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Lot 588: Bugatti Type 57C Special Coupé

Grand Palais Sale, Bonhams (7 February 2013)

There are many special Bugattis. There are even more famed and important owners of Bugattis. But no Bugatti, not even the Type 41 Royales that resided in Molsheim for years, is more closely identified with Le Patron, Ettore Bugatti, than this Type 57C Special Coupé. Even more significant and poignant is its parallel identification with Ettore's older son, Jean, who designed its unique coachwork, believed to be the last design to come from his talented creativity. The Type 57 Bugatti, introduced in 1934, marked Jean Bugatti's emergence as Bugatti's leader and creative force. It was the first new model built under his direction and it incorporated many features new to Bugatti. Its dual overhead camshaft eight cylinder engine had dimensions of 72x100mm, 3,257cc displacement. The crankshaft ran in five main bearings. The camshafts were driven by a train of helical-tooth gears at the engine's rear with a further crankshaft bearing behind them. Finger cam followers minimized side thrust on the valve stems. The Type 57 also was Bugatti's first use of a transmission fixed to the engine crankcase and a single plate clutch. The top three gears in the four-speed gearbox were constant mesh. Jean created a novel independent front suspension system using transverse leaf springs for the first two examples of the Type 57 before Le Patron spied it and insisted it be replaced by a proper Bugatti hollow tubular live axle. Thenceforth suspension was traditional Bugatti semi-elliptical front and reversed quarter-elliptical rear leaf springs with cable-operated mechanical drum brakes. Much of the Type 57's commercial success may be attributed to Jean Bugatti's sensitive, flowing coachwork which graced the most famous of the chassis' examples. Atalante, Ventoux, Stelvio and the Galibier sedan vied with the best of France's and Europe's formidable coachbuilders' creations and comprised the bulk of Type 57 production. Bugatti's clients could have the best, but overwhelmingly they chose Jean Bugatti's designs on the Type 57. Despite financial travail development of the Type 57 continued with introduction of a stiffened frame and rubber-mounted engine along with the supercharged 160hp Type 57C in 1936. In 1938 the nearly unthinkable happened in Molsheim when Bugatti finally adopted Lockheed hydraulically-actuated brakes and replaced the beautiful and lightweight but expensive aluminum-spoked wheels and brake drums with Rudge-Whitworth centerlock wire wheels and separate brake drums. It was in this context that this car, Type 57C Special Coupé 57335, was created. Some accounts have it that it was presented to Ettore Bugatti by the Molsheim work force as a birthday gift, workers who had so disappointed Ettore when they occupied the factory in 1936. Whatever the precise motif this car was built in June 1938 for 'in house' factory duties. It appears in the body shop files just completed on June 23, 1938, under the designation « 57/486 23.6 57335 green 2 tone green leather ». This means that just out of the factory the coupe with engine "486" was given the "carte grise" belonging to chassis "57335". It will not be the only car driven with the documents of "57335" with the registration number "3738 NV3", but it will keep this identity during its entire life at the factory from 1938 to 1959. Some time after it left the factory this coupe was loaned to the Bugatti agent in Bordeaux, Mr. Pierron. The car was exhibited at the 1938 Bordeaux Fair. Several pictures show the car fitted with polished tyres, chrome plated wheels and the glass roof special to this body. The factory managing director Adrien Paul, the commercial traveller/ representatives like Peigues, Wimille and possibly Ettore Bugatti himself drove this car in 1938 and 1939. Mention of the car is made in the register of the "second hand demonstration cars stock" written on August 15, 1939. It is the only one among ten cars to be designated "Usine" or 'Works' and described as follows « Coach Spécial vert moteur 486 Usine ». It was often loaned to the factory racing drivers and demonstrators and the most famous, Jean-Pierre Wimille, was pictured at its wheel in 1939. After the war the special coupe was the personal car of the factory executive director, Pierre Marco, who drove it as late as the mid-50s still with the old registration plate "3738 NV3". In 1959 the famous Bugatti collector and dealer in Belgium Jean De Dobbeleer bought the car directly from the factory. It is described in a letter dated Jan. 30, 1959 as follows: "Sale of our car 57 with supercharger which is in the condition you know and after a test drive, price FRF 1,000,000, serial number "57335" engine "340" Galibier coupe finished in green over black and we confirm that this car belonged to Monsieur Ettore Bugatti and was driven latterly by our general manager Mr. Pierre Marco". This letter also informs us that the supercharger had been fitted earlier when the 57 was still a factory car. In the register edited by H.G.C. Conway in 1962 the car is described as follows: "57 C chassis 57335 engine 340 ex. 57557 two door four seat Coach Galibier, original finish two tones of green and green leather". He added that "the vehicle received many changes when it was the property of the factory. It is fitted with a Type 101 engine with S/C associated with a Cotal gearbox. The carburettor is a downdraught Weber. Brakes are hydraulically operated and special to this car. Suspensions were modified with special dampers..." What happened to the original engine "486" remains unknown but the engine "340" which would be in the car comes from the chassis "57449" which was stored at the factory in the summer of 1939. It is quite possible that this engine was traded-in and subsequently fitted in the "Coach Spécial". It is also possible that the supercharger had been fitted at the same time. (The gearbox "486" is now in Fred Simeone's 57 G "tank", the 1937 Le Mans winning car.) The change could have been made when the "tank" was kept by the factory after its racing time, but more possibly when the two cars were in De Dobbeleer's garage in Brussels. Thus the "Coach Spécial" offered here is the only Type 57 Bugatti kept during twenty years by the factory. Benefiting from all kinds of possible improvements it can be seen as a rolling laboratory still in use in the early 50s when the Type 101 was introduced. Its most distinctive element is the Special Coupé coachwork designed by Jean Bugatti. Incorporating many of the design elements that would soon find expression in the last series of Galibier saloons, particularly its sloping rear deck, teardrop fenders and plain sides without running boards. As originally built it had a unique two-piece glass roof, a design element Jean had last used on the magnificent Type 41 Royale. Its spare wheel and tire are set into the rear deck with a round metal cover. The grille is the conventional Bugatti design, not the veed design Jean was increasingly working into Type 57 production, and the headlights sit low in the front fender aprons giving the traditional grille special prominence. The interior is trimmed in light olive leather complementing the light green over black exterior livery. Rich wood surrounds the windows and windshield. The rear bumper bears an unusual cloisonné Bugatti emblem. In an indication of Bugatti's financial distress this car, frame number 278, was assigned the chassis number of a previously destroyed Type 57 Torpedo registered in Ettore Bugatti's name, thus avoiding tax as a new car. During the next two years, until the factory was taken over in 1940 by the Nazis, it was used by Ettore Bugatti, by factory driver Jean-Pierre Wimille and others. Prior to the factory's occupation it was spirited away to a hiding place by Robert Benoist. His adventure nearly resulted in his capture, foreshadowing his later adventures as a secret agent of the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) in occupied France and ultimate capture and execution at Buchenwald in 1944. Returned to Bugatti after the war it became the favorite car of Pierre Marco, Director General of Bugatti, and was frequently used to test new ideas and components and for development. This use brought it a number of unique and unusual features, notably the three-spoke Type 101 steering wheel and Lockheed hydraulic brakes – the latter a feature surely not incorporated in a car intended for Ettore Bugatti's use. As a late Type 57C in addition to its supercharged engine – fitted by the factory before it was sold to its first private owner – it has Rudge-Whitworth wire wheels and the rubber-mounted engine. It also was fitted during its period with the factory with a radio, heater and later grease fittings. The engine itself is unusual, again pointing out the Bugatti factory's use of this car for experimental and development purposes. It breathes through a downdraft Weber carburetor with a top inlet manifold and has a supercharger similar to that used on the Type 101. Upon M. Marco's retirement and as already mentioned, Belgian Bugatti exponent Jean de Dobbeleer was able to acquire it on January 31. De Dobbeleer mimicked the factory's earlier ruse, stamping the engine compartment with 57557, a car he had previously owned, thus once again avoiding tax.Later in 1959 it was sold to American Bugatti enthusiast Lyman Greenlee of Anderson, Indiana. Greenlee treasured this important and highly original Bugatti Type 57, carefully storing, maintaining and rarely using it for the next fourteen years but in 1973 he agreed to sell it to William Howell in Oklahoma City. Greenlee felt Howell, whose mechanic was Stirling Moss's former mechanic Alf Francis, appreciated 57335's unique history, originality and performance and would continue its preservation, reiterating the car's importance in a letter that, part of an extensive documentation file, accompanies the car. The next owner, Gary Kohs of Birmingham, Michigan, passed a similar background check to verify to Howell's satisfaction that he understood and appreciated 57335's significance and would, and could, continue its preservation when it changed hands in 1982. Greenlee qualified him in part by stating unequivocally, "Price alone will not buy the car.... You must qualify also as to your attitude toward it." That proved to be the case, as it was twenty-seven years until ownership changed again, only the fourth time since it left Molsheim in 1959, when it became part of John M. O'Quinn's collection in 2009 adding its unique coachwork, features, design, originality and Ettore Bugatti provenance to the collection's growing eminence. In all the years in the collections of Greenlee, Howell, Kohs and O'Quinn it has rarely been shown, however its intimate connection with Ettore Bugatti caused it to be invited by the organizers of the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in 1985 to complement the historic appearance of all six Bugatti Type 41 Royales. It has been examined by experts including Hugh Conway who have marvelled at its completely original condition. Conway noted its Durand steering box as a departure from Bugatti practice but contacted Noël Domboy who confirmed that he had instructed Pierre Marco to replace the standard Bugatti steering box to avoid a possible mishap. Its condition is breathtakingly original and complete, right down to the wiring harness and electrical components. Finishes throughout the car are as they were applied by Bugatti three-quarters of a century ago. In addition to its extensive file of documentation it has a complete set of "EB" stamped tools in a leather folder. The floorboards, bonnet and body have their original number stampings. Its original two-panel glass roof was removed before it was sold by the factory, but could easily be re-created without compromising the otherwise overall originality and preservation. It is also unusually quick, a consequence of its continuing development in Molsheim and particularly its special engine, induction system and supercharger. Having never been apart it is delightful to drive, exhibiting how it felt to drive a Type 57C fresh from the Bugatti factory. No wonder it was Pierre Marco's favorite Bugatti. Its unique Jean Bugatti-designed coachwork, highly developed supercharged engine, magnificent originality, twenty year history as the factory's development vehicle and most importantly its personal association with and use by Ettore Bugatti make this one of the most significant and important Bugattis to become available in years. It is an intimate, personal part of the history of the Bugatti marque and its Patron, Ettore Bugatti, unsullied by restoration and embellished by its association with Ettore and Jean Bugatti, Jean-Pierre Wimille, Robert Benoist, Pierre Marco and a short list of owners who cherished and preserved it for future generations. We address our special thanks to Mr. Pierre-Yves Laugier for all the information he has made available to us in December 2012 concerning the origin and the life of "57335".

Lot Details
Auction Grand Palais Sale
Bonhams, Paris, France
TypeCar
Lot Number588
Outcome SOLD
Hammer Price€600000
Hammer Price (inc premium)€690000
Year1938
Condition rating1
Registration number
Mileage-
Chassis number57335
Engine number340
Engine capacity (cc)
Engine - cylinders
Number of doors