1931 Bugatti Type 51 twin-cam GP Car

2019 James Mann and Drive-My EN/UK

Back On The Banking. Mick Walsh takes to the track at Montlhery, scene of Bugatti triumphs past, in a twin-cam Type 51 GP car. ‘It’s more airborne than grounded as it bounces around the banking’ It took bravery to exploit the Type 51 at Montihery, but there’s no better place to drive this historic Bugatti. Words Mick Walsh. Photography James Mann.

There’s nothing like taking a historic racing car back to where it once roared in anger. For a pre-war Bugatti, particularly a Type 51, the Montlhery track south of Paris has more associations than almost anywhere. Racing has long since stopped, but the banked marvel has great atmosphere and, on an autumn morning with bright sun diffused by mist, it is vividly atmospheric.

 1931 Bugatti Type 51 twin-cam GP Car twin-cam - road and track test

1931 Bugatti Type 51 twin-cam GP Car twin-cam – road and track test

As one of the most original Type 51s is pushed out for our test, it’s easy to conjure the circuit’s historic links with the twin-cam Grand Prix great. Here in 1929, Leon Duray arrived from America with his dazzling Packard Cable team to set a host of records with his front-wheel-drive Millers, including five miles at 139mph. No doubt word reached Molsheim about the high-speed attempts on the Arpajon road and around the banking. Bugatti regularly tested here, so it’s likely Ettore’s son Jean first saw the rapid Millers, which were eventually acquired from a bankrupt Duray, and copied for the much-needed twin-cam engine development.

When the new Type 51 finally arrived here for the French Grand Prix, midway through the 1931 season, the impressive pairing of Monegasque Louis Chiron and Italian Achille Varzi beat the new Alfa Monzas in a 10-hour, 786-mile enduro on a blistering hot June day. The very Type 51 being checked over in the long morning shadows, chassis 51128, raced that day, shared by owner Marcel Lehoux and his wealthy privateer friend Philippe Etancelin. Lehoux was quick and followed a phalanx of leading Type 51s behind works drivers Chiron and William Grover- Williams until mechanical gremlins forced retirement on lap 15. In these pits, Bugatti’s key advantage played out with slick work thanks to the ingenious one-piece casting of wheel and brake drum, which saved critical minutes. Never again would a Grand Prix Bugatti win the premier Gallic event. Looking up the deserted straight, you can almost hear Varzi’s winner, its tired driver acknowledging the applause as the bright blue Bugatti roars past the flag. In later years, Type 51s raced aircraft anti-clockwise around the banking, while exactly 80 years ago one of France’s greatest aces, a 20-year-old Maurice Trintignant, raced chassis 51128 here.

For an hour the famous banked track is ours, and as the supercharged 2.2-litre is warmed up, its strident, unsilenced bark reverberates around the concrete pits. To a Bugatti connoisseur the note sounds different, its hard-edged staccato rasp played out through twin high side pipes that were modified by the Trintignant brothers.

As respected specialist Fred Novo warms the engine, our small group marvels at the great Bugatti’s precious patina. With just six owners from new, this well-known Type 51 has been saved from a soulless restoration that could have wiped away its history. Thankfully its flat paint, scored metal, distinctive modifications and well- worn leather still evoke its long racing history. Chipped bodywork reveals the original blue – as it was painted for Lehoux’s debut win in the 1931 Swiss Grand Prix around the fast Meyrin circuit at Geneva airport. Together with the Alfa Romeo 8C, the Type 51 was the ultimate racing car of the pre-monoposto era, and had Molsheim not first focused on twin-cam road car development with the Type 50, it could have arrived in 1930 and chalked up even more victories.

Today we’re running on petrol, but still the performance is impressive, the instant urge giving eager acceleration right through the rev range and easily spinning the rear tyres when starting off. The temptation to follow in Chiron’s tracks onto the full 7.7-mile road circuit is tough to resist because it’s a better place to appreciate the Type 51’s sharp, direct steering and rapid gearchange – operated by the outside lever – but we’re restricted to the high-speed layout today. Unlike the twin-cam Type 55 road car, the Type 51 features a right-hand, roller- style throttle in the tight footwell, and over the bumpy banking it’s a little challenging to hold steady revs. Even running midway along the steep incline you’re forced to lean into the cockpit to counteract the strong gravitational force.

Performance is exhilarating right up to the 5000rpm limit and, as the speeds climb, the chassis feels more airborne than grounded as it bounces around the concrete patchwork. From the lofty, upright seating position, the broad, wood-rimmed steering wheel provides welcome support while the evocative view down the tapering bonnet, with front wheels pattering about, looks straight out of a Geo Ham painting. The twin-cam feels stronger at the top end than its older single-cam brother, and from 4000rpm it continues to surge with impressively smooth power. With faster, higher runs and no chicanes, the T51 takes all your concentration, particularly with such responsive controls and the hard ride due to the limited movement of the friction dampers. From the straight that breaks up the oval after half a lap, you return to the circuit used for the 1931 French GP and it’s an amazing feeling powering up for the second banked section. On the deserted course, it’s easy to believe you’re Lehoux chasing other Bugattis in the early laps of the race. Best of all is the rapid drop back to the pits as you gun 51128 past the old control tower. I can’t imagine how Varzi felt after a 10-hour race, even with co-driver Chiron’s support. Pulling off the track, I’m overwhelmed by this very special Bugatti as its immediate power and involving, physical controls mix intensely with the dramatic history that played out around this monumental venue.

Algeria-based Frenchman Lehoux indulged his racing addiction with the profits from his lucrative north African engineering business. From a Type 22 sports car to the latest Grand Prix machinery, his Bugattis were regularly upgraded. After success – mainly across the Mediterranean Sea – with a T35B, he ordered a new Type 51 for FFr140,000, which was delivered in June 1931. Aged 43, Lehoux was a popular privateer, his cheery character and more mature years (Earl Howe was just three years older) standing out among the young guns.

Through 1931 and ’1932, Lehoux raced chassis 51128 extensively, winning at Reims in the first year and taking sixth at the 1932 Monaco Grand Prix. The high-maintenance Bugatti was campaigned almost every weekend during the summer, with runner-up results in the Grands Prix of Lorraine and Comminges. The car ran at a wide variety of circuits, ranging from the high-speed banking of Monza to the beach course at La Baule. As well as his own racing, Lehoux spotted the talented Guy Moll in Algerian events and loaned him a Type 35B.

‘I’m overwhelmed by this special Bugatti’s blend of immediate power and involving controls mixed with dramatic history’

Early in 1933, Lehoux acquired a new Type 51 (51144) and sold 51128 to aspiring ace Louis-Aime Trintignant, who had already proved his skill in a Type 35C. One of five sons of wealthy vineyard owner Ferdinand, Louis learnt to drive early around the family estates near Sainte- Cecile-les-Vignes in the Provence-Alpes-Cote d’Azur region. The close proximity of Mont Ventoux no doubt fuelled his enthusiasm, and that of his younger brother Maurice.

Louis’ debut in the Type 51 was in February 1933 at the GP de Pau, which proved a challenge in dramatic weather. After a dry, sunny week, snow started to fall overnight but, amazingly, race director Charles Faroux gave the go-ahead in such grim conditions. As the field tiptoed around the slippery street circuit, Trintignant kept his cool while the surface turned from an ice rink to a sea of mud in the most surreal scenes. Lehoux powered through from the back of the grid to win after three hours, but Trintignant finished an impressive fifth in 51128.

The season continued with hillclimbs, but Trintignant was never happy about the handling of the car and preferred the balance of his older Type 35C. In preparation for the Grand Prix de Picardie at Peronne on 20 May, he decided to combine the best elements of both cars by switching the Type 51 bodywork and more powerful twin-cam to the older chassis. Distinctive features already included the special exhaust system fitted by his mechanic, Paul Sauret. “The exhaust was modified after the original underbody system scraped on the banked turns going up Mont Ventoux,” says renowned Bugatti guru Novo, who has looked after the T51 for years. “My grandfather Henri remembers helping a young Maurice with it in the late 1930s when he raced at Montlhery, so it was very special for the car to come to us for work.”

The modified Type 35C immediately gave Louis confidence but, during practice on streets close to the Somme battlefields, disaster struck. After spotting a gendarme walking onto the circuit, Trintignant took avoiding action, hit a kilometre stone and the Bugatti rolled. The luck from his radiator-mounted parrot mascot had run out, and Louis’ throat was lacerated by the broken aeroscreen.

The family was devastated, particularly his 16-year-old brother. The wreck was brought home on the team’s Studebaker transporter, and Sauret began putting the Type 51 mechanicals back into its original chassis. Once together, the car was sold to motorcycle racer Jules Rolland, who competed extensively through 1934 and ’1935 at hillclimb events in southern France, taking fastest time at Val de Cuech.

Despite the death of his eldest son, Trintignant senior eventually gave in to 20-year-old Maurice’s determination to compete and bought back the Type 51 for the 1938 season. Amazingly, the young novice made his debut in the Pau Grand Prix, where the organisers reluctantly accepted the entry, possibly in honour of his brother. Against the latest Mercedes-Benz, Delahaye and Alfa Romeo titans the six-year-old two-seater looked hopelessly outdated, but Trintignant was a natural on twisty street circuits – as his two victories at Monaco would later confirm. Although 16 secs slower than Rudi Caracciola around Pau, he wasn’t slowest.

As a sensational drama played out up front, with Gallic hero Rene Dreyfus in the Delahaye V12 beating the might of Germany, Trintignant kept out of trouble and finished fifth, 17 laps down. Just picture pushing the outdated Type 51 up the Allee Alfred de Musset as a frustrated Hermann Lang blasted past in a Merc W154.

After his dramatic debut there was no stopping Trintignant, who won at Chimay in June but retired from the 12 Heures de Paris at Montlhery, where the Bugatti had been road- equipped for the sports-car event. The following year, he set a record at the Saint-Eutrope hill- climb with wire wheels fitted, and won again at the GP des Frontieres. The T51 even lined up again with the Silver Arrows at Pau in 1939, but retired early. Trintigant’s racing career stalled with the outbreak of war, and the car was put away on the family estate for six years, but it was dug out again for the first post-war race, the Coupe des Prisonniers in Bois de Boulogne.

Story has it that Trintignant struggled with the tuning of the Type 51 after it was disinterred from the barn. Despite cleaning out the fuel tank, frustrations continued with 51128 around the Parisian circuit. Back in the paddock he stripped the Zenith carburettor, only to discover rat droppings in the fuel system. Jean-Pierre Wimille was amused by his rival’s discovery and nicknamed him ‘Petoulet’; the name stuck, much to Trintignant’s exasperation, but in later years he laughed about the unflattering sobriquet, and even named a wine from the family’s famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape estate ‘Le Petoulet’.

Maurice persisted with the elderly Bugatti against younger, faster machinery until 1946, when Amedee Gordini gave the 30-year old a chance with his new French F2 challenger. Trin-tignant’s last race in the T51 was the Grand Prix de Nantes, in which he retired after 13 laps.

The much-campaigned car was kept by the family until 1974, when it was acquired by Jacques Lefranc who displayed the timewarp racer in his museum at Sury-le-Comtal. When Christian Pellerin, the businessman who developed the La Defence district, began to collect great cars, the famous Type 51 was on his shopping list and Lefranc eventually sold 51128.

The Bugatti was auctioned by Poulain in 1992, and modern GT racer Jean-Claude Miloe was the next enthusiast tempted by its amazing history and unrestored condition. He decided that, after 46 years away from the track, it was time the car got a thorough mechanical rebuild for selected events including a Bugatti race at Angouleme, but carefully preserving its originality. Minor – and easily removable – modifications were made, including an electric fuel pump and on-board starter, but cosmetically 51128 looked just as Trintignant had last raced it.

Among the outings was the Grand Prix de Peronne Revival in honour of Louis Trintignant. “I went with a group of Bugatti friends and invited the 76-year-old Maurice to drive his old car,” recalls Miloe. “I offered my son the passenger seat, and Maurice soon found his groove, roaring through the chicanes and driving like it was yesterday. My son, fearing that an accident was about to happen, pretended he had something in his eye and begged Maurice to stop at the pits. Maurice told us that driving his old Bugatti was like falling in love again.”

Miloe has a wealth of racing experience; few have raced both a Type 51 and a Delage at Monaco. “The Bugatti was a revelation and, as a Frenchman, an almost transcendent experience,” he says. “The performance for a 1931 design is fantastic, and around Monaco’s streets it’s perfect; the responsive power always excites me. Unfortunately the throttle stuck open, which forced me to spin. Thankfully the car wasn’t damaged, but I broke my thumb. I always felt more comfortable in the lower Delage – with the T51 you feel as if you’re sitting on the car.” After 26 years of rewarding ownership, Miloe has decided that 51128 should find another home. When it’s sold by Artcurial at Retromobile in February, I hope the next custodian will be just as appreciative of the car’s unrestored state, and resist the temptation to rebuild it. With the recent refreshing trend for original racing cars with continuous history, its precious ‘oily rag’ state for now looks assured.

Thanks to Jean-Claude Miloe, Fred Novo, Serge Cordey; Artcurial (www.artcurial.com); Autodrome de Linas-Montlhery (www.parisautoevents.com)


Sold/number built 1931-‘1935/40 (including Type 51As and converted Type 35Bs)

Construction tapered channel-section chassis with two-seater aluminium body

Engine cast-iron, thinwall monoblock 2262cc straight-eight, with alloy crankcase, twin overhead camshafts, two valves per cylinder, roller bearings, magneto ignition, updraught Zenith carburettor and Roots supercharger

Max power 180bhp @ 5500rpm / DIN nett

Max torque 154lb ft @ 3900rpm / DIN nett

Transmission four-speed manual crash ‘box with outside gearlever, driving rear wheels via a wet multi-plate clutch

Suspension: front forged hollow beam axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs rear live axle, reversed quarter-elliptic springs, forward radius rods; friction dampers f/r

Steering worm and wheel

Brakes cable-operated drums

Wheels well-based cast-aluminium rims with integral brake drums

Wheelbase 4ft 4in (1321mm)

Weight 1650lb (750kg)

0-60mph 6 secs

Top speed 128mph

Price new FFr140,000

Price now £3-4million

Modified exhausts give 51128 a distinctive rasp. Above: twin-overhead-cam straight-eight inspired by the Millers spotted by Jean Bugatti. Top left: 45-year-old Lehoux in his second T51 at Montlhery in 1933. Blasting past the pits where the Bugatti team’s rapid wheel/brake changes gave an advantage over Alfa in the ‘1931 French GP. Clockwise from left: Alfa Monzas and T51s start ‘1933 Nice GP with Lehoux (10) chasing Wimille and Moll; glorious pit-top view shows twin fuel fillers; engine-turned dashboard with offset magneto.

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Additional Info
  • Year: 1931
  • Engine: Petrol L8 2.3-litre
  • Power: 180bhp at 5500rpm
  • Torque: 154lb ft at 3900rpm
  • Speed: 128mph
  • 0-60mph: 6 secs