Genie In The Throttle An intense, sometimes sideways drive in a rare and unrestored ex-works Bugatti Type 35C. Unmolested survivors are so rare that this Bugatti Type 35C could be seen as a mythical being. Ivan Ostroff’s lifelong wish to experience what makes them so special has been granted – he won’t be wasting it… Photography Glenn Lindberg.
Flat-out joy in a Bugatti Type 35C Discover just how tricky it is to drive an exquisite Bugatti. Sideways. On gravel…
The Type 35 was Bugatti’s most successful racing machine; it won five Targa Florios, several Grands Prix and the 1926 World Championship. As such, it’s often the subject of copies, recreations, bitsa-builds – and the occasional all-out fake. But the supercharged Type 35C before me is an original ex-works car with known and unbroken provenance. Even more remarkably, it has never been crashed and thus remains one of the most original Bugatti 35s in existence. Every single panel and major component is the same as the day it left the factory. And it is red, not blue.
After running my hand over that iconic horseshoe radiator, I have to stand back for a few moments to admire the profile view, and the bodywork decorated only out of necessity with cooling vents and exposed mechanicals.
‘The straight-eight’s mechanical cacophony absorbs any trace of supercharger whine’
After a lifetime of anticipation I swing my left leg into the cockpit, put on my gloves and pull down my goggles. Preparer and marque specialist Ivan Dutton is on hand to talk me through the 35C’s starting procedure. His first instruction is to locate the two small taps on the left side of the bulkhead; his next to engage the one that pumps air up to a sufficient pressure in the fuel tank for the engine to start. I move the lever up to retard the ignition and press the button for the starter, which growls as it churns and the engine fires. I depress the throttle to catch it and bring the lever down to advance the ignition. Once the engine is settled and running I switch the pressure pump off and switch on the little camshaft-driven fuel pump, monitoring its pressure gauge. Now the engine is running it should pressurise the tank self-sufficiently.
‘I cannot believe how light, positive and informative this 90-year-old steering system is’
My extracurricular activities don’t end there. The cam-pump will need continual checking during my drive; Ivan warns me that on occasion it can work so well that pressure can actually build up too much. In that case I’ll halfway-turn the little tap in order to exhaust some of that air pressure in the petrol tank. The rule is to run the ’35 as slow as I can at first to get the temperature to climb as evenly as possible all over the engine. The valve ports don’t have much coolant around them so I need to get the whole cast iron cylinder block warmed up carefully. Bugattis have a reputation for suffering cracked valve seats, so I try to avoid hot gases exiting one hole and cold gases entering another while the cylinder block is still cold. Ivan says I’ll soon get the knack of balancing the two little taps, but it won’t be the last idiosyncrasy I’ll encounter.
While the engine warms up, I remind myself of the Type 35’s curious gear-gate pattern: back into first, forward into second, back and across the gate into third and then straight forward into top. I let off the exterior handbrake lever, dip the clutch and engage first; because this car is often driven on the road, it has been fitted with a ceramic clutch to avoid the jerkiness of the original metal multi-plate system.
These cars often raced on unpaved gravel in period so Ivan suggests I try the car on the loose-surface track around his farm to get the feel of it before going out on the open road. The Bugatti pulls away smoothly and as soon as I see 2500rpm, I slot the lever forward into second. Despite curiously protruding through a leather-masked window on the Type 35’s flank, I’m amazed at how smooth in operation the gearchange action is.
‘It’s never been crashed; every panel is the same as the day it left the factory’
Having the chance of driving the Bugatti 35 on a loose surface today is a rare experience. Approaching a right-hander at around 3000rpm in second, I put my gloved hand onto the outside gear lever and move it back, across the gate, then back all the way until third is selected with a satisfying clack. With my elbow well over the side, the slipstream pounding my face, I’m leaning right out of the cockpit as I use the weight and speed of the car to get it sliding sideways into the corner. I stab the throttle, wind on some opposite lock and I’m through. I cannot believe how light, positive and informative this 90-year-old worm and helical gear system is. Ivan’s specialists have managed to get all the slack out of the steering by making sure that the ball joints’ cups are machined with just a few thousands of an inch clearance, resulting in an amazing amount of communication. I feel the car straighten, the rear wheels scrabble and grip, and I accelerate away.
On this loose surface I can enjoy armfuls of oversteer at low speeds without a problem, but heading out on the road it’s a different story. On asphalt, the Bugatti doesn’t like to be thrown into a corner; the chassis will soon start to complain, lifting a wheel if too tormented. These cars like to slide and drift organically on fast smooth corners. As a long constant-radius bend approaches I brake, double de-clutch down to third – there’s no modern synchromesh luxury on a Type 35 gearbox – and power through, modulating the slip angle with my right foot. In the drift it is a superb sensation, utterly controllable yet full of excitement – a sensation heightened by the exposure to the elements and my awareness of the car’s value. Into a tight hairpin, I remember to keep straight while braking to keep the car from becoming unsettled. I double de-clutch again, dropping from third into second in good time – I mustn’t leave it too late. I resist the urge to put the power on too early, then past the apex I flick it sideways, using the quick and delicate steering to instinctively catch it.
The Type 35’s exquisite handling can be explained by its steel channel-section chassis, which resembles a marquise diamond in plan view. Explains Ivan, ‘Unlike a modern race car, the technology is not based on a rigid platform that allows you to tune what each corners does. The Type 35 was designed to bend and move so the whole car works together in harmony. The side members vary in depth from less than 2cm at the front dumb irons to more than 15cm at the central point, and the rear is kept rigid by transverse tubular members. Both axles are leaf-sprung and live but the front axle is hollow to reduce weight. The front springs pass through the front axle and as they are assembled, a wedge is beaten in. The resulting assembly is a very solid affair on all Type 35s, but on the ’35C there is also an additional leaf and extra clips.’
Approaching the next corner, I stamp down on the middle pedal to experience another of Ettore Bugatti’s fascinating engineering solutions. The brakes have no servo assistance of course, but they are progressive with plenty of feel. The pedal acts on a tiny gear, rather like a crown wheel and pinion, designed to equalise brake pressure between left and right, while a chain linked via pulleys to the front and rear does the same fore and aft. What’s more, the 330mm cast iron drums are fully integrated into the 19in aluminium wheels – a pioneering solution at the time – meaning the drums could be exposed for attention during a pit stop if required, and swapped like-for-like as an entire unit if necessary. It also aided cooling.
This 35C, chassis 4423, has led an active competition life – it still holds records at Prescott hill climb set by a previous owner – but its activities these days are largely restricted to public roads, including the odd European tour. Although sufficient to keep things legal for use on the public road, the exhaust does not have much in the way of silencing. Accelerating through 3000rpm, the twin pipes nestled beneath the boat-tailed rear end emit a harsh protracted rasp that reminds me of ripping through those old cotton bedsheets you tear up and put aside for polishing your car’s bodywork. This mechanical cacophony absorbs any trace of audible whine from the supercharger; there’s no Mercedes W125-like wail to be heard here.
Earlier Type 35s dominated race tracks without any aspirated assistance, but soon Ettore Bugatti reluctantly conceded that supercharging the straight-eight engine was that only way to keep up with the developmental strides being made by Alfa Romeo and Mercedes- Benz, and by fitting a large Roots unit to the 2.0-litre engine he created the Type 35C; the same treatment was applied to the 2.3-litre variant to create the ultimate evolution, the Type 35B. Contrary to expectations I climb the revs in this smaller-capacity car not out of necessity, but sheer joy. With the delightfully free-spinning roller-bearing crankshaft and pistons not much larger than thimbles, I struggle to adhere to my self-imposed 4000rpm limit. That’s 1000 below Ivan’s suggested barrier in respect for my own net worth should disaster occur, and 3000 lower than the raised ceiling were it to be running racing-grade methanol. Though the technologies employed here are today either commonplace or obsolete, their execution by Ettore Bugatti – who trained as a sculptor before turning to cars – is nothing short of mechanical fine-artistry.
Thankfully, advances in mechanical understanding, lubrication technology and machining accuracy mean such high art is not as delicate today as it was back when an engine surviving a 300-mile race – complete with a ride-on mechanic pumping oil to it – was considered an achievement.
GNE801 – or Genie as it’s affectionately known in Bugatti circles – was a miraculous survivor of this toll-taking era. It originally carried the chassis number 4899 but this was over-stamped as 4423 by the factory. As the spare works team car it raced in Italy where it is said to have finished first in a European Grand Prix held in Italy. However, immediately after that event it was sold and did not return to the Bugatti works with the other cars. Painted red, it then remained in Italy and was acquired by Count Trossi who entered the car in local hill climbs in 1927/8.
In 1928 it was taken over by Enrico Marchesano of Milan, the insurance company chairman who used the car for high-speed touring road journeys between Bulgaria, Romania and Italy. In 1961 he wrote, ‘I used to make long touring trips at record speeds. Sofia-Budapest-Milan or Bucharest-Vienna-Milan, it was always such a pleasure to drive that car.’
At the end of the 1938 season Jack Lemon Burton, a London-based dealer, importer and Bugatti club racer, brought the car to England. There is no reference to him ever owning or competing in the car but he advertised it in The Motor in October 1938 for £200 as the ‘winner of the Italian Grand Prix’.
After the war, motor sport only properly restarted in 1946 and in May of that year, Genie was purchased by Alan Kershaw Haworth, an industrial glove manufacturer who owned several Bugattis. Haworth painted the car dark grey so it would not be quite so conspicuous on the public road when he drove it to and from various events; he regularly drove 300-mile round trips from his home in Rochdale to Prescott or Shelsley Walsh, where it enjoyed countless successes.
In 1954 Haworth wrote, ‘Her longest journeys were 560-mile round trip to the Brighton Speed Trials. There, she enjoyed [what turned out to be] the very last opportunity for a Bugatti to break a class record at an international meeting in open competition.’ That year – at almost 30 years old – Genie won two international speed events at Brighton in competition with far more modern cars. Haworth later wrote that while covering 40,000 road miles – including to and from his own wedding – and attending seventy events, Genie never let him down once. After a time he repainted it red and began transporting it to events on a trailer.
Haworth kept the car until he passed away in 1988, after which it was sold at auction by Sotheby’s for £460,000 to John Bentley, an engineer from Batley, West Yorkshire. Current owner Peter Rae is the latest in the unbroken chain of known custodians, with its originality only adding to Genie’s mystical allure. So my wish has been granted, and what a visceral experience it has been.
For me it’s easy to see why the Type 35 is so admired, but now even more difficult to understand why Rembrandt Bugatti’s animal sculptures trade in the same ballpark as such an engaging, historically important and even more visually appealing motoring artefact.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1927 Bugatti Type 35C
Engine 1991cc straight-8, ohc, three valves per cylinder, one Zenith carburettor, Roots supercharger Max Power 127bhp @ 5500rpm
Max Torque 115lb ft @ 3500rpm
Transmission Four-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and helical wheel
Suspension Front: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, lubricated friction dampers; Rear: live axle, reversed quarter-elliptic springs, lubricated friction dampers
Brakes Drums integrated into wheels front and rear
0-60mph: approx. 7sec;
Top speed 125mph
Cost new (UK 1927) £1050
Current value (UK 2019) £3,500,000
Hole in bonnet is relief valve outlet for the Roots supercharger. Lateral support offered only by a seat divider and the aluminium bodywork. Gearlever pokes through bodywork, linkage runs under your thighs. Drive on loose gravel harks back to the Type 35’s racing heyday.
The straight-eight’s firing order alternates between the two blocks of four cylinders, which explains the unusual engine note. Gearlever (top) is extremely satisfying to operate, a balance between precision and physicality. Roller throttle pedals helps to smooth your inputs. Engineering art – leaf springs pass through the hollow front axle. Ride-on mechanic used this lever to manually pump oil. After a lifetime of racing and hill climbs, this Type 35C now enjoys adventurous European rallies.
OWNING A BUGATTI TYPE 35C
Peter Rae bought ‘Genie’ five years ago. ‘I’m the fortunate current custodian; the car will certainly outlive me. I think of it as a combination of a work of art and a level of engineering not since equalled. ‘I still have the original multi-plate clutch so it can be refitted, but its in-or-out nature meant riding the clutch or constantly taking it in and out of gear, otherwise the plates expand and it drags, so driving pleasure is lost.
‘It had very little use when I first got it so I commissioned Ivan Dutton Ltd to dismantle it so that everything could be thoroughly checked. I didn’t want to find there were broken rollers or crank problems. As it turned out it was unnecessary because we found precious little wrong with it. Even though I’d spent around £80,000 by the time the car was back together, I felt that it was better to be safe rather than sorry. You have to keep on top of things, like the cable brakes for example – if you don’t keep them properly adjusted you will just ruin the driving experience.
‘I’ve taken it to Portugal and Sardinia for rallies. The car is hassle-free and just seems to enjoy going for hour after hour without issue.’