The Brothers Who Loved Buggatis
A personal devotion the the marque let to the founding of the Bugatti Club and Prescott Hillclimb. Bill Boddy recalls the Giles Brothers, the lynch-pin of the Bugatti enthusiasm in Britain.
The Bugatti Owners Club has long been a club of world-wide renown. But like all such organisations it began humbly, when in 1929 three Bugatti owners met to discuss forming such a club. E B Madeley, Col (later Brigadier-General) G M Giles and T Ambrose Varley later commemorated this founding event by a logo of two pipes and a cigarette.
Soon the Colonel and his brother Eric Giles were playing an important part in the running. Indeed, the Colonel and his brother were great fanciers of the Molsheim marque, GMG having had 12 Bugattis by the time World War Two broke out. By then the BOC was flourishing, with a council of experts who included GMG; its President was Earl Howe, its Patron Ettore Bugatti himself, with Eric Giles, who looked after the Giles family practice, an interior designers in Queen Street, Mayfair, W1, as Hon Secretary and Treasurer.
The first of the Colonel’s Bugattis over this period of 16 years followed many cars owned by his parents, starting with a troublesome 1898 single-cylinder 9hp Belgian Mathieu in 1902, after which came a succession of Panhards, on one of which he first drove, in 1904. His first glimpse of a Bugatti came in 1913, in Holies Street off Cavendish Square in London, but GMG’s first car was a starkly bodied four-cylinder 10hp Marlborough.
Meanwhile the Giles family had become keen motorists, with a lofty 1908 12hp gate-change Orleans, its back seats detachable. It was supplemented by an ohv Belsize. By 1911 a more powerful 24/40hp Fiat was acquired, and kept until 1917.
GMG had joined his regiment, the Royal Fusiliers, through the Territorial Army and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in 1911, so that it was not until 1919 that he bought another car, a Baby Peugeot, which had he but known, was an Ettore Bugatti design. Then in March 1920 came the first Bugatti, a used eight-valve model bought in Brighton for £435. On the drive home one plug was ‘out’ but with all in order this exciting little car did 55mph. Cars were then in short supply, so it was soon sold, for £465, after it had been used for MCC trials and driven at South Harting hill-climb, until it broke its back-axle on Brooklands. The repair bill from Jarrott & Letts was enormous, so it was part-exchanged for a new 16-valve 1920 Brescia-type chassis, which cost £750. With a simple fabric body and two aeroscreens this was raced at Brooklands, and gained a gold medal in the MCC London-Edinburgh trial.
However, the Colonel could not resist the pull of Molsheim magic for long, and in 1922 he bought another 16-valver, with cloverleaf body, which was successful. in many trials, but had a porous cylinder block and lacked a starter, so it was a terror to wind up on the handle. It was replaced with a Fiat 501, also driven in trials, and an Essex and a Chevrolet. But after four Bugatti-less years, when repair charges were thought too high until the opening of the Brixton Road, Molsheim-backed service depot, run by Col Sorel, a Type 30 was obtained in June 1927. It had a light fabric body and wings, and although the early straight-eight 2-litre engine with its three-ball-bearing crankshaft had a bad vibration period, 90mph was possible.
This was a reliable car, which won a Premier Award in the Land’s End-John O’ Groats trial. During its 11,947 miles the T30 was supplemented by a 1925 2-litre T35 GP car with road-equipment, found in the North of England. The Colonel and his brother Eric went up in ‘Ma’, the T30 (all their Bugs had pet names) and brought it back to London in a snowstorm. Enormously exciting to drive, NX 7097 WAS a 110mph car. The crankshaft had to be re-rollered twice, but it was kept for 7682 miles, between March 1928 and April 1929.
From then on up to 1939 the brothers were never without a Bugatti, and sometimes had more than one. The GP was followed by a refined type 44 saloon with the 3-litre straight-eight 24valve engine, an unexpectedly quiet, flexible car from Molsheim. It was bought as a new chassis on which they had an English sports body fitted, combining a top pace of some 100mph with all the smoothness of the seven-bearing crankshaft, and 20mpg. So captivating was this car that it was kept from May 1929 until April 1932. But craving more performance, a Type 43 was added, as it was felt that no proper Bugatti follower should be without one of these 2.3 litre supercharged Grand Sport models, with the GP type engine.
Col Giles used his in the company of K W Bear’s sister car, in BOC, MCC and other trials with considerable success. It had arrived in November 1930 and the vivid acceleration and speed were enjoyed until May 1933, by which time the exhilaration had lasted for 19,035 miles, including a trouble-free Brittany tour which took in the Le Mans race. But although nearly 120mph from a road car was appreciated, the blower noise and cockpit heat on long runs “was no joke”, so another Type 44 replaced it and the 43’s engine was, by 1936, in Bainton’s GP Bugatti. The Type 44 was a used four-seater, named ‘Blackbird’, retained for only a month and a half before it was sold to Bear and, cut-down and re-engined, became one of his competition cars.
Perhaps three Bugs at a time was too much, or was the call of the new Type 49 twin-ignition 3.3 litre model, a sort of miniature 5-litre, the reason? Anyway, the Colonel ordered a new chassis and Eric Giles designed a four-seater body for it, and this quiet, very flexible 90mph job, called ‘Poppy’, gave them 20,345 carefree, happy miles between 1932 and 1935. An alternative drophead coupe body was also used on it.
Although it may seem that the Giles’ were entirely Bugatti-hound, there were lesser cars in their garages. For instance, Mrs Giles, mother of Godfrey and Eric, had won an 1913 AC in a four-shilling raffle, which was part-exchanged for one of the first Morris Minors, and from 1928 to 1936 a 14/45hp Roesch Talbot had given excellent service. There were also two later Morris Minors, and in 1933 an MG Magna, exchanged for a Wolseley Hornet Special coupe, and then came an L-type MG Magna.
By 1935 the Type 57 twin-cam was the Bugatti to have, with its two-valves-per-cylinder replacing the three vertical valves which had prevailed so long on the single ohc cars. The foreign rate of exchange being favourable, GMG was encouraged to import a chassis in March, and by July this had been equipped with a very stylish body again laid out by Eric Giles. He and the Colonel had gone to Molsheim to collect the chassis and drive it home. A scale model had been made first and the two-seater body with its helmet front wings, encased back wheels and a raked vee-screen that deflected the slipstream very effectively, made this one of the most beautiful cars on the road.
I was privileged to have rides in this and the T49, because a contributor was wanted for the BCC’s magazine Bugantics and as a bubblingly keen young enthusiast I was very willing to oblige, without a fee. It was an age when these Bugattis were about the fastest, most exciting of cars, with good roadholding, acceleration and interesting noises to blend with the very impressive performance, long before today’s 200mph super-road-burners, or even an E-type Jaguar, were there to blow them away…
So it was a great experience, greatly enjoyed. I recall going to dinner at Col Giles’ home in Cumberland Terrace, Regents Park, footmen in attendance, after one such fast day’s motoring. Afterwards, in the drawing room, Eric’s mother remarked that his suit was a shade crumpled, which caused a sort of sweepstake, as those present peered into inner pockets to declare how recently their attire had been tailored, and where. As an underpaid motor-scribbler in a sports coat I felt the time had come to make the excuse that I had to leave to catch the catch the tram…
By this time Col Giles had bought the Prescott estate for £2500 and leased it to the BOC for the hillclimbs which are so popular today. He helped to run these with military precision, but realised that, while it was fun, the forthcoming war would be even more to his liking; for which he received a quiet admonition from his mother.
The aforesaid T57, ‘Therese’, had by then covered 15,000 miles before going to Brixton for its first decoke. Its owner described it as, “The most superb car anybody could wish for, fast, silent, terrific acceleration, and yet so docile that thick traffic can be negotiated in top if desired”. In contrast, in 1935 Colonel Giles had bought the 1913 chain-drive 5-litre Bugatti ‘Black Bess’ which I had discovered derelict in Derby. He spent much money totally restoring it, to his great credit. Both cars were a notable feature of pre-war Prescott meetings, and were thankfully saved from a fire at Fitzroy Road, where they were garaged in November 1938, by a beam falling across them.
Nett from Molsheim was a Type 50 5-litre saloon bought at 8000 miles, in 1936. The three-speed gearbox was quite adequate in view of the great low-revs power, and for 80mph driving in such a luxurious fashion in a car so delightful to handle, it well suited the owner, who had previously wondered whether it would fit into the scheme of things.
Even more desirable than Therese was the next Molsheim in 1938, a in a supercharged Type 57. This was ‘La Petite Suzanne’, which could not be resisted after Earl Howe had said you didn’t know what motoring was until you had driven a T57S! A chassis was ordered and Eric Giles started on a body similar to the previous one, the idea being that GMG would go to Molsheim and bring the chassis back, with Eric, as he had to be in France for a tour of the battlefields. The visit was duly made; although the brothers’ appetite was further whetted by a demo run with Williams and dinner with Jean Bugatti, the 157’s chassis was not ready; it would cost £300 less than the previous T57 at the favourable exchange rate.
Meanwhile, Corsica of Cricklewood got on with the tiny body and in the end the chassis, with its big ribbed brake drums, was ready for collection from Brixton. GU7 was a truly outstanding motor car, an exceedingly handsome two-seater with a very large boot, and it would do 60, 80, 110 and 120mph in the gears, at a 5500rpm maximum from the Le Mans-standard engine, yet run easily at below 10mph in traffic. Every other aspect was near perfection, enabling GMG to do one run, for example, of 324 miles from Northhampton to London in 5hr 56min, observing like Lycett, every 30mph limit, with 64.4 miles in the best hour. The engine developed about 180bhp and the gearbox gave a quicker change than the T37. I was fortunate to experience this kind of motoring pre-war, wasn’t I?
Finally, in 1939 the Colonel acquired the Harjes’ Type 57C James Young two-door fixed-head coupe from Jack Barclays, a truly luxurious means of travel yet with all the fascination of a Bugatti. The best hogskin leather, fawn cloth and walnut veneer were the epitome of a top-class car, but the twin-cam engine would propel it at 110mph. So, 14 Bugattis in 19 years.
The Giles brothers were truly great ambassadors for the famous French make, and continued to be a valuable influence on the BOC and Prescott. But after his war service GMG opted for a Light 15 Citroen, used for long Continental tours, with a break from such motoring provided by a venerable Burrell steam traction-engine.