A tale of two Bugattis, 70 years apart
Listening to arch-enthusiast John Thomson discussing his Bugatti, you can pick up traces of our accompanying road impressions of the El 10. “It’s a marvellous road car,” he says, “and very tractable.”
This, though, is a Bugatti from the days when it was still possible to pick up a copy of The Brooklands Gazette at the news stand: a Type 35. He acquired it for £875 . . . I whilst living in Australia in the 1950s, and it is believed to be one of the most original surviving specimens. “When I bought it there were a few twiddly bits missing which didn’t prevent it running, but I’ve managed to acquire them both in Australia and over here.
Apart from the paintwork, it’s 100 per cent original. I’ve fitted Bugatti parts, or parts made by the club. When I bought it, even the paint on the chassis under the fuel tank was original. It’s got lots of bits on it that are quite often missing from other cars.” It started life as part of the works Bugatti team, Jules Goux taking it to fifth place in the 1925 Grand Prix de l’ACF (French GP) at Montlhery. Its immediate history thereafter is a little uncertain. It was displayed in Bugatti’s Paris showroom at the end of that season, but there is no further record of its whereabouts until it was re-registered in Paris on May 16 1929. It moved around northern France for a few years before finally acquiring its current registration, in Paris once again, in 1934.
Its competition history is largely confined to 1925, although it has been used in races and hillclimbs by more recent owners. The car was discovered in the back of a working garage in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine in 1951, and exported to Australia by a Bugatti fancier who was responsible for transferring several examples of the marque to the Antipodes. It finally passed on to Thomson in 1959. “I knew about the car. It had a bit of competition history in Australia, then it started to get a funny tummy in 1955, and it was left in a garage with other Bugattis. It hadn’t been running.
Fortunately, the owner knew enough not to run them when they start to making the odd noise. It wasn’t scrap or anything, but it was a used racing car. There were a few holes drilled here and there but it was 99 per cent complete. It took me about seven years to sort it out, and I finally got it running about October 1965.” When Thomson moved to England, the 135 was confined in storage until 1972. “Since it arrived here, I’ve used it quite a lot really. Without an odometer it’s very hard to say exactly how much. In 21 years I’ve probably done about 10,000 miles, probably 500-600 per year. I used to do the odd circuit race and Prescott hillclimbs: you need a long pocket for that, though. and school fees have got the better of me! Now I just use it as often as I can for the fun of it. “The nice thing about a 135 is that it’s so tractable, particularly the unblown model. Mine is two litres, with a roller bearing crankshaft. They aren’t a lot of trouble, especially if they’re screwed together properly, which I hope mine is. They’re very lively, responsive and nervous. They don’t like trolling along with a trailing throttle, even though it’s not a very wild cam. I suppose being a racing car it runs better if you’ve got your foot down, though it will throttle down in traffic.”
“It’s got the wonderful Bugatti GP gearchange, impossible to beat. It’s just so quick. It’s obviously a non-synchro ‘box, but it works just as fast as you can drag the lever through. And there’s a wonderful multi-plate clutch, wet, which sits in a bath of oil and paraffin and which if adjusted properly never, ever slips. Until it’s worn out, of course. It’s wonderful, except off the mark when it’s cold. Then it can be quite difficult.” The steering of course is very light, very precise: one turn lock to lock, just like a kart. People say that the earlier unblown cars were a bit better balanced than the blown cars, because they were lighter and had the radiator further back. They handled better, but they weren’t as quick, of course 30 per cent down on horsepower.
The brakes are marvellous if they’re properly maintained and adjusted. Very powerful, very sure. “There isn’t a lot of work to do. They’re very strong. The races were much longer in those days and the roads were appalling. Even though the Bugatti is quite lightly constructed it’s designed very well and the stressed parts always seem to be strong enough. In practice, nothing ever breaks. Maintenance mainly
consists of giving it a tighten up after a good few weeks of fa t use. With a roller bearing car the most prudent thing to keep an eye on is the oil filter, which is a pretty good barometer of a big end cage going. Change the oil frequently, every few hundred miles, and warm it up gently. Don’t give it more than 2000 revs until it’s fully warmed up.
The clutch requires a small squirt from a syringe every 100 miles or so. “I shouldn’t say this, but it’s actually got to be so reliable that I’m almost at the stage where I leave the tools behind, because I feel I no longer need them, though obviously I wouldn’t. It’s actually only stranded me twice. It broke a propshaft keyway in the middle of France in 1981. It wasn’t a Bugatti fault, but an engineer’s. Then in 1983 it broke a halfshaft about 200 yards from home. Apparently it had been cracked for years. Subsequent inspection suggested that the hub had been bashed against a wall or something in a race. It had been a little bit out of true, and fretting away for a while.
Apart from that, I’ve always managed to get home.” Although Bugatti hasn’t been producing cars continuously since the 1920s, the marques reputation for desirability survives. The goalposts have moved somewhat, however. The 135 pumps out about 100 bhp at 5500 rpm. It will rev higher, but there’s not much point. With a 14/54 back axle, fairly standard according to Thomson, top speed is around 110 mph. “My notes say that it recorded 117 down the straight at Bathurst in 1951, but I think that must have been downhill. The current EB110 GI Ilist price £285,000 including taxes) thumps out 552 bhp at 8000 rpm and has a top speed of 212.5 mph.
In SS guise, the figures rise to £330,000, 604 bhp / 8250 rpm and 218.2 mph. The EB I 10 will make its competition debut at Le Mans in June, having set encouraging times during the recent test weekend. The marque thus returns to the scene of its last notable motor racing achievement (Wimille and Veyron won at the Sarthe in 1939), and its French importer, which is preparing the car for Eric Helary, Jean-Pierre Malcher and Alain Cudini, has already grumbled about having to detune it to meet the 600 bhp class power ceiling. — S A