Liberte, egalite, velocity

Bugatti was a fading GP force by the mid-1930s, but its Le Mans victories were still ahead of it. Phil Llewellin samples its winning 57G of 1937 – and tells of the French hero who raced it.

Photography by Martyn Goddard

France’s indomitable Robert Benoist was the hero whose outstanding exploits in racing cars were nothing to his deeds when the world was twice engulfed by war. Being hailed as grand prix racing’s first world champion at the wheel of a Delage in 1927, long before today’s title was inaugurated – is an almost insignificant part of his gallant, tragic story. Away from the cars he drove so well, Benoist displayed outstanding coolness, courage and daring as a pilot in WWI and as one of SOE’s agents between 1940-44. Escapades worthy of a Hollywood adventure movie ended when he was captured, tortured and murdered.

Seven years earlier, Benoist and Jean-Pierre Wimille had shared a Bugatti T57G to win Le Mans at the record average of 85.14mph after raising the lap record to 96.43mph. Their nearest rival, a Delahaye 135CS, was 64 miles behind.

My pulse is racing right now, because I’m about to be let loose in the very same car. This would be a stressful moment even in ideal circumstances, because the car is worth a fortune. But the conditions are about as far from favourable as they could be, short of Mother Nature unleashing a freak blizzard. Time is running out, due to a mechanical problem, and so I’m going to drive this big, powerful, mettlesome hunk of history in mid-afternoon traffic on Broad Street, Philadelphia’s main highway.

I have no idea what will happen when I engage the clutch, which feels as light and responsive as a concrete block, or when I grapple with the gearbox and shove the cable-operated brakes. “Don’t worry we’re real close to several hospitals if you have a heart attack,” jokes the car’s effervescent minder, David Lloyd George II. He is blissfully unaware that my medical history includes several encounters with coronary care specialists.

* * *

Ettore Bugatti had his problems, too, in the mid-1930s. The worldwide depression was bad news for a business dedicated to making small numbers of exquisite and expensive cars. The fact that the enormous Type 41 Royale failed to attract a single royal customer epitomised this. On the track, his marque’s reputation at the highest level had been shaded, first by Alfa Romeo, then by the state-backed might of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. By 1937, the brightest star in Bugatti’s firmament was the Type 57, for which Ettore’s son Jean takes much of the credit.

Launched in 1934, and destined to be the most popular of all Bugattis — about 750 were sold before production ended in 1940— this gorgeous grand routier was based on a conventional chassis frame with non-independent suspension by leaf springs. Power came from an elegant, 3.3-litre straight-eight with twin overhead camshafts driven by gears at the rear of the six-bearing crankshaft. Naturally-aspirated and supercharged versions delivered between 135bhp and 200bhp, and a prudent rev limit was 5500rpm. Performance obviously depended on factors such as chassis length and bodywork, which ranged from saloons to ravishingly rakish roadsters and the Atlantique coupes.

Marque expert Hugh Conway admits that, after the 1935 season, details of Bugatti’s racing programme become “involved and very confusing to the humble historian, without accurate factory records”. However, we know that three sensational Type 57G sports-racers made their debut in the following year’s French Grand Prix.

The mind’s eye sees Bugatti’s racing cars with exposed wheels, but these new cars had an all-enveloping, long-tailed body that may not have been beautiful, but carved a much cleaner path through the air than most of its rivals. The subsequent ‘tank’ nickname recalled the quartet of slab-sided, ultra-short-chassis Bugattis that had contested the 1923 French GP at Tours. Their strange appearance prompted one commentator to denigrate “weird bodies, almost enveloping the chassis and wheels, to reduce wind resistance”. But those smooth, low-slung, 2-litres were good for almost 120mph.

A problem with the starter motor on our two-tone-blue Bugatti gave me plenty of time to study the car and reflect on the Type 57G’s history. The shape was controversial, but the doubters swallowed their words when the car driven by Wimille and Raymond Sommer kept a posse of Delahayes at bay to win on its debut Wimille also won the Mame GP at Reims, where Benoist finished second and their team-mate, Pierre Veyron, was fourth. A little later, those drivers — and Grover Williams — set a bunch of Group C world records for cars with engines of between three and five litres. Benoist packed 135.42 miles into an hour and helped his comrades hoist the 24-hour mark to 123.93mph. What power the unsupercharged 57G’s engine cranked out is open to speculation, but Conway credits the road-going Type 57S version of the straight-eight with “about 170bhp” at 5500 rpm. The torquey racer must have a little more muscle, thanks to lighter pistons, bigger valves and a slightly higher compression ratio.

Photographic evidence reveals the record breaker to be the car in which Benoist and Wimille won Le Mans. Details that catch the eye after sweeping along its wafer-thin aluminium body, which is 186in long by 68in wide, include the exposed spare wheel, twin filler caps for fuel — enough to race for just over 300 miles — and the stubby, shrouded light that protrudes at an angle from just ahead of the driver’s door. It was fitted to illuminate pit signals while racing at night.

I counted 242 louvres cut into the bonnet. Secured by two leather straps, which must have been awkward to release in the hurly-burly of a rain-lashed nocturnal pitstop, it lifts to reveal the cowling that ducts air through a squat version of Bugatti’s horseshoe-shaped radiator. This component is shared with the Type 59 grand prix cat So are the eye-catching ‘piano wire’ wheels whose spokes handle radial loads while torque generated by accelerating and braking is managed by ring-gear teeth in the rim which interlock with counterparts in the brake drum.

Getting aboard is a challenge. Having negotiated the tiny door, which lifts rather than swings, what matters most is not making a foot-shaped hole in the aluminium floor. So you stretch and swivel to bridge the gap between the outside of the body and the trustworthy chassis rail. The driving position is almost lean-forward rather than merely upright, and there’s no rearward adjustment, so you sit vintage-style, very close to the big, four-spoke wheel. The dashboard is busy with impressive switches and dials, the most important being the huge Jaeger rev-counter, which reads to 8000rpm, and the gauges for oil pressure and water temperature. There’s a large oil tank away to the left of the cockpit, beyond the four-speed gearbox’s long, slender, cranked-back lever.

The starter has now given up the ghost, but a short push and a slick snick into second gear cajoles the straight-eight into rasping, roaring, intoxicating life. This happens in a very confined space packed with many other equally exotic cars — Alfa Romeo, Bentley, Stutz, Mercedes, Auburn, Ferrari, Cunningham, Maserati, Delahaye, Aston Martinjaguar — because the Bugatti’s home is an outwardly anonymous second-floor building in the city centre. I hop into the passenger’s seat, quivering with a mixture of boyish excitement and adult concern, while George takes the wheel and blasts into the traffic as if he were driving a clapped-out Chevy worth no more than 10 bucks. At the anything-but-casual end of the spectrum, I now know how people will react when a UFO lands in Philadelphia.

“How about here?” George asks, stopping where tree-lined Broad Street’s traffic is slightly less likely to be a problem. I try to sound stoical, croaking something about this being a long way from the Mulsanne Straight and note how my knuckles match the gear lever’s white knob while contrasting with the steering wheel’s wooden rim. More seriously, I also register how close the pedals are to each other, notably the clutch and brake, despite this old warhorse being so wide overall.

But there are three items of good news: the first being that Bugatti built right-hand-drive cars; the second is that Ettore favoured conventional pedal positions rather than the potentially expensive pre-war alternative, which puts the accelerator where Mr Modem Motorist expects the brake to be; the third is that this gearbox has the familiar ‘H’ layout, whereas some Bugattis locate second and fourth where first and third usually are.

The clutch is a tad less uncompromising than its counterpart in the only other racing Bugatti I have ever driven, a truly ferocious 4.9-litre Type 54, but there’s very little travel. Worries about stalling and not being able to restart without a push dictate plenty of revs, so the difference between standing still and getting going is as sudden as flicking a switch.

The motor emits a spine-tingling martial music — a terrific howling of gears mingles with the crackle from the exhaust system’s six small tailpipes — but I’m far more concerned by the risk of ghastly noises coming from the gearbox. Gently from first to second, pausing in neutral to let the revs drop, then an anguished “Aaaargh!” followed by an Anglo-Saxon expletive as my attempt to slot third results in an awful crunching graunch. More concerned about making a critical left turn, I must have hit first after failing to move the willowy lever right across the gate.

But the high tide of something close to heart-stopping panic slowly ebbs away as I begin to get a feel for the big Bugatti. The shifts start going to plan most of the time, the brakes are acceptable — granted a big right foot is required — and the steering recalls my Jaguar X1J120 in that it’s heave-and-grunt heavy at low speeds, but fine when the ‘Bug’ gets into its stride.

The roadside trees, the cockpit’s heat, the drive-train’s visceral scream and the view through the little aero-screen down that long, broad, heavily ventilated bonnet, plus a dash of imagination and romanticism, together provide more than enough stimulus to make me believe this is Le Mans in 1937. There’s no real opportunity to see how the Bugatti corners on its Dunlop Fort tyres, but the impression is of a nicely balanced car that responds to the throttle as well as the steering.

I give thanks for the fact that Ettore took this historic racer to Bordeaux, where it was hidden when the winds of war started sweeping across Europe in September 1939. A gentleman by the name of Gene Cesari shipped it to the USA in ’61 and some time later offered it for what it had cost him — next to nothing, almost certainly — to the Automobile Club de l’Ouest, which has staged Le Mans ever since the first 24-hour race was run, way back in ’23. The club had the mind-blowing cheek to say it would accept the car as a gift — but only if Cesari paid all the transport costs. He declined.

The Bugatti is now worth several million dollars, but its real value is as a fitting memorial to Benoist, the heroes’ hero, who was arrested by the Gestapo on June 18, 1944. The Captain’s last words before he was hanged from a piano wire in Buchenwald concentration camp are said to have been a defiant “Vive la France!”

Those who escaped that fateful Nazi swoop included his partner in the Sarthe success, Wimille. Jean-Pierre jumped through a window, hid in a river and survived the hostilities to become one of the immediate post-war era’s greatest drivers.