Original is best – the ex-King Leopold Bugatti Type 59

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It’s rare to find any classic car in timewarp condition, but it’s little short of miraculous for a prized exotic with captivating history. This wonderfully patinated Bugatti Type 59 has had just five owners in 75 years, including a king with the finest taste in automobiles of any royal. Fuse that low ownership and remarkable pedigree with one of Ettore Bugatti’s most beautiful Grand Prix designs, plus a second competition sortie as one of the fastest sports cars in France – driven by a resistance hero – and you begin to appreciate why chassis 57248 is one of the most coveted of Molsheim’s machines. Also key to this car’s special mystique is its limited public exposure over nearly eight decades. Thankfully, all of its owners have appreciated its remarkably original state and meticulously preserved its precious aura while still enjoying this French thoroughbred’s driving rewards.

Too easily this road-equipped Grand Prix design could have suffered a soulless concours rebuild, forever wiping away its historic patina, but thankfully it survives as one of the world’s most original Bugattis. Rarely seen after recent decades in two private American collections, the sports-racer, affectionately known by old factory mechanics as the ‘Grand-Mère’, is back in Belgian ownership with plans to race it. The confined streets of Pau or the sweeping corners of Spa may again resound with the sonorous roar of its supercharged straight-eight.

Molsheim records relating to race cars are limited, so it’s impossible to work out the individual early histories of the six Grand Prix Type 59s. Part of the identity challenge is that Bugatti racers were listed by engine number rather than chassis details, but there’s no doubt that this car was originally developed to compete with Alfa Romeo’s new monoposto Tipo B. For many it represents the epitome of the classic GP car before the German racing blitzkrieg of all-independent, streamlined single-seater titans.

Bugatti fans such as me will eulogise about its fabulous proportions and wonderful piano-wire wheels, but realistically this Type 51 replacement was too heavy, too dated and came too late. The Type 59’s tally was just two proper Grands Prix, and Bugatti experts reckon that ‘57248’ was one of the four-car team at Spa in 1934 when René Dreyfus headed a lucky 1-2 for Molsheim after the Alfa rivals crashed. Later, in the Algerian GP, French ace Jean-Pierre Wimille beat the Italians in two straight fights to take a welcome victory for Bugatti during demoralising times for the company. Although handicapped by its weight, limited power, dated gearbox and poor brakes, the Type 59 still handled and steered beautifully. “A superlative car that’s superb on fast corners and drifts beautifully,” claims historic racer Neil Corner, who has raced both rivals. “It handled so much better than my Alfa P3.”

Without the state aid that boosted the Italian and German teams, Bugatti’s tiny empire just survived from the sale of exclusive road cars and railcar engines. Tight finances meant Ettore never missed a chance to sell off or recycle competition cars. Four of the beautiful Type 59s were sold to English enthusiasts in 1935 while the fifth car was transformed for sports car racing. Already a quasi two-seater with oil tank on the left side of the cockpit, it didn’t take much to turn this uncompetitive 160mph GP machine into a dominant sports-racer. When the Bugatti team arrived at the 1936 Grand Prix du Comminges (a sports-car race, like many premier French events) with a pair of T59s fitted with unsupercharged T57G motors, its rivals were staggered at the audacity. The cars fulfilled the regulations, just, but not the spirit. Instigated by the Delahaye drivers, there was even talk of a boycott if the Bugattis raced. Event director Charles Faroux eventually let the T59s run and, after sand-bagging in practice, Wimille dominated both races around the Pyrenean circuit.

The controversial victory had sowed the seed with Jean Bugatti – Ettore’s son and race team manager – and so the Comminges GP winner was further developed for more sports car events in ’37. Modifications included a new four-speed dry-sump all-synchro gearbox with a central change and twin-pump lubrication from a remote oil tank in the tail. New rear radius arms developed for the later GP cars greatly helped the dated live rear set-up. From the scuttle back, a new body was hastily made featuring shallow side doors, rounded tail covering the spare wheel, full-width wooden dash and a single aeroscreen. Skimpy cycle wings and small headlights were also fitted and, to further placate rivals, its GP chassis was given the production series number 57248 and road-registered 344 NVV.

The first major race of 1937 was on 21 February at Pau where Wimille faced an all-French sports car field of T150 Talbots and 135 Delahayes, but, even while suffering the effects of flu, he dominated the race finishing a lap up on the entire field. Intriguingly, Bugatti’s number one driver was just 2 secs off his previous year’s best set in the blown Grand Prix-spec Type 59 around the 1.7-mile street circuit.

Early in May, the Grand-Mère was shipped out to Tunisia for a three-heat sports car GP event. The Bugatti proved under-geared for the fast 7.8-mile road circuit near Carthage, so a new rear axle had to be flown in. Wimille was soon setting the pace ahead of Talbot rival Raymond Sommer, but a confusion over finishing flags meant the Bugatti ran an extra lap, which ultimately messed up fuel requirements. Having dominated the first two 100km heats, Wimille was in sight of the finish when the dohc straight-eight spluttered and died. The lucrative prize was lost and, as a precaution, a second filler cap was later added to the car – so that the fuel level could be seen. A week later, and stripped of its wings and lights, the T59 sports won the Bone Grand Prix in Algeria before returning home. Back in France, with a new cowl covering the handsome radiator, the Grand-Mère was surprisingly out-performed by the improved Talbot at Miramas for the Grand Prix de Marseille during a thrilling battle that ended in engine failure.

Wimille’s last race in the Type 59 sports car was at Reims in the GP de la Marne on 18 July, where he convincingly defeated all the Talbots and new Delahaye 145 V12s. In blazing sun around the ultra-fast road circuit in the Champagne region, Wimille made up for his extra fuel stops during the 305-mile, 63-lap race to finish nearly 3 mins ahead of Albert Divo’s Talbot. 

Always happy to sell old race cars, Ettore wasn’t surprised when his most illustrious customer, King Leopold of Belgium, expressed an interest in the road-equipped Type 59. The Grand-Mère had never faced up to the Alfa 8C-2900A Spider Corsas, but it was unquestionably one of the world’s fastest sports cars and it’s easy to see its appeal to the car-loving king.

Quite what the deal was is unclear. Some suggest that the car was a gift to Ettore’s favourite royal, while others believe it was part traded for the King’s Type 51 Grand Prix racer. At some point further modifications were made to the bodywork, including a more streamlined cowl with headlights moulded into the bodywork. Exactly how much Leopold III used his last Bugatti during this troubled era of his reign isn’t known, but he ordered it repainted black, his favourite car colour, with a yellow stripe honouring Belgium’s racing livery. Little attempt was made to remove the Bugatti blue, which is now clearly visible under worn areas of black.

In 1967, car-mad Belgian enthusiast Stephane Falise learnt of the Bugatti’s storage in Brussels. An avid reader of The Autocar’s Talking Sports Cars series, Falise was fascinated by the idea of Grand Prix cars converted for road use – Rodney Clark’s roadgoing Type 59 was his dream car. As a young student, Falise had heard stories that the King’s Bugatti was still stored in the Argenteuil Palace and made a formal enquiry to the Royal household. To his amazement, he eventually acquired the car. That year, Falise wrote a very enthusiastic article for Bugantics, the quarterley magazine of the British Bugatti Owners’ Club, carefully detailing the T59’s specification and his meticulous plans to preserve it, right down to its dents and worn paint. ‘I like racing cars to look purposeful and up to the job, but do not like them to look too polished and cleaned,’ reported the lucky Belgian. ‘Thus I shall not polish the inside of the bonnet but let it be its dried brownish castor oil varnish. I shall not remove the small bump at the rear – who knows who made it – but I shall keep all the chassis and engine parts in perfect mechanical order.’ Falise, like several of its owners, was intimidated by the old GP car and hardly ever drove it. For many years it sat with its head off with a local enthusiast.

Over the next two decades, the car was rarely seen. Story has it that King Leopold’s second wife, Princess Lilian de Rethy, tried to recover the Bugatti after her husband’s death in 1983, but without success. In ’89, however, Falise sold the car to the Bob Rubin, an American car connoisseur with specific interest in highly original machines. On its arrival in America, Rubin instructed Leydon Restorations in Pennsylvania to preserve the Type-59’s remarkable originality while performing a complete mechanical overhaul. When the finished project rolled out of the scenic Bucks County Farm workshop, the car looked just as it had done when it arrived from Belgium but mechanically refreshed. Rubin and the Leydon team comprehensively disproved the judgement that all Americans over-restore their cars, long before preservation became a valued feature. Monterey Historics founder Steve Earle was entrusted to race it at Laguna Seca and, in 1994, then registered MFF 459, the famous black Bugatti returned to Europe for the International Bugatti Rally in Italy.

Late in the 1990s, American Ferrari collector Anthony Wang acquired the T59 but was never happy driving pre-war cars, so he rarely took it out of his stunning Long Island collection. Then, early this year, the Bugatti rumour mill reported that ‘57248’ had at last returned to Europe.

The car is now with respected Bugatti specialist Tim Dutton, again being carefully fettled in preparation for fitting use. The highly original body is apart and the chassis stripped but, prior to its overhaul, Dutton trailered this timewarp legend to the LAT studio for an eagerly awaited photo session. While dramatic lighting enhanced its prized originality, Dutton offered a fascinating insight into the design of the last great Bugatti Grand Prix car. “For me the glory years were the Type 35 and 51 when Molsheim had the funds to develop fresh ideas,” he said. “Finances were really stretched by 1933 and the main focus was on road cars. Also Jean Bugatti was a better body designer than he was an engineer. Ettore was then less interested in Grand Prix racing – possibly disillusioned at the quantum leap in design from Mercedes and Auto Union thanks to state backing.”

For Dutton, the Type 59’s design was dated even before it was built: “Bugatti insisted on sticking with a live axle, which is less important when running on smooth modern tracks but on the bumpy road circuits it was very limited. The chassis has all the good points of the Type 35 with a stiff front and softer rear. Its strength is in all the right places. The solid-mounted engine further stiffened the chassis, which all helped to make the suspension work. I don’t think Bugatti understood roll centres, so solid was the only way.”

It’s easy to see why there has been a run of replica Type 59s because the engine is basically a development of the Type 57: “The block is the same, but with a dry sump, no camshaft damper and different cam profiles. For the longer sports car races, the firing order was changed to smooth out the running. The sports car gearbox was an early crash design developed from the Type 55. It’s a lovely strong unit with a good change.”

One of the problems with early Type 59s was rear-wheel steering that used to distort the leaf springs under power. “Thankfully the later cars had radius arms,” says Dutton. “The split front axle was another attempt to cope with the disadvantages of the outdated live axle. With a live front axle, the wheels will grab, twist and shimmer under braking, particularly on rough tracks, so the split helps to compensate for tramp. The double-reduction back axle was a way to get the weight down lower but it was a headache.” Some non-Bugatti restorers criticise the complex de Ram dampers, but not Dutton: “They must have cost a fortune and it takes a dedicated specialist to set them up. But again you have to consider the poor state of road circuits in the ’30s.”

The Type 59’s distinctive combined hub and brake drum design may look over-complex compared to a standard wire, “but they were a lot simpler to make, were lighter, and just as strong. With its dog drive, the straight wires are just lateral support for the rim. Best of all, there’s no torsional load on the hub or the brake. It’s classic Ettore. He always wanted to be different”.

“If the Type 59 had appeared in 1929 it would have been an amazing car,” concludes Dutton, “but by 1932 Bugatti really needed a new concept. If you put doughnut wheels on a Type 59 today, it should beat an ERA – but that would be sacriligious with those beautiful wires.”

Wider and lower than the T51 it replaced, it’s little wonder that the Type 59 transformed into the ultimate Bugatti sports car. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to restage The Autocar’s 1938 Fastest Sports Car contest to prove it. Any Alfa, Talbot or Delahaye owners up for the challenge? 

Leopold – the Bugatti royal

The car-loving Belgian royal, Leopold III, had a long succession of high-performance sports cars throughout his life. Prior to the start of his reign in 1934, he’d already ordered several fast Bugattis starting with a Type 43 Grand Sport that he regularly took on trips to Sweden with his first wife Princess Astrid (below). The car’s special features included scuttle cowls and aeroscreens that replaced the full-width windshield. For his first son, Prince Baudouin, the King ordered a Type 52 electric ‘baby’ Bugatti in 1930, although this may have been a gift from Ettore. Two years later the Type 43 four-seater (bottom) was replaced with a two-seater Type 55 roadster. Leopold III ordered lighter cycle wings in place of the flowing Jean Bugatti styling and had the body painted black. Tragically, Princess Astrid died in a road accident in August 1935 when Leopold lost control of his Packard Tourer while driving around Lake Lucerne.

The accident didn’t put Leopold off driving and, as well as the Type 59 Sport featured, a pair of Type 57s joined the Belgian Royal garage. When commitments allowed, Leopold occasionally visited race meetings and flagged off the 1937 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa.

During WW2, Leopold valiantly stayed to face the German invasion rather than flee to London with the Belgian government, which led to his imprisonment under the Nazis. His return to a unsettled country split between pro-Royal Flemings and socialist Walloons ultimately made him abdicate in 1951. Such problems didn’t deter his automotive interests. His allegiance switched from Molsheim to Maranello with a succession of exotic Ferraris. These included a 342 America followed by a 375 Plus cabriolet with gorgeous Pininfarina styling. Leopold also had several Isos, a Ferrari 330GT Speciale, various Cadillac state limousines, and even a Stingray before he died aged 82 in 1983. 

FACTFILE – Bugatti Type 59

Produced/number built 1933-’36/six Construction beam chassis, magnesium body Engine front-mounted, iron block and head with alloy crankcase dual-overhead-camshaft 3257cc straight-eight, with two valves per cylinder, six plain bearings, Roots supercharger, two Zenith 52mm carburettors and  Scintilla Vertex magneto Max power 250bhp @ 5000rpm Transmission separate central four-speed gearbox, driving rear wheels Suspension: front live axle with semi-elliptic leaf springs and de Ram shock absorbers  rear reversed quarter-elliptic leaf springs, radius arms and de Ram shock absorbers  Steering worm and wheel  Brakes cable-operated drums Track 4ft 1in (1251mm) Wheelbase 8ft 6in (2597mm) Weight 1650lb (748kg) Wheels piano-wire style with 6x19in tyres 0-60mph 6 secs Top speed 160mph

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue of Classic & Sports Car magazine, which retains the copyright to all words and images.

Words: Mick Walsh; pictures: Peter Spinney

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