Bowler hat with plaid plus-fours — Ettore Bugatti was distinctly different. Italian by birth, he constructed the archetypal French racing car in Alsace-Lorraine, a region that Germany was occupying when he set up his Molsheim factory in 1909 and to which it always laid vigorous claim. An intuitive engineer with a trained artist’s eye, his forms often overruled their functions, an unusual approach that led to some unusual grand prix cars: the ‘barrel’ of 1922, the ‘upturned ink-blotter’ of ’23. Both were clever, eccentric — and off the pace.
Ettore’s next offering — the less sensational but still innovative, and far more beautiful, Type 35 of 1924 — would, however, become the dominant car of its era in every sense. For not only was it powerful enough, agile and stronger than it looked, it was also put into production. Using breakthrough platform engineering principles and interchangeable parts, Ettore was able to build more than 350 and make them available to wealthy amateurs as well as seasoned pros.
Count Masetti got the privateer ball rolling by winning the 1925 Rome Grand Prix. One year later Bugatti was claiming 577 victories for its cars; the following season it was 806! No doubt there was some hectoring involved in these fantastic figures, but it’s certain that the 35 (in all its guises) won more than 60 important races between 1926 and ’31, which is when Jean Bugatti finally persuaded his father that a twin-cam engine was a necessity. Among this tally were five Targa Florios, four French GPs, three San Sebastian, two Monacos, Spanish and Italian, and one Belgian and German. It is true that the 35’s rivals were few and far between on occasion, but a lot of that was due to its excellence as well as its widespread availability.
You have to zoom right in, though, to capture the true spirit of the 35: the way the handle of its external gear lever has a trailing edge; the way a small sleeved spiral changes the phasing between magneto and engine; the way its nuts have to have their flats milled because of Ettore’s demand for built in washers and the consequent use of round bar; the way the handbrake’s cross-shaft rotates inside the tubular shaft from gear lever to ‘box.
Take a step back and it’s those futuristic eight-spoke alloys, with integral drum, which catch the eye. Complex, shapely metalwork abounds on this car, not least the hollow front axle with its forged ends, a masterwork. Lift the bonnet and Ettore’s eye for line and detail is encapsulated by that squared-edge Art Deco straight-eight Its spec, meanwhile, encapsulates his I-know-best cussedness: cast-iron blocks (two of four on a common crankcase) when welded-up sheet-steel water jackets were in vogue; an unusual three-valve set-up (two inlet, one exhaust); and a single cam when two were par for the course. He also snubbed supercharging (initially) and the hemi head. Consequently, the 35 was never the most powerful; where it scored was how it made the most of what it had.
The dashboard’s Roman numeral Jaeger clock (all the GP Bugs have one, it’s the touring cars that don’t!) says it’s one o’clock. Time to go. I had passengered in the car to Prescott hillclimb with its owner Mike Preston and been impressed by stunning tractability — direct-drive top available from as low as 1200rpm, third for square junctions — as well as impressive acceleration, nimbleness and narrowness. The latter was very useful as we sped through a Monaco-sized space between bus and stone wall! But now I am apprehensive.
A reversed-gate, right-hand change (first towards you and pull, top away and push) is playing on my mind. Plus the 10-minute job of removing cycle wings and headlamps has somehow changed the car’s character. With them it had seemed gamine; without them, it’s gained muscles and attitude.
Two or three pumps to bring up fuel-tank pressure (50 grammes should do it), two or three twists on the Ki-gass to prime the inlet manifold, slide the advance/retard lever (another sculptured item) to its uppermost position, flick the ignition switch right and give the starting handle a healthy twist…
The twin tailpipes rip, rap and rasp as my right foot gets accustomed to the surprisingly light roller throttle. It’s F1-tight down in the footwell and I run through a couple of pretend heel-and-toes on the (relatively) large elliptical brake pedal while holding on 1500 revs to warm things up.
The clutch pedal is tiny and sited lower than its cousins. Its travel is short and its take-up right at the bottom of what movement there is. There is no detent spring on the gear lever so I glance down at the gate by my right knee as I carefully select first. It goes in with a satisfying kerchonk. The cars up on its toes, and before I know it we’re away with a crunch of gravel. Did I let the clutch out?
Another Ettore quirk was his insistence on a separate gearbox rather than an in-unit item. It’s here by my left thigh, looking like a large screw-top tea caddy. It is, in fact, a ‘box of jewels. With a layshaft that runs at higher than engine speed, the lower ratios are sucked out of fingertip changes. Get it right and it’s seamless; get it wrong and there is only the slightest metallic protest.
Second gear is all that is required up this twisty hill, though — that and a heap of muscle at its hairpins. The large four-spoker sits in your lap rather than at your chest and you have to lean into it at slow corners, where you will find yourself with both hands in the same quadrant as you tug the Bug around. It is extremely direct, though, perhaps a turn from lock to lock, and the quicker stuff would require very little input.
That’s where the fabled balance comes in. Mike’s car; which began life as a supercharged four-cylinder 1500cc 37A in Argentina in 1926, has since been brought up to 35B spec (2.3-litre supercharged). He’s driven it through Yosemite Park and Sweden as well as up Prescott and around Silverstone, so its current state of tune is ‘all-rounder’ rather than ‘specialist’. It runs on petrol and so misses out on the 25 per cent boost methanol can supply. It also shuns the all-or-nothing Zenith 48 carb in favour of a more progressive Solex. It does not boast a limited-slip differential and has kept its original horseshoe-and-spring friction dampers rather than switching to Hartfords. Its reversed quarter-elliptic rear springs have been softened in a bid to keep that inside-rear planted, but that’s about it. What it does have, though, is that tightness of feel, rightness of purpose that only much-used, constantly fettled cars possess. No slack, no play. Keeping shimming — steering, brakes, suspension — is the trick to it.
Slightly bolder cornering brings that shapely tail round — and brings the brakes into play. I’d not expected much from these cable-operated items, but they are more than up to the task of hauling down this 750kg machine. The pedal is firm, its response strong. In fact, the whole process, from start to stop, inspires confidence.
Which was exactly what you wanted if you weren’t cut from the same cloth as Achille Varzi or Louis Chiron. Most of those who raced the 35 in its day were indeed a couple of divisions below such men, but they were all able to add to its legend in some way thanks to its forgiving nature and Ettore’s foresight. For that reason, no car has played a bigger role in the history of top-flight motor racing.