By on February 22, 2016

1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster Lake Maggiore Mullin Museum front 3/4 beauty shot flash © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

Every car has a story. In the case of this 1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster, it has two. Both are good stories. One, however, is the stuff of legend, and the other closer to historical truth.

Lake Maggiore is on the border between Switzerland and Italy. For decades, a legend was told and retold about a prewar Bugatti at the bottom of the lake. It was a 1925 Bugatti Type 22 “Brescia” Roadster that supposedly once belonged to famed Grand Prix driver René Dreyfus.

The way the story goes, in 1934 in Paris, Dreyfus was playing poker with Swiss playboy Adalbert Bodé. They were both drunk. Dreyfus lost, but didn’t have enough cash to cover his marker, so he gave Bodé the Bugatti. Bodé drove home via Italy, but didn’t have the cash to pay the import duties when he got to the Swiss border.

Today, the same Bugatti is highly collectible, but a 10-year-old Bugatti in the mid-1930s was just another old car. Bodé walked away from it.

Swiss law at the time stated the car would be destroyed if duties went unpaid. Local customs officials decided to dump the car in the lake — but suspended it by a heavy chain for possible retrieval (official or otherwise). The chain broke, and the car dropped 173 feet to the lake floor.

1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster Lake Maggiore Mullin Museum rear 3/4 patina © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

Underwater diving technology didn’t allow for such deep dives until the 1960s, so the story remained a myth. It wasn’t until a scuba diver named Ugo Pillon from nearby Ascona, Switzerland dove to the lake’s bottom in 1967 that the legend about the car in the lake was verified — or at least the fact that there was, indeed, a submerged Bugatti in Lake Maggiore. The car was half buried, lying on its left side in silt. Following Pillon’s find, the Bugatti in the lake became a popular dive site for the local diving club.

Damiano Tamagni and his father Maurizio were both members of that club. In 2008, Damiano was brutally beaten by three youths in a street attack and succumbed to his injuries. The diving club, Centro Sport Subacquei Salvataggio Ascona, decided to salvage the Bugatti and auction it off to fund a charity addressing the issue of juvenile violence, Fondazione Damiano Tamagni.

The car was raised in 2009 with thousands looking on. When it reached dry land, the surviving tires still held air. Bonhams, the auction house that sold the car in 2010, determined that just a fraction of the original car would end up in a restoration, and it recommended that the Bugatti remain as a static display. Predicted to fetch about $130,000, it ended up selling for $289,050 to California-based Bugatti collector Peter Mullin, who indeed has it on unrestored static display at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard. The Mullin collection includes concours winning restorations, some cars in terrific original condition, and some barn finds from the Schlumpf Reserve Collection. The Lake Maggiore Type 22 Bugatti gives some perspective on how fortunate it is that all of those other cars are in the condition they’re in.

1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster Lake Maggiore Mullin Museum engine detail right © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

The story about Dreyfus and Bodé is a terrific story. A famous racecar driver and bon vivant loses a classic sports car to a playboy in a drunken game of poker. The playboy can’t afford the customs duties so a bureaucrat rolls the car into a lake. The thing is, Bonhams account of the Lake Maggiore Bugatti’s provenance never mentions the Dreyfus-Bodé story. It may be just that — a story. Auction houses can get sued over inaccurate catalog descriptions and the more reputable firms are duly diligent in getting an item’s history straight.

Molsheim and the Bugatti factory are in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, but Ettoré Bugatti was Italian and some Bugattis were apparently assembled in Brescia, Italy. Bonhams’ research revealed that Bugatti chassis #2461 was registered in April 1925 in Nancy, France by a Georges Paiva. A small brass plate on the car has the name Georges Nielly of Paris and what remains of the French registration plates that are still on the car indicate that Nielly likely registered the car in Paris in 1930. That was the last time the car was officially registered.

1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster Lake Maggiore Mullin Museum rear end © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

The chassis number plate is missing, as is the Bugatti badge on what is obviously a Bugatti radiator shell, but otherwise the numbers indicate that it’s a 1922 Type 25 Brescia Roadster, though body alterations indicate it may have been rebodied in the late 1920s. Bonhams says that they could not identify who owned the Bugatti in Ascona with certainty, but the evidence points to a Marco (Max) Schmuklerski, an architect from Zurich. Schmuklerski was known to have lived in Ascona from 1933 to 1936 while working on buildings he designed there. It’s thought that Schmuklerski may have met Nielly while studying architecture at the Beaux Arts school of Paris, bought the car and brought it to Ascona without paying import duties. Alternatively, it’s possible that the architect bought the car from a French client while working in Ascona. Either way, it was apparently driven by Schmuklerski on its French plates, never registered in Switzerland and no import fees were ever paid.

1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster Lake Maggiore Mullin Museum engine detail left © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

The story the locals in Ascona tell is that Max Schmuklerski left town in 1936 to return to Zurich, abandoning the Bugatti in the storage yard of a nearby building contractor. By then Swiss customs officials knew of the car and demanded that the import duties be paid. As mentioned, this was considered just another old car then and the fees likely exceeded the market value of the car. The Swiss customs authorities confiscated the Bugatti. Swiss law apparently called for the destruction of the car and the easiest way to do it (and maybe recover the car when nobody was looking) was to dump it in the lake.

1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster Lake Maggiore Mullin Museum interior rear © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

While the silt preserved much of what was buried by keeping it away from oxygen, there was extensive corrosion and decay on the exposed right hand side of the car, particularly affecting components made of iron or steel. The wood, aluminum, brass and — as alluded to above — rubber, was in much better condition. For seven figures, a restoration could have been done, but it would have been more of a recreation, with only about 20 percent of the original car making it to the final product. An accurate replica would have cost just as much to fabricate. Instead, Peter Mullin decided to preserve it and display it as is, in its own gallery — part historical artifact and part art installation.

1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster Lake Maggiore Mullin Museum sign © 2016 Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars

Interestingly, the plaque for the installation says that according to Bugatti historian Hans Marti, Adalbert Bodé indeed owned the Type 22 Brescia Roadster in 1934. The sign goes on to tell the tale about Dreyfus, Bodé and the poker game, not the story about an architect avoiding customs duties, though with the caveat, “By one account … ” I’m not surprised the museum went with the poker game. Historically accurate or not, it’s a better story.

A note of thanks to Peter Mullin and the staff at the Mullin Automotive Museum for providing access and a tour of the facility by a most outstanding docent.

[Images: Ronnie Schreiber/The Truth About Cars]

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20 Comments on “When Legend Becomes Fact: The Bugatti From the Lake...”

  • avatar

    Dude, I think that’s a Lambo.


  • avatar

    Fun story! I’m really surprised it sat that long without anybody towing it back out. Since that would have been possible after the diving in the late ’60s.

  • avatar

    Looks like a ’70s J-car in Minnesota.

    Okay, except for the wood.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    Ronnie, another good story.

    I’m surprised at how hard the customs were, drop your car in the lake!


    This article also shows how far the EU has come as a group attempting to work together. But, the EU really needs to do a lot more as a group to function as if they are on the same page.

  • avatar

    I’m with the owner on this, 20% of a resto car isn’t worth that when it can be shown as is and given some provenance. My issue as a historian is telling the story and then leaving out the far more likely and historically accurate story. Even just putting it as ‘this car is probably not it’ would be sufficient.

    It reminds me of an old mansion restaurant in a resort area in SW PA. It had a destroyed Stradivarius violin, they couldn’t confirm it was genuine given the damage and by all account it was about 70% likely with the remaining 30% being a student of his made it (both put the piece in the 6-figure range, if it was genuine maybe in the 7-figures). I chatted with the owner about it and they didn’t want to get it examined any further because as they put it ‘it was more valuable with the question mark rather than knowing for sure.’ So they kept it on their wall in a state of question, implying it was the genuine article but leaving room for argument.

    That’s the way I prefer it in these cases. Better to be upfront than outright lie, even if you leave room for interpretation.

    • 0 avatar

      As Bonhams indicated, they couldn’t verify the car’s ownership in Alcona with certainty and the museum is relying on a reputable Bugatti historian who says that Bode did own the car. As for the poker game, the museum did use the phrase “By one account”, which to me makes it the equal to “said to be driven by”, indicating some doubt.

      I think they’re being truthful while still trying to be entertaining. Like I said, the poker game is a better story.

      The museum does make a good faith effort to make sure the descriptions of the cars are accurate. One reason why I visited the collection was so I could see the finished body Peter Mullin commissioned based on some of Jean Bugatti’s sketches for the Bugatti 64 chassis that Mullin owned. I’d seen the body when it was about 95% complete at Mike Kleeves’ Automotive Metal Shaping, in Kimball, Michigan near Port Huron, which did the fabrication.

      For some reason, the plaque in the display said that Kleeves’ shop was in Kalamazoo, which is about 200 miles from Kimball. I told the nice ladies in the office, they verified what I said was correct and they arranged for the sign to be changed.

      • 0 avatar

        Ah ok, I couldn’t read the plaque on my smaller screen when I wrote the original comment. You’re spot on then in that respect. Leaving the door open is the best answer. :)

  • avatar

    Nice article, Ronnie,
    You really dug to find the truth, which is impressive.

    Those Swiss customs officials are really tough. I suspect there must be a ton of weed rotting at the bottom of that lake as well.

  • avatar

    I miss stories like this on TTAC – well written and learned a lot about some great automotive history.

    Thank you!

  • avatar

    FS: Bugatti. Low mileage. Runs and drives. Some water damage.

    • 0 avatar

      For sale: 1922 or 1925(?) Bugatti roadster, custom body, one of a kind. Has desirable wire spoke wheels and original tires still hold air! Some rust and water damage from being parked outside. Very restorable project car. Running when parked. Asking $$289,050 obo. Bring a trailer. Moving out of the country, must sell. Contact (555) 555-5555, ask for Eddie.

  • avatar

    Great story, and matches my own personal experiences with Swiss border personnel. Swiss officials in general don’t screw around.

  • avatar

    Lemme see if I can light a match in here…

    Should we consider Bugatti (the cars) to be French or Italian? The great engineer is Italian, so I’m sure the Italians would love to claim that heritage. The cars, however, were made in France and are one of the most important historical marques. So I’m sure the French would want to claim that heritage. Which is it?

    • 0 avatar

      I think you have to go by where the headquarters of the company was located. By that standard the original Bugatti was most definitely French. The first revival was Italian. The modern revival is either French or German depending on how closely you associate Bugatti with VAG.

  • avatar

    I often visit the Lago Maggiore for holidays and was aware of this story. But not where the car ended now. So thanks for this story and the pictures. And the quote from Liberty Valance in the headline was well done.
    A question: Next to the plaque seems to be a photo. Was that the young man who was murdered in Locarno?

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