Bugatti Type 54: Mick Walsh unleashes a 300bhp GP Titan in Wales

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Modern F1 cars are occasionally driven on public roads, but only under controlled conditions. In the 1920s and early ’30s, however, Grand Prix teams – particularly Bugatti – would think nothing of testing on the open highway. Molsheim locals regularly saw a team convoy heading out for a race weekend, and customers often drove their new machinery home across France. The Type 54, a stopgap design between the glorious Type 51 and long-awaited Type 59, was an exception because the 300bhp, supercharged 5-litre straight-eight with three-speed gearbox was best suited to specialised high-speed arenas, such as Avus, Monza and Montlhéry. Yet early one morning in August 1933, René Dreyfus had no option but to drive this very Type 54 from the factory to Marseilles for the GP de Miramas. “The event was not a major one, so the entire team didn’t go. Just me,” the Nice-born ace later recalled. “Because the car was late being prepared, I simply got into the Type 54 the minute it was ready and drove from Molsheim to Marseilles, with my mechanic following in the Type 40 camionette with the necessary spares.

The long road-trip proved costly in the race, when Dreyfus had a close shave after a hub sheared, causing the ‘Big Bug’ to spin. The lost wheel then bounced into the crowd and ripped through the hood of a spectator’s car. The furious local demanded that the organisers pay for the damage, while Dreyfus had to apologise to his mechanic who he initially castigated for not securing the spinner properly. When the broken car was examined, the break was found to be due to the strain of 700km on poor country roads.

Any drive of a GP Bugatti is an occasion, but to experience the fabled ‘Widow Maker’ on the open road, roaring along deserted, rolling routes around the scenic Welsh borders, is something else again. The cockpit is classic Bugatti, with its bare-metal dash, huge black rev-counter and upright seating position. The exposed collection of fuel lines, pump handles, long advance/retard lever and brake compensator chains could be straight out of a Jules Verne submarine, but all focus turns to commanding this glorious brute once the meaty engine is started. Retard the ignition, pump up the fuel pressure, switch the magneto and, after a little hand-priming of the Zenith carburettors, the twin-cam wakes with an earthy rumble. The light clutch has a short travel, so selection of first gear with the stubby outside lever – forward into a dog-leg – is tricky. Once into the outer plane of second and third, however, the change is as slick as a Type 35’s.

The scream from the lower gears in the casing under your thighs initially dominates, but get up into third and the deep-throated score of the straight-eight takes over. The steering is precise, with strong self-centring that is probably due to the extra caster required for Avus. You wouldn’t want the Type 54 to wander at 160mph down the Berlin circuit’s straights. As the roads get twistier, the steering loads up and it all gets pretty physical around tight corners. The brake pedal feels fairly dead, but thankfully engine braking helps as you down-slot to second to slow the chassis for blind corners. How the drums stood up to repeated use from full speed into the tight south turn at Avus is difficult to imagine.

Concerns about bending this prized beauty are forgotten when you unleash its huge grunt, which launches the 1000kg racer up to illegal speeds in an effortless charge. On country roads, with high hedges flashing by, the sense of speed is doubled. Rival Alfa drivers were aware of the Type 54’s pace, but would simply wait for the Bugatti’s drums to overheat before they attacked. Had the development stretched to a four-speed ’box, better brake cooling and improved tyres, the T54’s record might have been a happier saga. It was reportedly designed, built and put on the road in 13 days for the 1931 Monza GP, so the majority of the car’s parts were off the shelf, with an elongated frame conceived for the stillborn T47 sports car and a nine-bearing engine based on a modified T50 road car unit. In its two-year works life, the T54’s greatest day was at Avus in 1933, when Achille Varzi and privateer Stanislas Czaykowski vanquished Alfa, Maserati and Mercedes-Benz with a Bugatti one-two.

The Type 54’s unfair reputation as the ‘Widow Maker’ largely evolved from the grim Italian GP at Monza three months later. After his record-breaking success at Avus and a win in the British Empire Trophy at Brooklands, the privateer Count Czaykowski was in confident mood for the fast Italian circuit. The Polish aristocrat easily won his first heat but, like his fellow competitors, was no doubt shaken by the news of the deaths of Giuseppe Campari and Baconin Borzacchini in the second heat. Undaunted, he fearlessly roared off into the lead of the final, setting fastest lap before losing his Type 54 under braking into the South Curve, on the same oil that had caught out his rivals, with disastrous consequences. The heavy Bugatti crested the circuit wall, overturned and burst into flames. The Polish racer was trapped, and was already dead when pulled clear. Although not a works driver, Czaykowski was a favoured customer who was rumoured to have given financial backing to Bugatti during those tough economic times.

The last person to race a Type 54 competitively was maverick designer Bill Milliken. In 1950, American owner Dr Sam Scher invited Milliken to enter the by then road-equipped, 18-year-old machine in the Watkins Glen GP. When the team discovered that the gearbox casing – which also acts as a chassis brace – was badly cracked after the car was dropped during shipping from Le Havre, Milliken had the inspired idea of fitting a modified Dynaflow GM torque converter. General Motors even gave the team a hand by casting a special bellhousing. “The ratio situation worked out very nicely, giving a calculated top speed of 125mph and a max speed in the low range of 75mph,” recalled Milliken. “I had to shove it into the low range for additional braking coming down long hills, which gave tremendous retarding force without locking up the rear wheels.” The team also fitted new Houdaille lever-arm shock absorbers to the front, but during early tests Milliken experienced an alarming shimmy: “It felt as if the whole front end was coming apart before we realised that the old friction shocks had helped to stabilise the front axle torsionally.” During the night before the Watkins Glen race, the mechanics at Flight Research made up an elaborate parallelogram to reinforce the front end. “The car was dynamically nose-heavy as I found out during practice,” continued Milliken. “When I took the railroad crossing at 80mph, the car flew through the air for 30-40ft, landing heavily on the front wheels. Fortunately, they were still pointed forward.” Competing against Sam Collier’s exotic new Ferrari 166, plus a battalion of Allards and Jaguar XK120s, Milliken qualified the Type 54 on the front row alongside Tom Cole’s quick J2.

Milliken inherited the lead when the Allard spun into a ditch, but he soon had Collier to contend with. Tragedy unfolded as the Ferrari cartwheeled off, killing its wealthy driver, then Milliken lost the Type 54 on the sixth lap while chasing the leading Allards through Townsend Road Corner, and ended up caught beneath his racer. Struggling to release his aircraft-style safety-belt buckle, Milliken just managed to wriggle out before dripping fuel ignited on the hot exhaust. Miraculously, he escaped unharmed and the Bugatti was not badly damaged.

Once repaired, the Type 54 was entered for Giant’s Despair hillclimb. Again it proved fast in the unlimited class, but Milliken confessed that he had most fun in the car on the road, when not hindered by the police: “I often drove the Bugatti down and back for events. Once near Aurora I easily outdistanced a cop who started after me, but I was nailed returning through the same town when he easily recognised the car.” On another occasion, he refuelled the Type 54 at a gas station in Pennsylvania that, unknown to Milliken, was run by the local Justice of the Peace. After patiently showing the gentleman attendant the engine, Milliken roared off, only to be stopped a few miles down the road by a policeman. Back in town, the Justice insisted that he couldn’t have been breaking the law, much to the frustration of the speed cop who stormed out of the court. “One of the greatest runs I ever had with the ‘Big Bug’ was a return trip from Watkins Glen,” said Milliken. “It was one of those marvellous, cool days in the fall with the foliage ablaze and I chose interesting back-roads. You could stand on it out of a slow bend and wind up to 100mph. Through every town one had an audience, and occasionally I would pull up and show the engine to the assembled kids.”

Of the 10 Type 54s built, many early cars were broken up and their engines re-used in T50 road cars. One motor was believed to have been fitted into Florentine Prince Rusploi’s boat Niniette. Of the last three, built for the ’33 season, chassis 54210 is the most authentic survivor. In later years it was acquired by a noted US Bugatti specialist and featured in various prestigious collections, including that of Tony Wang, and it was raced by Phil Hill at the Monterey Historics in the ’90s. “One of the scariest cars I’ve ever driven,” reported the ’61 World Champion, but subsequent examination of the car when it came to the UK proved that this was more the fault of poor restoration work than Bugatti’s design.

After six decades in the USA, the very car that Varzi raced and Milliken recalled so vividly was in the UK with Bugatti guru Tim Dutton, who felt that the unsung GP titan had huge potential if properly sorted. In January 2009, following a further change of ownership, this time to Germany, ‘54210’ arrived with Edwardian racing car specialist Ben Collings for a full rebuild. 

The car was stripped to bare chassis, with every part crack-tested before the original block was fitted with a new crankshaft and rods. Robin Townsend made an authentic clutch to replace the hydraulic one fitted in America, and the fuelling was converted back from electric to a pressurised system. Wheels, stub-axles, fuel tank, radiator and brake cables were all replaced, while the gearbox internals were re-made. The cosmetics also needed attention, with all plated parts stripped and polished, plus oil caps and fuel taps replaced with authentic designs. Collings went to great lengths to identify the early history of ‘54210’. With the help of factory records, historian Pierre Laugier and newly discovered photos of the ’32 Avusrennen from the Zoltán Glass archives, Collings was able to confirm the car as Varzi’s winner and the new owner agreed to present it in that form.

Presteigne-based Phil Davies repainted the bodywork in a lighter, Gauloises-style blue with a suitable matting agent. Registration and race numbers added the final touch – all hand-painted – and a new exhaust was correctly mounted, complete with asbestos-style heat shield. 

Bentley man Collings’ viewpoint on Bugatti engineering is fascinating: “For me, most models are too fussy and lack cubic inches, so only the Type 54, the 4WD and the chain-driven Garros really appeal. The engineering and attention to detail are amazing. Ettore was on a different planet of thinking with some features, such as the brake compensator and the quirky springs.” 

The rebuild was completed in just nine months, and finished prior to last year’s Goodwood Revival. Collings opted to drive the open-wheeled racer from his Welsh workshop to the meeting, just as Dreyfus had done for Marseilles. The 200-mile trip was perfect to run-in the engine, and the talented restorer also used the GP car on the school run: “With close to 400lb ft of torque, the tractability is mighty. The engine gives around 300bhp at 5000rpm, but with methanol you could transform that. On the track we only changed gear twice, dropping to second for the Chicane and St Mary’s, and the grunt is fantastic down Lavant Straight. At speed the chassis feels stable and it turns in well, with a touch of understeer on the exit. With so much power it’s easy to spin the inside wheels out of corners, but overall the car felt well balanced, with no hint of chassis whip. The brakes are the only limiting factor.”

The Type 54 might not have fulfilled Bugatti’s expectations on the track, but it makes for an awesome road car. Little wonder, then, that three of these Molsheim dragsters were later converted into spectacular sports cars.

This article was originally published in the July 2010 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images. Click here to see the terms and conditions.

Words: Mick Walsh; pictures: James Mann

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