Bugatti Type 57C: sitting in Ettore’s seat

| 17 Jul 2023
Classic & Sports Car – Bugatti Type 57C: built for the boss

Few cars are directly connected to Ettore Bugatti.

Always a spirited driver, the great man would no doubt take one from the Molsheim factory to test rather than own a specific model.

I’m sure Vittorio Jano, Marc Birkigt and Ferry Porsche operated in the same way.

From his early years as a designer, Ettore enthusiastically raced his own designs, starting with cars built for de Dietrich, Deutz, Mathis and Isotta-Fraschini.

Classic & Sports Car – Bugatti Type 57C: built for the boss

This Bugatti Type 57C’s cabin is roomy but toasty, thanks in part to the fixed windows

The most famous of EB’s own machines was the chain-drive 5-litre Type 18, which even carried a monogrammed suitcase between the front dumb irons of its chassis.

Once he’d stepped back from competing, though, Bugatti was rarely linked to driving one particular car.

That said, he famously crashed the Royale prototype after he fell asleep on a road trip.

The chassis of the huge 12.7-litre Type 41 was badly bent but was rebuilt and fitted with the Coupé Napoleon body, which is now the star of the National Motor Museum of France in Mulhouse.

Horses became Bugatti’s passion during the ’30s.

His favourite mare was a dapple grey called Brouillard (fog), and he’d think nothing of inspecting the factory after a ride wearing equestrian gear, including his signature bowler.

Classic & Sports Car – Bugatti Type 57C: built for the boss

The Type 101 straight-eight engine has a downdraught Weber carb and a later supercharger

‘Genial and generous, he dominated his factory in the best tradition of an English squire,’ wrote historian Hugh Conway.

Until the mid ’30s, Bugatti knew many of his workers personally, and always concerned himself with their well-being in and out of the factory.

But as the decade progressed he became disillusioned with labour problems – partly fuelled by the Communists – and, frustrated by the general strikes in 1936, he relocated to Paris leaving his son Jean to run the struggling factory.

As Ettore became more and more detached from Molsheim, he needed a regular car and, in June 1938, a new chassis, no 278, was assigned to the founder.

Its spec included a supercharged Type 57 straight-eight.

Finances were tight and any attempt to save costs was encouraged, so to avoid taxation the new chassis was assigned an old number, 57335, from the ex-Paris-Nice Rally 1936 Type 57 Torpedo that been broken up.

Classic & Sports Car – Bugatti Type 57C: built for the boss

There’s a hefty badge on the bootlid’s spare-wheel cover

For his father’s car, Jean designed a two-door ‘Ventoux’-type body, christened the Aero­dynamic Coach, which featured low, streamlined headlights similar to the Atalante coupé and a long, five-window fastback.

It’s believed that this was one of the talented 30-year old’s last designs before he was killed testing the 1939 Le Mans winner on public roads near Molsheim.

The car’s bespoke features included a two-piece glass roof (the only one fitted to a Type 57), a split rear window and a large boot opening with spare mounted outside and a moulded metal cover.

The original two-tone colour scheme was black and green but, unlike its current striking split, it was more conventionally painted with body and wings in contrasting hues.

The pigskin trim was a matching vert. At one point a beautiful cloisonné EB crest was mounted on the rear bumper.

Classic & Sports Car – Bugatti Type 57C: built for the boss

‘It’s believed the special body was one of Jean Bugatti’s last designs before his tragic death’

Some reports claim that the car was a secret gift, presented by the workers on Ettore’s 57th birthday – 15 September – but it would have been tricky to build a special model without Le Patron’s knowledge.

“He handed over the administration to Jean, but The Boss was still the absolute ruler of Automobiles Bugatti,” recalled his youngest son Roland. “He never abdicated anything.”

The Strasbourg police HQ issued the Aerodynamic Coach with the registration 3738 NV3 and, prior to the German occupation, Bugatti drove it around Paris, plus trips to Molsheim where it was occasionally borrowed by trusted staff including racer Jean-Pierre Wimille.

The car was sporadically used as a factory demonstrator, and in 1938 was loaned to Monsieur Pierron, the Bugatti agent based on the Rue du Bel Orme, Bordeaux, where it was displayed at the city’s fair.

After the invasion in May 1940, the factory decided to hide certain valuable cars including 57335, which was reputedly driven to safe storage by retired works driver and Resistance agent Robert Benoist, who narrowly escaped capture.

Classic & Sports Car – Bugatti Type 57C: built for the boss

Smaller Rudge-Whitworth wheels were fitted to the Bugatti in the 1950s

Other records state that Benoist had obtained permission from Nazi officials on 16 June 1940 to move the car from Le Bourget to Angoulême.

The first story sounds more exciting, and later the American aviation artist James Dietz embellished the saga in a dramatic painting.

Having survived the war, 57335 returned to service at the works where it became the private car of factory director Pierre Marco, who took control in ’47 after Ettore’s death.

Marco became attached to his “works car”, which he used on local trips around Alsace and later recalled that it was his “favourite Bugatti”.

The car remained at the factory through the 1950s, during which time it was upgraded and modified, the biggest change being a preselector gearbox conversion.

Further refinements included special Lockheed hydraulic brakes, rubber engine mounts, grease points and smaller Rudge-Whitworth wheels.

Classic & Sports Car – Bugatti Type 57C: built for the boss

Stylish hooked doorhandles open the Bugatti’s wide, rear-hinged doors

Type 57 cabins get hot once the engine has been running for a while, and unsurprisingly the original glass roof was eventually replaced by a conventional fabric top, while extra vents were added, too.

Its distinctive three-spoke steering wheel came from a later Type 101, while it also featured a radio set and an aftermarket heater.

At some point, Marco instructed the factory workshop to modify the steering for a heavy-duty box because he maintained that the original was prone to “seizing up solid under emergency action”, a failing that had once caused Le Patron to knock down a cyclist.

Marco finally retired aged 70 in 1959, and the Aerodynamic Coach was sold to Belgian Bugatti dealer Jean de Dobbeleer.

Before it left the factory, the engine was uprated to a T101 motor with downdraught Weber Tipo 36 carburettor, top inlet manifold and a later supercharger.

To avoid paying duties, de Dobbeleer stamped the engine bay with the number 57557, a car that he already owned!

Classic & Sports Car – Bugatti Type 57C: built for the boss

The original mirror blind remains in Ettore Bugatti’s car

The Belgian did good business selling secondhand Bugattis to America, and he soon found a buyer for the Aerodynamic Coach.

Bought in 1959 by Lyman Greenlee, a collector from Anderson, Indiana, the car didn’t arrive in the US until the following year.

Aware of its fascinating history, and appreciative of its original condition, Greenlee hardly ever drove the Bugatti and it sat in storage for the next 24 years.

Prior to his death in 1973, Greenlee started looking for an owner who wouldn’t be tempted to restore the Type 57, and he finally sold it to William Howell of Oklahoma City.

A deciding factor was Howell’s employment of Alf Francis, Stirling Moss’ respected race mechanic, who had retired from racing and emigrated to America.

With the car came a file of letters from Greenlee explaining the historical significance of 57335.

‘Price alone will not buy the car. You must qualify also as to your attitude toward it,’ he wrote.

Classic & Sports Car – Bugatti Type 57C: built for the boss

A Bugatti Type 101 three-spoke wheel and a preselector gearchange were post-war alterations

When Howell sold the T57 in ’82, new owner Gary Kohs of Fine Art Models also went through a lengthy vetting process, including pledges to preserve the car.

It made a rare public appearance at Pebble Beach in ’85 for the momentous reunion of six Royales, and wasn’t seen again until a Pebble return for the Bugatti centenary in 2003.

Amazingly, the Aerodynamic Coach has covered just 1000km since it left Molsheim in 1959, which made our driving opportunity around Goodwood even more of a privilege.

As you unlatch the Deco-style wing handle and pull open the wide, rear-hinged door, you immediately sense the history of the famous drivers who have sat here before.

The chromed, aircraft-style tubular-framed seats have novel adjustments: release the butterfly nuts on the runners, and they can be angled together.

The roomy cabin is trimmed in olive leather and its practical features include long, deep door-pockets.

Classic & Sports Car – Bugatti Type 57C: built for the boss

The Bugatti has simple switchgear with French labels

In the centre of the wood door-caps is a round, filler-style knob that turns to open the large quarterlight, though none of the windows, front or rear, wind down.

On our sunny spring test day, the interior was already warm, so the scuttle side and dash top vents would have been welcome during sweltering summers motoring around occupied Paris.

How Ettore, dressed in tailored tweeds, kept his immaculate demeanour at the wheel is a mystery.

The supple trim looks refurbished yet there are plenty of novel original details that add to the car’s character, including a blind mounted on the rear-view mirror and stylish tinted visors.

From the later wheel to the ’50s wireless and extra dash controls, though, the cabin lacks the style of earlier Type 57s.

The wooden fascia has been covered with cloth while the Jaeger gauges, radio and advance/throttle lever all make for a busy, cluttered layout.

The wheel sits well back, with a large horn boss sporting an EB monogram in the centre, but it, too, is less elegant than the standard four-spoke T57 item.

Classic & Sports Car – Bugatti Type 57C: built for the boss

‘The chromed, aircraft-style tubular-framed seats have novel adjustments: release the butterfly nuts on the runners, and they can be angled together’

To the driver’s right is the preselector quadrant, with a small knob for the four speeds, while down on the transmission tunnel there is a lever to select forward or reverse gears.

To start, you push the cylindrical ignition key and the engine instantly settles to a whispering, almost vibration-free tickover.

Once you attune to the small, switch-like movement of the selector lever, changing gear is quick and silent.

The clutch is only required to engage drive in first and from then you slot the lever up and down when required, back off slightly and it swaps ratios without even a click.

The semaphore indicators make more noise!

The T57 manual ’box has a rewarding change, but preselectors were the French fashion led by Talbot and Delahaye, and the conversion makes the Type 57 less daunting to a novice.

The blown 3.3-litre unit delivers extraordinary torque and, even handicapped by the car’s hefty 3500lb weight, it keeps up with moderns and climbs hills with disdainful ease.

Classic & Sports Car – Bugatti Type 57C: built for the boss

The Aerodynamic Coach has special provenance in Molsheim lore

Perhaps due to the smaller wheels, the gearing is unusually short with the engine revving excessively in top at 60mph.

With a taller ratio, this 160bhp supercharged straight-eight ought to cruise easily at 80mph.

The ride, thanks to the complex and costly de Ram dampers, is impressive despite Bugatti’s dated live axles and leaf springs, plus the uprated hydraulic brakes inspire confidence.

Once up to speed, the worm-and-wheel steering is smooth and light, with little kickback through the ribbed wood rim over bumps.

Low-mileage, unrestored pre-war cars have a special feel, and the Aerodynamic Coach is typical, with little scuttle shake and a solid, creak-free body.

To drive this historic Bugatti just a few miles is an honour but, unlike less valuable but more stylish, common and usable Type 57s, this car’s attraction is its colourful past.

After 50 years in America, it’s amazing that no owner was tempted by a full rebuild that would undoubtedly have robbed the car of its soul.

Images: Tony Baker

This was originally in our July 2012 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication

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