A virtual magazine for a true passion!

Editor: Jaap Horst

Volume 13, Issue 4

Mick Walsh, Photography Tony Baker
First Published in Classic & Sportscar, April 2008.

With its early narrow radiator set back in the frame and taut, graceful form, this Bugatti Type 39 is a contender for the most beautiful racing car of the 1920's - if not all time. But from inside the cockpit, its exposed mechanical workings could inspire Lord Richard Rogers. With the array of components on show - chain-linked brake compensators deep in the footwell on either side of the chassis, polished shaft under the driver's legs linking the outboard lever to the gearbox - its exquisite functionalism would be adored by the famous architect. The magneto sprouts from the sturdy aluminium bulkhead like a deco-style crab, it's eight plug leads curling towards the 1500cc straight-eight ahead. The large Jaeger tachometer hints at the free-revving charm of this voiturette motor, which happily spins to 7000rpm while its more illustrious 2-litre brother is limited to five-five.

Pump up the fuel pressure, flick on the ignition, retard the timing lever and, with a swift swing on the handle up front from Bugatti specialist Charles Knill-Jones, this preciously original machine barks eagerly into life. With the crisp exhaust comed the engine's own score of whines and rasps, generated by roller bearings, cams and gears. Unlike the Type 39A, there's no supercharger under that elegant tapering bonnet, but this historic short-stroke engine still feels gutsy and fervent. Provided, of course, your shoes are narrow enough for the tight squeeze between the clutch and the accelerator.

Once up to temperature and out on the open road, the combination of a slick gearchange, closely stacked ratios and an eager engine brings vintage driving nirvana on a sunny winter morning. On a clear back-route the strong, firm brakes and fast, sharp steering reward a confident pilot, and help him to avoid tyre-rupturing pot-holes. Like a motorbike, the precise steering demands a smooth technique to extract its best. The weighting and feel through its broad walnut-rimmed, four-spoke wheel are perfect. Sitting on such narrow rubber you expect the stiff chassis to tiptoe, but the balance and handling are exceptionally satisfying. Every aspect of the car is super-responsive and later, on an open airfield course, it begs to be pushed into a balanced drift. Best of all, you don't need to be a heroic driver to appreciate its brilliance. For style, sound and feel, few machines have such magical allure.

This timewarp survivor is one of the five works Type 39s that only raced in two major events before the factory sold them off. Just 12 months after the Type 35's debut at Lyon, and with his usual eagle eye for publicity, Ettore entered a new touring car endurance event at the recently extended Monthlèry GP curcuit. His new T35 had little hope of challenging the exotic Alfa and Delage teams in the last year of the 2-litre formula, so Ettore was happy to convert his T39 racer into a roadgoing sports car. Besides, weren't his racing machines based on production designs? By fitting 1500cc 'short-stroke' eight-cylinder motors and a single Solex, the Molsheim team had a chance of success. The event required full road equipment, including lights, wings and hoods as well as a self-starter. Cars also had to carry sandbag ballast to simulate passengers. Fuel consumption was carefully monitored - in the 1500cc class cars had to average 24mpg - and, with no refuelling permitted, all runners had to be fitted with enlarged tanks.

With the popularity of Le Mans, the Automobile Club de France was hoping for a big crowd at Monthlèry and requested special trains and an omnibus service from paris. Bugatti decided to enter five cars with a corps of trusted drivers, including Jules Goux, Meo Constantini, Giulio Foresti and the de Vizcaya brothers. although the new Type 39s were clearly related to the Type 35, the roadgoing body style was distinctive with sweeping one-piece wings carrying twin spares, straight-sided doorless body amd full-width flat 'screens. Bugatti was clearly confident of a result and, prior to driving to Paris, the team was presented, complete with race numbers, in Strasbourg's Place Kleber the day before the race. Even Ettore, dapper as ever with his camera and white terrier, turned out for the public send-off. Just after the presentation, heavy rain forced up hoods and umbrellas. The round-trip of some 900km was proof of how tractable and reliable these 1500s were, plus it was a good opportunity to fine-tune for optimum fuel-consumption.

Monthlèry winner Constantini with Jean and Ettore Bugatti, and (right): 1925 race debut.

On race morning at 8.30am, the 22 entries - ranging from Weymann-bodied 5-litre Steyr saloons to the sporty Bugattis - were towed to the start by a group of Citroën Kégresse half-tracks to conserve fuel. When the flag dropped, the cars had to start with no outside assistance. As the rest of the field set off the Bugattis were reluctant to start in the cool air, but eventually got going with Pierre de Vizcaya leading the Molsheim squad. The 10,000-seater grandstands were virtually empty - even by noon only 59 spectators were counted. The local hotelier was particularly glum because he'd ordered 400 plucked chickens to feed the expected hordes.

Open cars were required to stop, erect their hoods and complete one lap with full weather gear. This proved a problem for the class-leading Darracqs - the Bugattis' main rival - because their windscreen supports had broken and the tops had to be strapped down with rope. The Molsheim team set a strict pace, letting the bigger cars motor ahead, but after 357 miles Pierre de Vizcaya was up to fourth, while brother Ferdinand had already retired with a holed radiator. The rest of the team ran the full distance like clockwork, and by the early eveningConstantini had completed the 590 miles in 11 hours 12 minutes, averaging 52mph and heading a Bugatti 1-2-3-4. 'The remarkable feature of the straight-eight engine was its clean condition,' reported The Autocar. 'Not a drop of oil anywhere.' While others struggled with tyre problems, the T39s' Michelin-shod eight-spoke aluminium wheels weren't changed once.

The following month, the AIARC (Alliance Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus) met in Paris to confirm revised regulations for the 1926 Grand Prix season, following fears that the 2-litre cars were becoming dangerously fast - underlined by the tragic loss of Antonio Ascari in the French GP. The new rules limited engines to 1500cc and set minimum weight at 700kg (1514lb). The 800mm cockpit width remained, although riding mechanics were banned.

To encourage teams to test new designs, the 1500s were allowed to run against the bigger cars in the Italian GP at Monza. Knowing his T35 would be outperformed by the Alfa P2 and V12 Delage, Bugatti entered a team of T39s. The touring bodywork was removed to be replaced with a GP-style shell, complete with the contentious one-piece cowl and passenger cover that had caused a rumpus at the French GP. The engine was uprated with higher compression and twin carbs. The 1925 championship would go to the Monza winner because Delage, Alfa Romeo and Duesenberg had all won a round each. When Delage withdrew, a heated Italo-American duel developed at the front of the 800km race, much to the delight of the huge crowd.

At the start, 2500 pigeons were released and massed bands burst into music. Cheers drowned out the exhausts as 15 red, white and blue cars blasted off for the five-hour thriller. Gaston Brilli-Peri won for Alfa at an average of 94.76mph but, although outpaced by the 2-litre racers, the Bugattis' reliability came good with Goux heading the French team in 5-6-7-8-9 at half-distance. After he'd run a faultless race, Goux was slowed on the last lap by a broken valve, letting distinguished Venetian Constatini through for an impressive third ahead of Tom Milton's Duesenberg. In its only two major outings, the T39 had excelled.

Two of the Monza voiturette team cars were quickly sold to Australia and it's believed that Giulio Foresti, one of the Molsheim works drivers, had a hand in the deal. working as a salesman in England, Foresti promoted the racers as 'Maroubra Brescia Beaters'. Earlier, in an attempt to take the Australian Land Speed record, this T39 -'4604'- had been acquired by Frank Parle, a wealthy chemist from Edgecliff. The car made its Australian debut at Maroubra in June 1926, where Parle entered J O'Rourke to drive. The Bugatti's performance was initially disappointing, but in July it finally came good with a win at Maroubra at 80mph. The car continued to race in Australia and New Zealand and there was no doubting its speed. At Muriwai it was clocked at 115mph and Hope Bartlett, a later owner, was caught speeding through Gerringong, New South Wales at 100mph - but amazingly won his case. '4604' changed hands several times during the early '30s and remained competitive, even leading the '32 Australian GP driven by Carl Junker until it threw a con-rod. After another engine blow-up in '38, the much-campaigned machine was acquired by Ted Lobb of NSW. Lobb carefully preserved the racer's original state, rebuilding its broken engine.

The Type 39 last appeared in public at a Bugatti rally in Wagga Wagga in '68 but, after Lobb's wife became ill, it was little used and was even brought into his billiard room. In 2004, Lobb was rumoured to be thinking about selling the Bugatti, but with the provisio that it had to go to a local enthusiast. Eventually, London-based Aussie David Hands aqcuired the car. "I shipped it to the UK, then basically sat and looked at it for a year," says Hands. "In June '06 I decided to get Crotshwaite & Gardiner to do the engine and they introduced me to Tula Engineering."

Clockwise from top left: walnut-rimmed wheel and big T39 rev counter; temperature gauge mounted on radiator; external handbrake and gearlever;
beautiful early body style with narrow, set-back radiator, one piece cowl and cover over passenger side.

New blocks and pistons were required, but the original crankshaft, con-rods, carburettors and camshaft were all retained: "Early on, there was deliberation over the engine specification. Various Bugatti people advised that we go for a 2-litre because the original 1500cc 'will never go', but when we discovered the car's remarkable originality, we knew it had to be preserved hust as it raced at Monza. Charles [Knill-Jones] also felt that, with some cam-timing adjustment, it would be as quick as a Type 37, with more torque."

After various false starts, Hands found a symathetic specialist to restore the bodywork. "When I first saw the body I was reluctant," says Richard Scaldwell. "Tragically, it had already been dip-stripped. But the closer I looked, the more I realised how amazingly original the body was. the chances of getting involved with another Bugatti like this are zero, and David's enthusiasm for originality was refreshing."

As a result of their intrinsic beauty, there have been trends to make GP Bugattis look perfect - with bright blue paint and chromed components - but, thankfully, the recent turn towards authenticity has persuaded enthusiasts to look harder as historic photographs for a more realistics finish. "These cars, particularly the bodies , were never perfect," says Scaldwell. "Through discussions with other restorers I've discovered that they varied enormously. Craftsmen at Molsheim changed and all had different techniques. Look at the grid pictures at Monza and you can see that even the Type 39s were slightly different."

Over the winter of 2006, Scaldwell meticulously matched new metal to repair the precious original aluminium. The key to the finish is in the detail, so the talented restorer studied Molsheim-made eyelets, brackets and boltholes:"It's a subtle area. Some may call it fakery, but I'm focused on making the cars look right."

Short-stroke 1500cc straigh-eight will rev to 7000rpm; aero-style fly screen; original 4604 chassis plate.

After the metalwork, the next challenge was the paint. Contemporay reports claim the blue was based on the Gitanes cigarette packet carried in Barbara Bugatti's apron. The Autocar's 1925 Monthlèry report confirms the light tone, reporting a 'pale, pastel shade', and that is the colour hands opted for. Look carefully at photographs of racing Bugattis and it's clear that the finish also had little gloss.

Back at Tula engineering, Knill-Jones and Michael Whiting reassembled the T39 in preparation for the Goodwood Festival of Speed. Prior to the body refit, the bare chassis was tested around a local airfield. "This was an unbelievble first project for me," enthused Knill-Jones. "The more we got into the car, the more we realised how important it was to preserve it. Little touches such as the numbered half-shaft keys, bronze bushes and levers were all as they left the factory. The chassis was perfectly straight and even the seat cushion had been there for the car's whole life. There's no top leather, so the seating position is lower but really comfortable. Its originality is a real credit to Ted Lobb."

Limited grip from skinny tyres, but beautifully balanced handling.

As a nod to its long stay in Australia, Hands has even put back some of the red earth found in the chassis, but the wasps' nest, discovered behind the brake pedal, has gone. Small challanges for the Tula team included saving the original petrol tank: "It's a stunning 110-lite design that tapers and fills the whole tail. The baffles had lost their lead coating, so we filled it with lead shot, hung it from the rafters and shook it regularly for a week. Bags of crap came out." Where bolts needed to be replaces, Knill-Jones delved into his spares boxes to find period factory bits rather than making new ones.

With a new set of cast-aluminium wheels and period-correct beaded-edge Dunlop tyres to replace the T37-style wires it wore in Australia, the completed car made it to Goodwood where its understated beauty and natural patina were the talk of the Cathedral Paddock. After so little use during the past 70 years, the T39 has been back in action at Prescott and Donington, while Knill-Jones got his reward with a drive in the Brooklands Trophy at the Revival:"I had a great dice with the Bernato-Hassan Bentley. He had me down the straights, but the T39 handles beautifully so I caught him in the corners."

Now '4604' is back down under, revisiting Philip Island, plus joining a historic parade before the Australian GP. Sadly, Monthlèry is now closed but a return to Monza this year would be special. Just picture it drifting through Lesmo, hounded by Campari's Ghost in an Alfa P2.

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