Baker’s big Graham-Paige. This won for Esson-Scott the coveted 120 m.p.h. badge, which today, with his BRDC badge, adorns his E-type Jaguar. It was an exciting ride, because the shock-absorber adjustment had seized-up and the front-end of the car was virtually solid, so that it was taking a lot of the Track to hold; although it was a cold day and Esson-Scott was wearing a shirt, he was soon sweating profusely from the effort of holding the Bugatti.
Because he could not compete with Raymond Mays’ 2-litre ERA at Shelsley Walsh, Esson-Scott linered-down the Bugatti’s engine to 1½-litres (52 mm. + 88 mm., 1,493 c.c.) for the 1936 season. In this form the car lapped the Brooklands outer-circuit at 110.68 m.p.h. to finish second to Roy Eccles’ Rapier Special in the Second August Short Handicap, and it could lap the Mountain circuit at 71.39 m.p.h. Incidentally, both the single-cam and twin-cam Bugattis had been run effectively at the Brighton Speed Trials — Esson-Scott was then living at Sumner Place — but even the twin-cam was still very much a super-quick road-car, as the girl who was given a lift in it to Hove after the Speed Trials very likely still remembers!
For 1937, being impressed, as most of us were, by the new Grand Prix Mercedes-Benz cars, Esson-Scott turned his twin-cam Bugatti into a single-seater. He still had to sit high up over the propeller-shaft, but he centralised the steering by using a longer shaft for the drop-arm. A body with a detachable, cowled bonnet and a long tail with a headrest, was built, the tail later being shortened.
It was in this form that I was nearly clobbered by it at the opening meeting of the Crystal Palace road circuit — which, incidentally, I could get to easily by No. 49 ‘bus, returning to my lodgings in time for a late tea. Esson-Scott says they asked him to enter, so as to have the Bugatti there, and in only three weeks the car was built up again after its winter modifications. The cylinder blocks distorted and it required a face-plate and much hard work to cure this. The driver was not yet accustomed to the widely-spaced pedals which the single-seater body necessitated, clutch pedal on the left of the prop.-shaft tunnel, and with Raymond Mays’ ERA on his tail he braked for the corner and nothing happened. The car knocked down a brick wall and narrowly escaped dropping into a ravine. As the photograph shows, Esson-Scott still had the hand-brake on as the car was airborne and going backwards, having used this method of scrubbing off speed. It was not badly damaged. Before that, though, when it was in two-seater Grand Prix form, he had run it at the Potiers hill-climb in France, at the suggestion of a friend, who used his Hispano Suiza as tender-car. After doing third-fastest time he hit a kerb on the second run, which tore off all the wheels. The car was uninsured but they repaired it in Paris. Later Ken Taylor of T & T’s at Brooklands allowed Esson-Scott to do some of the work himself, as they straightened out the chassis frame, which bad been badly bent.
The new monoposto body cost only £17, I asked how many coats of black paint were used on it and was told probably about seventeen, although at Hooper’s some 28 coats of paint and varnish went to the finishing of the top-class coachwork. In this form the Bugatti was given a hand-throttle on the gear-lever and a magneto-button so that the engine could be stopped dead. The car is now in America, having been sold to Lemon Burton, and passed to Jim Berry and then on to Derek Mallalieu. The present owner, Richard Collier, is having the car rebuilt at the Briggs Cunningham Museum. It is now in 2.3-litre form but the 1½-litre crank is with it; the body is now a GP, and the car has wire wheels. When Esson-Scott had it he found that it would run at 8 m.p.h. in top gear and he estimated its top speed at around 145 m.p.h. I see from some notes I made at the time that it was run up to 6,300 r.p.m. in anger, or 800 r.p.m. over the normal Type 51 rev.-limit, and that with 16″ tyres and a 15/54 axle-ratio it would reach 5,600 r.p.m. at the end of a quarter-mile, being by then in top gear.
Esson-Scott had a Scintilla magneto, used Champion R1, R2 and R11 sparking-plugs, and Ferodo MZ brake-linings. He had two axle-ratios, 13/54 and 15/54, and could change these single-handed in an hour-and-a-half. For Track work Dunlop 19″ x 5.00″ tyres were used on the Bugatti wheels, the 16″ tyres on wire wheels being for sprint work. In 2-litre blown form the fuel consumption was about six m.p.g. The oil-pump handle was made of steel, following that early embarrassing breakage, and once when a tyre tread had stripped at 120 m.p.h. the Bugatti aluminium wheel fell to pieces as the tyre was removed. . . . The 1½-litre engine was apparently given 14 mm. plugs, as Esson-Scott considered Bugatti design somewhat odd, with the 18 mm. plugs leaving far too little space between plug hole and valve seats. Sometimes a mechanic would be borrowed from Papworth’s, for helping at a race, but all the major mechanical work was done by Esson-Scott, encouraged by Fielding and others.
During the war Esson-Scott served in the Royal Army Service Corps, with the rank of Major, a Company Commander in charge of Army vehicles. After that he farmed at Hill Hall, Great Bardfield, Essex, with radio to contact his tractors, etc. His love of good cars remains. He had a 1952 Jaguar XK120 fixed-head coupé, with the C-type mods., using H8 SUs. The well-known brake-fade was partially cured and brake-pull obviated by keeping water out of the drilled brake plates. Esson-Scott kept this, need I say pristine, Jaguar XK120 for 18 years. He then saw an E-type Jaguar outside a Sussex pub and bought it. A 1962 coupé, you most certainly would not know it if you saw it today, from the condition in which it was purchased, and this included a rebuild by Esson-Scott after he had had the entire front-end written-off in a crash, which put the off-side front wheel almost into the driving compartment! The rebuild is quite remarkable, especially as he has done all the work himself, moreover, using much of the workshop equipment he possessed before the war, when racing his Bugattis. Naturally, the Jaguar’s new paint-job was done by Esson-Scott and the car is now well known at Jaguar Concours d’Elegance, being better than new, as it were. It actually incorporates many clever features of its rebuild, such as using TV aerial-tubes to obviate spending some £135 on a new exhaust system, etc. For a man of 74, who keeps fit by walking two miles a day, decorates his own flat, and who has many other interests, I might conclude by remarking that Brooklands certainly bred enthusiasts of the very keenest kind. — W.B.