Blue riband

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 8

Blue riband

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 8

Blue riband

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 8

Blue riband

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 8

Blue riband

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 46, Spring 2016

Page 8

Richard Williams tells the story of one of the most desirable motorcars ever built – the supremely elegant Bugatti Type 57SC

"If I was asked to give my opinion on the best all-round super-sports car which is available on the market today," the world land and water-speed record-holder Sir Malcolm Campbell proclaimed, "I should, without any hesitation whatever, say it was the 3.3 Bugatti." As the first man in the world to drive a car at more than 300mph, Campbell might not have been such a bad judge.

The unique Bugatti Type 57SC to be offered at Bonhams' Amelia Island Sale on 10 March, is as handsome a high-performance roadster as the immediate pre-war years had to offer. Built around the supercharged eight-cylinder engine of a successful Grand Prix car, and based on the chassis of a double winner of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, it was cloaked in a body that epitomized the finest aesthetic values of its era. It radiated, of course, the cachet belonging to any automobile turned out by Ettore Bugatti's factory in Alsace.

It was with the Type 57 that Jean Bugatti, the great Ettore's eldest son, made his debut as a designer. The model was introduced in 1934, when Jean was just 25. It was available in a variety of configurations, from a flat-out Le Mans contender to a four-door saloon. All but a few examples of the Type 57 had bodywork built to Bugatti's own designs by the Gangloff company of Colmar, located barely 50km from Molsheim. This one was to be different.

Its story began in 1936 when the factory prepared the surbaissé chassis and engine numbered 57541 for George Rand, a fine racing driver and the newly appointed Bugatti agent in New York. The car was dispatched from the factory in Molsheim to the UK, where it was received by Colonel W.L. Sorel, the manager of the company's London depot. Sorel sent the naked chassis and running gear to Vanden Plas, the coachbuilders that produced bodies for specialist and upmarket automobile manufacturers.

Thanks to the famous North London carrosserie, the Bugatti – now bearing the UK registration plate DXP 970 – was far from any conventional four-passenger car. Originally painted gray with red details, it had a dashing air accentuated by the shapely aerodynamic wings, the giant Marchal headlights – and the cutaway doors.

The car was proudly featured in the annual catalog that Sorel sent to such important customers as Earl Howe, the politician and Le Mans winner, and Nicky Embiricos, playboy heir to a Greek shipping dynasty.

Meanwhile, Sorel had the car shipped to New York for Rand, where its wings were temporarily removed while it competed in races organized by the original Automobile Racing Club of America at Long Island's Roosevelt Raceway. The circuit was laid out on the airfield from which Charles Lindbergh had taken off in the Spirit of St Louis to begin his historic transatlantic flight ten years earlier.

The car returned to England and was displayed on the Bugatti stand at the London Motor Show at Olympia in October 1938. With registration plates reading FGW 384, it passed into the hands of its first English owner, whose identity remains unknown, but it seems to have been moved swiftly on to Henry Herman Harjes Jr, the scion of an illustrious American banking family, a resident of Paris and a sous-directeur of the investment bank Morgan & Cie, whose offices were on the Place Vendôme.

Harjes spent the war at the Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the CIA. There is no record of the Bugatti during hostilities, but it re-emerged in England in 1947. With the number plate it bears today, the car was sold via the Mayfair dealer Jack Barclay to Jack Robinson, who shipped it to Trinidad. A thorough restoration by its new owner, the son of a Trinidadian landowner, businessman and politician, enabled him to challenge the new Jaguar XK120s in competition at Trinidad Aerodrome.

In 1955, Robinson sold the car to Peter Agg, the owner of the Trojan car company, a future Formula One entrant whose collection of classic cars included a Mercedes-Benz SSK once belonging to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Agg sent 57541 to Crosthwaite and Gardner for a complete restoration, including the installation of a correct 57SC supercharger and hydraulic brakes. Repainted in light metallic blue, it gave Agg a competitive mount at many hill climbs and circuit races over the next 40 years, until he sold it to its present owner in 1995.

"No driver with any claim to discrimination can fail to sense the feeling of safety and response which characterizes the new Type 57 models, and which is the result of racing experience allied to pride of workmanship," wrote the correspondent of Motor Sport after being driven around the roads near Molsheim by the car's designer. The supreme elegance of 57541 continues to illuminate the landscape of successive generations.

Richard Williams has written several books on motor racing including Enzo Ferrari: A Life and The Last Road Race.

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