Cabriolet enjoying the Florida sun in an Art Deco classic. Style & substance. While visiting Florida’s Amelia Island Concours, Robert Coucher takes time out to try a very special Bugatti. Photography Dirk de Jager.
Who, in the 1930s, would offer an elegant four-seater cabriolet powered by a supercharged, eight-cylinder, double-overhead-cam engine, with Grand Prix racing pedigree? Such excess at a time when the world was attempting to recover from the Great Depression and just about to go to war again. But Bugatti was no ordinary car manufacturer - it had a single-minded history of exotic engineering wrapped up in artistry.
Yet even Bugatti was in a bit of a mess come the end of the 1920s. The company was producing an eclectic range of exotic and massively expensive motor cars. The ludicrously huge 12,763cc Type 41, known as the Royale, was a flop after Ettore Bugatti managed to shift only three examples and he was then diverted into building the Autorail Automotrice Rapide rail car for the ETAT railway company.
Ettore's eldest son, Gianroberto Carlo Rembrandt Bugatti, known as Jean, was probably not as talented as his father when it came to artistic skill. Yet Jean was certainly his equal as an engineer and is recognised as saving the company with the Type 57, regarded as one of the best Bugatti models. Jean died in a car crash on 11 August 1939 behind the wheel of the winning Le Mans Bugatti, at only 30 years of age. He is credited with the Bugatti wins at Le Mans in 1937 and 1939 and some say the Bugatti era died with him.
Until 1932 Bugatti was constructing seven different models of motor car, but the economic crash of 1929 put an end to that. Jean Bugatti launched the #Bugatti-Type-57
at the 1934 Paris Salon de l'Automobile. The plan was for various specifications: the Type 57, 57S - S denoting surbaisse or lowered chassis; 57C denoting compressor, and 57SC being the most sporting.
Under Jean's influence Molsheim managed to modernise its automobile production programme and the Type 57 was the result: a sophisticated and fast road tourer, not a thinly disguised racing car, but nor was it a chauffer-driven limousine like the Royale or Type 46 that had preceded it. As the first example of an owner-driver automobile for more straitened times, if you will, the thinking behind the Type 57 was that the owner could take advantage of France's fast and open roads and enjoy such drives as Paris to Monaco in 12 hours.
The example you see here, chassis number 57748, is a Third Series 57C - known as a Stelvio because of its open four-seater coachworkby Gangloff. The magnificent engine is a robust, supercharged 3.3-litre straight-eight with gear-drive double overhead camshafts fed by a Stromberg carburettor, developing 160bhp. It has an optional Cotal four-speed pre-selector gearbox and, being a late-series 57, its engine is rubber-mounted for smoothness. Furthermore, the Bugatti benefits from hydraulically operated drum brakes and a stiffer chassis. But as part of cost-cutting exercises, the 57 does without the previous, expensive #Bugatti
alloy wheels with integrated drums and instead features centre-mounted Rudge Whitworth wire wheels.
This Type 57C enjoyed long ownership with collector and Bugatti historian Miles Coverdale of Long Island. He acquired the Bugatti in the early 1960s and kept it until his death in 2000. The 57C was in his ownership for four decades, along with a number of other Bugatti models, and it certainly looks like it has led a gentle life.
Impeccably finished in tasteful dark blue with a dark blue cabriolet hood, the 57C is a classic expression of pur sang. With its steeply raked one-piece windscreen, faired-in front headlamps and teardrop wings, the Bugatti is both elegant and rakish - a combination that's difficult to achieve with open four-seaters. With its hood folded the car appears clean, with all material stowed under the tonneau cover. Erected, the hood adds to the Bugatti's elegance, again a very difficult feat with a soft- top. The traditionally horse-shoe shaped radiator, vented front bumpers - which allow the twin horns full vocal expression - and a sporting exhaust pipe allude to the Bugatti ethos of speed and handling.
We find ourselves on the deserted South Fletcher Avenue in Fernandina Beach, which is the old part of Amelia Island, Florida, away from the smart hotels in the Island Plantation development. This being the weekend of the Amelia Island Concours, many elegant motor cars are seen out and about but this Bugatti with its flashing chrome wire wheels looks the most striking against the quiet and slightly faded backdrop of the island. It's an Art Deco-styled machine that deserves a suitably 'Deco location, which we find with The Surf restaurant situated along the beachfront.
The Bugatti has well-stuffed front seats, a dashboard filled with Jaeger instruments and a beautiful wood- rimmed, four-spoke steering wheel mounted high. The driving position is sit-up-and-beg and that big wheel is close. Slide the protruding ignition lever to retard, increase the revs on the idle lever a tad and twist then push the centrally mounted starter key: a deep, slow- building whirr comes out from under the floorboards as the starter motor engages and ignites the straight-eight.
This supercharged, double-overhead-cam, wet-sump 3.3-litre immediately lets its Grand Prix bloodline be known: it sounds deep, powerful and vigorous. Now it's time to deal with the Cotal pre-selector gearbox. There's a floor-mounted lever that you push forward to select the forward gear (neutral is central; pull it back for reverse). Depress the floor pedal (in the conventional position, with brake centre and accelerator to the right), then move the little column-mounted Cotal lever up and into first gear, ease off the clutch and away it goes.
This is a 'self-changing' pre-selector; as soon as you snick the little lever the gearbox selects the next gear immediately without the need for the foot pedal. Once you get the action into your head, the gearshifts are fast and far superior to the more usual, non-synchro 'boxes of the time. It really is a cinch to use.
The big eight-cylinder engine has dollops of torque and sounds busy, but then you realise it will rev all the way to 5000rpm, which is amazing for a car of this vintage. The steering response is sharp and immediate and the drums are strong and inspire confidence. Suspension damping can be adjusted via the knurled Bakelite knobs mounted next to the steering column.
The Gangloff coachwork has clearly been inspired by the ideal of comfortable and elegant touring. But the chassis and dynamic responses of the supercharged Bugatti remain very, very sporting. That's not to say the car is highly strung. On the contrary, it's torquey and docile at low speed. But the engine wants to rev and the ability of the chassis allows you to savour its urge.
As the revs rise (and rise), you can feel the Bugatti start to tingle - the straight-eight's vitality fizzes through the chassis and up through your feet to your fingertips via the steering wheel, and the roar from the exhaust is intoxicating. The Bugatti bellows with intent so there's no real need to resort to using those twin horns mounted in the front bumpers - everyone can hear you coming!
THANKS TO Bonhams auctioneers, www.bonhams.com.
This Bugatti will be for sale at the Bonhams Greenwich Concours d’Elegance Auction, USA, on 31 May.
Above. The Bugatti’s stylised Art Deco elegance is most at home beside the ocean in Florida’s Amelia Island, which offers the architecture to match.
'This being the weekend of the Amelia Island Concours, many elegant ears are out and about but this Bugatti looks the most striking’
The #1938 #Bugatti-Type-57C-Cabriolet
ENGINE 3257cc straight-eight, DOHC, #Stromberg
updraught carburettor, #Roots-supercharger
POWER 160bhp @ 5000rpm
TORQUE 180lbft @3500rpm
TRANSMISSION Four-speed Cotal pre-selector, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Worm and wheel
Front: beam axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs, Telecontrol dampers.
Rear: live axle, reverse quarter-elliptic leaf springs, Telecontrol dampers.
BRAKES Hydraulic drums
Top speed 105mph