For many people the Type 59 is the best-looking of all the racing cars built by Ettore Bugatti, the whole car exuding a slender elegance, set off by the finely spoked wire wheels. Like so many racing cars, the Type 59 Bugatti was late in being completed and suffered by being technically obsolete by the time it appeared. The project was started in 1932 to try to combat the “monoposto” Alfa Romeo but was not completed until the end of 1933 when three cars were entered for the Spanish OP at San Sebastian. At this stage they appeared to be competitive, though they did not perform too well, Achille Varzi finishing fourth and Rene Dreyfus sixth, while the third car non-started due to a practice accident.
In 1934 the 750 kilogramme weight formula came into being and Bugatti had to do a lot of work on the Type 59 to get it under the maximum weight limit, notably drilling the chassis side-members. The cars re-appeared for the Monaco GP with Dreyfus, Wimille and Robert Benoist driving for the factory team, and Tazio Nuvolari in a fourth car running as an “independent” but with factory support. Benoist damaged his car in practice and did not start and in the race Dreyfus finished third and Nuvolari fifth. For the French GP at Montlhery the factory entered three cars again, with Dreyfus, Benoist and Nuvolari as drivers and Wimille as reserve and the capacity was increased to 3.3-litres, but by now even the illustrious “monoposto” Alfa Romeos were looking obsolete in the face of the new designs from Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union, so that the Type 59 Bugattis had little hope of being more than also rans. In fact they did not even do that, for Nuvolari and Dreyfus retired, and Benoist finished a long way behind.
The weight limit of 750 kilogrammes was for the car dry of all liquids and minus tyres, but including wheels and at the scrutineering for the French GP the car driven by Dreyfus scraped through at 749.5 kilogrammes. Many years later the chief mechanic for Bugatti, Robert Aumaitre, told me how they often took the Type 59s to scrutineering minus the magneto in order to scrape through the weight limit. As the magneto was driven from the rear of the exhaust camshaft and was buried under the scuttle it was not obvious that it was missing. He explained how you could tell when they were cheating for they pushed the car to scrutineering!
Ettore was losing interest in Grand Prix racing, as were the French organisers, for the Germans were annihilating everyone with their advanced techniques. The Bugatti factory team was dwindling and dying, with only sporadic entries in the major races but they did manage first, second and fourth in the Belgian GP, mainly because the Germans did not start and the two works Alfa Romcos blew up. In 1935 interest in the Type 59 Bugatti was aroused in England as four British drivers acquired the 1934 works cars. As with all Bugatti cars the chassis number incorporated the Type number, thus 5912I, with engine number 3, was bought by Charlie Martin; 59121 with engine number 1, by Lindsay Eccles; 59123 with engine number 7, by Earl Howe and 59124 with engine number 6, was imported on French number plates for the Hon. Brian Lewis to drive. Lewis, Eccles and Martin ran in the JCC International Trophy at Brooklands but all three retired with various breakages. However, things improved and Lewis won the Mannin Moar race in the Isle of Man and Martin was second. All four cars were raced fairly extensively during 1935, both at home and abroad, and meanwhile the factory was still entering Wimille and Benoist in continental races. Lewis partnered Earl Howe in the BRDC 500-Mile Race round Brooklands, when 59123 was fitted with a sports-type unsupercharged Type 57 engine. With it they finished third.
In the Donington GP of 1935 Martin very nearly won, losing the lead near the end when he had a spin, but recovering to finish third. Earl Howe was second, to Dick Shuttleworth’s “monoposto” Alfa Romeo, and Eccles was sixth. In 1936 Martin sold his car to the Duke of Grafton, a young newcomer to racing, who was tragically killed in the car in a race in Ireland, while the Lewis car had gone to the USA. Eccles continued to race his car in all the British events and Howe raced his on occasions, his most notable achievement being a lap of the Brooklands Outer Circuit at 138.34 m.p.h., which was the fourth fastest lap achieved at the Weybridge track. At the end of the year Howe took his car to the South African GP, and then sold it to a local driver. Eccles had to give up racing at the end of 1936, so that all four cars had now disappeared from the British scene. The Lewis car, 59124, eventually returned to England and was rebuilt by C. I. Craig in a bizarre colour-scheme of black and white and was used by him in sprints and hill-climbs, while Arthur Baron rebuilt the Martin car, fitting an ENV preselector gearbox and finishing the car off in a sombre shade of deep purple. It kept company with Craig’s flashy car on the British club scene, and Jack Lemon Burton took over the
Eccles car, enlarging the engine to 3.8-litres and fitting hydraulic brakes in place of the cable-operated ones.
After the war the Martin car, 591st, was very active when George Abecassis acquired it from Baron. Eventually it was sold to K. W. Bear, a wealthy gentleman racer, who was killed in it during practice for the 1949 Jersey Road Race. The wreckage was salvaged by his mechanic/tuner Stafford East, who still has the car. The other two cars were transformed into road-going sports cars, with mudguards, lights, starters and other necessities for road-use, but losing nothing of the original Grand Prix lines. The Craig car was rebuilt and painted Bugatti blue, registered LPG 211 and finally found its way to an American collector, and the enlarged version of Eccles/Lemon-Burton was registered DBL 241 and remains in England today. Some ten years ago the fourth car of the British group, 59123 the ex-Howe car, was brought back to this country and since then it has been used in VSCC racing. Today it is owned by Neil Corner, to whom Motor Sport is extremely grateful for assisting with these notes and the creation of the cut-away drawing. While this car was out in South Africa it was remarkably well preserved, nothing having been altered from the days when Earl Howe raced it. Of the four cars that came to England it is the only one remaining in original condition and in full racing trim.
The Type 59 Bugatti may not have been Ettore’s most successful racing car but it was certainly one of his most interesting, and had it been completed in 1932 as planned it could have been quite a landmark in Grand Prix car design. Not being a great believer in the “monoplace” layout because of the need to sit the driver high over the propeller shaft, Bugatti, continued with the “vintage” form of a two-seater width car with the driver sitting low down beside the transmission. All Bugatti’s racing cars had the chassis frame designed correctly as a beam in bending, the greatest depth being in the middle of the wheel-base and the ends tapering to slim proportions, and the Type 59 exemplified this to the extreme. The tubular front axle was mounted on half-elliptic springs, and the beam itself was split in the middle, the two pieces being threaded on the outside with a left and a right-hand thread. Into the tubular half-axles was fitted a long, solid, double-ended tapered “slug”, the inside of the tubes being machined to the matching taper. A knurled sleeve, internally threaded, drew the two halves together, the flanged ends butting up against each other. The theory behind all this was that it allowed slight rotational movement of one halfaxle to the other, so that bumps affecting one wheel and altering the king-pin angle did not necessarily affect the other one. In no way did it remotely resemble anything in the way of independent suspension, as many journalists thought at the time.
The rear axle was mounted on traditional Bugatti reverse quarter-elliptic springs, but was unusual in having a double-reduction gearing built into the crownwhecl and pinion casing, giving a drive line below hub level. This allowed the engine and gearbox to be mounted lower than normal. The gearbox was a four-speed unit, mounted separate from the engine and controlled by an outside lever. The engine was a straight eight-cylinder, with two overhead camshafts driven by a train of gears from the rear of the crankshaft, this drive also being taken to the Bugatti built supercharger mounted on the right-hand side of the engine, with two down-draught Zenith carburetters on top. Plain big-end and main bearings instead of the almost universally adopted roller bearings were used, and the oil system was dry-sump with the oil tank alongside the driver in what appeared to be the passenger seat. On the outside of the chassis frame on the left were oil cooling tubes, inserted in the line between sump and oil tank. In place of the normal starting handle engaging with the front of the crankshaft the Type 59 had a bevel gearing in the drive train at the rear of the engine, and a handle inserted into the left side of the car engaged this gearing.
Fuel was carried in the tail in a large single tank with twin fillers, covered by a pointed tail made in two halves and riveted in a spine down the centre. The classical Bugatti horseshoe-shaped radiator was used, in one of its lowest and most purposeful forms, and a multiplicity of louvres covered the bonnet. Other breaks from tradition on Molsheim racing cars was the use of an eight-branch exhaust manifold feeding into a single large bore tail pipe, giving an uncharacteristic deep booming note, unlike previous Bugattis that used exhaust pipes in two groups of four and feeding into two tail pipes, emitting the familiar tearing-calico sound. The classical cast-aluminium Bugatti wheels gave way to wire-spoked wheels, in which the spokes took none of the rotational driving force, merely supporting the rim, the drive being taken through a back-plate connecting the hub to the rim. – D.S.J.