Phoenix from the flames

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This Type 43 has had a harder life than most Bugattis, after being both scorched and submerged at separate times, but it’s one of motoring’s great survivors
Writer Gordon Cruickshank

How racing safety has changed. I’m not talking belts, HANS or Nomex; I’m talking about cheerfully exposing pit crews to fumes that can cause liver damage or even coma. Why? Because between the wars a nasty chemical called carbon tetrachloride was a common fire extinguishant, and when the car in these photos caught fire just two laps into the 1928 Tourist Trophy, gallons of this harmful stuff were pumped over it. Motor Sport commented that the dense fumes drove nearby spectators back, but despite these health-risking efforts the car burned furiously on, its race well and truly run. However, enough of it was salvageable to get it back on the road within the year, and since then it has given successive owners the same delight it gave its initial purchaser, multiple Land Speed Record smasher Sir Malcolm Campbell.

Having raced a stable of Bugattis already, Campbell was bound to be interested when Ettore’s firm revealed a new model, more useable than its svelte Grand Prix cars but almost as fast. A car, in fact, that qualified as a Grand Tourer before the term appeared, and which had plenty of competition potential. Appearing in early 1927 it was labelled ‘Type 43 Grand Sport’, and easily merited both descriptives. Essentially a sports version of the GP car, slotting the 35B’s 2.3-litre blown eight into a long chassis with a tougher gearbox and electric starter, its tight four-seater torpedo body and tapered tail gave it a racy look, with a single door on the passenger side. Capable of 110mph or more, it had few if any rivals in the sports car field – or the price list. It cost more than the GP car, at £1200 about the same as a Rolls-Royce, but wealthy buyers weren’t hard to find – at the beginning. By the close of 1930 when production petered out, the aftershock of the Wall Street crash meant that the last few of the 160 Type 43s assembled sat unsold in Molsheim’s warehouse.

But in 1927 a high-performance sports car was a useful weapon. With Grand Prix racing ailing despite new Formule Libre rules for 1928, other fields beckoned and a 3-litre sports model was ideal for endurance events and fast touring, yet still a strong contender on hill and track. Motor Sport tried one, describing it as “sheer joy” with its “almost unconscious cornering and terrific acceleration”. Who more likely a customer than the newly crowned Fastest Man in the World, Malcolm Campbell? A regular Bugatti customer, he had already raced a 43 in a Brooklands handicap race in September 1927 and contacted his friend Col Sorel, the UK importer, to order one for the following season. By April, two months after Campbell pushed the LSR to 206.9mph at Daytona, chassis 43171 was in his Brooklands garage to be prepared for its race debut in the Essex 6 Hours – where it was sidelined with a fuel problem. Unfazed, Campbell entered it for the Tourist Trophy across the Irish Sea at Ards in August, a patch of British soil where road racing was permitted.

In place of the 43’s tapering tail, for the TT Campbell fitted a barrel-back rear body shrouding a sideways upright spare wheel instead of the usual side mount, the only one of the three Type 43s competing at Ards to feature this design. The other two belonged to Lord Curzon (later Lord Howe) who shipped two over, one for practice and one to race. These shared a modification with Campbell’s car that both would regret.

With the Bentley team withdrawing, the Bugattis’ main class rivalry in this 410-mile handicap event was likely to be Birkin’s and Cook’s private Bentleys and a pair of Austro-Daimlers for Mason and Paul. As the clock chimed 11am drivers sprinted to their cars – and paused to put the hoods up. That was production car racing at the time: two hooded laps were compulsory, but conveniently the 43 could boast a rather skimpy canvas lid. Sure enough, when engines barked into life Birkin led off, pursued by Curzon with Campbell fifth away. He was still fifth when two 12-minute laps later he headed for his pit to lower his hood – but as Motor Sport put it he was “followed by a large sheet of flame”. Unaware, faithful mechanic Leo Villa leaped out to undo the canvas, and the rear of the machine erupted as fuel from a split tank met hot exhaust, possibly aggravated by pooling in the 43’s full-length undertray. Mechanics leapt to drag fuel churns away from the flames while officials aimed their carcinogenic fluids at the inferno, other drivers having to surge on through the dense black smoke blossoming across the track. And all the time Malcolm Campbell was shouting “Save the engine! Save the engine!” As it burned, some of the pit crew got a rope on it and dragged it past the pits, away from the hundreds of gallons of petrol waiting along the counter for refuelling stops. There it smouldered, the rear badly damaged but the front end saved as its fretful owner hoped.

According to Bugatti historian David Venables the car had an aircraft-type bag tank fitted in the UK in place of the factory one – and so had Curzon’s 43. Soon his tank proved to be leaking as well, and he sensibly retired before the same fate could befall his machine. A third 43 in the race, probably a stealth factory entry as it was driven by works tester Louis Dutilleux, finished ninth – with a sound fuel tank. Bad as it looked, the car was worth rescuing. It took a while, Campbell having so many racing irons in the fire, but early in 1931 the Brooklands Motor Co ran an advert for it stating “capable of 110mph, raced by Sir Malcolm Campbell”. The price? £375. But presumably you could haggle…

So far in the story there is no trace of road certification, so the new owner WM Faulkner had it registered PJ679 before entering it in Brooklands races and hill climbs. Photos from these events show it restored to standard 43 form, with tapered tail and side-mounted spare. From Faulkner it passed to Leslie Bachelier, a well-known marque dealer and racer, from whom Peter Hampton bought it in 1934. He wrote extensively about it in Motor Sport in March 1943, saying the performance took his breath away. It was, he said, “My first real motoring thrill and I shall never forget it; the stink of Castrol R, the scream of everything as we accelerated at a fantastic pace; the straight-through gear changes, the heat from engine and exhaust on the floorboards, and the amazing rapidity with which we were doing 90-100 mph on short by-roads and seemingly suicidal speeds round corners with no roll or slide – this was too much for me. I said ‘Yes, I’ll take that one’.”

A renowned vintage car figure, Hampton had many adventures with PJ679, including having to be dragged backwards out of the River Exe by a horse, and over his 10,000-mile ownership he made many changes – new interior, dash, instruments and sweeping wings – but also had a pile of trouble with it, changing carb, gears, pistons, dynamo and more. His sad summary on selling it was, “I had a lot of fun with the car, but could never be sure that I would reach my destination other than on the wrong end of a rope.”

After a string of short-term owners 43171 settled down in the early 1960s with a Dr Mirrey, who kept it until 1982, as an advert in Motor Sport confirms. During the 1990s Bugatti specialist Ivan Dutton conducted a complete restoration so, barring black paint instead of Campbell blue, it now looks once again as it did in Sorel’s Brixton Road depot before Campbell made his ill-fated alterations.

There has been debate about which chassis Campbell drove in that disastrous race, but it seems clear from the paperwork that this is not the car Campbell raced in 1927 and that other contenders suggested from time to time had not in fact arrived from France by race date. Marque expert David Sewell concurs that this is the TT entry. In addition the car still boasts corresponding chassis and engine numbers but has the rear axle from a Type 44, the less grand touring brother to the 43. Which is only to be expected, looking at photos of the burnt car.

With room for four and its famed ability to pull away from rest in top (fourth) gear, the model is still seen as one of the most driveable Bugattis, even if the jewel-like roller-bearing crankshaft does need to be stripped and rebuilt every 5-6000 miles. This one has seen many changes, starting within weeks of delivery from the Molsheim factory, but as it stands it’s a proud survivor of a dramatic moment in racing history, in the hands of one of the legends of British motor sport.

The Campbell Type 43 appears in the Artcurial Retromobile auction in Paris on February 6