Type 35 Memories - Blackbourn 437

By: Rob Blackbourn

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bugatti vintage bugatti vintage

With Chirons costing multi-megabucks it's worth noting that even a humble motor mechanic could once aspire to Bugatti ownership

Last year was a bit special for the Volkswagen-revived Bugatti brand. You may recall the company celebrating the 110th anniversary of Ettore Bugatti’s founding of the marque in fine style by managing a 490km/h run with a mildly modified example of its Chiron Super Sport 300+ (yep, 300+ – as in a top-whack of over 300 miles per hour). A calmer event was its successful offering of a batch of 500 electric-powered, ¾-size replicas of its iconic 1920s racer, the Type 35. To be clear, the "Baby II" Bugatti you got for your $49,000 was a very upmarket ‘kiddy car’ for your offspring to use while meandering around the family estate.

I was probably a 10- or 11-year-old budding rev-head when Bugattis first came to my attention. It was because something wasn’t quite right about a car bearing such an obviously Italian name when the examples I saw at motor races with my dad were all painted blue, the standard colour for French racing cars then. Bugattis should have been Italian red – obviously…

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Boring but true, as an avid reader of all the car and motor-racing magazines I could get my hands on, I knew stuff like this and it mattered to me. It was my first high-school French teacher who sorted it out in those pre-Dr Google days. While Ettore was indeed Italian, born in Milan to a family of artists and furniture designers, he started building his cars in Alsace when it was a German province, before it became part of France after WWI. This change suited Ettore who apparently had long regarded himself as more French than Italian (or German for that matter). So he painted his racing cars bleu de France.

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A year or two on, my relationship with Bugatti shifted up a gear. A chance spotting of a Type 35 racing car in the workshop of a local garage during a bicycle ride brought me up close to one for the first time. The garage mechanic, Frank Presser, was a regular Victorian motorsport competitor. Some surviving Type 35s in the 1950s-60s, like Frank’s, had become re-powered ‘Specials’. I recall one with a Ford V8 60 under the bonnet, and even one with a Holden grey motor. Frank had opted for a big Dodge flathead six with enhancements including a trio of Solex carbs to feed it. The fundamentals of the Dodge six were good because like some flathead Harley-Davidson motorcycles they employed Brit engineer Harry Ricardo’s ‘turbulent chamber’ design to good effect. Ricardo’s work had pioneered then-novel concepts like the ‘squish’ effect.

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More than once Frank generously tolerated me turning up at the garage in the days leading up to race meetings to ‘help’ him with his preparation by passing him tools and wiping spots off the blue beauty. And drooling. He would even say ‘G’day’ to me in the pits at the circuits.

Decades later I was browsing at one of my favourite haunts, the Technical Book Shop in Melbourne’s Swanston Street (sadly, its doors closed permanently some years ago). A lavish, unaffordable coffee-table book about Bugatti caught my eye. The cover blurb made the rash claim that it detailed the full history of every Type 35 Bugatti. "I’ll bet they don’t know about Frank Presser’s Bugatti-Dodge," I muttered quietly. Toward the back of the book the authors proved me wrong. As I recall it, they described a glorious, perfectly restored Type 35, by then in the hands of, I think, a Swiss collector. The detail mentioned that it had spent most of its life in Australia and that it had been for some time raced by a Mr FV Presser who had replaced the original Bugatti powerplant with a six-cylinder Dodge engine.

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From Unique Cars issue 437, March 2009

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