By on January 8, 2009

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 Atalante. The recent fuss over a barn find in England brought our Bugatti fresh to mind…

Ettore made just two examples: one for his son and one for his daughter. Our car was his son’s and Lordy, what a lovely little machine.

As the legend goes, a drunken postman on a 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 December of 1960, changed the spark plug wires and drove it… or my father and brother did. I was 13 and had to wait 3 years. Thirty years of storage and it just worked. It had no vices. It always started, was completely predictable and would do the most delightful slalom drifting turns with opposite lock steering. Pur sang. Pureblood. Most people don’t understand that machines can have breeding, style and guts.

It had suicide doors, grey paint, red leather, red painted 19″ wire wheels, with real knock-off hubs and a spare tire sunk flush into the sloping back deck. Oh, and the license plate: plexiglas letters on a black field with the light bulb behind them (a lovely touch). The engine is a straight SOHC four with a single side-draft Solex carb and has the rare pur sang scraped finish that usually only went on the works GP machines.

As with all Bugattis, the generator was direct drive and bolted onto the front of the engine drive shaft. Notice that, with the hood up, you could get between the firewall and the dashboard; real easy to work on. Finally, Bugatti came from a family of artists, sculptors and artisans, and his machinery is just flat beautiful. If you ever get a chance, take a look at a Bugatti front axle: it is a piece of art.

As with real Gran Prix machines , the tach had pride of place in front of the driver; the speedo is over in front of the passenger. Choke and spark and the Italian-style floor pedals. The classic Bugatti crashbox: no synchromesh, no helical gears. You. Could. Not. Downshift. If you didn’t know how to double-clutch. Performing a rare, perfect down-rev match and a silent, crash-free shift brought a smile to your face. It was like hitting a home run.

Every gear but fourth howled loudly in its own rising key: you didn’t need no effin’ tach, your ears told you what the revs were.  But Bugattis were never the brutes like the Bentleys, Fiats, Benzs; they took a light hand and skill. They were rapiers. Driving them well was a “right stuff” experience. And in the late ’50′s and early ’60′s that could be had for a little less than the price of a new Chevy. If you knew. My father did.

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21 Comments on “Capsule Review: Bugatti Type 40...”


  • avatar
    AKM

    Thanks for the beautiful review and time travel. Cars like this one are the stuff of legends and dreams, just like a Grail Myth story. So much more than Citroen DS or Ford Mustangs, because rarer and subtler.

  • avatar

    Bugatti has always been on top of speed.
    Back then, when cars barely did 50, this car was at 100.

    Veyron has become everyone’s dream car.

  • avatar
    BlueEr03

    Choke and spark and the Italian-style floor pedals: clutch to left, brake in the middle and brake to the right.

    How did you accelerate?

    Other than that, a great read. I would love to have the chance to even see a car like that, let alone drive one.

  • avatar

    From the author:

    - When you hit fourth gear, the gear box would go silent (in direct drive), most dramatic. With straight cut gears, the gear whine/howl can be heard a mile away. But they’re stronger that helical cut gears, so Bugatti stuck with them

  • avatar

    Jesus H. God you are one lucky fellow to have experienced a Bugatti firsthad. It’s astounding that these mythological machines were once cheap used cars, we tend to lose sight of that when one hits auction for many millions. It also explains why many of these legendary machines end up in barns; they just weren’t worth enough for people to care about them until recent decades.

  • avatar
    Jonny Lieberman

    A type 57S Atalante for $2250…

    Reminds me of a story. After 1964 Le Mans, Carroll Shelby had all the Daytona Coupes shipped back to California and put ‘em on sale for $6,000 each.

    No takers.

    Then he started harassing the drivers to buy the damn things. Bob Bondurant had his arm twisted into buying his winning car for the lowered price of $5,000.

    And it sat.

    Years later (I believe in the early 80s), a man contacted him and offered him $13,000 for the Coupe. Bondurant thought, “I’m the smartest man in the world — I just sold a $5,000 car for $13,000)

    Fast forward to 2001 when the “barn find” Daytona Coupe (CSX2287) was valued at over $4,000,000. Bondurant thought, “I’m the dumbest man in the world — I sold a $4,000,000 car for $13,000.”

    Also, I’m sick with jealousy. Where’s the car now?

  • avatar
    relton

    I’ve logged some miles in a T40 Bugatti. It has a custom body by Tetzlof, of Czechoslovakia.

    The car belongs to a good friend, and he is very enamored of it. It is quick for its day, but I can’t imagine a top speed of 100. More like 65, on a good day.

    It has a speedometer, but it is strictly dedcorative. There is no connction on the transmission for it, so it has never indicated anything. The odometer is still at 00000.

    For the record, straight cut gears are weaker than helical gears, not stronger. They are cheaper, and the gearbox does not require as much strength to resist end thrust. That’s why Mr. Bugatti used them.

    Also, all Bugatti engines had the nice machined turned surface on their exterieor. Even the ones used in self propelled trains.

    Bob Elton

  • avatar
    Theodore

    Now this is the kind of article I like.

  • avatar
    Detroit-Iron

    WHERE IS IT NOW?!?!

    Sorry for the shouting but, damn.

    Ettore Rules!

    • 0 avatar

      In Switzerland; its current owner has kindly offered me a drive. In time I will go there, in time I will step 50 years back……
      Here’s what it looks like now:
      http://www.sdean.net/bugattis.htm#T40Now

      More pictures including a high rez computer montitor wallpaper image for anyone interested

  • avatar
    Bunter1

    My dad had a Renault Daphine. :^(

    Jealousy his hardly an adequate term for the emotions involved here.

    Thanks, for sharing.

    Bunter

  • avatar
    postjosh

    beautiful story. i’m surprised to see from the pics that the car was a right hand drive. also, if the accident was bad enough to kill bugatti’s son, wouldn’t the car have been damaged?

  • avatar
    tedj101

    >>beautiful story. i’m surprised to see from the pics that the car was a right hand drive. also, if the accident was bad enough to kill bugatti’s son, wouldn’t the car have been damaged?<<

    You didn’t read the story carefully. Bugatti’s son was killed while driving a grand prix car — not the T40. The T40 was his personal road car.

  • avatar

    - Jean Bugatti was testing a Gran Prix race car when the Destroyer of Delights had its way him…not this car.
    - My father was a Renaissance man. Eye surgeon….had had a cranky old V-12 Cadillac LaSalle in medical school, he painted, sculpted, grew camellias in a ratty lean-to green house we contructed of salvage lumber. My mother had polio when I was a year old and was almost completely paralyzed, we didn’t get out much in those days before handicap access, and he looked for things to do at home. The Bugs (two) and a Maserati were part of that, see my home page at sdean.net.
    - Remember that these cars were then somewhat cheap. The T49 cost $750, the T40, $2200 is the days when a Chevy was $2K or so. And nobody in KY where we were knew what they were.
    - My mother developed throat cancer and had a miserable last two years. My father always took good care of his tools and machinery…and taking care of my terminally ill paralyzed mother left him no time to drive or care for the Bugs. In the early ’70′s, he put an ad in the Sunday NYTimes Auto Classified for 5 times what he’d paid for it. At 6AM Sunday he had a buyer, and the phone kept ringing with people offering double or more. He was a man of his word and sold it to the first caller.
    - It passed from that person to a Sandy McCormick of Chicago who loved it. Soon after he’d gotten it, without any work to it, he decided to take it to Maine to a Bug meet there. He had planned to drive it a little bit and trailer it the rest of the way with a truck. He started off and drive was effortless and easy at 65…he ended up driving the T40 the whole distance. Think of that: a 40 year old car, like a Austin-Healey or Morgan, driving half-way across America without a problem. Pur sang.
    - Sandy died some years ago. His son may still have it, but did not respond when I tried to get it contact with him. Maybe the address was wrong. I would love another drive, every bit as much as you would.
    - “How did you accelerate?” Step on the middle (not the right) pedal.

    Hope I’ve answered all your questions.

  • avatar
    dolo54

    Wow, that’s a good read. I would love a drive in an old machine like that, although I sort of get similar feeling changing gears from 5th to 4th as the 4th gear synchro is out on my transmission.

  • avatar
    relton

    All Bugattis were right hand drive. Mr. Bugatti prefered it, even though he lived and worked in a country where everyone drove on the right side of the road. Legend has it that he liked to get the mail from his mailbox without reaching across the car or getting out of the car.

    Bob

  • avatar
    NickR

    Jonny Lieberman, not to diverge from the subject of Bugatti but wrt those Daytona coupes. The site about cars in barns (it is still up, but I don’t think it’s maintained) had a compelling story, accompanies by photographs, of one these being unearthed a few years ago. Seemed convincing enough.

    BTW, can someone please ban those Bugatti replicas based on a VW chassis? It’s heresy. Or is it blasphemy!

  • avatar
    Areitu

    Wonderful and rare review! I hope you’re able to track down the car again some day!

    # JEC :
    January 8th, 2009 at 11:44 am

    Jesus H. God you are one lucky fellow to have experienced a Bugatti firsthad. It’s astounding that these mythological machines were once cheap used cars, we tend to lose sight of that when one hits auction for many millions. It also explains why many of these legendary machines end up in barns; they just weren’t worth enough for people to care about them until recent decades.

    Just like how cheap Dusenberg engines from post-war junkyards powered hot rods!

  • avatar

    The grand thing about Bugatti — and a very few other cars — is that they were built by people, not corporations. Le Patron didn’t so much have employees as followers. Bugatti’s response to customer complaints was legendary; if any of his employees suggested doing things differently in the interests of mass appeal, Le Patron would probably have had them shot. Not that tyrannical management is itself a good thing, but the beancounting and focus group/MBA mentality that dominates modern business was wholly absent. We won’t see its like again.

  • avatar
    postjosh

    tedj101 :

    You didn’t read the story carefully. Bugatti’s son was killed while driving a grand prix car — not the T40. The T40 was his personal road car.

    Stewart Dean :

    - Jean Bugatti was testing a Gran Prix race car when the Destroyer of Delights had its way him…not this car.

    thanks for the clarification, stewart. simply amazing that bugatti’s could be had so cheaply in my lifetime!

  • avatar

    - Bob
    a) Thanks for the RHD Bugatti lore.
    b) Dunno about your take on helical vs straight cut.
    I know of straight-cut crashbox trannies in dump trucks and race cars which would seem to point to their use for strength. Doing a Google, I came up with this (Joe from Autoinfozone, who also allows that while turbocharging is nice, he’s rather be blown):
    “helical gears operate quieter than straight cut. Straight cut will ‘whine’ the faster they go but offer both A. More directional application of force allowing for less power loss. and B. Higher acceptable loads until failure. Basically making the transmission stronger and more efficient. However though, like noted before, car manufacturers don’t use straight cut due to the immense noise the transmission will produce.”
    Amen to the noise. I could hear the Bugatti’s gear noise a mile away…and it would tell you what gear and whether accelerating or de-accelerating in gear. I would go on point………

    - Thinking about it, I realize that Bugs were really artisan built, individually or in limited runs. Of course, most medium to high-end cars were done in what would now be called limited production. When you build like that, you create.


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