Talbot T150-C-SS vs Bugatti Type 57SC Atalante Review

By: Mick Walsh, Photography by: Jamie Lipman

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Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti
Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti Talbot vs Bugatti

Exotic and hugely expensive both now and in their day, the Talbot and Bugatti marques were, for many, the pinnacle of French motoring elegance.

Talbot T150-C-SS vs Bugatti Type 57SC Atalante Review
Talbot vs Bugatti

 

Talbot T150-C-SS vs Bugatti Type 57SC Atalante 

The chances of seeing a Bugatti Type 57SC Atalante and a Talbot T150-C-SS 'Teardrop' together on the open road in the 1930s were slim. Back-to-back tests are a modern idea, and rarely did journalists get behind the wheel of such cars. In those unsettled times of airship disasters and the rise of the Right, a duel between a pair of Gallic exotics would have seemed trivial.

As these streamlined beauties rasp into view through the dappled sunlight on a glorious spring morning, maybe we can finally pick a winner. Squint and it could be 1938, with two playboy car fanatics meeting to resolve a long-standing wager - the Talbot's curvaceous nose contrasting dramatically with the Bugatti's proud, V-shaped radiator. Both models raced in some form - the Talbot even as a 'Teardrop' - but Bugatti orchestrated its track action with lighter, streamlined open prototypes to secure the laurels and key publicity.

It even reworked a redundant GP car for the road to upstage Talbot and Delahaye sports cars. Nowadays, the most competitive these French thoroughbreds ever get is over concours honours.

Beneath the breathtaking bodywork lie starkly different engines. The Bugatti's smooth-revving, supercharged twin-cam straight-eight follows a tradition instigated by Ettore Bugatti's brilliant son Jean, while the Talbot's torquey six - with single low cam, busy pushrods and triple Solex carbs - has more modest origins.

You can picture Ettore dismissing the simple solution of Talbot engineer Walter Becchia, though Talbot gave Bugatti a bloody nose on the track as soon as the teething troubles of the Paris-built cars had been rectified.

Ettore's blinkered pride was often his downfall because the Talbot had advances beyond its show-stopping 'water drop' style. The hand-beaten steel skin hid independent front suspension and a pre-selector gearbox, surpassing the Bugatti's odd split live-axle and conventional manual shift. Several T57SC owners converted their cars to the Wilson pre-selector, which must have irritated Le Patron.

Four 57SCs were built as the famed Atlantic, but they were uncompromising road cars - too hot and noisy for long trips. Bugatti understood its customers, who preferred more traditional styling. Although Gangloff, Corsica, Van Vooren and Vanden Plas built bespoke bodies, the Atalante made in-house by Alsace craftsmen was the must popular at 17 cars.

The voluptuous Talbot was very much the out-of-house creation of Joseph Figoni and Ovidio Falaschi - with some direction from artist Geo Ham. Talbot happily courted the Paris coachbuilder, which continually stole the limelight at shows.

Its wealthy customers included Aussie bobsled hero Freddie McEvoy and the Maharaja of Khapurthala, who gave one to his wife, English dancer Stella Mudge.

Walking around both cars, you sense that the Atalante evolved from a profile plan, while the Teardrop was conceived in 3D sketches just like today's designs. The Bugatti is undeniably elegant - the way the front wheels fill the arches, the curve of the roof and the long, non-original tail - yet it looks unresolved and hasty in detail. The square edges of the bonnet, the chicken-mesh style grilles and the crude door bottoms appear compromised, while the windscreen seems to fan out with a narrower base than top.

The Figoni and Falaschi Talbot, on the other hand, is a complete flowing form, with wonderful details integrated into the stunning shape. The rake of the rounded door, the crisp body ridges and its wing centre lines, plus their sweep back, combine to create a seductive whole.

Both cars have suicide doors, but the Bugatti's external hinges look as if they were taken off one of Ettore's horse-drawn carriages. To achieve its lean look, the basic chairs sit alongside the transmission with the footwell down inside the chassis. The body frame hangs outside the chassis and you step over the side members to enter.

The seats feature two cushions over a stylish tubular chrome structure. Unlike the Talbot, the Bugatti's steeply raked windscreen is one-piece and offers a spectacular view ahead. The dash is timber with twin Jaeger dials positioned outside the minor gauges, while the advance/retard and hand throttle levers sprout to the right of the long column.

Grasping the slender wood rim of the elegant four-spoke wheel, you can feel the marque's history through this signature feature. But you have to wonder if this car is ever driven, because the pedals - the organ-style clutch and brake matched to a roller throttle located deep against the floor - make it almost impossible to drive comfortably, let alone double-declutch.

Push the clockwork-style key into the slot and the starter instantly whirrs into action. The engine fires swiftly to produce a rich mechanical rhythm, combining cam gears, blower whistle, rev-counter tick and exhaust bark through its five 'peashooter' pipes.

The gear lever is a long, crooked affair that needs a stretch to select first in the broad gate but, unlike the Talbot, the clutch is light and the engine responsive. The steering also feels alive on Dunlop Racing tyres, and soon inspires faster speeds.

Developed from the earlier T57, the S was lower (the S coming from Surbaissé, meaning 'lowered' in French) and shorter, with the rear axle passing through the chassis. This transformed the handling and the Atalante's progressive balance would leave the Talbot behind through bends.

The cable brakes work well enough, with plenty of feel, and not once do the Bugatti's anchors lock up after errant pheasants cross its path. On straights, the engine's roar sounds even sweeter as it builds to 130km/h with little effort - the Talbot seeming to work harder to keep up. You can imagine a lightened Atalante setting the pace at la Sarthe. Such a shame that the superb shift is spoilt by the poor pedal layout, yet it's more rewarding than the Talbot's pre-selector. The ride, on complex De Ram friction dampers, is impressive, too. And, like all T57 coupés, the cabin soon gets warm.

With its recessed, pop-up handle and concealed internal hinges, the Talbot's door contrasts markedly with the Bugatti. The full-width bench looks more American than French and even with the huge pre-selector gear casing in the centre and handbrake to the right, there's almost room for three.

The pedal layout is far more comfortable than the Bugatti's while the dash has a similar symmetrical layout, with dominant Jaeger instruments either side of the dash fold that follows the 'screen division.

The blend of body-matching centre panel, red leather and exquisite wood joinery framing the windows lives up to the stunning exterior. The Talbot also has a big four-spoke wheel, but its heavily ribbed, black plastic rim feels less exotic.

The gear-selector quadrant is clearly visible on the right, with first at the top of the sequential range. For balance, the horn and light-dipping levers are mounted on the left. And the view down the bonnet ridge is marvellous, with sexy wing peaks sweeping up each side.

On paper, the Talbot's six looks upstaged by the Bugatti's straight-eight, but the triple-carb Hemi six delivered impressive performance in racing tune. Talbot scored its best pre-war Le Mans result in 1938 when a Figoni and Falashi-bodied coupé finished third behind a pair of Delahaye 135CSs (a Talbot-Lago T26 won in 1950).

The Talbot is reluctant to start, a situation not helped by my apprehension about its reputation for catching alight.

The six has a throaty score yet it's no match for the Bugatti eight's feisty rasp. Once the engine is warm, you slot the quadrant lever into first and then comes the shock of the hefty prod needed to the operate clutch and pre-selector. Once away, the pedal is shorter and lighter as you line up gears and push down to engage them. It takes a few laps to adjust to the pre-planned technique, but you can concentrate on steering once you're confident.

The bigger engine's gutsy torque delivers impressive acceleration out of corners, but the lighter Bugatti feels more muscular down the straight. The Talbot's rod brakes don't inspire confidence - the pedal lacks bite - but there's more feel once the linings are warm. The steering is typically pre-war heavy at slow speeds but lightens with a silky, fast action when it matters. Both cars are utterly involving when driven fast - taking full concentration to extract their best - but ultimately the Bugatti has a sportier, more exclusive charm.

Like many Atalantes, chassis 57551 has had an intriguing chain of famous owners. Completed in 1937, it was one of the first four coupés built with streamlined headlamps. It was tested in July before being delivered to Jean Lévy, a wealthy mill owner in Strasbourg. Living so close, Lévy dealt directly with the works and part-exchanged his T57 Stelvio saloon.

Painted black and trimmed with pigskin, the glamorous machine must have created quite a stir around the Alsace region adjacent to the German border. Fearing that it would be confiscated during the occupation, Lévy hid the Bugatti on a family-owned farm in the Dordogne. He transferred ownership to a trusted friend in 1941, and then sold the car in '46.

The next owner instructed a local coachbuilder to extend the Atalante's bonnet, relocate the radiator, re-profile its wings with accentuated curves and remove the central ridge. The rounded tail was also restyled to feature a longer, flatter rump with flared-out wings. The car was further customised with spats, chrome wing embellishers not unlike the Talbot and modern bumpers.

Bugatti historian Pierre-Yves Laugier believes that the work may have been carried out by Figoni before a concours in Paris on June 15, 1949. By December, French artist André Derain had bought the Bugatti. The Fauvist movement co-founder trained as an engineer and had a weakness for fast cars. He kept the Atalante until '52 when it was sold to Monique Weyemer of Nice, who had the rear window enlarged. The car then went to the US, bought by Robert Baer, a jazz musician who traded Bugattis to supplement his earnings, and it eventually ended up with Reno-based casino millionaire Bill Harrah.

'Bunny' Philips was commissioned to restore '57551' and upgraded it to SC specification by fitting a factory blower. The car was finished in '76 and, repainted in bold Patrol Cream over Lemon Oxide, it dazzled judges to win Harrah's fourth prestigious Best of Show at Pebble Beach.

The Teardrop is one of 11 second-series cars often referred to as the 'Model New York' where it was a sensation of the '37 show, and has the short 'SS' chassis. Just three were fitted with sliding sunroofs, which transform the driving experience - particularly if you're cruising along the Côte d'Azur, where several lived when new.

Being handmade, the Talbots all had slightly different styling. This is one of the most beautiful: '90112' still has its original chassis, engine and coachwork. Ordered by M Troussaint, a casino director in Belgium, it was delivered in May '38. As if it wasn't flamboyant enough, the Talbot was fitted with white tyres plus chrome wheel covers and shown with a glamorous lady at the Brussels and Deauville concours in 1939.

After WWII, it resurfaced in the '50s when acquired by Belgian royal Leopold III. It was later stripped for restoration but remained dismantled for five decades. In the end, it was bought by Bill Johnston and Ron Ellenbaas for their Michigan-based Only For Fun collection. They prized its highly original condition, but the next owner had other ideas and had RM Auto Restoration return it to show fettle, but in two-tone silver instead of black. Once finished, the Teardrop scooped top awards at the Pebble Beach, Amelia Island and Meadow Brook concours.

Given a lottery windfall, which would we take home? The Talbot has a beguiling form, but it's too extrovert - like wearing catwalk fashions to the supermarket. With both cars valued at $4m-plus, my advice to any lucky collector would be to buy the Bugatti to drive (but repaint it black!) while the Talbot is a guaranteed asset as an investment. Every modern art gallery should have one.

 

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