Riding Shotgun In Jay Leno's 1928 Bugatti Type 37A

Dazzled by the eclecticism of Leno's fleet, we were then set to be dazzled by the brilliant California summer sunshine. Leno clambered into the diminutive Type 37A and set about waking it, not a trivial matter. At least the car has an electric starter. The article that led to this ride also put me in touch with the great engineer Bill Milliken, who for many years drove a wire-wheeled Type 35A "Course Imitation" as his only car, winter and summer alike. I was astonished to learn that in all the years he owned it, he had to start it using the crank sticking out front through the radiator shell (the then-newfangled electric start was presumably an option).

Climbing into the riding mechanic's narrow seat involves stepping on the cushion, a familiar necessity when entering small airplanes, too. Settled in, one appreciates that in the '20s, as now, racing drivers tended to be small people. Leno and I stuck out into the airstream in a way the intended users never did. The greater aerodynamic drag didn't seem to hurt the performance that much. The supercharged 37A was good for 122 mph in its day, and I doubt Leno's car is any less capable now, running on much better fuel and razor-tuned as it seemed to be. In fact, he says, "I've seen 115 to 117 mph in this car."

Oh, there was a bit of coughing and loud, sharp backfiring as it warmed up, and Leno's unscripted wit showed up as he said, "Whoa! In this neighborhood they might start returning fire." But they didn't, and as the car warmed, the engine smoothed out. Unmuffled, it makes a serious sound, as crisp and penetrating as Purdy claimed in his text long ago. I held onto the side of the cockpit to keep my left elbow from dropping a bit and contacting the rear tire and reveled in the view forward. Seeing that delicate axle moving, the pulleys for the cable-operated brakes that were carried over from the 1920 "Brescia" model, and above all appreciating how subtly the body side is curved in plan view, something not really noticeable in profile, was transcendent.

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