Ettore Bugatti was an Italian artist who began in sculpture and ended up making the ultimate automobile of the '20s and '30s.  His cars were thorobreds (Bugatti was a horseman and all his cars had the trademark horseshoe shaped radiators), pur sang, as he put it.  They dominated the Gran Prix of his era, and it wasn't until the late '60s that Ferrari had finally won as many GP races as Bugatti had Ettore's son Jean not been killed in a testing accident, swerving to avoiding a drunken postman on a bicycle, had not WWII intervened on the European continent, Ferrari might still be in 2nd place....

Bugatti's cars weren't the fastest or the most powerful, but they had a dominating blend of handling, exceptional brakes and quite enough power.  They were also very good-looking.  Here's one of his all-up GP race cars restored and in full cry, with Bugatti's signature ripping canvas exhaust note....

My father was always looking for things we could do at home (since my mother Molly had polio when I was a year old and didn't 'travel' well; access for the disabled was lousy in those days) and had incredible taste and instincts.  In the late 50's, he got interested in cars and acquired some very interesting machinery relatively inexpensively. 

The Type 49

First came a Type 49 Bugatti built in '32, which we got in the late '50s.  This was a drophead coupe, a straight 8 with single overhead cam, double ignition (wiring).  On the right, Dad is rounding a bend in a hill climb at French Lick, Indiana in the fall of 1959 with my older brother Bill in the passenger seat..


Wonderful Marchal headlights: they must have drawn 25 amp, and it was like driving a lighthouse down the road.  Laughable aiming (On big honking nut held them on and they could only be pivoted left and right): when someone came at you, you flipped on the high beams, which went into the trees.  The wheels were another visionary engineering feat of Bugatti's: a cast iron drum cast into an aluminum finned wheel.  Yes, you can see aluminum fin brake drums from the 60's, but in '32?  Another charming feature of these cars were the fitted wooden floorboards.  When you wanted to work on anything below them, they simple unclipped and were removable: you didn't need a "creeper", you just removed the seats (one wingnut apiece), rolled up the carpet, removed the floorboards, and there you were.
What's involved in doing a valve job of a Bugatti engine?  Ettore once lost a race because of a lousy head gasket.  Thereafter, in his autocratic way, he decided that he would eliminate them, to not have a detachable doing a valve job involves removing the engine, turning it upside down, removing the crankcase and bearing caps, then pulling the crank with everything attached.  Finally reaching down the long stroke cylinder bore to grind the valve seats.
My father collected artisans and craftsmen...and so took the engine to the machine shop connected to the district mopar warehouse, where the resident wizard...a gleeful, cheroot smoking hunch-bank, not-quite-a-dwarf, Mr. Litrell, took it in hand with the help of his strong right (and young) arm, Jerry.  I saw it all apart and upside down while they were doing the straight 8 SOHC engine from the T49.

The Type 40

Lordy, what a lovely car.  It was one of two body prototypes for the 57SC (see below).  This one was made for Jean Bugatti.  As the legend goes, a drunken postman on the bicycle got onto the test track when Jean was testing a Gran Prix car.  Jean swerved to avoid him, hit a tree and was killed.  This car went up on blocks at the works.  We bought it, ex works for $2250 in  12/60, changed the spark plug wires....and nothing else; it just worked.  Of course, I was 13 and had to wait 3 years to drive it.  It had no vices.  It always started, was completely predictable and would do the most delightful slalom drifting turns with opposite lock steering....though the first time it happened was an utter surprise and delight!.  19" wire wheels, with real knock-off hubs (it was my father's great delight to track down a real brass hammer for them).  Grey paint, red leather.  Oh, and the license plate: plexiglas letters on a black field with the light bulb behind them...a lovely touch.  A straight four with a single overhead cam, and the engine has the rare pur sang scraped finish that usually only went on the works GP machines.. 

For anyone that wants it, here is a 2000x1350 .bmp file of the above image to use as wallpaper background on your computer monitor.  Fell free to pass it on, but do not sell it; all rights reserved and I (Stewart Dean) would appreciate attribution. Copyright 2009

Notice that, with the hood up, you could get between the firewall and the dashboard; real easy to work on.  Also that, as in the real race machines of that age, the tach gets pride of place in front of the driver....the speedo is over to the side!  (Double click on these pictures to see them bigger).


These images were done with a 5x7 view camera using Plus-X; these are scanned from contact prints.  The background is the old Speed estate in Louisville, KY.  They were a fast pass I did for Dad in the early when he sold the T40 (from the then princely sum of $10,000 <sigh>.

Here are two shots of Dad in the T40; one done with the view camera and a much earlier 35mm shot from 1967 with him at speed with the dogs.  My old Anglia 130 from college days is in the background....what a lovely engine and gearbox it had.  If Ford had pushed them in the US, the VW Beetle woud've never had a chance! If you've seen the Harry Potter movies, it was the flying car in them!


Funny, the first manual shift cars I ever drove were these right-hand drive crash-box Bugattis.  Thirty-seven years later, I'm still double-clutching my down shifts (a properly 'hit' double clutch down shift has a lot of the qualities of a home run hit: pure connection) and driving for first time in England last spring was, of course, quite familiar.  Both these cars also had the Italian floor pedal arrangment: clutch-accelerator-brake and the T49 H shift was mirror image flipped so that 1st was on the side towards the driver and the dashboard.

Though I never thought much about it, my father let me work on these cars!  That, of course,  was part of why he'd gotten them: for the experience, to suck his sons into machinery.  He didn't buy things for possession, rather for another facet of a Renaissance-man experience of life.  So I adjusted the brakes on the T49; they'd been marginal, but when I finished they worked.  Ettore had this wonderful Rube Goldberg lash up that made cable brakes work as well as hydraulics.  If you ever see a Bugatti, see if you can get the owner to show you the side-to-side brake balancing yoke; it is a piece of engineering art. 

Similarly, when we got the Maserati, it wouldn't idle worth a damn.  Now I'm no real mechanic (though a big part of why Dad got it and the Bugattis was to give not only the experience of driving but also of wrenching) and after tinkering around under the hood for a while, I discovered the problem.  Those Webers (initially hidden behind an long air cleaner and complete with velocity stacks) came at various level of fitment.  Ours were the cheapest level, and the the brass throttle shafts had worn into the pot metal case so that, when the thrrottle was released to idle, the butterfly never closed quite the same way twice, thus the idle couldn't be set..  These carbs at a higher level were fitted with ball-bearing races, I discovered from reading Weber docs.  Now there was a casting cup collar where the brass throttle shafts exited the carb body that was probably machined for the ball bearing races, but left otherwise unfinished on these cheaper carbs.  I put on my thinking cap (I must have been 14-15) and realized that an oilite bearing could be machined to fit in those caps.  My father, ever encouraging in this sort of thing (and many others...he paid for me to learn to fly) sent me to a machine shop he knew, I had them made and the fix worked perfectly.

Here am I in the early 70's...I had set up my 5x7 view camera (on tripod and all, an old time camera) to take the picture of Dad above...whereupon he turned the tables on me, and said, 'You get in the care, and I'll take the pictures! 

There I am, young, thin, plenty of hair, the world ahead of me...and wearing pince-nez, which I'd asked Dad for as a high-school grad present.

When I was a freshman at Amherst, we all had a composition course where we had to write and write and write.  I wanted to write (stream of consciousness stuff) about the Bugattis, about what it is like to have a real, pure-blooded class automobile in your hands...and the professor, a neurasthenic Jewish (I'm jewish enough I can say this) hyper Eastern intellectual wanted us to write, I dunno, maybe J.D Salinger stuff.  He Could Not Stand me wanting to write about cars.  It was Trade School Stuff.  What an idiot, what an uttter lack of demand a particular kind of imagination and completely miss the validity of an utterly different sort .  Cars can defintely have character or even a sort of soul...and reflect the mind and spirits of their creators.

The Type 40 Now

...lives in Switzerland in loving hands, is in use (not just a trailer queen) and looks like this:


Pur sang
French for pure blood, what Ettore said of what he sought in his work

More writings on the Bugattis and cars...

My father and the Bugs 

Someone said/asked:

“I’m still trying to pick my jaw up of the floor. You learned how to drive/wrench in/on Jean Bugatti’s personal T40?! Simply incredible.”

 Yes.  My father was a eye surgeon, a fierce loving, deeply devoted husband to my mother (who had been almost completely paralyzed by polio a year after my birth), an all around tool and knowledge freak and Renaissance man.  He had this incredible gift for finding, learning and coming to know quality in art, work and life.  He painted/sculpted passably, he cooked well, made sourdough bread (“You knead the dough until it is the consistency of a soft but firm young breast”) and gardened *very* well with a greenhouse we built with him full of his camellias.  He wanted and was always on the lookout for something we could do close to home (in the days before handicap access and parking).  One was something to learn my brother and I about machines: old cars. Funny: recall that then (1960 or so) these cars were 30 years old: like a 1980 Chevy now.  Anyway, no one much then knew or much cared about old cars, certainly not in Kentucky.  We got the T49 from De Dobbeleer of Brussels in 1959 and T40 from Loyens, of Luxemburg and the Netherlands in 1960.  He had it ex-works from Molsheim. Bugattis in France itself are National Treasures not allowed sold out of the country.
My father knew what the Bugattis were: a priceless, pure-bred of highest standard...but few other did then.  Another time, another place, gone.

My father experienced the hell out of the Bugattis, gave my brother and I a priceless experience...and then gracefully surrendered them when his life didn't allow him to give them their due.  He was then 62 or so, eight years younger than I am as I write this.  A man of parts.

And…while this was Jean’s car, it was also a plaything, like an Austin Healey Sprite of incomparable class.  Jean’s real cars were the bigger, more powerful GP racers and roadster Type 54 and 57S.  This Type 40 was a bagatelle for a summer’s picnic in the country


Driving the T40

"I had come into the turn way too fast. The tires broke free. “Oh God, no, I am going to crash this lovely little bus.” And then I found myself in a perfectly controllable four-wheel slide, drifting through the turn at 45mph, glee in my heart. It was probably 1964, and I was driving my father’s pride and joy, a type 40 Bugatti. But not one of the stogy little sedans. This was one of two subscale body prototypes for the ultimate Bugatti, the Type 57S Atlantique"

...and now I have been published in the NYTimes, writing on cars!

Here are pictures of representative Type 57SC that the Type 40 was the concept prototype for:

These images are copyright of Paradise Garage, London, England, who have this car for sale at 300,000 pounds sterling;
I requested use of this images.

The apotheosis of this body design was the Aéro Coupé Antlantique

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