Not long ago, I had the interesting experience of driving the Bugatti ‘Black Bess’ up Kop Hill, near Princes Risborough.
This Bugatti is one of only two of the five-litre cars created by Ettore Bugatti before the First World War to come to this country, although there is another in what was the Schlumpf museum in France. After ‘Black Bess’ had appeared in Brooklands races and then been driven in speed trials, and hillclimbs by Miss Ivy Cummings in the 20s, I discovered it derelict at Michael McEvoy’s works in Derby in 1933. It was soon to be restored quite splendidly by Colonel GM Giles of the Bugatti OC. However, there is no need to detail the famous car’s history here, as a book about it, commissioned by David Heimann, is in contemplation. The reason why I drove the car up Kop was because this was the scene, in 1923, of one of Ivy Cummings’ best performances and it was fun to re-enact the occasion. That David Heimann and I choose the wettest day of June to do this was down to fate! Having driven to the picturesque village of Ickford where ‘Bess’ was stabled, it was deemed prudent, in view of the almost unceasing torrential rain, to take the Bugatti out to the venue in Ivan Dutton’s diesel Mercedes-Benz transporter. There ‘Black Bess’ was unloaded and quickly energised into its characteristic, exciting bark. I then drove it rather ineffectively up the classic gradient, the one where in 1924 the mild accident involving an onlooker and the ex-Raymond Mays Brescia Bugatti Cordon Bleu caused such public road speed events to be banned by the RAC from 1925. There is a bump about halfway up was it this, perhaps, that caused the Bugatti driver, Francis Giveen, to deflect onto the bank and over someone’s legs?
The hill is still clearly signed and no one objected to our return there with the bigger Bugatti, now of course taxed, insured and with full road equipment, although for the ascent the screen was folded down. I am sure I got nowhere near Ivy Cummings’ time of 33.6s – it was the first time I had sat in the car, and the weather conditions were against any heroic runs, which are out-of-place on unclosed roads anyway, so I kept to a safe 2500 rpm in first and second gears…
But the experience gave me a good insight into what ‘Black Bess’ is like, an Edwardian which will cruise at 70 mph all day on more level going.
The seats of the Labourdette body, made for the Bugatti’s first owner, the accomplished French aviator Roland Garros, are sharply staggered but the driver’s seat fitted me perfectly. The pull-on handbrake is outside, the gearlever on the right within the cockpit, both slim levers topped by press-buttons, one to hold the brakes on, the other to act as a reverse-catch. The gear change, as much as I was called upon to use it, presents no problems and the clutch can be engaged smoothly, given a modicum of care, and the steering is light. There is a small central accelerator, off which I have to confess my foot slipped momentarily. The brake pedal, operating a brake somewhat more reassuring than the hand brake, is up close to the steering column, so that locating it with the right foot can take a moment or three, as I discovered when ‘Bess’ tried to get away for a yard or two, coming back down Kop. Apologies to Ivan, who was riding with me.
The Bugatti’s equipment includes a sidemounted spare wheel, the tyres being 880 x 120 Dunlops, and fine brass Anglolyte headlamps from London’s Kingsway. Also, a matching and very well located rear-view mirror. The gear positions, unlike those of later Bugattis are the normal H-pattern 1-2-3-4 with reverse back beyond second gear. The screen frame has glass panels below the main glass. Trying the brakes, I found the hand lever quite reasonably effective, if pulling the car to the left, and the foot brake even more so. The dashboard is most impressively stocked. From left to right one finds a clock, dash lamp, ammeter, an essence gauge, the lamps’ switches one above t’other, a water heat gauge reading to 100degC, the huile gauge below this, calibrated ‘1, 05, 2’, then, nearer to the driver, the speedometer with trip kilometer reading, and to its left the tachometer, which is angled above the dash panel and reads from five to 3000 rpm. The fuel tank pressure pump is conveniently in front of the pilot, and handthrottle and advance-and-retard levers protrude beside it. Even that’s not all, for there is the Ki-gass priming pump, a push-pull petrol cut-out, the starter-button and an ignition switch beneath the dashboard. Impressive, even before you start the four-cylinder, overhead-camshaft three-valves-per-cylinder engine.
But, as I said, the full story of this rare and famous chain-drive Bugatti the design of which dates from circa 1908, will soon be told in book form. It was fun taking it up Kop, a three-quarter-mile hill, which starts on the level before rising on an incline to a maximum of one-in-five, an almost straight hill set between T-junctions just outside the built-up areas of Princes Risborough. The grass banks flanking the once timed 902 yards, on which the spectators assembled and where the calamity happened that ended all these carefree events, are now overgrown. Otherwise the scene is much the same as it was when Ivy Cummings competed there, nearly 70 years ago. W B