A Bugatti Journey

August 16-18, 2010: Santa Cruz, California

Of the cars that made the Bugatti brand famous -- the spindly little race cars designed by Ettore and, later, his son Jean -- the Type 51 is the ultimate expression. Although it owes its lineage to many different cars, its most direct ancestor is the Type 13, which earned the nickname "Brescia" after finishing the 1921 Voiturette Grand Prix near Brescia, Italy. The Brescia grabbed the world's attention not only for its diminutive size (and tiny 1.5-liter four-cylinder with sixteen valves!) but also its build quality. While other race cars were often tattered and disheveled before the race even started, the Brescias, like all Bugattis, were designed with a fanatical attention to detail and prepared to concours levels of finish, with gleaming blue paint, polished axles, and reflective aluminum wheels.

The Brescia's racing success was short-lived, however, and Bugatti had no choice but to make substantial changes to it. The result was the breathtaking

Type 35 of 1924, which had eight cylinders in a row under its elongated hood. It kicked an impossible amount of derriere, decimating the competition and crowding the podium at the grueling Targa Florio five years in a row.

Development of the Type 35 was the peak of the senior Bugatti's career, and his influence gradually gave way to that of his son Jean, who didn't suffer from his father's reluctance to change. The next evolution of the Type 35 was the 51-which saw a progression to twin overhead camshafts and forced induction.

The Type 13, 35, and 51 are racing cars, but the differences between Bugatti grand prix and road cars were slight. In fact, Bugatti made it clear in his literature that all of his cars used the same engines and were built from the same materials by the same workmen.

The 1933 Type 51 race car I drove, owned by Bugatti collector and museum founder Peter Mullin, is impossibly easy to drive and far better than you can ever imagine for a car of this age. The cabin is inhumanely cramped -- two full-figured adult men stuffed in the Type 51 had better like each other, because there's more body contact than in a wrestling match. Sitting on the right side of the car, the driver needs to keep both hands free for steering and shifting duties, which doesn't leave room for the passenger's arms. The passenger must fold his left arm in and wrap his right around the driver's back, leaving his right hand just inches from the tread of the spinning right rear tire.

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