Last Of A Type

…and the finest product of the marque, says Laurence Meredith

Impressing potential customers with sophisticated, stylish and powerful Grand Tourers was not easy during the 1930s, as one manufacturer after another joined a lavish race to entice motoring’s upper echelons with their multicylinder wares. Bentley, Rolls-Royce, Hispano-Suiza, lsotta-Fraschini, Auburn, Pierce-Arrow, Cadillac, Daimler-Benz and others all offered their version of ‘The Best Car in the World’, including Bugatti who eclipsed everyone else’s outstanding efforts with the most outrageous ‘Best Car’ of them all — the Type 41 Royale — a pretty rum effort too from a man who had once described W O Bentley’s products as “the fastest lorries in the world.”

Like so many of its contemporaries, the Royale proved to be a fairly costly mistake, for it was built against a background of economic gloom, political uncertainty and social unrest, and a number of such cars disappeared almost over night, the companies that produced them often being absorbed by other concerns.

Bugatti, however, was different in so many respects from the rest. As an automotive artist with an almost unrivalled reputation for producing beautiful sports and sports-racing cats, the old man had an instinct for knowing and providing exactly what car driving enthusiasts required. He and his talented offspring enjoyed a rare feel for contemporary artistic trends — indeed, Ettore often created them — and in 1934, the small Molsheim outfit built its penultimate model before the outbreak of the Hitler War — the glorious Type 57.

The worldwide depression killed off any ideas Bugatti might have had about developing further ‘production’ sports racers — they just weren’t in sufficient demand — so the Type 57, which was largely the work of Ettore’s son, Jean, sufficed as the staple diet for Bugatti’s loyal clientele during the next six years. As a fast tourer, it was a car that was right for its time.

Interestingly, it succeeded — over 700 were built all told — almost against the odds. Apart from harsh economic realities, Ettore was resolute — stubborn even — in his belief in traditional engineering values. While other ‘greats’ such as Rudi Uhlenhaut, Ferdinand Porsche and Hans Ledwinka were breaking new ground with their innovatory designs, Ettore Bugatti was busy warning Jean of the perceived evils of independent front suspension.

All said and done, a Bugatti had to be a work of art and create an image which was powerful and enduring, not just for the Bugatti dynasty, but for the people who paid good money for its handcrafted products. Never mind that the mechanical brakes — hydraulics weren’t introduced until 1938 — fitted to the Type 57 were about as much use as a clutch on a catamaran.

The Type 57 was a development of the Type 44 tourer of 1930 and its replacement the Type 49, which had 3-litre and 3257cc engines respectively. Type 57 had the same capacity engine as the 49, but with a twin-cam cylinder head and, true to Bugatti form, this power-unit not only produced the goods necessary for propelling a relatively heavy car to respectable speeds — 90-100mph in standard tune — but also looked correct according to Bugatti’s artistic ‘formula’, an assembly of largely aluminium sculpture, the simplicity and beauty of each casting only being rivalled at that time by Alfa Romeo.

Among French manufacturers, Delahaye, Delage and Talbot were all producing rival tourers, and fine machines they were too, but the Molsheim car was made by Bugatti and, to most, this meant just a little more. And still does, too. Six body styles were officially listed by the factory for the Type 57 — in both two and four-door guises — some being constructed by the Gangtoff coachbuilders whose factory was nearby. But a number of established special builders were privately employed to interpret their art, mainly on the drophead theme. Of all the bodies created for the 57, the most striking (some say bizarre), was the Atlantic, which, with its roof-mounted dorsal fin and sweeping wings, constituted yet another brave Bugatti attempt at streamlining. Remember the ‘Tank’ of the previous decade? That didn’t go down as a whopping success either.

Development of the 57, such as it was, included the Series Two from 1937, which had rubber engine mountings, and the Series Three from 1938, fitted with telescopic shock absorbers in place of the original friction dampers. A sporting version, the Type 57S, with dry-sump lubrication, more power and a lower chassis frame modified to accept bodywork befitting the car’s performance nature, was launched in 1935.

A supercharged car, the 57C, was also made available, its engine producing around 200bhp, but it was when this power unit was mated to the 57S chassis that one of Bugatti’s finest ever cars, the 57SC, was released. Capable of around 120mph, it was certainly an impressive means of pre-war travel. And although the T57 had not been specifically designed as a racing car, several examples were used extensively in competition by a clutch of motoring notaries.

Earl Howe finished third in the 1935 TT at an average speed of 79.72mph, and a trio of special streamlined tank-bodied cars were entered for the 1936 French Grand Prix; Wimille and Sommer won, despite having to contend with larger-engined efforts from Talbot and Delahaye.

Wimille also won the Marne Grand Prix, and the 1937 Le Mans 24 Hours at an impressive average speed of 85.13mph, a new record for the Sarthe circuit. This success was most welcome for Bugatti, especially as 1936 had not been a vintage year in some respects; Ettore had been locked out of his own factory, civil unrest had caused Le Mans to be cancelled and France had been forced to examine her social conscience.

At this time, the great French manufacturers had turned to sportscar racing — it hadn’t a hope of success in the single-seater Grand Prix circus, as Germany’s onslaught with the Silver Arrows was all-conquering — and Bugatti, whose racing cars had been virtually outclassed by all of its contemporaries, had jumped on the bandwagon to revive its reputation as a circuit winner.

The 1937 Le Mans race provided a mixed spectacle; Sommer’s 8C 2900S Alfa Romeo led for the first four laps but, after a poor start, Wimille soon recovered to take the lead on lap five. But as the race progressed — a battle between the single Italian car and a gaggle of French machinery — a six-car pile-up occurred in which Kippuert (Bugatti) and Fairfield (Frazer Nash) lost their lives, casting a cloud over the entire event. Wimille’s Bugatti went on to win and, interestingly, became the first car at the French circuit to cover more than 2000 miles in 24 hours.

It was Delahaye’s turn to win Le Mans in 1938, an event that saw the first five places filled by French machinery, but Bugatti returned for the 1939 classic with another Tank — a car that slightly resembled a giant tropical insect — which, thanks to Roots supercharging, saw the winning Wimille-Neyron car reach speeds of 150mph down the Mulsanne straight — a figure worthy of pensive reflection even in 1996.

And then tragedy. In August 1939 the Type 57’s creator Jean Bugatti was killed at the wheel of the 1939 Le Mans-winning car while out testing near Molsheim. It was a bitter blow, because, apart from building a prototype Type 64 with a 4 1/2-litre engine to succeed the 57, and the half-hearted Type 101 post-war update, this was virtually the end of the Bugatti story. Production at the factory was not resumed after the spectre of Adolf Hitler had been laid to rest, although there was a brief and abortive flirtation with a mid-engined Grand Prix car in the 1950s. But the name, of course, was revived with the production of the EB110 in recent times, a supercar which respectfully included a token horseshoe radiator opening in the nose panel.

This aside, the great days of Bugatti were over, the Type 57 standing as the family’s swan song, an important part of Molsheim folklore and one which, ironically, died with its designer. However, the legacy left by the Bugattis shows every sign of lasting for ever. Today, the Prescott-based Bugatti Owners Club is thriving as never before with a truly international membership.

With its classic looks, alloy ‘hallmarks’, and tearing calico exhaust note, the Type 35 might be the memorable icon by which the beauty of other Bugs will always be measured, but there are good, practical reasons why the Type 57 remains a firm favourite with aficionados, who regard the art of Bugatti as a welcome bonus to the real business of driving.

On The Road

Owned by the well known Bugatti proponent, John Marks, the Type 57 featured here sits in a beautiful timber-framed building — the walls adorned with an absorbing variety of Bugatti collectables — rubbing shoulders with another Molsheim masterpiece, the Type 55. They make for a fine pair, examples of inter-war craftsmanship that serve as a reminder of an extraordinary era when men and women went to a place of work to make things with skilled hands, using simple tools as beautiful and cared for as the components they turned, milled, wheeled and finally burnished or painted to perfection. Sporting its James Young coachwork, John’s Type 57 is a full four-seater which, despite the length of its pressed steel chassis frame, is classically attractive, although many would argue in favour of the slightly later V12 Lagonda where aesthetics are concerned. My personal view is that there isn’t much to choose between them, and because there are some similarities between the two cars, preference ultimately comes down to the radiator badge.

First registered in October 1936, John Marks acquired BLO 12 from the late Wolfgang Zeuner, another well-known Bugatti fanatic who, among his many other achievements, led a herd of elephants over the French Alps accompanied by cricketer Ian Botham, in an attempt to show that the Carthaginian general, Hannibal, was right in his choice of transport for a double assault on the Romans. The Duke of Edinburgh and Barbara Cartland are among many other distinguished passengers who have enjoyed the privilege of climbing aboard this most civilised horseless hedonist. Of course, there is no doubting the dignity of its gait, the sobriety of its magnificent presence, the gentle comfort lo those broad hide-bound seats and the hundreds of man hours that went into creating the beautiful bodywork alone, but what is not immediately easy to ingest is the engine. Or, to be more precise, its power output.

It’s all very well to accept the idea that this is the work of Bugatti and that it is, therefore, inherently powerful, one can go a little further and wonder that this straight-eight is quite different from previous Bugatti eights — the two overhead camshafts are driven by gears at the rear of the crankshaft — but 135bhp from an engine that remained reliable even when blown to 200bhp is the work of people who knew what they were on about. For these are numbers that only became benchmarks after the war, when Bill Lyons created a stir with the Jaguar XK120.

Like all well-fettled machines the engine fires first time and with none of the flatulent fuss that characterises a number of well-bred road burners. And another surprise: its eight cylinders perform their regular rhythm in almost complete silence. Until the throttle is opened at any rate. And then the muted exhaust scowl turns quickly into ripping yarns, a Ferrari-like chorus of harmonised monotones that climax at full bore into a grumbling Grand Jeu.

Like Bugatti’s spiritual successor, Enzo Ferrari, the engine’s performance, and its inherent beauty for that matter, were given precedence over mundane things like the chassis and suspension. But it would be impertinent to suggest that ‘young’ Jean could have made a better job of things. For a start, the old man was agin the idea of deviating from tried and tested suspension system — elliptic leaf springs were used front and rear, and there’s a beam axle at the ‘pointed end’ — and second, Bugatti subscribed to the view that a good driver would instinctively know how to correct on-the-limit difficulties, such as they were.

On modern roads the question of on-the-limit finesse is irrelevant, the thought of having to extract a wayward Ford Escort from the Bug’s radiator grille doesn’t appeal very much either. Gently into a corner and gently away is the order of the day. With such a long chassis sitting on 18in diameter wire wheels, ride comfort is incomparably pre-war; there’s slight but never disconcerting body roll in tight corners, the large crossply tyres smoothing out bumps, yumps and potholes without ever losing composure. And the wonderful seats massage aches, pains and strains in the same manner as a modern Jaguar or Mercedes.

Because John Marks actually uses his car, he has made a couple of sensible, safety-related modifications to it; the brakes have been changed from mechanical to hydraulic operation, for example, which is why there are modern plastic fluid reservoirs on the the bulkhead between the engine and cockpit, arid modern indicator units have also been fitted. These may cause purists to sniff a bit, but common sense must prevail over originality when it comes to negotiating the horrors of such God-forsaken places as London’s orbital ‘Magic Roundabout’.

Brace yourself. Those rear lights. Ahem! Hillman Imp. It helps if you say it slowly. At some time in the distant past. they were destined for the nether regions of Rootes’ rear-engined rascal, but unwittingly got screwed to the type 57 — heresy akin to Frankie Howerd playing Hamlet perhaps; a more appropriate pair is being sought.

It goes without saying that the Bug steers, brakes and swaps cogs competently — it wouldn’t otherwise be a Bugatti — but more interestingly than its performance as a mere car is its role and presence in a modern car context. 60 years ago this Bugatti, and others of its ilk, were designed for brisk, comfortable trips to such once exotic destinations as Nice, Cannes and Monaco, and even now it’s not so very difficult to imagine the delights of driving on a long, straight treelined, congestion-free 1930s road, blasting fullbore through sleepy villages and vineyards, stopping occasionally for a livener and a spot of cog au vin.

The blinding truth of this once idyllic age is that it can be recaptured today. Easily too. And recapturing a past age, above all else, must be the principal reason for enjoying old cars. Stay away from motorways, stick to country roads — many are still largely devoid of traffic in continental Europe — and you’re home and dry. The Bugatti will certainly consume more fuel than a modern sporting saloon, but not a fat deal; it isn’t fitted with side-impact bars, ABS, airbags or even seat-belts, but what it does offer is real motoring in its purest and simplest form.

There isn’t a modern equivalent, although the new Jaguar XJS Cabriolet is, in some ways, pretty close. Where the Bugs score best, however, is in possessing a style which is unique to the marque. And it’s not just a style. But style. Sophisticated, cultured and manicured to perfection, the Type 57 ranks among the world’s great touring cars. Safely back in its spotless garage, the faint odour of hot oil emanating from the engine bay, the crankcase and cylinder block ticking as the alloy surfaces contract, small specks of dust settling on the gleaming two-tone paintwork, one is left brooding on a climactic pair of pacemakers with eidetic clarity. Both the Type 57 and its stablemate the Type 55 were the last of Bugatti’s great automotive works. Things just wouldn’t be the same again after the War ended.