Oct 11 2011

Speedtv.com: Bugatti’s Last Grand Prix Racer

Speedtv.com has posted an article on a Bugatti Type 59/50B racer which had a strong second finish at the 1936 Vanderbilt Cup Race and, in a restored version, made a rare appearance at this year's  Goodwood Revival in Great Britain.

Bugatti's Last Grand Prix Racer

By Wouter Melissen  | http://www.ultimatecarpage.com  |  Posted September 30, 2011   Goodwood, GB 

Outclassed in the late 1930s by well-funded German efforts, Type 59/50B today is a vital piece of racing history and a great sight at Goodwood.

 The fully restored Bugatti Type 59/50B made a rare public appearance at the recent Goodwood Revival. (Photo: Wouter Melissen)

As is well known, Ettore Bugatti was not one to innovate, favoring the gradual evolution of existing designs. Bugatti pushed that credo furthest of all with the final Grand Prix car built by the French company before the War.

The Type 59/50B III fielded in the 1938 French Grand Prix actually started life as one of the six Type 59s built in 1933. In the intervening years, it received various engine configurations and in 1936, it became the first-ever true single seater produced by the fabled manufacturer.

 The Bugatti at Goodwood is understood to be the original Type 59/50B that started life in 1933 as a Type 59. (Photo: Wouter Melissen) In its ultimate guise, it still incorporated many of Bugatti's traditional design elements, such as solid axles and cable-operated brakes, but it also sported a new lightweight engine that combined an aluminum block with steel liners and a bronze head. The car was nevertheless incapable of challenging the more sophisticated and vitally much better-funded German efforts, and after two outings in 1938, it finally faded from view.

The Bugatti did not appear until recent years and following a complete restoration to full running order, the unique Grand Prix car even returned to the track during the Goodwood Revival earlier this month. This allowed us to take a closer look at Bugatti’s last classic Grand Prix racer.

By the mid-1930s, Bugatti's dominance of Grand Prix racing seemed but a distant memory. First the Italian and then the German manufacturers took over with superior designs and budgets. Demand for customer competition cars also dwindled, so Bugatti had little incentive to produce new machinery. Instead the fabled manufacturer soldiered on with evolutions of existing designs during the final years of the decade.

The Type 59/50B still incorporated such outmoded mechanical features as solid axles and cable-operated brakes. (Photo: Wouter Melissen) In response to the 750 kilogram regulations, Bugatti had introduced the new Type 59 in 1933. Even in this case, “new” was perhaps not the best word as it featured a classic Bugatti Grand Prix chassis with a slightly smaller, supercharged version of the Type 57 road-car engine. The car handled well but the arrival of the German teams in 1934 left Bugatti's latest Grand Prix machine struggling. Larger engines were tried but the cars were so far off the pace that Bugatti decided to sell four examples to privateers, who mostly fielded them in sports-car races with some success.

One of the Type 59s retained by Bugatti reappeared with a brand-new supercharged straight-eight engine. Although officially referred to as a Type 50B, it was considerably different than the Type 50-based engines used in the road car by the same name and the Type 54 Grand Prix racer. The most fundamental difference was the use of lightweight alloys for the block. This was essential for keeping the weight of the complete car down to the 750-kg maximum as dictated by the regulations. Displacing just over 4.7 liters, the supercharged eight was hoped to produce in excess of 500 horsepower, but reliability was already an issue at boost levels that were good for 400 horsepower.

The Bugatti is powered by a lightweight aluminum straight-8 with steel liners and a bronze head. (Photo: Wouter Melissen) The new engine was installed in what is believed to be the sixth and final Type 59 chassis. With clear roots in the hugely successful Type 35 of the 1920s, this design was really showing its age by 1936. Ettore Bugatti conviction that solid axles and cable-operated drum brakes were still the way to go prevented any development on the chassis.

One benefit was that the Bugatti engineers had vast experience with this configuration, so the cars handled very well, but for ultimate speed, the independently sprung rivals would always have the edge.

What really set the new 'Type 59/50B' apart from its predecessors was the true single-seat driving position; all previous Bugatti Grand Prix cars could accommodate a passenger, making them eligible for sports-car racing. Furthermore, the car was clothed in an aerodynamic body with a fully cowled radiator. This was another break with tradition as the previous generations all shared the same basic design dominated by the horse-shoe shaped radiator.

The wheels, which doubled as the brake drums, were vintage Bugatti and essentially identical to those used on the Type 59.
Bugatti debuted the Type 59/50B at the 1936 Monaco Grand Prix for Jean-Pierre Wimille. Unfortunately, technical problems prevented the car from starting the race. Wimelle was back out with the new Grand Prix machine at the Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten. A gearbox failure cut this effort short.

 The Type 59/50B was the first Bugatti Grand Prix car with a single seat. The car was then shipped to the United States where it finished a commendable second in the Vanderbilt Cup. In 1937, it was rebuilt to Type 59/50B II specification with a naturally aspirated, 4.5-liter version of the engine. This was done to compete in the one-million-Franc race organized by the French government at Montlhery. Wimille was beaten by Dreyfus in a V12-powered Delahaye.

This was still not the end of the line for the now five-year-old machine. New regulations were announced for 1938, with displacement restrictions of 3 liters for the forced-induction engines and 4.5 liters for naturally aspirated units. Despite having a 4.5-liter version of the engine that complied with the regulations, Bugatti nevertheless opted to develop a downsized, supercharged variant of the alloy straight eight.

Known as the Type 50B III, it sported an identical bore and stroke of 78 mm to give a displacement of 2,985 cc. The chassis was modified to accommodate for the engine's massive 300 mm supercharger. Wimille raced the car twice in this guise but was dogged by engine failures on both occasions.

Despite the poor results of the original Type 59/50B, Bugatti built at least one more for 1939 to replace the aging machine. Fitted with the supercharged, 4.7-liter variant of the engine, it may have been built on the other Type 59 retained by Bugatti, but that is not clear. The second Type 59/50B, fitted with hydraulic brakes, debuted at the La Turbie Hillclimb where Wimille finished first in class and second outright.

The historic Bugatti's performance on the track was one of the highlights at Goodwood.  He went one better at the Coupe de Paris at Montlhery, scoring the type's first victory. The Bugatti works driver would go on to finish second at the Prescott Hill Climb and take a victory at the 1945 Coupe des Prisonniers in Paris immediately after the War.

Production at Bugatti did not resume after the War, making the second Type 59/50B the very last Grand Prix car built by the fabled French manufacturer. Unfortunately, it could not live up to the standard set by the all-conquering Type 35 and equally impressive Type 51. Had the War not intervened, a new generation of Bugattis might have been introduced as independently sprung road cars, which were in the process of being completed. The lessons of this model would have surely also had an effect on the company's racing activities, limited as they were.

The car that appeared at the 2011 Goodwood Revival is confusingly stamped with a Type 44 chassis number of 441352, as it is understood to be the original Type 59/50B that started life back in 1933 as one of the six Type 59s. It debuted at the 1936 Monaco Grand Prix in its 4.7-liter Type 59/50B guise, and it subsequently raced with a naturally aspirated 4.5-liter engine in 1937.

Complying with the regulations, it was converted to the 3-litre Type 59/50B III specification it still boasts today. It recently passed into British hands after a lengthy spell of ownership in the United States,.

Following a restoration to full working order by Tom Dark Engineering, it is seen here at a very rare outing during the Goodwood Revival.

A gallery of Bugatti Type 59/50 B III photos from the 2011 Goodwood Revival.

The #18 Bugatti can be seen at the 1:54 mark of this newsreel of the 1936 Vanderbilt Cup Race held at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island.






Links to related posts on VanderbiltCupRaces.com and the Internet:

Archives: 1936 Vanderbilt Cup Race, Roosevelt Raceway, Westbury, New York


Index: Archives on VanderbiltCupRaces.com



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