Some Bugatti history



[Ettore Bugatti is one of the best loved and most picturesque characters in the game. Now that his fate is unknown, we can only reverence his past accomplishments. Last month a British private owner, who wished to remain anonymous, wrote in praise of his Bugattis. Here Cecil Clutton gives facts and figures relating to some pre-1914 creations of “Le Patron.” —Ed.]

THE photographic series of “Famous Sporting Marques” in the “Motor” is just one of the many bright ideas which Laurence Pomeroy Junior has hatched for the delectation of enthusiasts since the war started. The recent number, dealing with Bugattis, reveals what a varied career of designing Ettore Bugatti followed before settling down to the well-known series of “fours” and “eights” after the last war.

I have always considered that Bugatti and Laurence Pomeroy Senior are among the most “colourful” of car designers, and that a history of their designs would make a most interesting record. Luckily, Mr. Pomeroy is fairly readily available, but M. Ettore, alas, is “somewhere in France” and no one here seems to know where.

One or two “feelers” along normal lines of research and enquiry revealed that no one seemed to know anything worth mentioning about pre-1914 Bugattis, and with few exceptions even “Bugantics” failed to produce much technical information.

The following somewhat meagre notes are all I have so far succeeded in garnering, and if anyone else can supplement the information I should be most grateful.

To begin with, Ettore Bugatti was born on September 15th, 1881, so that despite his long career he is even yet not 60 years old. His first car was made in 1898 by the Dietrich concern, at Niederbronn, who were rather fond at that time of building cars under license, to designs by free-lance engineers. The contract in this case was signed by Ettore’s father, as he himself was still a minor—only 17, in fact.

The machine had a four-cylinder engine at the rear, but the results were not good, and the second car had it transferred to the front, when the appearance was very much that of the just post-1900 Regal de Dion, and quite advanced for 1898. More about this model I do not know, though one can well imagine that early customers of Bugatti sometimes had a heavy cross to bear. He is not a man who has ever hesitated to let the public do his experimenting, and though experience later enabled him to pull superlative cars more or less straight out of the hat, some earlier models were apt to have the quaintest foibles.

I have never, to my regret, been to Molsheim but I always imagine (quite wrongly, I dare say) that the production of a new model goes something like this :

“Tsz! It is that the Patron has figured to himself an idea;—see! he approaches the drawing-board.”

He draws.

He rings for the works foreman and hands to him the paper on which he has drawn.

The works foreman bows three times and retires backwards from the Presence.

The works foreman reveals the paper on which the Patron has drawn to the workmen, who bow and cheer three times and work away like beavers.

See! the new model is completed. The customers are informed and draw near, eagerly fingering their cheque-books. They bow three times, and drive away in their allotted cars.

It is much quieter now.

But wait! What is this but a few days later? Can it be the customers back again?

The customers do not wish to appear forward or impertinent, but whereas the cars appear to be supplied with copious lubrication to the sparking-plugs, the inside of the cam-box is as it were a drought in the Sahara. Can it be that the Patron has somehow confused the requirements of these components? Will it arrive that the Patron will rectify the matter free of charge?

“Ah! but who can tell? To-day the Patron is horse-driving; to-morrow it may be that he will devise a milk-separator for the model dairy; the day following, who can tell but that he will mount his pedal cycle? Thereafter he may well conceive to himself a newer and even better motor-car and we will build it, and then you will be able to buy it instead of your present models.”

“Tcha! The ingrates!”  

In 1901 was produced the fantastic machine intended for the 1901 Gordon Bennett competition, and which forms No. 1 illustration in the “Motor” series. Before, is a large and naked mass of machinery, behind (very much, and very low) is seated the youthful Ettore, gorgeously caparisoned in a large Eskimo hat. Between him and the engine are the gear lever and a large Gladstone bag. Bugatti has ever vacillated between cars which never get into top gear at all and cars which never get into anything else. This monster must have belonged to the latter class, because the hand-lever of change-speed is entirely beyond call of the driver.

Unfortunately, the Secretary of Mines refused to permit the machine to perform, on the grounds that the driving position allowed of insufficient forward vision; but it was awarded the highest prize for National Construction at the International Exhibition at Milan in 1901. The car was then rebuilt in more normal shape for the 1903 Paris-Madrid race, when it presumably appeared under the Dietrich colours; but I have been unable to discover whether it actually ran and, if so, who drove it; and there appears to be no means of discovering if and how it fared, since there were many competitors driving this make, including Charles Jarrot. Nor are any technical details to hand, except that it was a four-cylinder engine of fairly normal contemporary design, probably of around 7-litre capacity. In 1905 there was a “Hermes-Bugatti” of which I also have no details, but we reach more definite ground concerning its immediate successor.

“The Horseless Age,” a motoring periodical which flourished—more or less— in 1906, gives quite full particulars of a “Bugatti-Deutz ” which was made and marketed in that year by the Manufacturers Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz of Cologne, Deutz; the original builders of the Otto gas engine. This car had a radiator with flat sides, rather after the contour of the early “T” model Ford. It was described as 40-50-h.p. and possessed four cylinders measuring 150 x 150 which, by my tottering calculations, amounts to 10.6 litres.

The cylinders were cast in pairs and the combustion-chambers were larger than the bores, containing 80 mm. valves, flat in the head, operated by a single overhead camshaft, shaft-driven from the front of the engine. The whole of the valve-operating gear could be removed together, without upsetting the timing. As far as I can follow the diagrams, the valves were operated through quadrants sliding in guides, and with rollers at each end, one of which contacted with the valve and one with the cam. By this ingenious method the drive of the camshaft was carried through a right angle to the two-valve stems, situated some 3½ in. apart. One imagines that the lubrication of the sliding quadrant pieces presented no slight problem. The single carburetter fed through a manifold which contained internal baffles arranged so as to equalise the gas distribution.

The clutch was the traditional Bugatti multiplate type, which was only discontinued in the current Type 57, and final drive was by chain. There were four speeds and top was geared up.

If this car really only developed 50 h.p. it was unbelievably inefficient, even for its day, and I should have expected it to develop more like 75 b.h.p., assuming it ran up to about 1,200 r.p.m.

Quite when Bugatti first went into production on his own account I have not been able to discover, but presumably in 1907 or 1908, and in 1909 he entered a car for the Prince Henry trials, which had a radiator very like the Type 13, whose prototype appears in the “Motor” illustrations. Judging by its competitors it probably had a capacity of 5 or 6 litres And was presumably the forerunner of “Black Bess.”

Quite a few examples of the latter machine seem to have been produced between 1912 and 1914, although Col. Giles “Black Bess” and a less perfect example at Molsheim are the only two now known to exist. It was as modern as contemporary Grand Prix machines, capable of over 100 m.p.h. and certainly the most advanced production car (if such it can fairly be described) before the war. The exact origin of this type (which, as far as I know, had no type-number assigned to it) is obscure, but it has been suggested that it was intended for the 1913 Indianapolis Race. It is also rumoured that the car was “on paper” in 1908, and if this is true, it was a perfect miracle of advanced design.

Research shows that the Indianapolis tradition is untrue. The Indianapolis machine was rather larger than “Black Bess”—100 x 180 and 5,650 c.c. capacity; as against “Black Bess’s” 100 x 160 and 5,026 c.c. capacity. The R.A.C. rating, in each case, is therefore only 24 h.p. The 1914 Indianapolis Bugatti also had shaft-drive instead of chains, and it was described as a “90-h.p.,” though in point of fact one would have expected more. The chassis seems generally similar, but the Indianapolis car has the front shock-absorbers set across the chassis, with the starting-handle emerging through the middle of the friction-ring.

The car, which was the sole German entry, does not seem to have performed with great distinction, having a best lap speed of 87.5 m.p.h. as against 99.9 m.p.h. of Boillot’s winning Peugeot. It was at one time fairly well up in the running, but retired after 144 out of the 200 laps with a broken back-axle.

“Black Bess” has formed the subject of one of the latest “Veteran Types” series in MOTOR SPORT; not much need therefore be said about it here.

In all main essentials, “Black Bess” is a larger edition of the famous post-war 1½-litre Brescia models. The single, shaft-driven o.h.c. operates four valves per cylinder through fingers. There is one carburetter; lubrication was originally by mechanical pump; final drive is by chain and the four-speed box has a geared-up top, all the indirect ratios being more noisy than anything else I have ever experienced. The ratios are exceedingly high, having regard to the alleged peak revs. of 2,800 per minute, at which speed I should suppose that the engine develops around 100 b.h.p. Starting is facilitated by four screw-type compression taps of ingenious type, which do not upset the mixture. The all-in weight of the car is the meritoriously low figure of 23¼-cwt. and the performance is proportionately big.

The magneto advance and retard works on the traditional Bugatti quick-thread arrangement, whereby it gives its maximum spark whatever the position of the ignition-control lever. It is quite incredible to me why this plan has not been universally adopted on magneto-ignited cars, since so many have been practically unstartable because they kicked like a horse on full advance, but on retard could not be wound quickly enough to produce any spark worth mentioning. The Old School Bentley wore its magnetos in a way which simply begged to be worked in this manner, but were not.

Turning back to 1907, the “Motor” depicts a Bugatti light car upon which is seated a gentleman of dyspeptic appearance, wearing a bowler hat. He looks sad.

This car was developed into the Type 13, first marketed in 1910. It was a truly remarkable machine and undoubtedly the forerunner of the modern high-performance voiturette. A fine example is owned by Peter Hampton, although quite a lot of them have been in regular use within the last few years, giving reliable service. The performance is surprisingly modern, if use is made of the gearbox in the modern manner, the crisp exhaust-note rising in quite an exhilaratingly M.G.-like manner.

The whole outfit was built practically regardless of expense, and was the most expensive of its class, selling in this country for over £300.

The wheelbase was only 6 ft. 7 in., and the track 3 ft. 9 in. The complete car, unladen, weighed just under 6 cwt. Therefore, although the developed horsepower cannot have been more than 25 and perhaps as little as 20, the power-weight ratio was nevertheless quite favourable. The bore and stroke of the engine was 65 x 100, giving 1,327 c.c. and cruising revs. were given as 2,300 per minute, with a safe maximum of 3,000. The “Motor,” of the period, remarks that “such a high engine-speed has only been made possible by the use of the finest and most expensive metals and the greatest care in construction.” The maximum road speed was 60 m.p.h., so that the cruising speed was presumably 45 m.p.h. The manufacturer claimed that it could hold any ordinary production car, of whatever size, and the “Motor” was sceptical about this; but it had to confess itself convinced when, on its test run, it held a Prince Henry Competition Benz of over 5 litres capacity, driven full cock, for a considerable number of miles.

Charles Faroux, writing in “La Vie Automobile,” was also moved to remark that “Cette boite de vitesse lilliputienne marchait diablement vite.”

The cylinder-block was cast in one, and the crankshaft was supported in two roIler main bearings. The overhead camshaft also ran in rollers and operated two valves per cylinder. The plugs were on the inlet side and the exhaust manifold is a typical modern Bugatti four-branch example. The camshaft was wick-lubricated, and the rest of the engine by gravity which, however, was assisted by exhaust pressure for use up hills, etc. The four-speed gearbox was three-point mounted (one point on the offside and two on the near, which strikes one as an improvement on later models, which were inclined to crack their gearbox mounting) and the chassis was of nickel steel. The gear-lever had an infinitesimal movement, quite precluding double-clutching. The clutch, of course, was normal Bugatti and suspension was semi-elliptic all round. Like all Bugattis, the petrol-consumption was excellent, being equivalent to 40 m.p.g. even at 60 m.p.h.

It was one of these cars which ran second in the 1910 Grand Prix against the usual heavy metal of the time. Developing out of the Type 13 was the 1914, 16-valve, four-cylinder Type 22, which, in turn, was the stepping-stone to the post-war Brescia, Type 23. The engine was slightly larger —68 x 100—giving 1,453 c.c., but the performance does not seem to have been greatly in advance of the Type 13; probably owing to an increased weight. The admirably assorted gear ratios gave 10.6, 6.39, 4.5 and 3.46 to 1 and a speed of 23½ m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. in top gear.

Not strictly a Bugatti, but made under licence, and to Bugatti’s design, was the remarkable Bebe Peugeot, current from 1911-14. This had four-cylinders, measuring only 55 x 90, giving 950 c.c. capacity. The “T” head (with side valves) block and crank-case were all in one piece and only the sump came off. There were caps over the valves. The rear springs were traditional Bugatti, reversed quarter-elliptic, with semi-elliptic in front. There was a two-speed gearbox —hardly more than a bulge in the torque tube—which was quite unsuited to the little engine, as any gradient, or even a strong head-wind, was too much for the high gear, while the maximum on low was only a walking-pace. I once met a special model with three speeds, which was said to have attained 60 m.p.h., but even the normal model was good for 35-40. At a time when baby cars usually had one, or at most two air-cooled cylinders, the Bebe Peugeot (as, indeed, the Type 13) was a remarkable anticipation of the efficient baby four-cylinder engines which became popular 15 years later.

This is the sum-total of what I have been able to discover about Ettore Bugatti’s career up to 1914; but perhaps someone more industrious in research, or already possessing more information, can throw further light on the subject. In the meantime, let us hope that Le Patron is not having too rough a time in subjugated France, and that we have not yet seen the last products of his fertile brain.