When Legend Becomes Fact: The Bugatti From the Lake

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber
when legend becomes fact the bugatti from the lake

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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]

Join the conversation
6 of 20 comments
  • USAFMech USAFMech on Feb 22, 2016

    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?

    • See 2 previous
    • Vaujot Vaujot on Feb 23, 2016

      @menjo Correct, Molsheim was German from 1871 to 1918. Bugatti was founded in 1909 and existed in its original incarnation until 1963. For most of the company's time, it was located in France.

  • Vaujot Vaujot on Feb 23, 2016

    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?

    • Ronnie Schreiber Ronnie Schreiber on Feb 23, 2016

      Yes, that's Damiano Tamagni. Unfortunately, the photo I took with his full image had some motion blur. Props on catching the movie reference, pilgrim.

  • Arthur Dailey This car is also in my all time favourite colour combination for 1970s' Town Cars. The black exterior with the deep red (burgundy) interior. Even took my driving test in one. The minute that the driving examiner saw the car I knew that I had passed. He got in and let out a long sigh and started asking about the car. My Old Man always had a Town Car in that black/burgundy colour combination for 'business meetings' that required the use of a back seat for passengers. No way that his full sized associates could fit in the back of a Mark IV or V. So I also have quite a bit of driving time behind the wheel of Town Cars. Just add in the 450 cid engine and the 'optional' continetal hump and I would love to have one of these in my driveway.
  • Art Vandelay 15k for some old rusty 80s junk that is slower to 60 than the Exxon Valdez? Pass. Plus no TikTok on the old Mercedes
  • JMII I know people behind me get POed when I refuse to turn (right or left) depending on traffic. Even my wife will scream "just go already" but I tend err on the side of waiting for a gap that gives me some cushion. It's the better safe then sorry approach which can be annoying for those behind. Oh well.
  • Bobbysirhan Next thing you know, EV drivers will be missing the freedom to travel on their own schedules instead of their cars'.
  • Cprescott I'm not surprised by this behavior - it is consistent with how owners of Honduhs, Toyoduhs, or Mazduhs drive. Without fail, these are the consistently obtuse drivers on the road.