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This long-lost Bugatti is being sold without reserve at Bonhams’ Legends of the Road auction in London on 19 February 2021, here we exclusively reveal the story of its discovery
It’s been a long early-morning drive to the secret destination in the English countryside, but I’m as excited as Howard Carter must have been when he was about to open the antechamber in the Valley of the Kings.
Finally up the steep rural driveway to a grand Georgian house, in the overgrown grounds I can see the old wooden garage doors blocked for security by a moss-covered Saab.
Inside lies the last unrestored Bugatti Type 57S, a Gallic pre-war exotic that hasn’t seen the open road for over half a century.
Lord Bamford, the JCB chairman and collector of great cars, has tipped me off about the Molsheim marvel’s hiding place, and as the doors are pulled back and cobwebs are cleared I see the dust-covered form of the English-bodied straight-eight.
When new in 1937, this was one of the fastest cars in Britain.
The previous owner died in 2019, and the building and its contents have remained undisturbed, the Type 57S partially dismantled after decades unused due to unfinished mechanical work.
Squeezing down the garage along the grubby black tourer, the long, low bonnet and magnificent vee-shaped radiator become clear among the boxes, parts and panels.
On the benches are components for the 3.3-litre twin-cam that before the Second World War had powered this thoroughbred to the south of France.
Beautifully made parts are wrapped in brown greaseproof paper, while a French parts book, factory drawings and notebooks are propped among cans of files and boxes of carefully labelled nuts and bolts.
The open cockpit with original ivory leather trim, large Jaeger dials and a handsome four-spoke steering wheel would be instantly recognisable to Robert Ropner, who ordered the car new aged just 29.
Inside the cutaway door is the scuffed body plate of Corsica Coachworks, Cricklewood NW2, from whom the wealthy heir to the family shipping business had commissioned a sleek tourer-style body and instructed the family insignia be painted on the side.
A pair of split-rim goggles, last worn in 1969 when the Type 57S was driven up Prescott, lies among faded copies of Autosport and Bugantics.
Disinterring any pre-war great is a memorable moment, but this forgotten Bugatti has a very special detail that ties it to the famous Le Mans-winning ‘Tanks’.
Under the bonnet the chassis rails are clearly visible, revealing extensive drilling: a feature of only the streamlined sports-racers.
One Tank is known to survive, but the fate of the other two remains a mystery.
Could this exciting discovery be a link to the two-tone wonders driven by French aces and Resistance war heroes Jean-Pierre Wimille and Robert Benoist?
Did first owner Ropner request the unique specification to create the ultimate Type 57S?
Could this be the missing Tank from the 1936 French Grand Prix team, with the chassis recycled for a road car?
The questions are endless, the answers lost to destroyed factory records and unrecorded memories.
Its path cleared, the Corsica tourer is pushed out into the sunlight and it is easy to conjure the drama of chassis 57503’s intriguing life before it was locked away, a saga that began with the car-mad baronet on a winter’s day in 1937.
Throughout his life, Ropner indulged in a succession of expensive cars. Following a pair of Bentleys in the early ’30s, including a 4½ Litre on his 20th birthday, he switched to Mercedes-Benz with a spectacular 540K.
But the Stuttgart sensation possibly became a little embarrassing with the rise of the Third Reich, and in late 1936 Ropner decided to trade in the 540K with Jack Barclay Ltd and order something a little more discreet, and ultimately much more sporty.
Bugatti’s reputation was enhanced by sports car glory in the French Grand Prix at Montlhéry with the streamlined Type 57G, which no doubt impressed Ropner.
Through the London Bugatti Agent Colonel Sorel on Brixton Road, a new Type 57S chassis (57503) was ordered. Corsica was all the fashion for sporting bodywork on the latest high-performance Bugattis, and Ropner followed suit.
Nicholas Embiricos, another Cambridge graduate and also from a shipping family, ordered the first for competition use, while TASO Mathieson’s cabriolet (C&SC, June 2020) was bodied alongside Ropner’s rakish design in the Corsica works on The Broadway.
How involved Ropner was with the design isn’t known, but the lean four-seater looked very English with no running boards and a side-mounted spare.
After the dramatic nose, with that fabulous radiator, long bonnet and fold-flat windscreen, the tail looked very conservative with its hood exposed on the rear deck and a curved boot tub.
Finished in black with painted wheel discs and ivory leather trim, the Type 57S was ready for testing by the end of February.
Distinctive details included a central spotlight, pinstriped bonnet louvres and Ropner’s shipping-fleet flag painted on the side.
Mounted on the radiator cap was a teddy-bear mascot, a wedding gift from Ropner’s wife that was fitted to all his cars.
Surprisingly, in all surviving correspondence regarding Ropner’s order there is no mention of the special chassis.
Was the extensively drilled Type 57G frame just Molsheim’s cheeky way of using a redundant racing chassis, or was it specified by Ropner?
Ettore and son Jean refused requests for the streamlined Tank by privateers, but Ropner, with no racing intentions, may have been allowed a lighter competition chassis. It is a fascinating and tantalising thought.
Ropner took the train to London in late February to collect his finished Bugatti, registered DUL 351, and in freezing weather drove it back to County Durham.
En route up the Great North Road, powering past trucks and saloons at twice their speed, he smelled burning.
Glancing down into the passenger footwell, he was alarmed to see the carpet and his bowler hat alight.
After hastily pulling over and dousing the flames, Ropner discovered that the exhaust was mounted too close to the floor and at speed it turned red hot.
The problem was partially resolved by wrapping an asbestos sheet around the pipe, but the cockpit always roasted passengers’ legs.
Delayed by the fire, Ropner roared off on the 230-mile trip to the family estate at Thorp Perrow in Bedale, North Yorkshire.
The first photograph of the new Bugatti shows it parked outside the stableyard of the handsome 18th-century home, the black paint washed down but snow still coating the ground.
Excited by the Bugatti’s performance, Ropner started planning a trip to France with a chum.
Although he had no racing aspirations, or had possibly been forbidden by his family, Ropner headed for Paris in May and continued south down the Route Nationale 20 for Linas and the Montlhéry Autodrome, where he was determined to prove the top speed of the black beauty.
Access to the circuit must have been easy if you were prepared to pay enough, and once cleared Ropner gunned off around the banked track.
The previous year the works Type 57G Tank, driven by Pierre Veyron, had averaged 127mph for an hour during testing, and Ropner was confident of 100mph-plus laps even with little streamlining other than folding down the windscreen.
After two tours at 100mph, the throttle was pushed deeper and, as the speed reached 111mph, the engine started to make terminal noises and the power dropped.
Pictures show the car in the paddock, bonnet up and a frustrated owner with his hands raised above his head after discovering a burnt-out piston.
A call was made to Molsheim and the works immediately offered to ship the spares free of charge for a rebuild.
Satisfied by the factory support for the mechanical problems, Ropner took maximum pleasure from the rebuilt Bugatti and the following year returned to France for a wonderful summer tour around the Côte d’Azur.
The Type 57S never liked the tough, biting winters in Yorkshire and often proved reluctant to start, but in the warmth of the French Riviera this problem vanished.
The Bugatti’s impressive performance was never forgotten by Ropner’s son, Bruce, a future bobsleigh legend who as a youngster was taken for a trip up the A1.
“My grandmother would never let me ride in the German car, which due to the constant fuel smells in the cockpit was always called the ‘Smelly Merc’,” recalls 87-year-old Bruce.
“When I was five, my father took me for a ride in the new Bugatti to visit my grandparents up in Thorp Perrow. We had the roof down, of course, and just south of Scotch Corner the speedometer needle touched 100mph.
“I remember we had to back off because a truck was coming the other way but I was thrilled by the performance. I had to wait another 10 years before I went that fast again. My father had one of the first XK120s and took me for a drive up the Great North Road, where he was determined to reach its top speed.”
No doubt those experiences gave Bruce a taste for speed that became a lifelong pursuit on ice tracks, twice becoming British bobsleigh champion and still making runs in his 80s.
Fearing the Bugatti might be damaged during London bombings, Ropner put the car into storage near Leatherhead, where it would remain locked up until 1945.
Although still one of the fastest cars in England, the eight-year-old open four-seater had clearly lost some of its appeal for the Royal Artillery captain, and with peacetime he indulged in Bristols and the Jaguar.
In 1945 the Bugatti was sold to Rodney Clark, who after being invalided out of the RAF had started dealing in secondhand Bugattis at Continental Cars near the village of Send on the A3, where he later founded Connaught.
Clark recalled that the Type 57S was a challenge to disinter from its storage because it hadn’t been used during the war.
Smitten by the Corsica styling and its performance potential, Clark stripped down 57503 and meticulously revived the car over the following 12 months.
The Bugatti looked magnificent as Clark took it out for a long-awaited debut test drive, but disaster struck when a truck pulled out into his path.
The impact smashed the front axle, cracked an engine mount and bent the chassis before the three-wheeled Bugatti crashed into an oak tree.
Lucky to escape with just a few facial cuts, Clark was distraught, particularly after all his rebuild work.
The insurance company declared the car a write-off. Too depressed to set about a second restoration, Clark spent the money on a GP Bugatti Type 59 and converted it for the road.
With every chance of being broken for spares, the project was saved by HH Coghlan, who loaded the dismantled Bugatti on to a truck and took it home to Boxford, Suffolk.
‘The chassis had been straightened but the body was undamaged,’ recalled Coghlan, who set about the rebuild.
‘It took nearly a year to put back together and finding a specialist to adjust the complex de Ram shock absorbers proved a challenge.
‘Once finished the 57S was repainted dark blue and gave total satisfaction. Fast and comfortable, it was the ideal sports car. It was expensive to maintain but gave no mechanical problems during the five years I used it.’
When a new £10 flat rate of car tax was introduced in 1948, Coghlan re-registered the rebuilt Bugatti EMO 207.
Eventually in 1953, tired of the basic comforts of the open tourer, he sold 57503 and bought a Figoni-bodied Type 57 saloon.
The new owner, KGA Cock, moved the Bugatti to Harlow, Essex, but various mechanical issues with the gearbox and rear axle limited his driving.
For the next 16 years 57503 was little seen until young Kiwi engineer Bill Turnbull, on his first trip to England, started looking for it.
Turnbull and his brother Robert had become fascinated by French cars, with a particular focus on single-cylinder Sizaire et Naudins and Bugattis.
In the spring 1959 issue of Bugantics, Turnbull happened to read Coghlan’s article ‘Cars I have owned’ that referenced the Corsica tourer.
The quest began for 57503 and through successive addresses Turnbull managed to track down Dr Cock and eventually got to see the by then rather unloved Bugatti.
The car had covered very few miles in Cock’s ownership before the previous accident repair to the crankcase had begun to cause problems.
Eventually Turnbull settled in England and took engineering jobs with Rubery Owen and later JCB as chief hydrapower engineer.
He went on several road trips around France, including one with a young Hugh Conway Jnr in a Mini. On later journeys with his twin brother they even tracked down Maurice Sizaire, and made a pilgrimage to the Bugatti factory in Molsheim.
The Corsica Type 57S was never forgotten and in 1969 Turnbull finally did a deal with Cock to buy it.
After spending so many years in storage, the Bugatti needed some TLC to get it roadworthy but Turnbull managed it.
With wheel discs removed, he covered 1000 miles including a trip to Prescott for the 1969 International Bugatti Rally where, with friends aboard, he gave a demonstration run up the famous Cotswolds hillclimb.
As a perfectionist engineer, Turnbull wasn’t happy with the general condition of the car or the workmanship of previous rebuilds.
When the gearbox failed the Kiwi decided that it was time for a full stripdown. At this point the odometer indicated just 38,813 miles.
The highly original Corsica body was carefully removed because Turnbull wanted to properly straighten the chassis and repair some of the previous fixes.
When it was exposed he discovered extensive drilling to the side members that exactly matched the lightweight Type 57G Tank team cars and was unlike any other S or SC. Amazingly, none of the previous owners had mentioned this special feature.
Well before the restoration philosophy became the norm, Turnbull was determined to preserve the originality of 57503.
The ivory leather interior, specially ordered by Ropner, was left untouched other than feeding and cleaning the trim.
Turnbull also contacted the DVLC and successfully returned the Bugatti to its original registration, DUL 351.
Turnbull had learned woodwork skills from his father, a cabinetmaker, and restored the dashboard. The Jaeger 120mph speedometer and rev counter were refitted, together with a replacement glovebox lid because the original with Ropner’s special stopwatch had long gone.
Over the years, other projects – including the rebuild of a 1913 Panhard bought in New Zealand in 1954 and a Bugatti Brescia discovered in London in the ’60s – distracted him from the Type 57S restoration.
Younger cars were enjoyed, such as a Fiat X1/9, Citroën Dyane and Alfa Romeo Giulia, which offered immediate driving rewards while aspects of the unfinished Bugatti were delayed – particularly the gearbox and engine.
Upon retirement from JCB in 1995 at the age of 65, Turnbull was determined to get his dream machine finished in time for the forthcoming International Bugatti Rally.
Progress slowed and deadlines passed, and the death of his brother in 2012 was a big knock.
But Turnbull, helped by various friends, enjoyed the constant research and fettling right up to his death.
Sadly, that first drive never happened. With some of England’s finest roads across the Derbyshire Dales so close to his home, it’s a shame Turnbull never sampled the fabulous straight-eight tourer on familiar routes.
The Bugatti is now looking for an appreciative new home and restoration.
So many Type 57S Bugattis have become concours queens but I hope 57503 is returned to fine tune and driven as first owner Ropner did.
The unsupercharged Surbaissé specification was the preferred choice of many Bugatti connoisseurs, such as ex-Brooklands pilot Ronnie Symondson.
Were I the lucky next owner, I’d take it back to Montlhéry and complete Ropner’s speed quest, then head on an epic road trip to the south of France and back over the Alps via Molsheim.
Specialist Tim Dutton has also seen 57503, and due to its fascinating frame thinks the T57S should be restored with the option of fitting a replica Tank-style body.
Ahead of its Bonhams sale this month, the auction house and historian Doug Nye have confirmed that this Bugatti Type 57S is built on one of the three special lightened racing chassis.
The only known ‘Tank’ chassis in existence had been in the Simeone Collection in Philadelphia, USA, and photos of that car in restoration sent to late owner and restorer Bill Turnbull had led him to believe it was a special chassis.
The report by Nye states: ‘Bugatti authority Julius Kruta had examined stampings on the chassis’ front dumb-iron forging – comprising a figure “1”, over-stamped “8”. He concluded that the assembly had been a frame number “1” before being re-used as Type 57S frame number “8”. Pierre-Yves Laugier also pointed out a matching no “8” stamped in the centre of the frame’s rear tubular cross-member.’
Experts David Sewell and Mark Morris backed up the assertion, and that: ‘It underpinned the works-team Type 57G that wore race no 82 in the 1936 French Grand Prix at Montlhéry, and no 14 in the Grand Prix de La Marne at Reims-Gueux, driven on both occasions by Robert Benoist.’
They believe this was also the aerodynamic-bodied ‘Tank’ last seen at the 1936 Paris Salon.
Images: Mick Walsh/Bonhams
Thanks to Clive Rollinson, John Seddon and Max Tomlinson