I made reacquaintance in December with that unique Bugatti “Black Bess”. A quite remarkable Edwardian, able, as I observed, to cruise all day at 70 mph or more, which isn’t bad for a 1913 car with a 5-litre engine. The call was from the BBC, to again drive the old warrior up Kop Hill near Princes Risborough, where Miss Ivy drove it to class wins in 1923. For its “Top Gear” appearance Ivan Dutton had made the old car absolutely spick and span, and since I had last driven it the clutch had been made to engage smoothly. I again became aware of the quite “signal-box” size of the r h brake and gear levers and whereas previously the foot brake had been more effective than the handbrake, or so I thought, now it was the latter which was the one to use to slow the Bugatti on Kop’s 1-in-5 downhill gradient.
If a passenger is carried he or she sits remarkably far behind the driver, a feature the long-legged must appreciate. Hardly used to “Bess”, I found the gear change hard work, but only because I was restricted to first and second gears for the exercise in question, and the lever is stiff across the gate, and close to the brake lever, as a bruise on my right hand reminds me. The actual changes, if you are quick, are easy.
There was the reminder of how thorough TV producers are, a five-minute slot on screen taking over three hours to film! “Black Bess” showed no objection, except when I forgot that the engine loses speed slowly after the mag-switch is cut, so that if you release the button too soon the engine runs backwards, cascading oil over one’s left shoe! But most old cars deserve skilled drivers and “Bess” had recognised that I wasn’t one of them. . . Later Ivan gave a good impression of what “Black Bess” must have looked like when after Kop victories. The steepness of the Bucks hill is such that this does not entail much over 2,500 rpm in second gear, so is within the present speed limit.
Ivy Leonara Cummings was the girl who taught herself to drive at Brooklands before WWI in a SCAR, without her father’s permission, and raced a 30/98, Gregoire, Ansaldo, Coupe de L’Auto Sunbeam, “Bess” and Brescia Bugattis, an Akela GN and her Frazer Nash, at Brooklands and in sprints, with many successes. In 1925 she sold “Bess” to Oxford undergraduate L H Preston, who lapped Brooklands at over 92-1/2 mph. It is ironic that when I was persuaded by “Bess’s” owner, David Heimann, to do a book on the unique chaindrive Bugatti, I tried hard to trace Preston, to no avail. But, too late, a photograph of the car wearing a radiator cowl, with (presumably) Preston and Ivy in it, turned up.
Enough — it is all there in the book which Mike McCarthy was kind enough to call “Absorbing”, another reviewer “This delightful little book. . . conceived for a relatively small clan of early Bugatti enthusiasts”, and a copy of which l am sure Aries Press Ltd, 2 Charles Street, WI, would like to sell you.