"The Amazing Bugattis" Exhibition

“The Amazing Bugattis” Exhibition, thought up by Hugh Conway, CBE, and put on very tastefully indeed at the Royal College of Arts in London, is now over. But its impact will be felt for a long time to come. Never before, even when they were in production, can Bugatti cars have achieved greater publicity. The Bugatti OC had its Reception and Viewing of this remarkable Exhibition on October 20th, preparatory to some 50 Bugattis parading through Hyde Park — the “London Bugatti Grand Prix” — on the Sunday.

The Exhibition, researched, organised and designed by John Whyatt, MA, of the Royal College of Art, helped by an Advisory Committee chaired by Lord Raglan, had already been proving unexpectedly successful, drawing, for instance, 5,000 members of the public to view it on one day alone. The BOC evening was another “full-house”, so full that the buffet-supper was a very transitory thing indeed (surprisingly with no champagne in evidence, although Moet & Chandon were sharing sponsorship of the Exhibition with The Observer newspaper) and one got mostly only momentary glimpses of the Bugatti celebrities present, among whom I noticed Hugh Conway, naturally, Eric Giles, Barrie Price, Hamish Moffat, Janet Missen, “Jumbo” Goddard, Roger Howard, Guy Griffiths, Donald Bastow, Bernard Kain, John Howell, Sandy Skinner, etc., etc. Incidentally, I was relieved to note, outside the adjacent Albert Hall, a number of motor-coaches which were returning to Wales that night — there was a Welsh concert in progress — in one of which I felt we might beg a seat had the party proved overwhelming and driving home been unthinkable. As it was, it wasn’t . . .

One entered the College building through a big cut-out of a Bugatti radiator. Inside, a quite surprisingly-comprehensive display of Bugatti art gladdened the heart and informed the eye. The furniture of Carlo Bugatti (1856-1940) needed more knowledge than I possess to assess it properly. But I know I could do without most of it. Much the same applied to the art and sculpture of Rembrandt Bugatti (1885-1916) but a portrait of the artist painted in oils done by Max Kahn in 1907 was obviously proving moving to two arty ladies who were studying it intently.

It was, of course, the Bugatti cars, the engines and the components, and all the ancillaries relating to these, that created the maximum of interest and, as intended, formed such a fitting memorial to Ettore Bugatti (1881-1947) and his son Jean Bugatti (1909-1939). It may be interesting to list the cars shown, and their owners who so generously let them out of their sight for the duration of the Exhibition. Peter Hampton contributed his 1910 Type 15, Harry Posner lent his 1936 Type 57 Ventoux coach, I. L. Merryfield his 1937 Type 57 Atlante coupe, Mrs. Preston the 1928 Type 40 Fiacre-style coupe, this being an unusual supercharged specimen, with larger brake-drums and, it seemed to me, a wider radiator than standard. H. Haga provided the prototype Type 35 GP Bugatti, sold from the 1924 Olympia Show to Sir Robert Bird, MP. Richard Russell presented his Type 37, Nick Mason the Type 35B he races, and Trebor Ltd. a Type 51. The racing Bugattis formed a showpiece on their own, dominated by Neil Corner’s Type 59. All were absolutely immaculate — marvellous. I never have comprehended how Concours d’Elegance folk get their cars so clean, and keep them that way! This display of GP perfection was offset by Gilmore-Wilson’s Type 52 children’s racer — the genuine article, not one of the inevitable replicas that subsequently appeared.

Other pristine Bugattis along the side-walks were Corner’s Type 55 and Mrs. Bamford’s Type 57SC Atlantic coupe. The cars were supplemented by Type 37, 35B and 45 (16-cylinder) Bugatti engines — lent by Corner, Crosthwaite and Dean — and components innumerable, from wheels and gearbox down to Bugatti nuts and bolts. Not forgetting a Bugatti radiator filler-cap, with those milled serrations to give finger-grip, simple machining even here not being good enough for Ettore. This splendid display was backed up by a great many photographs, trophies, pictures, letters and other Bugatti treasures, even to a pair of boot-pulls in German silver, designed and signed by Ettore. Particularly interesting were the pictures of the horse-drawn coach in which he had hoped to cross the Alps from Strasbourg to his birthplace in Milan but which industrial troubles at Molsheim in 1936 prevented — the coach had ribbed car-type brake drums, and there was a folding knife designed by the versatile Ettore for cutting down any tree branches that might have impeded the coach’s passage (one wonders how Corner acquired this and Ettore’s personal travelling toilet-case). Some covetable harness made at Molsheim around 1935, its polished-steel rings being ivory-lined to prevent chafing, was also shown. Naturally, among such an all-embracing display, Bugatti’s aviation, boat and rail-car interests were represented. Curiously, as Bugattis won so many races there, I noticed only one photograph of a Bugatti at Brooklands, depicting Sir Malcolm Campbell and his car in the pits.

A grand tribute to the Bugatti family in every way, of which the catalogue lists more than 206 items, one wonders if this fine Exhibition, will surface again at some future date? Whether it does or not, it has released a flood of publicity for the Bugatti marque, once catered for by a small but very exclusive Club — so that, in a way, one now turns with some sense of relief to organisations such as, say, the Bean CC or the Clyno Register. Unless, that is, one feels that publicity such as has now fallen to the Bugatti and to the Rolls-Royce through the R-R EC, is required, to endorse fame and desirability. Neither of which make needs either, in my opinion.

Be that as it may, publicity has certainly been the lot of Bugattis this year. Part of this has come from the Press Day which the BOC put on through the generosity (and trust) of some of its members, as reported in Motor Sport last month. The rest has stemmed mostly from this Exhibition. The Observer naturally gave maximum coverage, including an article by Norman Lewis in their Colour Supplement of October 7th. This described how Mr. Lewis started his Bugatti acquaintanceship with a 2-litre straight-eight, possessing a boat-decked body and lacking front-wheel-brakes. It could do 80 m.p.h., and must, one supposes, have been a Type 30. There followed a hoodless Type 40 and a 3-litre straight-eight, the former being driven by Lewis across Europe to the Black Sea and back. He then teamed-up with Arthur Baron. The article mentions their supercharged Brescia Bugatti, which was raced in the 100-mile race on Southport sands, where it apparently finally blew up, and Baron’s subsequent Types 51, 54 and 59. The wreck of the 51 is described as the car in which Mervyn White was killed during the Ulster TT but this is incorrect, as no such accident happened and a Type 51 would presumably have been ineligible anyway, even with road equipment. The Type 54 was the ex-Kaye Don car and the Type 59 was rebuilt after the Duke of Grafton’s fatal accident in it. (It was an unlucky car, because it later killed K. W. Bear; it is now owned by Stafford-East.) The Type 51 is said to have been the ex-Howe car, given a pre-selector gearbox, and Baron and Lewis spent a joint £150 in readying it for the 1939 season. It is wrongly said to have lapped Brooklands at 136 m.p.h.; the fastest lap by a Type 51 that I can find was at just under 128 m.p.h., by Penn-Hughes. Lewis gives a description of the lurid time he had with this Bugatti in the First Mountain Handicap at the Opening BARC Meeting of 1939, and there is a picture of the car taking the Fork in this race, before it skidded up the banking and then spun twice at the Fork, one of these errors caused by being in top gear through a “mistake in gear selection”. Norman Lewis is an honest man . . . the mistakes in his article notwithstanding, it contains two gems. Southport is described as: “. . . an elephant’s graveyard of old racers, drawn there as if by some death-wish”, and of motoring in the vintage years it is said: “The thing was to suffer, and the Bugatti helped you to do this in a way that few cars did”. After 1939 Lewis never sat in a Bugatti again. He was photographed by The Observer with the Type 51 he drove then, “now owned by a Herefordshire farmer”.

The other thing that has publicised the Bugatti this year was the aforesaid “Hyde Park GP”. I missed this, due to another engagement, concocted by, of all people, BOC member, Rivers-Fletcher. — W.B.