The 16-valve Bugatti

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ETTORE ARCO ISIDORO BUGATTI, myths or no myths, had a highly creditable career. Among his many claims to fame is the making of engines with two, three and four valves per cylinder. The latter became well established with the famous cars all popularly referred to after 1921 as the Brescia model. But whatever may have been the case in Bugatti’s native France, I maintain that for a long time after the first of these models arrived in this country these cars were regarded as something apart, a rather mysterious manifestation, which even those sportsmen who went about in side-valve Speed Model Hillmans, sports Calthorpes and Riley Redwings and the like or who aspired to the first of the o.h.v. 12/50 “ducks-back” Alvises, preferred to leave well alone, under the impression that the little Bugatti was not easy to live with and maintain.

The excellent performance of which the 16-valve Bugatti was capable was clearly demonstrated to those who frequented Brooklands and the British public-road speed trial and speed hill-climb venues in those early nineteen-twenties. Drivers such as Leon Cushman, Pierre de Vizcaya, Mones-Maury, Bernard Marshall and L. Lancaster saw to that, and emphasis was given to their achievements by the indomitable Raymond Mays, who obtained incredible pace from his pair of horseshoeradiatored cars, “Cordon Rouge” and “Cordon Bleu”, which had been administered to internally by his friend Amherst Villiers. But, away from the circuits and speed-courses, I suggest that for a number of years after its introduction there by the British Concessionaires, Messrs. Jarrott & Letts, the Bugatti from far-away Molsheim was regarded mainly with awe. This is perhaps borne out by the fact that when, during the war, in 1917, the publishing-house of Iliffe & Sons somehow got its hands on an eight-valve Bugatti it had a field day, publishing long descriptions of the little French wonder in each of its three motoring journals, The Autocar, The Automobile Engineer and The Light Car, to the extent of including a valve-timing diagram, which was most unusual, and still is, and that when Major (later Sir) H. O. D. Segrave brought his Le Mans-winning 16-valve Bugatti to England in 1921, having driven it at up to 80 m.p.h. on the road from Strasbourg to Paris, packing 63 miles into the hour on one stretch, The Autocar devoted four pages and eleven illustrations to describing it, again publishing a timing-diagram. Incidentally, the power output claimed for this 1.4-litre Bugatti that had won the 1920 GP des Voiturettes, namely 291/2 b.h.p., may have given owners of 12/50 Alvises a warm comfy feeling, even if the actual output of their push-rod o.h.v. engines from Coventry was probably nearer 40-45 than 50 b.h.p., developed at some 4,400 r.p.m., whereas Segrave’s Bugatti peaked at only 2,750 r.p.m. and was in single (Zenith) carburetter form, with one magneto to supply its eight sparking-plugs.

It was this Bugatti which was to have replied to Lionel Martin’s £50 challenge to a five-lap Match Race at Brooklands against one of his (allegedly more standard) Aston-Martins, of which it was his proud claim that he had designed it after close study of both Bugatti and Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost cars, his chassis and gearbox apparently benefiting from the former, but the Aston-Martin having a sober 11/2-litre side-valve engine in the best 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royce tradition. Alas, the race failed to materialise, although the challenge had been accepted by Major Lefrère, Jarrott & Letts’ Manager who had especial charge of their Bugatti interests, because in practice the Bugatti shed its propeller-shaft, which dug into the concrete. Cushman, who was driving at the time, was uninjured, but presumably the damage to the car was extensive, because the race was never recalled. Although Segrave had commissioned Hawker’s to build a streamlined body for 6′ 3″ wheelbase chassis, he was by then more concerned with his call to be a professional racing-driver in Louis Coatalen’s STD Grand Prix team, and this Bugatti and the 1914 GP Opel, with which de Hane had demonstrated his racing ability, were sold. The 16-valve Bugatti had been seen in this country in less dramatic circumstances long before this. At the first post-war London Motor Show at Olympia in 1919, Jarrott & Letts of Page Street, Westminister, took stand No. 52 and showed on it 2/3-seater and coupé-de-ville-bodied 16-valve Bugattis, then termed the 10 / 12 h.p. model (they had the 66 x 100 mm engine), the latter body with basketwork finish to the closed part of the coachwork. This body, unusual for such a small car (the wheelbase of these short chassis production models was 7′ 101/2″), may have been an attempt to attract the less-racy sort of clientèle, but the open car, with its low build and angle-section mudguards, was an eye-catching little car, although it is remarkable that one critic thought its 710 x 90 tyres too large for it (earlier Bugattis had made do with 650 x 65 beaded-edge tyres). But it was a very expensive proposition, the chassis alone being priced at £750. That at a time when a complete 30 / 98 Vauxhall could be bought for less than twice the price, or a 10 h.p. Sporting Calthorpe with smart aluminium bonnet and more protective body for about half as much. For £100 more, thinking in terms of a bare chassis, you could have had a 3-litre Bentley, another “sixteen-valver”, had it existed at that date instead of W.O.’s exhibit being a Motor Show dummy. It is rather surprising to find that, although the Bugatti’s engine was said to run up to 4,000 r.p.m., its top speed was quoted as only 62 m.p.h., although this was impressive in an age when many small cars began to labour after attaining a mere 35 m.p.h. or so. Even the Bentley with double the capacity was only guaranteed to do 70 m.p.h., but with four occupants; although how you can guarantee the speed of a car you haven’t built is a conundrum I cannot solve. . . By 1921, however, 70 m.p.h. was claimed for the 66 x 100 rata 16-valve Bugatti, the speed later guaranteed for the 12 / 50 Supersports Alvis, while a minimum Brooklands lap-speed of 65 m.p.h. was guaranteed for the side-valve Aston-Martin. Here we may digress to wonder why Chas, Jarrett & Letts had taken up the sole British agency for the Bugatti. Jarrott, once so famous, had not been a racing driver for a great many years, so his prowess no longer endorsed cars like the De Dietrich that he used to sell and William Letts, KCB, was closely associated with the rather pedestrian Crossleys, being, in fact, Managing Director of Crossley Motors Ltd. Jarrott & Lens Ltd. had been criticised for its stand against the importation of cheap foreign cars while having a number of these on its own books. But Jarrott & Letts continued to sell Bugattis, I think, until they wound up their business, saying they had customers for as many as they could import, and Letts was instrumental in introducing the Crossley-Bugatti, a Gorton-assembled Brescia, three of which competed in the 1922 loM TT, Mones-Maury’s finishing 3rd in the 1,500 c.c. race, behind the 16-valve Talbot-Darracqs.

Rumour suggested that these Manchester-Brescias were poor copies of the Alsace product, even to the machining being so incompetent that they were turned out with the wheelbase fractionally longer on one side than on the other! The plot had been hatched by Letts late in 1921 but it wasn’t until 1923 that the project really got going, by which time Crossley’s were so busy with their own cars (including the not-so-pedestrian 20/70 h.p. sports model — see MOTOR SPORT for December 1981) that the Bugatti manufacturing idea was abandoned, two dozen or so Brescias being built-up instead from imported unfinished components, machined and assembled in the Crossley factory. One possibly-biased reporter claimed that these Crossley-Bugattis were every bit as good as their French-made counterparts, having much quieter indirect gears and better brakes (this at a time when the howl of the cogs and the need to use the bulb horn in lieu of braking were part of the Bugatti hallmark), an improved lubrication system, and a smoother engine, which, however, was some eight to ten m.p.h. down on performance. They were also less-expensive, for in 1923 Jarrott & Letts were trying to unload these chassis at £350 each. By then these British Sole Concessionaires had taken showrooms in Conduit Street, like Rolls-Royce, and were advertising that unless cars were ordered from them, the Bugatti guarantee was invalid. Perhaps the move had been prompted by B. S. Marshall, the London Bugatti agent, trading not far away, in Hanover Square. . . .

I think that Jarrott & Letts continued to sell Bugattis up to the time of closing down. By that time the make was more popular here, following the introduction of the straight-eight-cylinder models, and from around 1925 / 26 the Brixton Road Bugatti depot was opened, staffed by mechanics, led by the skilled Mischal, brought over from France, under the control of Col. W. L. Sorel, who had been with Jarrott & Letts before becoming Humber’s Export Manager. Mr. Norton was the Works-Manager. Here, in close proximity to London taxicabs and the occasional Marendaz Special, all of which shared this special garage near Kennington Oval, spares and service were dispensed, to the benefit of members of the Bugatti OC which was formed late in 1929. Later Ettore Bugatti Automobiles showed Grand Prix racers in their premises in Albemarle Street, W1. In this discourse, though, I am thinking of earlier times, when many people regarded Bugattis as queer, temperamental, and decidedly odd little motor-cars. Even those who enthused over them told tales of the dire things that could happen if the wrong oil or plugs were used, of how the engine could be wrecked if it was opened up before the oil was circulating, and how a shear-pin was provided in the drive to the o.h.-camshaft to allow for lubricant failing to reach the valve-gear. It was also noted that the excellent performance was obtained at the cost of continual use of the linger-light gear-change and spark-lever and that the maker explained away the weak transmission-brake and poor retardation from the hand-brake by saying it would be inadvisable to lock the wheels on such a light car. . .

It would be absurd, however, to suggest that at this period no Bugattis were sold here, particularly when it is remembered that the 16-valve models represent about a third of Ettore’s total output. One knows for instance that Colonel G. M. Giles. CBE, MC, TD, was an early owner of some of the first cars to be imported, using them at Brooklands and in MCC trials, etc. First he had a 1914 8-valve Bugatti that cost him £435 secondhand in 1920, followed by a new 16-valve model later in 1920, and another 16-valve chassis, which he kept until late in 1923. The Colonel owned most of the subsequent Bugatti models, being one of the three Founder-Members of the Bugatti Owners Club. As an aside, I used to think, when he teamed up with Kenneth Bear in the early 1930s and they competed with success in MCC and other reliability trials in Type 43s, that this must have been about the most enthralling Bugatti road-motoring imaginable.

Another BOC Founder, D. B. Madeley, had one of the aforesaid rare Crossley-Bugattis. G. P. H. de Freville, the Alvis designer, also claimed much experience at the early four-cylinder Bugatti models, which Hugh Conway sees as showing that the Coventry car stemmed from Bugatti stimulus. I suggest it was more likely that Mr. de Freville was simply self-promoting the 16-valve, o.h.c., 11/2-litre engine that he also had designed. Then there were the private owners who ran their Bugattis with success in sprint contests, like Eddie Hall, Miss Cynthia Turner, Rivers Oldmeadow, legless B. H. Austin, J. W. Scott, E. Smith, A. R. Linsley, H. Wakefield. P. L. Densham, B. Blathernick, W. Wild, etc.

There was publicity, too, from Edgar N. Duffield, who wrote lighthearted prose for The Animator Journal. He owned four Bugattis over a period of 21/2 years, his first a Type 22 two-seater acquired in September 1921, his second, a 1914 8-valve model bought nearly-new in 1922 as a second car, followed by two more Brescias, the last a 1923 chassis costing £575 inclusive of tyres and toolkit. Publicity, yes. But not of the kind to encourage the timid to become a customer! For instance, Duffield told of how, on the run from his home alongside the Hurlingham Club in London to The Auto offices in Kingsway, he might occasionally get into 3rd gear for a few minutes, but how mainly he would be in 2nd, and how if he got onto the 4th speed for a couple of furlongs this was something about which to telephone home. He had not forgotten this six years later when rather casually road-testing a new Type 44 Bugatti Weymann saloon. It seems that the car was driven for most of the brief test by Col. Sorel’s chauffeur, after Duffield had refused to keep the car for the weekend. But he had been impressed by the smoothness and flexibility of the straight-eight 3-litre engine, which would enable this Bugatti to run from “The Bear” at Esher to Aldgate Pump in the City on fourth speed, using 3rd only for re-starting after traffic halts, and Duffield thought that he might back himself for a fiver to do that journey, at noon, on a week-day, all the way in top gear, after a little rehearsal. Col. Sorel’s driver had obviously demonstrated the top-gear performance of the Type 44 very thoroughly, and this resulted in the following classic piece of dialogue at the end of Duffield’s report:-

Sorel’s man said ‘And how do you like it, sir? You said you were due in Town late this afternoon. May I drive you up, or will you drive up, in this car?’
No’, I said, ‘I have to take my wife to Town, and bring her back.’
‘That’s all right, sir; why not in this car?’
‘Because, my young friend’, I replied, ‘my wife has ridden in our series of four earlier Bugattis. If she sat in this car and I said “Yes; this is a Bugatti” she would be like the old lady at the Zoo, confronted with the hippopotamus. You have heard of her, I suppose?’
‘No, sir: I can’t say I have’.
‘Well, when this old lady saw the hippo, she took a good look at it, turned to her son, and said “Jack, I don’t believe it!” — and that,’ I concluded, ‘is what my wife would say to a Bugattt such as this. Tell Col. Sorel that he has convinced me, that I am on my knees, hands well up, — that this Bugatti is just as refined as it is fast, that it is just as amusing a car as ever the little beggers were, but that it is a gentlewoman’s car, whereas, up to five years ago, I regarded Bugattis as cars only for strong, silent men’.”

Someone else wrote of having to change four plugs in ten miles on his Brescia, countered by a glowing recommendation, published in 1921 after 13,000-miles’ experience in the Vosges mountains, by “R.B.B.” (surely not one of the Bugatti family?); it was explained that M. Bugatti himself said that if the shock absorbers did not wear out they were not functioning, but that they could easily be renewed by replacing the brass strips. The Brescia Bugatti’s temperament was still experienced in what we now call the post-vintage days. I remember going to the Lewes Speed Trials with John Smyth in his Brenda, the run down and his chances in the event ruined by continual plug-oiling, after which the engine recovered for no apparent reason and gave him a magnificently exciting run home. And going to the same venue in the company of Donald and Duncan Robinson and their Brescia, the crown-wheel shed a tooth when re-starting in Lewes High Street, so that the 1936 Meadows-HRG I was driving seemed civilised in comparison, and, as might be expected, was 4.7 secs. faster in the hill climb.

Prices for the 16-valve Bugatti fell to £735 for the chassis, £920 for the 3-seater by 1920, to £650 and £750 respectively by 1921, when CAV lighting and Budge wheels were fitted, and, by 1922, a 2-seater cost £500, the 3-seater £650. This was still very expensive but a few specialist coachbuilders showed interest, like Alford & Alder who put a staid 2-seater body on a 16-valve chassis in 1921 and Maude & Son of Stockton-on-Tees who did likewise with an aluminium 2-seater with black chassis and wheels that year. A stripped 11.9 h.p., 69 x 100 mm., chassis graced the stand at Olympia in 1920, said to weigh 9 cwt. The claimed 48 m.p.g. of fuel seems like some of today’s exaggerated claims! This 4-seater model cost £900 in 1921.

The Autocar conducted a test of a 68 x 100 mm., 8′ 4″-wheelbase, Bugatti 3-seater (Reg. No. XK 3168) early in 1922. At Brooklands, it did fractionally better than 58 m.p.h. over the mile, fully-laden, with the wind behind it; the tester thought this “at once placed the car in a separate category”, which is further proof of how slow cars then were. The Test Hill was then ascended at 16.23 m.p.h. and 10 — 30 m.p.h. acceleration took 8.6 sec. through the gears or 22.8 sec. in top gear. It should be said that this ratio was as high as 3.5:1 and that the car weighed over 131/2 cwt. laden. It gave a notable 38 m.p.g., making a range of 266 miles. As with other test reports, the very quick, light, gear change, and the exceptionally good road holding and springing were praised, as was the quiet overhead camshaft valve gear, and the brakes were good. The Surrey test route was used, the Bugatti climbing White Downs, Pebblecombe and Box Hill with great verve. The hood was found to be effective on the run along the embankment and out of London in the rain.

The Light Car & Cyclecar testers were more ambitious, dressing up like aviators for a winter two-day 700-mile excursion to North Wales and back to London in 1925. Three years earlier on a day at Brooklands with XK 3168, they had clocked 621/2 m.p.h. over the flying-mile, two up, getting 20, 40 and 50 m.p.h. in the gears, when more extravagant claims were for top speeds of 70 and 90 m.p.h. respectively from the “touring” and the sports/racing (so called Brescia Modifié) chassis. The later long Welsh trip was quite eventful, maintaining, as it were, the “Bugatti tradition”. The footbrake spring broke before they had reached Worcester, so that most of the lining of the transmission brake was worn away, making that brake next to useless for descents of BwIch-y-Groes etc., all the plugs had to be changed, twice the fuel filter required cleaning, and every one of the tyres gave trouble, so that recourse had to be made to new tubes and blow-out gaiters. In spite of which, the little £500 Bugatti inspired them so much that it was referred to as “a splendid touring-car for the enthusiast”. The last word seems to have been the operative one! The rear braked 4-seater climbed Bwlch-y-Groes, three-up, in the 12 to 1 bottom gear at 25 m.p.h., in a snowstorm, its radiator tepid at the summit, and with speeds of nearly 30, 49, over 60, and 70 m.p.h. in the gears, average speeds exceeded 40 m.p.h. In London, they got 28 m.p.g., improving to 32 m.p.g. at fast touring speeds, and a quart of oil was needed. The speedometer read 14% optimistic on the mileometer. The homeward run, in the dark, showed the headlamps to be powerful and the handbrake responded to adjustment, but the footbrake remained useless, the hood being regarded as being equally worthless.

MOTOR SPORT also had its go in 1925, in the same car. Richard Twelvetrees, the then Editor, collected the car from Page Street and spent a weekend with the pointed-tail 4-seater (AT 8803). Even in London traffic, 52 m.p.h. was seen in 2nd gear, although the engine was surprisingly flexible in top, in which gear 10 m.p.h. speed limits were negotiated legally, if our tester was being honest. The Bugatti was used to “bait” cars and motorcycles which tried to match its performance and it was such fun that Twelvetrees compiled little verse about it:”Johnny had a little BUG, changed gear with a flick, The guy that wants to catch that BUG, has gotta be damn quick” – mercifully, our subsequent road testers were obviously not as poetical! The test took in Brooklands, as the photographs showed, but very oddly, no performance figures were published for this late-type 69 x 100 mm. Brescia. Criticisms were confined to the driver not being able to read the speedometer at speed (perhaps Twelvetree was “copped”), the inaccessible fuel-filler necessitating removal of the spare wheel to reach it, the narrow and too shallow passenger seats and a seeming lack of proper weather protection. At the track it was flung round the hairpin when the entrace road ran down to the tunnel under the Members’ banking, which would have caused trouble had the BARC officials seen what was afoot; remembering that in Edwardian days man-operated ramp had been put beyond this tunnel in order to curb such exuberance.

After this, the 16-valve Bugatti was overshadowed by the splendid Grand Prix Type 35, the touring eight-cylinder Type 30, and soon by the Type 37 and Type 40, etc. In its day though, it was an intriguing proposition with its unusual banana-tappets beneath its overhead camshaft, its jet-lubricated big-end hearings, its “bunch of bananas” exhaust, etc. Noisy inadequately braked (at least before the advent of front wheel brakes for it early in 1925, a racing benefit) and temperamental it may have been, but its talented creator would brush complaining customers aside, rather as Archie Frazer-Nash regarded them when they asked why there were no doors on his early cars, Ettore Bugatti saying, in effect, “so what”, adding the unanswerable comment “Mais, ça marché. . .” — W.B.

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