Bugatti Type 57 review

By: David Berthon, Photography by: Mark Bean

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French masterpiece: Bugatti Type 57 French masterpiece: Bugatti Type 57 French masterpiece: Bugatti Type 57
French masterpiece: Bugatti Type 57 French masterpiece: Bugatti Type 57 French masterpiece: Bugatti Type 57

Come for a spin in an exotic Bugatti Type 57 from the 1930s...

Bugatti Type 57 review
French masterpiece: Bugatti Type 57

 

Bugatti Type 57

Bugattis are as rare as sautéed snails in Australia, so when David Berthon got the chance to drive a Type 57, he grabbed the chance with glee...

As I slipped behind the wheel I momentarily reflected on just how lucky I was to be driving this magnificent Type 57 Bugatti. After all, Motor Sportin May 1934 had to be content to passenger in one driven by Grand Prix ace Rene Dreyfus owing to limitations with Bugatti’s insurance policy.

The Type 57 was in fact the touring model of the Type 59 Grand Prix car introduced in September 1933 at the Spanish Grand Prix – the last GP car built by the French master in any real numbers.

The 57 however did not appear until March of 1934. Seen by many as Bugatti’s most successful model some 680 were produced up to the end of 1939. It arrived after the glory days of the Type 35 and 51 Grand Prix cars and after the sheer extravagance of the type 41 Royale, 46, 50 and 55 models had well and truly cemented Bugatti’s exotic reputation.

From 1932, with luxury cars still recovering from the affects of the depression, Ettore Bugatti mostly concentrated on railcar design, his factory by now employing more men in this area than actual car production.

And with the somewhat dispirited Ettore spending more and more time in Paris his talented son Jean was left to look after the somewhat dwindling car production.

The Type 57 however was to be his masterstroke - a relatively compact chassis featuring a 3.3-litre eight-cylinder engine with twin overhead camshafts.

Jean Bugatti’s success with the 57 is undoubtedly due to the variations of coachwork he clothed this exotic model. In addition to some of the extravagant styling executed by specialist coachbuilders four body styles were built in the factory at Molsheim including the Galibier pillarless four-door, the two-door Ventoux coupe, the Stelvio drophead and a close-coupled two door coupe called the Atlante.

The latter is sometimes confused with the dorsil-finned Atlantic of which just three were built on the shortened and low-slung type 57S sports chassis with special V radiator.

My steed is an interesting Type 57 – a series 1 model delivered in France on the second of February 1936 to a Monsieur Mari. Chassis 57336 features a four-door Galibier body, an early example featuring pillarless door construction.

Despite the deletion of the central B pillar the body is surprisingly stiff, the top and bottom timber runners reinforced by steel inserts where the doors meet. The arrangement is the same as the recently launched Mazda RX-8 Coupe with forward opening "suicide" doors at the rear. Despite the rear passengers sitting well forward of the rear axle line these doors afford excellent rear access.

Jean Bugatti cleverly placed the door handle inside the rear door – it operates a vertical bar that locks securely top and bottom into recesses to form a rigid structural member.

Like the RX-8 the lack of an exposed rear door handle gives the car an appearance of a two-door sport coupe – the Galibier body being somewhat short coupled. The "tumble-home" to the rear bumper accommodates a short boot as well as the spare wheel.

This particular car is fitted with the standard discs covers to its Rudge Whitworth wire wheels but does not have wheel arch spats, which was a feature of the Galibier body.

Whilst little is known about Monsieur Mari a check of Type 57 chassis records points up some well known luminaries were customers like Maurice Chevalier, Baron de Rothschild, Michelin of tyre fame, Rand of Diamond fame and Wimelle, the Bugatti works driver.

Such was the 57’s legend that even land speed ace Sir Malcolm Campbell and Woolf Barnato of Bentley fame were customers.

What we do know about Monsieur Mari is that some time after purchase he returned the car to the factory to have it updated with some aspects of the series 2 and 3 specifications.

For the Paris Salon of late 1936 Jean Bugatti had upgraded the 57 with rubber engine mounts, some camshaft and engine timing updates, a heavier chassis with additional cross-bracing and a new dashboard with a tachometer joining the earlier cars single large speedometer.

Towards the end of 1938 further improvements were made – the most important being the addition of hydraulic brakes of Bugatti-Lockheed design and the substitution of telescopic Allinquant shock absorbers. The clutch linkage was also reworked to reduce pedal load.

Not surprisingly, the test car received the series 2 rubber engine mounts - as the engine no longer acted as a structural member the chassis, already 200mm deep at the rear mounts, had to substantially stiffened, which must have been a major exercise with the body still on the car.

The most welcome update however was the conversion to hydraulic stoppers for nearly every contemporary road report on early 57’s talks about the poor quality of their cable-operated brakes. The car however retained the earlier Telecontrol Hartford friction shock absorbers, the rears adjustable from a knob located on the dash.

One of the nice features of 1930’s post vintage cars is their level of refinement over cars from the twenties. Many aspects of this type 57 make driving a real pleasure, the engine and chassis combining to provide a very satisfying driving experience.

My drive was the day after I’d been to see the popular ‘80s singing quartet, Manhatten Transfer. Fittingly, their most popular hit Chanson D’Amour (Song of Love) was still firmly on my mind as I wheeled this French piece of automotive art along the road.

In some ways it’s a pity to hide the mechanicals on these classic French cars for the chassis photos show them to be an automotive work of art. The straight eight engine itself is superb to look at - the twin overhead valves inclined to one another at 90 degrees with spark plugs centrally located between.

The engine block and cylinder head are one-piece and in standard Molsheim practice the cam-boxes are in hand-polished engine-turned aluminium. The overhead cams are driven by a gear train at the rear of the block, the petrol pump and distributor drive taken from the rear of the off-side camshaft.

The 3.3-litres deliver 140bhp in the old money and are fed by a single updraught Zenith carburetor. The four-speed gearbox is integrally-mounted with the engine, the drive taken to a somewhat ornate looking differential via an open prop shaft.

The starter motor is engaged by depressing the ignition key two notches into the dashboard. Select a little hand throttle, pull down the long ignition wand on the dash to retard the spark and push home the ignition key.

Depress the clutch to relieve the starter load and the gutsy whine from the starter motor purveys a short burst of excitement before the straight eight explodes into life – the twin cam shafts resonate through their alloy covers and the sound from the eight-cylinders is purposeful, distinctly mechanical, and as the experts will tell you, distinctly Bugatti.

At first glance the seats look very basic and somewhat reminiscent of those fitted to Citroen’s 2CV but whilst simple in form they are extremely comfortable and supportive. This particular car is finished in Ostrich skin and the exotic pattern of these relatively small hides really suits the art deco nature of this superb French car.

The large 400mm. four-spoke steering wheel with timber surround flexes which is just as well for you sit close and your left knee has little room for comfort when you select third and fourth gear – the gear lever is a rather long unwieldy affair that offers little feel in finding the four-speed H-pattern shift.

I took some time to come to terms with the gears and the best changes on this constant mesh gearbox are gained by a purposeful double-declutch. Take up of the single plate clutch is rather high but once you get used to it you can execute some really nice changes despite the fact that second, third and fourth are operated by dog-clutches and are relatively slow to engage.

In some ways the flexibility of the 3.3-litre DOHC straight eight negates much of the need for gears. The 57 in standard trim was good for 152 km/hour (95mph) and whilst I didn’t have the road conditions to attempt it I nevertheless managed a very comfortable 135 km/hour.

At 100 km/r the engine sings along around 2500 revs and despite being quite happy up and over 5000 revs it will also happily lug away in top gear around 15km/hr without fuss.

Importantly, the hydraulic brakes are very reassuring given its long legged Grand Touring performance and under heavy braking the finned alloy drums do a great job and pull the

Two aspects of this Type 57’s on-road behavior really impressed - the sheer absence of body roll when pushed hard into corners and the instant throttle response from relatively low revs in the higher gears.

One can only imagine how the sportier Type 57C with Roots blower must perform like while the low slung short chassis 57S with 8.3 in lieu of 6.2 to 1 compression must be a very exhilarating package. With a top speed capability of 200 km/hour it took first place at Le Mans in 1939.

Little wonder Sir Malcolm Campbell in the Field of September 4, 1937 remarked of his Type 57S two-seater "If I was asked to give my opinion as to the best all-round super–sports car available on the market today, I should, without hesitation whatever, say it is the 3.3 Bugatti. I grant that is not the type of car that would necessarily appeal to the majority of drivers who merely indulge in a burst of speed from time to time, but it cannot fail to attract the connoisseur or those who know how to handle the thoroughbred. It is a car in a class of its own."

One wonders what he would have thought of the even more exotic Type 57SC introduced mid-way through 1937 – this very low-volume supercharged S variant with 220bhp was capable of 216km/hour.

Even on bumpy surfaces the leaf-sprung suspension is surprisingly controlled with the ability to dial up more friction on the rear Hartford’s a real bonus.

The test cars 5.50 x 18 Michelin cross ply tyres were age cracked and I suspect somewhat harder than normal yet ride and handling on this 67-year old Bug is one of its nicest features. And whilst I expected to experience some steering wander from the straight ahead position it tracked superbly, reacted nicely to a little throttle out of corners and even in slow parking manouevres was reasonably effortless.

The Type 57 introduced vertical radiator shutters to Bugatti for the first time and with our test day relatively hot the chain-operated mechanism worked overtime.

A steady temperature whilst cruising of 50 degree C quickly rose to the mid-90’s with stop/start photography and the shutters quickly swung into action.

I must confess the more I drove this somewhat rare and very desirable French masterpiece the more it won me over and I was really disappointed when our time together came to an end.

Yes, definitely a converted Bugattiste but for now I’ll just have to be content to whistle Chanson D’Amour and dream some more.

 

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