Letter to readers, November 1989

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Rebuild

Dear Reader,

We found this old Grand Prix Bugatti in Portugal. It was very derelict but was quite complete, and as far as we could find out it was a 1928 Type 35B, a supercharged straight-eight 2.3-litre. It seems the owner had used it in small hillclimb events and races on the Iberian peninsular, but the 1936 Spanish civil war had put a stop to his sport. It was lying in the cellar of a factory and had become “land locked” by the neighbouring war, and had never been touched since. After a lot of negotiations, it was acquired by my friend who wanted to rebuild it and use it in vintage racing, rather than restore it for show, so we set to work with the “use and construction of cars for racing rules” to hand.

As I say, it was absolutely complete and had not been touched for 54 years, so when we stripped it down we found all manner of time-worn nasties, but it seemed to be a worthwhile project. We knew that there were two or three specialist firms who were making new bits and pieces for these cars. The chassis frame was the first problem, for although the side-members were sound enough, the cross-members were in a terrible state. The front one was cracked by the starting handle hole, the tubular gearbox mounting ones were bent for some inexplicable reason, and the rear one was badly rusted, so we dismantled the whole thing and made new cross-members. Eventually everything was back in place and nicely trued up.

Then we attacked the axles. The front one was nothing like true when we jigged it up, though it looked alright to the casual eye, and as there was a chap making new ones, and my friend intended to race the car, we decided to buy a new axle, rather than risk trying to straighten the old one. The rear axle was alright, but as a precaution we renewed the crownwheel and pinion, the half-shafts, the differential unit and the bearings, as we didn’t want to risk racing on these 60 year old components. One of the rear brake back-plates had a nasty crack in it, so it was replaced with a new one, and while we were at it we replaced the other one as well, for though we were not interested in Concours, we did want the old car to look presentable. The alloy wheels, which have the brake drums integral, were very corroded, and were of the old detachable rim pattern, so these were replaced by new cast alloy wheels made by a firm in Birmingham, which were of the later well-base pattern which are much safer to race on, and more suitable for modern racing Dunlop tyres. While we were doing the wheels and brakes, we renewed all the tired old brake linings and as the rivetholes in the aluminium shoes were a bit worn, we had some new brake shoes made and used bonded-linings, much safer for racing we thought.

It was about this time that a young chap appeared who seemed to he very knowledgeable about Bugattis and was obviously a dyed-in-the-wool Bugatti enthusiast. He asked us if he could buy our old split-rim wheels for a car he was building. He was clearly not very well off, and my friend is not short of a bob or two, so we gave them to him, and at the same time indicated all the other bits we had discarded on the scrap heap. He seemed genuinely delighted and grateful and loaded them onto his VW Beetle and drove away. We returned to our restoration project.

After pressure-testing the radiator, we found it leaked like a sieve, and as most of the plating was in poor shape we looked around for another one. We were very lucky to find exactly the right type that had recently been fitted with a new core and a new shell, so all we had to do was remove the badge and filler cap from our old one and fit them to the rebuilt one. The body was the next item to receive attention for it had suffered during its sojourn in the cellar, due to things being piled on it. The windscreen needed new glass and a new frame, as something had fallen on the car and broken it, and the bonnet was badly dented. We found a wonderful man who could work aluminium sheet, and was a real artist with tin snips and welding torch. He made us a new bonnet that was indistinguishable from the original one, and while he was at it we got him to make a new scuttle and tail, as they were a bit battered, and he explained it was easier and cheaper to make new ones than to try and straighten old time-hardened aluminium. To complete the job, because we wanted the old car to look decent, he made us new bonnet side-panels and new under-trays.

The main engine bulkhead had acquired a lot of extra holes over the years so we used it as a pattern to make a new one, rather than try to weld up all the non-original holes. We found a super chap who was able to polish it and put all those lovely original whirly marks on it just like the original one had. This looked so nice that we made a new instrument panel to match. As new instruments are available off-the-shelf from one of the professional restorers, we decided to replace the lot rather than try and clean up the old ones. Then that young fellow in the Beetle appeared again, looking for a Bugatti oil gauge, and offered us a few pounds for the old one, so we threw all the other instruments in as well, as they were all fairly tatty, with broken glasses and needles that were bent or missing. He was such a nice young man and so enthusiastic about Bugattis, we suggested he might like to take the old body away if he could get it in his VW, but the tail and scuttle wouldn’t go in, so he just took what he could. He came back later with a friend in a Ford pick-up and collected the rest of the junk. We were most grateful to him as my friend is very proud of his workshop and doesn’t like to see piles of scrap about the place, and we don’t like scrap merchants sniffing around the workshop.

Back to our restoration. The engine was in an awful state, having stood neglected for so long, so we bought a new crankshaft and connecting rods, complete with all the bearings, from the Midlands specialists. It was a bit expensive, but a beautiful piece of engineering and it seemed a shame that it was going to be hidden away inside the crankcase. But it made us feel confident about racing the car, as did new cylinder blocks and pistons, valves and springs. The camshaft needed replacing as the cams were badly worn and while we were at it we bought a new cam box, complete with cover and got our specialist chap to put all the whirly marks on after polishing them. To do a thorough job on the engine, as we wanted to race the car in anger, not just potter around, we replaced all the camshaft drive mechanism and the supercharger drive gears.

The supercharger itself had had it, seized solid and the casing was badly corroded, so we asked around and found a firm that were making completely new superchargers, and then found a wonderful firm that were making brand new carburettors. We did not want to risk damage to the new blower by running on a worn out carburettor, which are tricky things anyway.

It was about this time that the Beetle man appeared again, this time looking for a steering wheel. We hadn’t attacked the steering part of the car at this point, so he helped us dismantle the whole assembly and we found the steering box casting was cracked, and one of the spokes of the steering wheel was nearly rusted through near the rim. Our “Beetle friend” knew someone who had a spare steering wheel that was virtually new and too expensive for him to buy, so in exchange for the address we gave him our old scrap wheel, and he also put us on to a firm that was making new steering boxes. This firm was marvellous, for they not only made new steering box castings, they also machined them and made all the gears and shafts as well, and made us a new steering column. My friend was really happy about this as he did not want to risk metal fatigue in 60 year old components in the middle of a corner while he was racing in anger.

Our car was coming along nicely now. The gearbox only needed new gears, shafts and bearings and the propshaft needed new spiders and couplings, but the clutch was a bit of a problem. Apart from being rusted solid my friend never did like the Bugatti clutch, having driven other Grand Prix Bugattis, so we got a very skilled engineer friend of ours to design an adaptation using a modern Borg and Beck diaphragm clutch. We felt it would be alright as it was all covered by an aluminium shield, which we replaced as a matter of course, as the old aluminium looked a bit tatty.

While all this had been going on a specialist firm had made us a new petrol tank, as the original one was full of rust holes, and we intended to race on methanol, and you know how that stuff attacks old metal. This wonderful firm also made us new pipe fittings and a new filler cap. All sundry things like petrol pipes, oil pipes, wires, brake cables and so on all had to be replaced, as we were intending to race the car.

All that was needed now was new upholstery to replace the old rat-infested stuff, and to paint the body, and the job was virtually done, apart from a few more things like new tyres and tubes, new sparking plugs and so on.

By this time our scrap heap outside the workshop was beginning to look unseemly and we wished the Beetle fellow would call in again. Luckily my friend ran across him in the newsagents one Friday, both buying Motor Sport, so he asked him if there were any other bits he would like, and to call in and help himself if anything was of any use. When we wheeled our Bugatti out of the workshop to photograph it in the front drive it looked a picture; almost better than new and a wonderful sight, and to us the great thing was that she was all ready to run seriously, not just a tarted-up show piece. Fortunately we had taken photos of it when we first got it home, so the “before-and-after” pictures in the album look splendid and make the whole thing worthwhile. Before racing the Bugatti we took it to a VSCC pub meeting as we thought members would like to see this fine old machine that hadn’t seen the light of day since 1935. In the scrabble at the bar to get a drink we heard someone asking “What type of Bugatti have you got?” The man being asked replied “Well, at the moment it is all dismantled, and there are one or two bits missing, though nothing of great importance. It is a 1928 Type 35B that came from Portugal, but it needs a complete rebuild as practically everything is worn out. I don’t know much about its history but the number on the rear cross-member ties in with factory records, showing that it was a 35B that was sold new to someone in Lisbon”.

We looked round. It was our “Beetle man”.

The moral must be “one man’s scrap is another man’s genuine pride and joy.  Yours, DSJ.

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