Roaring across California’s San Fernando Valley at about 100 mph on a 100-degree day, bereft of any kind of windshield or deflector, was intensely exciting. The hot wind in my face might have been harsh, but it didn’t erase my smile nor in any way diminish the pleasure of being driven very fast in an eighty-two-year-old car whose unshrouded flywheel-to-gearbox driveshaft was chewing up my right shoe. We were heading east in Jay Leno’s supercharged 1928 Type 37A Bugatti, two gray-haired old car guys having a great time in a machine far older than either of us.
I have had an unreasoning passion for Bugattis since I was a teenager, when I was exposed to Ken Purdy’s encomium in the True magazine that Bob Finch smuggled into Analy Union High School in Sebastopol, California. The idea of a Bowler-hatted little Italian genius lording over a manor in France that encompassed a château, a car factory, a racing team, and a stable of thoroughbred horses was unforgettable. That Ettore Bugatti promenaded about his estate on horseback-or on an electric buggy or a bicycle, self-designed, of course-impressed me mightily. And the more I learned about the man and his cars over the years, the more I was entranced.
At the time, I was an “airplane guy” and didn’t particularly care about cars, which were all-at least as far as I then knew-heavy and clumsy, nothing like machines that could fly. And here was a man who had made cars smaller and lighter and faster than anyone else. Even though it would be decades before I discovered that Ettore Bugatti had built an airplane intended to be the fastest in the world, I could see that his whole design philosophy was something I could embrace wholeheartedly. It was, in fact, the basis of California hot-rodding: reduce weight, go faster. But Bugatti added an element unknown to hot-rodders, an elegance that appeals to the aesthete, a description of anyone who appreciates beauty in all things. In Bugatti’s hands, something as mundane as an engine block became an iconic sculpture representing the machine age, and even a kid could understand and appreciate his work.
Given that long-standing passion, and the access that working for Automobile Magazine provides, you’d think that at some point I’d get to drive a Bugatti — certainly I thought so. But it’s never happened. Oh, I got a ride in a Type 57, a twenty-first birthday present from John Bond, then editor of Road & Track. “This was the personal car of Ettore himself,” said Bond’s friend Vivian Corradini as he terrified me with tail slides around the quiet residential streets of San Marino, California. I didn’t believe his tale then, and I don’t believe it now, but his Bugatti was certainly a fast and highly impressive car in the 1950s.
I did believe Jay Leno when he told me that he definitely didn’t have a Bugatti Veyron but did have Bugatti factory driver Pierre Veyron’s Type 37A, along with half a dozen other Bugattis. A few years ago, I wrote a column on the Bugatti Type 35B racing car [By Design, September 2008]. Discussing that at Pebble Beach, Leno said, “I’ve got one.” He went on to say that his Type 35 was one of the incredible Argentine replicas, absolutely identical to the originals, made by the same methods on the same kind of machines that existed in the 1920s in Europe. Because Leno and I live 6000 miles apart, it took us a while to put together a date for the drive.
Leno’s Big Dog Garage is next to the historic Burbank airport, where a childhood flight in a Waco cabin biplane first infected me with the incurable aviation virus. Showing up on a bright, hot morning, we found the 35B replica’s engine in pieces, waiting for spares from South America. Leno said it really didn’t matter that much, as we could go out in Pierre Veyron’s own supercharged Type 37A, which is physically almost identical to the 35A “Course Imitation” (imitation race) sports model: same body, chassis, wire wheels, wheelbase, and so on, but with a five-main-bearing, 1496-cc four-cylinder engine instead of the straight eight of the racing model. The characteristic light aluminum wheels first seen on the 1924 Type 35 grand prix cars were optional.
Before going out on the road, we were given the proprietor’s tour of the fabulous collection of a hundred-plus cars, each with its own fascinating story, lovingly collected over many years. My two favorites were cars that are not quite real. That is, part of them was original, part was realized fantasy. One was the mid-’50s Buick that Leno bought when he first came to California seeking the big time in entertainment, a car in which he slept from time to time when he couldn’t afford more conventional lodging. The car is not a re-creation, it’s the actual “matching numbers” car Leno has owned for decades, and thus the first element in the collection. But it now has a full-on racing chassis, a zillion-horsepower V-8, huge disc brakes . . . all the things any of us might fantasize about doing if we had the means. And like all the other cars in the garage, it gets driven from time to time.
The other, not even mentioned on the tour, is a Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic coupe. Bear in mind that only three of these everted-flange riveted-aluminum masterpieces were built by the factory, and all are more than thoroughly accounted for, researched to the nth degree, and restored beyond originality by the best shops in the business. Yet here sits another, neither known nor recognized by the world and never presented in public. It is the opposite of the Buick, which retains its original carapace but none of its inner workings. This Atlantic replica has a new, created-from-whole-cloth body set upon an original Type 57 Bugatti chassis, which is finally all that the three original Atlantics were in their time.
To me, the two carefully modified cars prove beyond all possible doubt the authenticity of Leno’s love of cars. The purity of that love is ultimately proven — again, to me — by the fact that there is not a single Ferrari in Leno’s vast collection of exceptional cars. That’s not a put-down of Ferrari cars, which I admire unstintingly, but of the poseurs who buy them only to signify and own them for reasons having nothing to do with their intrinsic mechanical value.
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.
Leno shifted only a few times; the torque is such that acceleration is available with just a touch of throttle. He says that the shift pattern and pedal layout varies from model to model in Bugattis, and he was adjusting to this particular car as we progressed. We were going a lot harder than I had remotely expected, for good reason: running too slowly on a hot day caused the coolant temperature to rise dangerously, so we would spurt ahead of the photographer’s vehicle, then drop back to be shot, then rush ahead again.
There were a couple things that surprised me. First, despite the very hard springing and damping, the ride was a lot better than written reports gave reason to expect. True, we were on smooth roads, nothing like the unpaved circuits of the 1920s, but the car didn’t jump around when one wheel hit a manhole cover. Second, I found it hard to imagine that slender racing driver René Dreyfus, whom I knew quite well, could drive almost 200 miles nonstop, as he did at Monaco in 1930 — much less that Madame Elizabetta Junek could nearly win the Targa Florio on unpaved Sicilian tracks — in a car like this, albeit far more powerful. But they did, and the fact that this car remains very much intact and capable shows that not only were the drivers extraordinary, so were their Bugattis. No wonder we revere them long after their heydays.
The mechanical splendor of the glorious Type 35/37/51 Bugattis is coupled with an iconic body shape that looks good in any color, not just the French racing blue most often seen. I failed to ask why Veyron’s car is painted in traditional American racing colors-white body, blue chassis — assigned long before Briggs Cunningham’s team invented racing stripes sixty years ago, but I think most people will agree that it’s wonderfully attractive. So, a great ride, fabulous memories, and a long-held fantasy fulfilled — partially — thanks to the generosity of Jay Leno.
But I still want to drive a Bugatti. Wouldn’t you?