Team Profile: Bugatti

To be profiled on Grand Prix Rejects, a constructor must have scored fewer than seven points in world championship F1 or F2 events since 1950 under any of the pre-2003 points systems. Most readers of the site are presumed to have knowledge of this criterion but it bears repeating here because the subject of this profile is in fact a world champion constructor, albeit from before the institution of the World Drivers’ Championship in 1950. Once upon a time, Bugatti was one of the great names in motor racing on the level of Ferrari, Mercedes or Porsche today. Now though, the time since Bugatti won at the top level is soon to pass out of living memory. It is 68 years since Bugatti last competed in top-level Grand Prix racing at all and even that was only ever destined to be a short-lived venture as the company was in dire financial straits. But it was that last all-too-brief effort in 1956 that produced perhaps the most fascinating Bugatti of all and it borders on tragedy that the sole post-war F1 car of such a historic manufacturer is forever destined to remain a footnote in the annals of Grand Prix racing.

Italian-born Ettore Bugatti founded his eponymous marque in the Alsatian town of Molsheim in 1909. Over the next thirty years some eight thousand cars would roll out of the famous plant near Strasbourg, surviving examples of which remaining the darlings of many collections around the world. Taking on the likes of Sunbeam, Delage, Alfa Romeo and Mercedes-Benz among others, Bugattis won many victories in such prestigious events as the Targa Florio and Le Mans 24 Hours as well as the 1926 edition of the Automobile World Championship, the direct ancestor to the European Grand Prix Championship of the 1930s and by extension the modern F1 World Championship. Among the many drivers to sit behind the wheel of a Bugatti in their quest for glory were such greats as Robert Benoist, Achille Varzi and Jean-Pierre Wimille, to say nothing of Pierre Veyron, Louis Chiron and Albert Divo, three names since immortalised by the modern incarnation of the marque in its 21st Century production cars.

Different eras we know, but the sheer number of victories  the Bugatti Type 35 has to its name makes the Red Bull RB19 and McLaren MP4/4 seem more like the Forti FG01!

But, like the Brabhams and Lotuses of more recent decades, Bugatti’s star faded. In Grand Prix racing it found itself unable to keep up with the Nazi government-backed Mercedes and Auto Union teams despite the best efforts of the various French auto clubs to financially support Molsheim’s racing operations. Bugatti would remain a force to be reckoned with in sportscars, but that success would also be brought to an end by the actions of the Third Reich, the final major victory for the marque coming at Le Mans just two months before the outbreak of the Second World War halted international racing. During the war years the Bugatti factory would be taken over by the occupying Germans to supply munitions to the Wehrmacht, which led to it becoming a victim of Allied bombing. Ettore himself was forced to move to Paris, where he continued to make his plans for the future of the marque in spite of the uncertain situation brought upon him by the conflict.

The first attempt to jump-start Bugatti’s post-war operations was the Type 73, a chassis that was to host a new, supercharged 1.5-litre powerplant in a number of road and race specifications. This latter Type 73C model was to herald Bugatti’s return to Grand Prix racing and was designed during Ettore’s Parisian exile. With a pay-off of 150 million francs (somewhere in the realm of €45 million at time of writing), he was able to buy the old Corre La Licorne factory in the suburbs of Paris, a move to France’s car manufacturing heartland that he had been hoping to make since before the war. By 1946 construction of five cars was underway, with a planned total of twenty. Four of these were sold to amateur racers – two each to motor journalist Serge Pozzoli and Bart Loyens, Bugatti’s agent in Luxembourg. However, no 73C would ever be delivered. One of the causes for delay was speculated to be the design of the supercharger being too large to leave room for a carburettor but there was another, more terminal reason that these cars would never see a race track in-period.

Like the contemporary Gordinis and Talbot-Lagos, the Type 73C was drop dead gorgeous.

The Licorne factory, while conveniently located, did not have the same capacity for motor car production that Molsheim offered but unfortunately the Molsheim plant had been seized by the French government at the conclusion of hostilities and, since Ettore never renounced his Italian citizenship, getting it back was not going to be easy. Thus began a protracted legal battle that would end with Ettore gaining French citizenship and control of his old factory, but the stresses of doing so took their toll on the 66-year-old. After a bout of pneumonia, Ettore Bugatti slipped into a coma and passed away on 21 August 1947.

The company was brought to a standstill. In the founder’s native Italy it was traditional for control of a business to remain in the family and indeed it was presumed that he would have been succeeded by his eldest son Jean before his own tragic death while testing the Le Mans-winning Type 57C in 1939. Ettore had left behind five children from two marriages and no clear back-up plan for his succession – cue another legal dispute of a different character. The company ultimately fell into the hands of another son, Roland Bugatti, a 25-year-old with no prior experience of running a business. But Roland would not be alone in trying to pick up where his father left off: alongside him were Pierre Marco, an engineer and former works driver who had remained loyal to the marque since 1919, and René Bolloré, a wealthy industrialist who would go on to marry the widowed Geneviève Bugatti in 1951. Under the new regime Bugatti was able to slowly rebuild, negotiating contracts with the French government for the supply of railcar parts at home and Simca-designed tank engines for the Indochina War overseas. So, with some new capital things could perhaps return to normal at Molsheim and indeed the first Bugatti car of the new age, the Type 101, would make its appearance at the Paris Salon in 1951, but more pertinent to us is the news that followed two years later…

The years 1952-53 were a transitional period for Grand Prix racing. The 4.5-litre Formula 1 introduced for 1947 was starting to fizzle out, with 2-litre Formula 2 taking its place as the de facto premier class in the European Grandes Épreuves. In response to the effective demise of F1, the Commission Sportive Internationale brought forward the introduction of a new formula of 2.5 litres to take effect from 1 January 1954. The rumour mill began to spin furiously with names new and old alleged to be considering an entry into Grand Prix racing, and it was in October 1953 that such whisperings were reported in the French press of the arrival of Gioachino Colombo to Molsheim. Colombo had, in his distinguished career as a designer of racing cars, produced: the Tipo 158 Alfa Romeo that would dominate Grand Prix racing in the immediate post-war period; the V12 engine that would set Ferrari on its own path to motor racing immortality during that same time; and he had most recently penned the iconic Maserati 250F that would in the years to follow cement Fangio’s status as perhaps the greatest who ever lived. If these rumours were correct (as history would prove), this could only mean one thing: Bugatti was about to return to motor racing and it was in it to win.

This would especially be a boon to the French motor racing fraternity, as the birthplace of the sport had had little to cheer for on the manufacturer’s front since the end of the war: Talbot-Lago was effectively priced out, Amédée “le sorcier” Gordini, although capable of producing some very clever designs, was also faced with an uphill financial battle against Ferrari and Maserati, and the less said about the CTA-Arsenal and the Sacha-Gordine the better.

The first mid-engine Grand Prix car since the monstrous pre-war Auto Unions

What would also no doubt prove enticing would be the news of the car’s design as it trickled through over the coming months. Colombo’s blueprints for the new Bugatti, designation Type 251 (2.5-litre, Formula 1), included several radical innovations: the chassis was to be a rear-engine design inspired by the pre-war Auto Unions, an approach that would not become de rigueur until Jack Brabham and Cooper’s immense run of successes through 1959 and 1960. The power unit itself was of straight-eight configuration, although constructed in such a way that it was effectively two four-cylinder units with synchronised firing, this done in the hopes of reducing the risk of torsional vibration. The engine was also mounted transversely, with a Porsche-type five-speed gearbox mounted in a similar fashion to ensure the overall balance of the car was not too far towards the rear, a trait Colombo surmised had hampered the Auto Unions’ potential. Fuel tanks were mounted on either side of the cockpit in a fashion not wholly dissimilar to the pannier-type solution employed by Colombo’s mentor Vittorio Jano on the contemporaneous Lancia D50. This, combined with the aforementioned transverse engine layout would give the car a rather bulky appearance, but it should also portend a well-balanced machine in the handling department.

Despite all of this and more, some aspects of the initial design proved too radical for the powers that be: plans for a fully independent suspension were vetoed by Roland Bugatti, so a more traditional de Dion-type layout was favoured. The first completed prototype also featured disc brakes, a recent innovation in automotive design that racing car manufacturers had been scrambling to adopt, but despite favourable performance in testing these were replaced with modified drum brakes from the Type 101. Nevertheless, the 251 seemed to have the potential to revolutionise Grand Prix car design: for what it is worth, years later when Bugatti expert John Barton showed some of Colombo’s drawings to then-McLaren aerodynamicist Henri Durand and his colleagues, they remarked that it was “at least twenty years ahead of its time.”

But when would we actually see this new Bugatti Grand Prix car? In February 1954, Marco told the press that the target was for the 251 to be unveiled the following September, which came and went without so much as a drawing. Then, the plan was for the car to begin testing in March 1955 in anticipation of a début at that year’s French Grand Prix in July – still nothing. What was going on at Molsheim?

In May 1954, the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu was overrun by Viet Minh forces. The defeat inflicted here was just the latest proof that the already unpopular Indochina War was an exercise in futility: by August it was over and with it went Bugatti’s largest source of income, as the tank engines that Molsheim was supplying accounted for about 78% of the company’s profits. With a turnover of some 1.6 billion francs in the 1953 financial year and the Grand Prix car already costing close to 600 million francs to build, money had suddenly become rather tight. Work continued throughout 1954 and 1955 at a more subdued level but the rumoured four-car line-up of Maurice Trintignant, Robert Manzon, Élie Bayol and Jacques Pollet was certainly not going to pan out.

The Type 251 was like the half brother from another mother of the legendary Lancia D50.

But finally, in October 1955, Marco was sighted at the local Entzheim airfield performing straight-line tests in what could only be the 251, and by November pictures of the striking new car were circulating in the local and foreign press. The first real test of the car’s capabilities would have to wait until the following spring, 19 March 1956 to be exact. It was a cold and windy Monday afternoon and the Armée de l’Air had laid out a 5.2-kilometre figure-eight circuit at Entzheim for the occasion. Behind the wheel was recent Monaco Grand Prix winner Maurice Trintignant, an experienced, mechanically sympathetic driver with a special connection to the Bugatti marque as it was behind the wheel of one that he had received his motor racing baptism all the way back in 1938 (not only that, it was the same Type 35C that his older brother Louis had been killed in five years earlier). Although he was under contract with the Vanwall team for 1956, Trintignant had attained the blessing of team boss Tony Vandervell to drive the new Bugatti whenever it was available. The test was not incident-free – an oil pipe broke and had to be replaced – but Trintignant completed nineteen laps and the car was in good enough condition to continue running the following day.

Trintignant had already at this stage been announced as the 251’s lone race driver but on day two some of his compatriots were invited for second, third and fourth opinions, namely Louis Rosier, Hermano da Silva Ramos and “Phi Phi” Étancelin, the distinguished veteran taking some time out of his retirement to see what was new in Grand Prix car design. More gremlins reared their ugly heads as the methanol racing fuel corroded the aircraft-type fuel cells which had been installed at the suggestion of Gordini works driver Mike Sparken (the author does not suspect industrial sabotage!), but after a few laps in running condition the feeling was unanimous: “the car was glued to the road in the bends.” Trintignant in particular is quoted as saying:

“Formidable […] this Bugatti is sensational, and to judge from the rapidity with which the corners came up at Entzheim, it is quick… I am astonished by its good handling, considering the engine is at the back, and by the good road holding…”

A happy Maurice Trintignant was even happier after his first efforts in the Type 251

By now, the financial situation Bugatti had found itself in since the government money ran out was such that a full racing programme was out of the question even at its present scaled-back level, and as a result of this Marco made the shock announcement that the 251 would race only once: at the French Grand Prix on 1 July.

The XLII Grand Prix de l’ACF was held on the fast and undulating Circuit de Reims, the same place Bugatti made its last appearance as a works Grand Prix team back in 1938. Practice began on Wednesday, 27 June and two cars were brought from Molsheim for Trintignant’s pleasure: the test prototype that he had driven at Entzheim and the first (and ultimately only) production race car with longer wheelbase and revised bodywork. Although he would put in a few laps with the race car, Trintignant found himself more comfortable in the prototype with which he was already familiar but that did not translate to an impressive lap time: fastest time in practice for the French Grand Prix and the traditional one hundred bottles of champagne went to Fangio in the Lancia-Ferrari at 2:23.3. Trintignant’s best effort was a 2:41.9. With a time over eighteen seconds off the pace, the only cars slower than him were André Pilette’s old Type 16 Gordini and André Simon’s self-prepared Maserati. Of course, there was a reason for the rather sluggish lap time, this being that the prototype 251 was fitted with the aluminium test engine, which was never actually intended for racing. Naturally, the decision was taken on Saturday evening to fit the magnesium-alloy version from the race car, which had a power output closer to the 290 brake horsepower of the top Grand Prix cars of the time, the test engine only producing 265 bhp.

Although, as Denis Jenkinson put it, “it would be foolish to expect too much from such a revolutionary approach to Grand Prix car design”, with a proper engine it could at least be hoped that the 251 could make up some ground from 18th on the grid. This it did. While the Ferraris sprinted off into the distance with the Maseratis and Vanwalls giving chase, Trintignant was able to leave the two final row occupants standing still and run as high as 13th, where he would engage in a thrilling battle with Robert Manzon’s brand-new eight-cylinder Gordini. But it was not to last: after 18 laps the Bugatti pulled into the pits with its driver complaining of a sticking throttle. It had transpired that in the haste to fit the race engine into the prototype chassis one of the mechanics had, in the words of design team member René Strub, “made a mistake with the throttle mechanism”. This, coupled with a tendency for the front-end to drift sideways when travelling in a straight line (a problem identified in testing, but not considered at the time to be of too great a concern) had made the car nearly undriveable.

Reims 1956, but we’re not sure if Maurice is actually racing in anger or limping the Type 251 into (permanent) retirement. Answers on a postcard please!

Despite continued modifications to the car’s steering and suspension over the rest of the year, Marco’s promise that the 1956 French Grand Prix would be the 251’s only race appearance was kept and so the competition history of Automobiles Ettore Bugatti came to an end. The company, never to overcome its financial troubles, limped on until 1963 when it was taken over by Hispano-Suiza for its aviation parts business. After changing hands several times, Bugatti returned as a car manufacturer first under the aegis of Romano Artioli, then under the Volkswagen Group in 1998, but despite the eternal rumours surrounding the latter’s participation in F1 with one of the many historic brands on its portfolio, never did the Bugatti name – arguably the most storied of them all – figure in the speculation. As for the 251s, after years of gathering dust in Molsheim they ended up in the hands of the Schlumpf brothers, whose extensive collection of Bugattis and cars of other makes now form the centrepiece of the Musée National de l’Automobile in nearby Mulhouse, although the F1 cars are a little worse for wear having undergone no restoration work since their acquisition in the 1960s.

Of course, there is the unaddressed question of how Bugatti came to be in such a financial rut in the first place. Much blame is typically laid at the feet of Roland Bugatti and perhaps it is fair: while his commitment to his father’s legacy was never in doubt, Roland’s lack of business training and a tendency to expend money on personal luxuries while leaving little to invest in the company do not paint a flattering portrait of the man on whom the fortunes of such a prestigious marque rested. Whatever money that did go into the family business often went towards dead-end projects that Bugatti, particularly post-Indochina, simply could not afford to pursue; Colombo’s Type 252 sportscar, a diesel engine and a submarine scooter being just some of the stillborn projects from this period. But the brave new world that the French nation would be faced with as a result of one of history’s darkest periods also bears scrutiny.

And here you all were, expecting an image of a Bugatti Veyron – we’re Grand Prix Rejects so enjoy an image of the Bugatti EB110 instead!

The changes that France would undergo as a consequence of the Second World War reach far beyond the scope of this profile but, to be as brief as possible, these changes would not be good from Bugatti’s perspective. At the end of the war there were 22 car manufacturers in France. As part of the Fourth Republic’s plan for economic recovery, seven – Berliet, Citroën, Ford, Panhard, Peugeot, Renault and Simca – would be given priority in steel supplies as the manufacturing industry slowly rebuilt itself. Furthermore, a punitive tax was to be placed on cars with an engine capacity greater than two litres. This latter measure, combined with the war-ravaged state of much of the export market leaving little demand for exotic cars, would be a death blow to the French luxury car industry and indeed names like Delage, Talbot-Lago and Delahaye would begin to vanish from the annual Paris motor shows over the next decade: it is telling that Bugatti in particular sold just seven cars over the entire post-war period. With this knowledge, it is a miracle to us motor racing enthusiasts that the Type 251 ever saw the light of day at all, but at the same time one is forced to wonder whether it should have done knowing that Bugatti as it had existed in Ettore’s day seemed doomed to vanish anyway.


Autosport Magazine Volumes 7-13

Bugatti – The Twilight Years 1943-1963, John A. R. Barton, Independent Publishing Network

The Golden Era of Grand Prix Racing (

Motor Sport Magazine