Bugatti's final, fatal flop

Bugatti’s vaunted return to post-war front line racing lasted just 18 laps. But, says Doug Nye, this ill-conceived project contained ideas that were truly ahead of its time


Sporting history is studded with stories of how ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time …’. It’s certainly true in Formula One ask Damon Hill or Chris Amon; back in the ’50s, perhaps we should have asked Roland Bugatti what possessed him as he presided over the return to Grand Prix racing of his late father’s grand marque, in 1955-56…

Ettore Bugatti had died in August 1947. He was only 66 years old, but had already outlived his first wife, Barbara, by three years, marrying his 26-year old mistress, Genevieve Marguerite Delcuze, by whom at the time of his death he already had two young children, Therese and Michael. Ettore’s multitalented first son Gianoberto ‘Jean’ had been killed testing a sports car near the factory at Molsheim, in August 1939. His second son, Rolando Cesare Mario Carlo Bugatti — named after client and flying hero Roland Garros found himself, aged 25, as titular head of the wholly family-owned Bugatti company.

Opinions tend to be divided upon high-living, hedonistic Roland. The baby of the pre-war Bugatti family, he had been born in 1922 when his sisters L’ebe and Lydia were already 19 and 15 respectively, and big brother Jean, 13. Roland was spoiled, had a patchy education at home and was wholly unprepared for the responsibilities which fell upon him.

At the end of World War II, the Molsheim works was wrecked. Roland was living in the South of France “for health reasons” and former driver-cummanager Pierre Marco who joined Le Patron in 1919 was appointed General Manager to revive the business. In 1947 Molsheim began making Naval shells and submarine cable cutters. Pre-war the company had supplied railcars to the SNCF; now orders were secured for spare parts and repairs on these, plus weaving looms, castings and sub-contract work for Citroen and local firms. But by 1953 Bugatti had bigger fish to fry. Marco and Genevieve’s new husband, cigarette paper ‘king’ Rene Bollore, had won goverment contracts for tank engines, which became 78 per cent of Bugatti’s output, and Bollore was pressing for a resumption of car manufacture.

Roland Bugatti now fancied the glamour of a return to racing. A new unsupercharged 2 1/2-litre Formula One had been announced for 1954-57, and, against Marco’s advice, but backed by Bollore, Roland commissioned Italian engineer Gioachino Colombo to design a suitably dramatic coup de theatre for Bugatti’s racing renaissance the Type 251.


Colombo enjoyed a tremendous track record. He had been seconded by Alfa Romeo to Scuderia Ferrari in 1937, where he played a major role in design of the Tipo 158 Alfetta. He was involved with all Alfa’s racing projects into 1943, and was commissioned by Mr Ferrari in 1945 to originate the new Maranello marques classic V12 cars. Back at Alfa Corse he had been involved in the Alfetta’s domination of Grand Prix racing to the end of 1951, then moved to Maserati on the Formula 2 A6G and early-F1 250F programmes. Now he was operating a design office in Furth and he welcomed Bugatti’s approach, drew out a sheet of blank paper and sharpened a fresh set of ideas in discussion with the ambitious Roland and Rene Bollore, and regardless of a cost-conscious and concerned Pierre Marco…

The new Grand Prix car was to be a prestige project, spearheading Bugatti’s re-entry into the quality sportscar market. Work began in 1953, the original brief calling for six cars to be running in ’54. But Bugatti was dependent upon French military contracts, and the French military was receiving a desperately bloody nose in Indo-China. Defeat at the battle of Dien Bien Phu, and the subsequent partitioning of independent Vietnam on July 22, 1954, ended the war news received with relief by France but the ‘peace dividend’ hit Bugatti hard. Turnover in 1953 had been £1,700,000; now a major contract evaporated. The Grand Prix project upon which a 20-strong crew was engaged had already cost £600,000. But no-one would take the decision to cancel, so low-priority development dragged on into 1955 when, on July 29, the first straight-eight engine spluttered into life on a Molsheim dyno.

On October 4 at Entzheim aerodrome, the first prototype was shaken-down by Pierre Marco, and soon after Maurice “Frintignant with permission from Ferrari took over as test driver, having raced his own Bugatti pre-war, and lost his brother Louis in one. November 21 then saw the press invited to ilitzheim to see this radical new Bugatti ‘251’.

Where Colombo had been impressed by the prewar rear-engined Auto Unions, Roland Bugatti had been smitten by their glamour. The 251 had its engine behind the cockpit but mounted laterally, across the frame. Both short-wheelbase hack car and its first engine were intended purely to prove the chassis design without niggling engine delays.

Colombo s new straight-eight was arranged as two four-cylinder units in tandem, divided by a central cascade of gears driving to the in-unit gearbox projecting rearwards and to the twin overhead camshafts. Colombo claimed the individual four cyIinder crankshafts could be bolted together in different planes to match the engine’s torque characteristics to differing circuits.

Two different bore and stroke dimensions were cited. 76mm x 68mm and 75mm x 68.8mm, to give a displacement of 2430cc or 2342cc. With two spark plugs per cylinder and four Weber carburettors, an early 7.5:1 compression engine gave a claimed 230bhp at 8000rpm. A 9.0:1 compression unit should have given /275bhp competitive with the contemporary Mercedes-Benz and Lancia V8.

The transverse engine placed its carburettors forward in an air collector box right behind the cockpit, while on the units rear face an aluminium casting housed spur gears driving from the centre cascade into the five speed right-of-centre gearbox, drive then passing via further spur-gears to the differential. A tubular space frame chassis was used, but apparently as Roland Bugatti’s implacable insistence rigid, hollow axles were non-negotiable “…otherwise it will never be a true Bugatti”. A tubular front axle beam was therefore adopted, located by a vertical slider-pin and guide, while at the rear a de Dion tube was located laterally by a sliding trunnion and longitudinally by twin radius rods.

From the outboard extremity of each tube, pushrods rose to operate rocker arms pivoting on the upper main chassis rails. These arms then actuated coil-springs raked steeply across the frame, that for the right-front suspension, for example, picking-up base on the left-front lower chassis rail, and vice versa. This arrangement was said to offer load compensation side-to-side, since as the right-side wheel deflected on bump, its input reacted by loading up the left-side wheel. Mmmmmmm…

The car’s tubby aspect was completed by pannier tanks between the wheels each side within the body, aimed at consistent handling regardless of fuel load. Colombo ran the coolant through the tubular chassis longerons. The nose carried cooling ducts for the front brakes, intended to be Bugatti discs, but the development ran out of time and money? and twin-leading shoe drums prevailed.

At Entzheim, Trintignant found the short-wheelbase prototype quite a handful. An entry had been made for the Grand Prix de l’ACF at Reims-Gueux in July 1956. As the date approached, Colombo and Marco knew their car was not ready. Commercial pressure upon Roland and Rene Bollore insisted it should run, to keep faith with an expectant public.

Trintignant tested at Reims a week before the race, but found little to lift the tiny team’s deepening gloom. A second, longer-wheelbase, 251 had been completed with numerous modifications. To improve front-end behaviour the linkages and coilsprings above the front axle had been replaced by that old faithful expedient a transverse leaf spring.

Trintignant found the prototype had fine traction with so much weight on its driven wheels, but as speed increased to a too-modest maximum the nose would wander. The engine was sluggish and his best lap in 2:41.9 compared to Fangio’s Lancia-Ferrari pole of 2:23.3, an 18.6sec deficit per lap. Overnight, the latest engine from the long-wheelbase chassis was installed in the short-wheelbase hack, and in the race the French-blue debutante barked and bawled around at the back of the field until a sticking throttle brought in into the pits. The carburettor airbox had forced grit into the Webers’ throttle mechanisms and the car was withdrawn. Bugatti retreated to Molsheim but development was killed by inadequate funding.

The two ‘cross-engine’ Bugattis never raced again, and when the Molsheim works was cleared in 1963 by new owners Hispano the cars were sold to the Schlumpf brothers for what today is the Musee National at Mulhouse. They are still there today.

But don’t be too dismissive. The day of both rearmounted engines, inter-active suspensions and ultrashort wheelbases for example the Stewart Tyrrells 005-006/2 would come in Formula One, and Honda looked set to dominate 1 1/2-litre F1 racing with a ‘cross-engine’ had it run for another year into 1966; as it was, it won the ’65 Mexican GP at a canter.

And in the early ’90s, Ferrari’s John Barnard asked me if I had any gen on transverse-engine F1 cars, and amongst the works drawings and photographs I dug out for him were some of the 251. Investigation progressed on a transverse-engined modem Ferrari V12, only to be shelved for other reasons.

But essentially in July 1956, Denis Jenkinson said it all when he wrote of the Bugatti 251 in these pages: “…It would be foolish to expect too much from such a revolutionary approach to Grand Prix car design…”. Interestingly, the previous weekend in the paddock for the ADAC 1000kms race at Nurburgring, the Swiss brothers May reported with their Porsche 550RS topped by an inverted wing mounted on tall struts above the car’s midship centre of gravity. Of that, DSJ wrote: “An experiment that could have a future…”