On the road again. The Grand Prix Bugatti Type 59 makes a sensational road car, and chassis 59121 is back on the street after a superb rebuild. Words Mick Walsh. Photography Tony Baker.
CHARLIE’S BONNIE PRINCE Driving a magnificent Bugatti T59 first sold to an ambitious British privateer
EXCLUSIVE BLAST IN A MIGHTY BUGATTI T59
Imagine collecting your newly acquired Grand Prix machine from the factory in 1935 and driving it home to England. Just such a scenario took place when young privateer Charlie Martin flew down to Molsheim with his buddy Richard Shuttleworth to take delivery of an ex-works Bugatti Type 59, chassis 59121, one of the most beautiful racing cars ever built and the last of the Grand Prix two-seaters as the age of the monoposto dawned.
After a quick tour of the racing department, Martin set out in the gleaming Type 59 for the 500-mile trip across France with no support and just a small suitcase packed into the cockpit. With heavy rain forecast, he even borrowed a Mackintosh from Ettore. The story of the trip was recorded in a pre-war copy of the club magazine Bugantics, which vividly relates Martin’s struggle with plugs oiling up, dropping a terminal in the plug hole, and frustrations with poor pump petrol. His face soon became very red and painful from the rain and, frozen stiff and spattered with mud, he found it difficult to see on the wet roads. Passing sluggish locals without a horn proved a challenge, forcing the Type 59 to travel ‘quite a long way in ditches trying to get past’.
“The supercharged power is full-on but, because the Type 59 is derived from the Type 57, it’s really civilised as a road car”
The over-rich tuning made starting difficult, and when he couldn’t park on a hill, he enlisted local admirers to push him away. Martin even talked one driver into tow-starting the Bugatti.
After a night stop in Metz, the weather cleared and, wearing new goggles and a beret bought in a local shop, Martin enjoyed a memorable fast run to Boulogne. It’s a story that has long captivated me, his memories conjuring images of the fabulous 150mph Bug blasting by local traffic with no wings or lights, and him later washing it on the docks before it was hoisted onto the ferry. Painted dark green, the Type 59 was raced by Martin throughout 1935 and, although always a frontrunner, the Bugatti struggled with reliability.
Highlights included second in the Mannin Moar and third in the Donington GP after he spun away the lead. In frustration, Martin sold the troublesome Type 59 at the end of the season when he acquired an Alfa Romeo Tipo B. Tragically its new owner, the 22-year-old Duke of Grafton, crashed heavily on the first lap of the 1936 Limerick GP and later died from his injuries. After ignoring advice from other drivers, including a concerned Prince Bira, the youthful aristocrat was determined to race and was soon caught out by the wet street circuit. The burntout wreck was then acquired by Bugatti specialist Arthur Baron and rebuilt with an ENV preselector gearbox. Repainted purple, the 230bhp Type 59 was still a very competitive machine in England, and Baron continued to set fastest times in sprints and hillclimbs including a win at Brooklands before war curtailed motorsport. With the return of peace, enthusiasts started searching out old racing cars and the Type 59 was acquired by the Alta and future HWM ace George Abecassis. For the first post-war race meeting at Gransden Lodge airfield, Abecassis mixed up a cocktail of fuel and, with cycle wings fitted to the Bugatti, drove the 80 miles to the event. His team no doubt had trouble keeping up as he touched 120mph on the Barnet bypass, and he had several spins from over-eager pace on roundabouts, but upon arrival he clearly felt confident in the car and won the feature race.
Abecassis loved the T59 and, spruced up with new blue paint and twin rear tyres, it proved highly competitive in the British Hillclimb Championship, ending a dramatic 1947 season runner-up to Raymond Mays’ ERA R4D. After two successful years Abecassis sold the Type 59 to Kenneth Bear, a founder member of the Bugatti Owners’ Club, who continued the old GP machine’s winning ways by taking victory at the Castletown Trophy on the Isle of Man. With supercharger removed and a quad-Zenith carb set-up developed by his mechanic friend Stafford East to match the new unblown GP formula, Bear enjoyed hillclimb success and occasionally ventured abroad, including to the inaugural Zandvoort Grand Prix in 1948.
Road racing was still banned in mainland Britain, so the temptation of the Jersey races at the start of the 1949 season attracted an impressive entry including nine Maseratis and eight ERAs. Bear entered the 16-year-old Bugatti, but during the second evening’s practice around St Helier disaster struck. Story has it the team, run by his pal East, had worked all night to repair the preselector ’box and, possibly due to lack of time or fatigue, had missed wiring up the chain linkage for the T59’s distinctive brake compensator.
A few laps in, East saw the brake cable dragging behind when Bear accelerated past the pits and down the Promenade. As the car approached the tight Le Marquand corner at speed, the left-side brakes locked up and spun the Bugatti heavily into a wall, throwing the driver out onto the road. The popular racer died a few hours later.
The two enthusiasts had been close associates and East regarded Bear as a half brother, so it’s easy to imagine his emotional state after the accident, particularly with the guilt at not securing the brake coupling. Bear’s Bugattis were put into storage and East disappeared from motorsport for a few years. As a tribute to his friend, East acquired the crashed 59121 and eventually began rebuilding it in his home workshop.
“Stafford was a good engineer, and the crash must have taken a toll,” says marque specialist Tim Dutton. “It would have been a painful thing to restore it.” The chassis was straightened and the tail remade without the T59’s distinctive riveted spine. The engine was returned to supercharged specification, but the preselector ’box was retained. The rebuild was completed in 1981 and a year later, in the presence of famed journalist Denis Jenkinson, it was started for the first time in 32 years. The car made few public appearances, but was the star of the Type 59 reunion at Prescott in 1993 before it was auctioned by Bonhams at Goodwood in 2005. The buyer was Thomas Bscher, then president of Automobiles Bugatti, who had managed the production of the new Veyron. This great enthusiast had famously commuted in his McLaren F1 and avidly raced historic Maseratis.
Specialist Geoff Squirrel was enlisted to carry out a full rebuild, with a brief to prepare 59121 to race again. The finished result, with many new components including engine, wheels, rear body and gearbox, was given its debut painted dark blue on the Bugatti stand at Rétromobile in 2012. Some felt that the car, fitted with road equipment including wings and Marchal lights, looked too new with its highly polished finish. Although Bscher never raced the Type 59, it was entered in the 2015 Goodwood Festival of Speed, where I got a lucky co-drive. The new engine with its revised firing order proved very smooth and 59121 was spectacularly fast, making a formidable road car, but Bscher’s frustration with VW management had already forced him to resign from Bugatti. The Type 59 was sold in 2016 to a New York-based enthusiast who had the inspired vision to re-restore this great car to a more authentic state, as owned by Martin. For this task he consulted foremost British Bugatti restorer Dutton. The project was nicknamed ‘Humpty Dumpty’ by the American owner after its two grim accidents. Dutton had previously restored the ex-King Leopold T59 Sport with a skilled focus on preservation of the timewarp exotic. “Geoff had restored 59121 to race,” says Dutton, “but luckily for us he’d had the foresight to save and store all of the original bits.”
The first challenge was to rescue the factory engine, which was the new owner’s prerequisite when buying the car. The motor had blown up in a major way several times during its active life, first with Martin during the 1935 Nice Grand Prix when a rod went through the side, and later during the winter freeze of 1947 when a long crack appeared across the cylinder head. Owner Abecassis’ HWM team performed an inventive repair with a steel plate and 59121 raced on. “After a month of thinking about a solution to save the front of the engine, we did some major surgery and made a pattern for a replacement section,” recalls Dutton. “Our main concern was distortion during welding, but we only had to take 7thou off the crankcase to get it square. Thankfully the work was all at the front. Had it been at the back, where the cam gears and drive are, it would have caused more problems.”
Once he was happy with the repairs, a new crank and camshafts were made while the rear drive used the original components: “We also put it back to the factory firing order because authenticity was our goal. With modern plugs and a Vertex magneto the engines are much more reliable. The owner wanted to use the car on the road, so we didn’t want to be chasing across to America to sort things. Martin’s problems driving back from Molsheim in 1935 wouldn’t happen today. We reckon that with his newly rebuilt engine, the oil was working past the pistons and fouling the plugs.”
Dutton’s team then focused on the stripped chassis, which fortunately proved to be straight. The original crossmembers were in the stash of spares and were refitted, including the front bar with the number four stamped on it: “We kept finding original bits, but also had to dull down parts that had previously been polished until they shone, such as the brake backplates. Our aim was to make the car look like something that had been cared for but not bulled-up, which was a ’70s trend with Bugatti restoration. We used different techniques, including old-fashioned underseal and sandblasting grit. All the nuts and bolts were aged, and Bakers Fluid was used to take the oxidised surface off the aluminium.”
The complex de Ram shock absorbers were rebuilt and rig tested so they operated together: “They are really clever shocks, but if they are a little different in response and don’t match, it spoils the ride and handling. Before the build-up began, the chassis was painted grey, the policy at Molsheim because the team never knew who was going to drive which car at each race, and often the body was hastily painted in national colours – as with Tazio Nuvolari’s T59 for Monaco.”
The next challenge was the body. The bonnet was original, but the tail had to be remade along with a new fuel tank. Thanks to Marc Newson, owner of chassis 59124 – the only surviving T59 with a factory rear end – the shape was scanned to make a buck: “Marc was very generous, but the deal was that the new tail should twist to the left because ’124 has a bias to the right.”
From the start the plan was to return 59121 to Martin’s patriotic colours, but the Dutton family has always viewed green as unlucky: “We just kept adding black until it looked right.” The body was first painted Bugatti racing blue then brushpainted green by the talented Lewis Smith. The final touch was a light-blue tip to the tail, just as it raced at Brooklands – the colour denoting handicap identification for over-3-litre cars. “Old photos are the gospel reference and give so many clues,” says Dutton. “We’re still learning about these cars – just because you haven’t seen something before, it doesn’t mean it’s wrong; they were all handbuilt. Nothing left the factory the same and they were continually developed by specialists such as Thomson & Taylor. Historian Mark Morris was a great help with reference.” To achieve the aged interior look, Dutton uses unfinished hides, dyed darker, then abrasion, weather and sweat give a natural effect as the lighter leather appears. The final touch was a fishtail Brooklands silencer, as it wore in the International Trophy in June ’1935 with two other privateer T59s. The finished car brilliantly celebrates its first owner and received enthusiastic praise when unveiled at Rétromobile in 2018.
With the car complete, Dutton began a series of road tests, rising early in the morning to clock up more than 200 miles on favourite deserted Cotswolds roads. The green beauty must have looked and sounded spectacular as the blown 3.3-litre straight-eight roared across to Burford and back: “As a Grand Prix car it was out of date, but it makes a terrific sports car. Thanks to its light weight, the handling and brakes are superb. The supercharged power is full-on and with no extreme cam profiles required, it’s wonderfully smooth and progressive. Because the Type 59 is T57-derived, it’s really civilised as a road car. The de Ram dampers give an impressively refined ride, and there’s room in the cockpit – unlike in a T51, your left leg doesn’t get burnt by the gearbox. On top of all that there’s the distinctive rattle from those unique T59 wheels.”
With no plans to race again, 59121 was fitted with basic road equipment. As well as a starter, fuel gauge and fire extinguisher, an LED brake light was disguised in a period reflector. Since its delivery to the USA, the new owner has driven regularly around Westchester County – even taking it to the local coffee shop to collect bagels for breakfast. Well, if you had a Type 59 on the button in your garage, wouldn’t you?
Thanks to Tim Dutton (www.duttonbugatti.co.uk) and Greg Manocherian
Evocative original chassis plate. Opposite, from top: the view most traffic saw as Martin roared to Boulogne in 1935; cockpit has more space than a Type 51, and discreet mods include a starter and fuel gauge. Abecassis adored 59121 and was very successful in hillclimbs, here sliding out of Shelsley’s Top Ess. Left: fabulous ‘piano wire’ wheel was a signature of T59 and Le Mans cars, set off by triple-stud Blockleys. From top: glorious in green again after brush painting; major surgery by Dutton’s team saved original engine. Opposite: Martin was third in his last race with the T59, the 1935 Donington GP.
‘Abecassis’ team had trouble keeping up as he hit 120mph on the Barnet bypass, and he had several spins on roundabouts’
REUNION ON THE 18TH GREEN
For the first time since 1935, the four original T59s sold to English privateers were reunited at the Pebble Beach Concours this August. As well as chassis 59121, featured here, the fab four included 59122 (below, top), now owned by American fashion legend and Bugatti collector Ralph Lauren. Sold new to Welsh steel magnate Lindsay Eccles, the car was later road-equipped by Bob Roberts before being restored to Grand Prix specification and Eccles’ black race colours by Crosthwaite & Gardiner in the late ’80s.
Chassis 59123 (bottom), ordered new by Earl Howe and the most raced of the T59s, made a rare trip from Germany. The popular aristocrat’s GP outings included Monaco, Reims, Dieppe and East London, where the car was eventually sold. In 1963, this great Bugatti returned to the UK to be raced by Doc Taylor, Patrick Lindsay and Neil Corner. In recent months, Howe’s distinctive team stripes have been repainted for Pebble.
Completing the set was 59124 (below, middle), which was bought by wealthy builder Noel Rees for the Hon Brian Lewis to race. In later years it was painted black and white by Ian Craig and converted for the road by Rodney Clarke, with distinctive riveted wings to match the body. Registered LPG 211, it was one of the fastest cars on UK roads after WW2 and was immortalised in a series of cartoons by Russell Brockbank. Now restored to Grand Prix style, it was driven by industrial designer Marc Newson on the 2018 Mille Miglia. As well as the concours on the golf course, the T59s joined the Tour d’Elegance down Highway 1.