The Bugatti Type 35B Is A Sculpture That Happens To House A Supercharged Straight-Eight
Story by Laura Ferriccioli
Photography by Federico Rocchini
It ran in the family. Art was a way of life, regardless of which path the Bugattis took within it. Carlo Bugatti, father of Ettore, was a furniture designer. A small but renowned artisanal outfit of exquisite, exotic style. Ettore’s brother Rembrandt Bugatti was a sculptor, praised for his masterful animal works.
Purchasing the output of both artists, Carlo and Rembrandt, Eric van Esser was invariably led to the works of Ettore Bugatti. The now-65-year-old Belgian was studying at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Art in his university years, and upon graduating, founded his own jewelry firm at the ripe age of 20. Around this time he also began buying drawings and paintings of young and promising artists, much like himself, some of which we can still remain in his collection. Highlighted artworks include a rare portrait of Rembrandt Bugatti created in Paris in 1907 by the Russian painter Max Kahn, as well as a small bronze piece by the sculptor himself.
That said, achieving ownership of an unmistakable open-top sports cars bearing the famous horseshoe-shaped radiator took him much longer to acquire, as you can imagine. After his first two automotive loves—both marked with the Mercedes-Benz three-pointed star—the step towards Bugatti was preceded by two Belgian marques: a Minerva and an FN (Fabrique Nationale).
The first of the legendary Bugattis to enter his garage came in 1992. It was a Type 43 that Eric kept for a decade. Later, he fell in love with a Type 50 Semi-Profilé Coupé, one of only five known examples. Built in 1933, the car has been resting peacefully in the workshop of a specialist Bugatti restorer in Britain, where it remains today. But let’s get to the car pictured shall we? The Alsatian brand found its share of success in motorsport with the Type 35, with various iterations of the model claiming race wins between 1924 and 1930 like kids picking up candy from a piñata. Between Grand Prix wins on the international stage and smaller local victories, it is said that the Type 35 won about 2,000 races in a roughly five-year period, making it one of the most, if not the most, successful racing cars of all time.
Light and elegant, it was a technical triumph as well as an artistic one: for the first time ever, Ettore Bugatti used a crankshaft supported by two roller bearings and three ball bearings. It could rotate at speeds of up to 6,000rpm, which was unheard of at the time, and controlled the eight pistons in the engine block, which originally displaced just 2.0 liters in the early Type 35s. Thanks to other changes over the model’s evolution—such as a twin carb setup, and later on, superchargers—output increased from around 90 to nearly 140 horsepower, which was transmitted via a wet multi-plate clutch.
Ettore Bugatti also relentlessly pursued lightweight construction and the best roadholding and general drivability without sacrificing performance. He was the first to develop special lightweight wheels to reduce the unsprung mass and improve the response of the suspension. It seemed he could do no wrong as he updated the car, and in 1928 alone, the Type 35 was victorious in 23 competitions out of the 26 major ones it entered. Among these were 11 Grands Prix and a Targa Florio—the fourth that it won, out of five—where Alberto Divo piloted a Type 35B to victory. This later iteration of the Type 35, the B, captivated Eric van Esser, and he’s owned his own Type 35B since the 1990s. It was built in March 1927 with bodywork by Bachmann. but was delivered one year later to the official Bugatti dealer, Omnia, in Munich. It’s a very well known car in Bugatti circles, and it was most likely owned in the past by the driver and famous German brewer Emil Bremme (chassis nr. 4878). With a 2.3L supercharged straight-eight engine, which runs on standard pump fuel, the Bugatti Type 35B remains a sensational car: its power is right around 140hp, and its top speed, though not tested much lately, is around 215 km/h.
Eric’s example has found itself something of a natural habitat here in Italy, as it has taken part in the modern Mille Miglia many times in the past few years. On most of these occasions the former jewelry designer, who is now an art dealer in the town of Knokke-Heist, ran the car with prince Anton von Lichtenstein as a co-driver. “Once we even arrived first in Rome!” he recalls with amusement and a touch of pride. Almost as if the Freccia Rossa was still an outright speed race rather than a regularity run.
But Eric has never been into stopwatches and perfect driving skill. He’s always been driven by harmony, by beauty, by a sleek design, sculpture-like, emanating from a well-proportioned body with a slim shell made from a special alloy.
The Type 35 was not regarded as the most beautiful racing vehicle of its time without good reason after all, as even when the three-lobe Roots-type supercharger was added to the Type 35’s eight-cylinder in 1926, to make sure the new supercharger fit in with the overall aesthetics of the engine compartment, Bugatti had it designed so that the shape of the engine cover would not be disrupted. Beauty matters just as much as engineering prowess, and that’s something that Ettore Bugatti was well aware of over 90 years ago. Happy owners of Ettore’s works prove it wasn’t in vain.