Bugatti Type 51
Imagine a car company that produced not only the most highly regarded luxury cars of its era, but also the most successful racing cars. Imagine a company that combined the best attributes of Rolls-Royce and Ferrari. And imagine such a company not being controlled by corporate boards of directors, but only by a single visionary man. If you can imagine all this, then you can imagine what Bugatti was like in 1930.
Born the son of a painter, Ettore Bugatti was an artist in his own right, but his canvases were mechanical. A Milan native, he demonstrated his mechanical genius early by showing a car of his own design at a motor show prior to his 21st birthday. Quickly the Alsace-based De Dietrich scooped him up and immediately made plans to bring his car to production. Within a year or two, Bugatti was a hired gun of the auto design world, bringing his brilliance to Mathis Hermes, Deutz and Automobiles Peugeot. His Peugeot Bebe model, a huge success, was the first compact car, presaging other success like the Austin Seven.
Though designer for hire was a lucrative career, Bugatti longed to create vehicles of his own without interference by others. (Imagine Michelangelo having to get his ideas approved by production committees and accountants before being told to proceed?) So, by the age of 30, Bugatti was out on his own, building a small series of cars at a factory in Molsheim, Alsace, then part of Imperial Germany.
The Bugatti Type 13 was very sophisticated for the day - its engine was an overhead cam design, for instance - and it provided Bugatti with the first in what would become its legendary success in racing. One of its most notable victories was a win over a highly favored Fiat in the LeMans Grand Prix. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War I effectively put an end to his production and motorsports efforts until the hostilities came to a close on November 11, 1918. Alsace, which had been part of France until the 1871 Franco-Prussian War, was returned to France, and Bugatti became a citizen of the French Republic.
A re-vamped Type 13, called the 22/23, got Bugatti's post-war racing program off to an excellent start. He followed up with the Type 35, which became the dominant Grand Prix racer of the mid- and late-1920's.
The Type 35, which would eventually evolve into the Type 51, demonstrated Bugatti's fanatic attention to detail. For example, the Type 35 was fitted with a gem-like 2-liter, 8-cylinder engine with a single overhead camshaft operating twin intake valves and one exhaust valve per cylinder. And what a camshaft! A composite of nine separate pieces, one Type 35 camshaft was said to cost as much as many complete cars.
When the Type 35 began to grow a bit long in the tooth, Bugatti got inspiration from America. An American-born race driver named George Stewart, who also raced under the name Leon Duray, imported two Miller 91 racecars into Europe in 1929. His front-drive American racers weren't very successful, but they did attract the attention of Ettore Bugatti and his son, Jean. In a trade that would make history, Stewart-Duray received three Type 43 Bugattis for his two Miller 91s, and the Bugattis immediately set about studying the powerful Miller racing engines.
They designed a head and valve gear that mimicked the American engine and set it upon a Type 35B engine, which had been modified to include a mono-block and new manifolds. The results were immediate and outstanding. With its dual overhead camshafts whirring, the 2.3-liter straight eight produced 160 horsepower (or 185 horsepower using alcohol as fuel.) Channeled through a four-speed transmission, all this resulted in a vehicle with 140-miles-per-hour top speed, certainly a daunting rate of travel in a car whose tires resembled those of a Schwinn bicycle.
Other improvements to the Type 51 included improved wheels with non-detachable rims, twin filler caps, and an enlarged radiator. In addition to the signature Bugatti radiator, the Type 51 used the tapered rear body and thick-spoke wheels over huge finned drum brakes that gave the vehicle its classic racecar countenance.
In those days, racecar drivers often bought and maintained their own vehicles (how about that, Michael Schumacher), and many well-known race drivers purchased the Type 51 GP soon after it was introduced at the 1930 Paris Salon. Among these well-regarded gentlemen racers were Achille Varzi, Louis Chiron and Rene Dreyfus. Their successes in the car were many, including victories at the 1931 Monaco Grand Prix and the 1931 French Grand Prix. In all just 40 Type 51 models are said to have been produced, but of those some 26 are still with us. That alone is testimony to one of the greatest cars of all time.