Getting Intimate With The Details Of Bugatti’s Grand Prix Heroes
Photography by Will Broadhead
There it was, sitting proudly in its sumptuous blue paint; the scars of age revealing a life well lived. Then there’s the sheer size of the beast! It filled my vision with beautiful hand-formed metal; no carbon or composite sullying the construction of the tear drop body, no garish aero to ruin the lines.
The hood stretches away from the signature shape of the radiator, hinting at the bank of cylinders that are hidden beneath the gills of the creature, waiting patiently to bark into life and spit flame from the exits of its large, sweeping exhaust. Yes, this is a fine French thoroughbred indeed, that much is obvious, and it speaks to me in a way my juvenile brain can understand. Except I am not a juvenile, I am 32 years old and have seen this car and its sisters before, and each time I do I am transported to an emotional state that reflects the first time I saw and heard a racing car. Back to that magical definitive moment, the event horizon.
The particular motor car that has invaded my sight and senses most recently though was the Bugatti Type 35 and last week I have happened upon an entire squadron of Bugatti pre-war racers at the NEC Classic Motor Show.
Despite all of the other fine objet d’art on display, this particular stand was special; made possible by the Bugatti Trust and expertly curated by Angela Hucke, the collection consisted of eight Grand Prix Bugattis, including three T35s, a T37, T39, T51, and a T54—an evolutionary display.
Angela is keen to show me around, and we flit from car to car among the thick crowds, discussing the stunning old war-horses and the modern work of the Bugatti Trust. I ask if the machines are runners, and the question sparks an almost indignant response from Angela who rightly puts me straight back into my box! Not only are these all runners, they are regular drivers, some even being driven across France to Monaco and back to compete in the Historic Grand Prix. That is a journey of some 2,000 miles for these cars, and as a vehement supporter of machines like these being driven, the notion of these road trips fixes these wonderful Bugattis even further into my heart.
The cars fascinate me, and the throngs of people are conducive to taking in the details up close. The engineering is as exquisite as it is precise, and I enjoyed dissecting the mechanics of each car in turn. That’s another great thing about old motor cars, you can see how they are put together and how they work. This is something I am told is key to the foundations on which the Trust itself operates; it has collated a vast library of photographs, drawings, and documents to help with education and research from elementary school and upwards. Indeed, there is a strong engagement with kids at the show this weekend, and not just with the Baby Bugattis on display—electric cars that were playthings for the children of Europe’s elite (pictured below)—I saw plenty of budding petrolheads reading the display placards and poring over the old open-wheelers.
And in the case of this big kid, I take the opportunity to study the intricacies. I’ve seen these cars in action a bunch of times at events like Goodwood, and the noise of these things is truly something else, but to have so much undiluted time to study every nut and bolt holding these grand prix competitors together is a rare treat. The engines themselves are gorgeous things—most operate straight-eight motors—advancing from 200BHP in the early 35s, to the monstrous T54 with its 4.9-liter supercharged double overhead cam lump pumping out 300. These “Blowers” must have been fearsome to drive at racing speeds, but despite accidents and time, most of the original cars still exist.
Elsewhere on the car, you can see the workings of the shaft and cable operated steering mechanism that runs on rollers from the directly driven wheel to its counterpart on the other side of the chassis. There is also something particularly spellbinding about the handbrake and gear shift that are external to the chassis—romantic visions of racers of old, manhandling the giant steering wheel whilst leaning from the cockpit and gripping the gear change in the other hand.
It’s a fabulous image, and as I drink it all in I can see others doing the same. Parents and grandparents explaining to their children how these things work, kids wide-eyed at the sight of these wonderful pioneers for the first time, and then there are the enthusiastic members of the Bugatti Trust, answering questions, telling stories, and giving time to all that want it.
With more than 2,000 victories for the T35 alone, these things were just about unstoppable, and it’s a feat that we shouldn’t let slip away with time. Pre-war Bugatti had built up an incredible C.V. that made the company the hallowed name it is today. Eventually moving onward, I walked away delighted that the cars and their history are in good hands. Congratulations to the Bugatti Trust.