Speed is relative. Today many small European sedans are capable of 200 kph (124 mph), which was just about the limit for a Bugatti Type 35B, and quite a few supercars exceed 300 kph (186 mph). The Bugatti Veyron achieves 400-plus kph (249 mph). The Type 35 that appeared in 1924 and stayed in production until 1935 (as the twin-cam Type 51) could, in 2.3-liter supercharged Type 35B form, accelerate from 0 to 60 mph in less than six seconds and from 0 to 100 mph in sixteen seconds. That’s fast. It handled better than anything else on the road, allowing high average speeds despite a power deficit compared with many contemporaries.
Its acceleration was timed back in 1983, and one can surmise that the tires used for Autocar‘s road test had better grip than the originals, but any way you choose to look at it, the 35B was a super performer. Both top professionals and rank amateurs – Ettore Bugatti sold clients machines identical to his own team cars – won more than 2000 races with various Type 35 chassis. It was, and is, extraordinary. Genuinely beautiful, so tractable that, fitted with lamps and fenders, it could be a daily driver (I have fond memories of Larry Falvey bringing his 1924 team car to a Detroit SCCA meeting in 1956), its legendary capabilities were more than backed by reality.
Ettore Bugatti was on the right track in 1923 with his streamlined, full-width-bodywork Type 32, but his artist’s eye was no guide to the vagaries of aerodynamics, so the car’s airfoil profile lifted its wheels off the ground. Bugatti abandoned the concept but kept its square-cut engine for his 1924 Grand Prix de Vitesse model, the 2.0-liter straight-eight-powered Type 35. The bodywork, with its chisel-shaped tail, was copied from the 1922 Fiat 804 grand prix cars but had the first application of the horseshoe radiator outline characterizing all subsequent Bugattis. The car seen here is a supercharged 1991-cc 1927 Type 35C, but there were 1092-, 1493-, and 2262-cc eights and, as Type 37, 1496-cc four-cylinder variants.
The 35 had wonderful cast-aluminum wheels, influential to this day, and in an epoch of wildly oversteering cars, it was magnificently neutral, thanks to Ettore’s intuition that extreme camber promoted understeer, decades before Maurice Olley explained chassis dynamics in his brilliant technical reports. The 35 was easy on drivers. Ren Dreyfus won the 1930 Monaco Grand Prix by running nonstop for almost four hours, and in period newsreels, he looks fresh at the finish. Delicate in appearance but incredibly tough, Type 35s won the brutal Targa Florio five times in the 1920s, running against carmakers including Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Mercedes-Benz, and Peugeot.
Happily, Type 35 clones are available today, so it isn’t impossible to own one of these fantastic machines as a brand-new car. Pur sang forever.
1 The chisel-point tail was cribbed from much earlier grand prix Fiats after Bugatti’s experiment with full-width bodywork failed at Tours in 1923.
2 Bugatti patented these cast-aluminum wheels with incorporated brake drums. In a long race, smaller-diameter drums could be installed to compensate for lining wear. Later cars had these bigger tires.
3 The outside shifter and handbrake lever were old-fashioned in 1924, but they add visual interest to the austere lines and allow narrow bodywork.
4 The positive camber seems exaggerated, but along with light weight, it contributed mightily to the superb balance of the Bugatti racing cars.
5 These lamps are contemporary with the chassis, and they were capable of lighting the road for high-speed night driving, which must have been exciting.
6 Plain Type 35s had a slightly smaller radiator, set farther back, but the supercharged cars were all like this one, with exactly enough cooling capacity, and no more.
7 The tubular axle, forged with passages for the semielliptic springs, was hammered shut at the outer ends and carefully polished, a Bugatti characteristic. Functional jewelry.
8 Hard to see here, the oil pan has external cooling fins running the length of the bottom, plus a series of longitudinal tubes through the sump for more cooling.
9 The louvers along the bottom of the body are splendidly decorative, as are those on the tail.
10 The tombstone-shaped engine is a work of art in its own right, rectilinear and engine-turned as though it were more jewelry. Which, in fact, it is.
11 Most cars with knockoff wheels had bigger two-eared hubs. Bugatti chose four-pointed lugs, a lighter and more visually elegant solution. And safer for stray animals.
12 The hood slopes down from the cowl toward the radiator, giving the car a nicer profile than keeping its top parallel to the ground. Art, not science.
13 Body panels are attached with bolts, each of them safety-wired against loosening under vibration. It is a sound technique but also visually elegant.
14 A spare wheel was standard, but one often sees vintage Bugattis today without them. In the 1920s, they were vital.