Bugatti Type 51 Works Grand Prix Racing Car

Few names in auto racing conjure up the magic of Bugatti. The combination of impeccable aesthetics and precise engineering forged the automotive equivalent of Damascus steel – a motif that’s reflected in the intricately milled engine finishes.

A Grand Prix racing car is a weapon peculiar to the 20th century, combining national pride with speed, courage and the risk of death. As Ernest Hemingway said: “Auto racing, bull fighting, and mountain climbing are the only real sports ... all others are games.”

Five Type 51s with DOHC heads were prepared for the 1931 season. Numbers #51122-25 were works entries, while #51121 was sold to English privateer Lord Howe. Two of the cars were conversions from 1930 works Type 35Bs: #51122 had been #4962 and #51125 had been #4961. By mid-year, a further six cars – #51126-51131 – had been sold to privateers.

The next six cars were factory team cars. The first was our subject car, #51132, which was registered on July 7th, 1931 and fitted with engine #15, gearbox #13 and rear axle #15. Number 51133 was completed at the same time. Their first race was the 10-hour Belgian GP at Spa on July 12th, and #51132 was dispatched with Albert Divo and Guy Bouriat. Number 51133 was also sent, with drivers Achille Varzi and Louis Chiron.

The race started promisingly, with Chiron setting the fastest lap at 87.94 mph, but by half distance, Varzi and Chiron were out with magneto problems. Then Divo came in on lap 51 to hand over to Bouriat, and a rear tire blew and wrapped itself around the axle. Williams and Connelli were driving one of the older works cars and took the win.

On July 15th, the factory registered four more Type 51s – #51134-51137 – and sent five cars to the German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring. Number 51132 did not enter. Caracciola won for Mercedes, but Chiron and Varzi were second and third, Bouriat seventh and Williams retired.

With new cars on line for 1932, 51132 was sold and delivered on December 19th, 1931 to Jean-Pierre Wimille (with an invoice for 80,000 francs) at his parents’ home at Ville d’Avray near Paris. Wimille came from a wealthy family but had borrowed money to buy his first race car – a Type 37A Bugatti – in summer 1930. He decided to start at the top, entered the French Grand Prix at Pau in September and did quite well, until his engine failed expensively.

Luckily he met an older driver, Jean Gaupillat, who wanted to race a Type 51 in 1931 but needed a co-driver in the 10-hour events. Gaupillat bought #51130, and he and Wimille shared the car in the long races and alternated in the shorter ones. But with 1932 promising shorter races, Wimille needed a ride.

Once again, a good fairy appeared: this time in the shape of Marguerite Mareuse, an older, wealthy rally driver and the first woman to drive at Le Mans, in 1930 and 1931. She bought #51132 and the two took it to Montlhery track near Paris for testing on December 21st. The car was registered to Wimille on January 12th. The partnership was doing so well that the pair added Type 54 #54204 for Wimille and a 1,500 cc Type 51A #51138 for Mareuse, so that she could compete at the same events in the voiturette category.

Wimille opened the season in March 1932 with a hillclimb win at La Turbie, near Nice, where he broke the course record. The couple then took their three cars to North Africa for the Tunis/Algeria/Morocco races. Wimille drove the Type 54 in the 300-mile Tunis Grand Prix on April 3rd, but his engine failed, while Mareuse gave the Type 51A an inauspicious debut, finishing 14th.

At the Algerian Grand Prix at Oran on April 24th, Wimille took #51132 to the winner’s circle, leading throughout and setting the fastest lap, ahead of his Gaupillat, who broke an axle. However, Mareuse had an accident in her Type 51A when a tire blew.

By the 250-mile Casablanca Grand Prix on May 22nd, the team was down to one car and one driver. Wimille took #51132 to the fastest lap at 80.58 mph and led throughout but retired with engine problems on lap 32. Lehoux won in another Type 51.

Then came the Dieppe Grand Prix on July 24th with Wimille in an Alfa and his friend Pierre Leygonie in a Type 51, with Mareuse as alternate driver. The Type 51 was entered in the two-liter class, so it must have had the Type 51A engine in the frame of #51132, as the frame of Mareuse’s #51138 had not been repaired since Oran. Wimille’s Alfa caught fire on lap 10, and Mareuse retired #51132 on lap seven.

Two major accidents in three races persuaded Mareuse to retire. Since Wimille had the Alfa, they decided to sell the Bugattis. 51132 was rebuilt by the Bugatti factory with frame #732, its original engine #15 and its original rear axle #15.

In December 1932, #51132 was sold by Wimille to Charles Brunet, whose son (or maybe nephew) Robert would race it for the next two years.

Brunet’s first race was the 75-lap Pau Grand Prix in the Pyrenees on February 19th, 1932. It was held in driving snow, but he completed 30 laps before coming to his senses (or maybe losing them) and retiring. In contrast, he competed next in the Tunis Grand Prix at Carthage on March 29th but retired with an unspecified injury. The winner was Marcel Lehoux in a Type 51.

Closer to home, Brunet tackled the 120-mile Picardy Grand Prix at Peronne on May 21st, 1933.

Brunet missed the Nimes Grand Prix on June 4th and also the La Baule Grand Prix, though he lent the car to the local Bugatti agent, who finished last. He did, however, rally for his season-ender, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza on September 10th and finished 10th.

In 1934, Brunet contested eight Grands Prix, from the Morocco race on May 20th to Comminges on August 26th. He started every race, finished all but two and was never lower than ninth. His best finish was third in the Picardy Grand Prix on May 24th, and he decided he needed a faster car, putting #51132 on the market for $500.

It was shipped to New York in late 1934. The Zumbach Garage overhauled #51132, and it was sold to McClure Halley of Brooklyn, who worked for Mrs. Horace Dodge, looking after her dogs. He had an outside Zumbach exhaust fitted, had the car polished and chromed, then entered the 100-mile ARCA USA Grand Prix in June 1935.

Joe Finn’s book American Road Racing is blunt. He noted that “Halley’s Jewel” was believed to be the fastest car, and “it might have proved that if anybody else but Halley was driving it. He was clearly scared to death and had no feel for cornering speeds. His progress was very erratic and he never took a corner the same way twice, spinning at least four times before skidding into the Stone Bridge on lap 23, which broke the right rear wheel and bent the axle.”

Halley then hired Texan Dave Evans to drive #51132 in the George Vanderbilt Cup, held on the new Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island on October 12th, 1936. Evans qualified 36th of 45 entries, while Wimille in a Type 59/50B was 14th and A.O. “Bunny” Phillips in his 35B was next-to-last. Wimille finished second to Nuvolari in a V12 Alfa Romeo, Evans in #51132 was 14th and Phillips broke down on lap 75. Nuvolari’s winning speed was a soporific 67 mph.

The next recorded owner of #51132 was well known auto writer Ralph Stein, who bought it with a thrown rod. He had Molsheim repair the crankshaft, then sold it to Bill Schmidlapp, who entered driver Louis McMillen in the ARCA Grand Prix at Montauk, New York on July 6th, 1940.

Once again Joe Finn was present and noted that McMillen ran as high as fourth. On the 18th lap, McMillen broke the crankshaft, though Jacques Shaerly of Zumbach’s garage thought it was a thrown rod. Later that year, McMillen bought the car from Schmidlapp and gave #51132’s engine to Shaerly, who installed a Peerless engine from McMillen’s own special in its place. McMillen then sold the Bugatti to George Weaver of Boston who replaced the Peerless motor with a 16-valve OHC Ford Frontenac. Shaerly sold #51132’s original motor to noted collector Dave Uihlein of Milwaukee.

He persuaded Weaver to sell him #51132 in 1948, so he could reunite it with its engine. He sent the Bugatti engine to “Bunny” Phillips in Los Angeles to be rebuilt (the same Phillips as in the Vanderbilt Cup race).

For Christmas 1960, Uihlein gave #51132 to his mechanic Thomas Rosenberger, who did nothing with it and finally sold the car to Paul Moser of Santa Barbara in 1980. At least it was close to its engine, which Phillips had finally bought, despairing of ever getting instructions to rebuild it.

Paul Moser sold #51132 to Klaus Werner in Germany in 1984. By 1986, Phillips had rebuilt #51132’s motor with Molsheim parts and agreed to sell it to Werner, provided it would be reunited with its original chassis. Werner was good to his word and had British Type 51 expert Geoffrey St. John completely restore #51132. The car was lacking a gearbox on its arrival in England, but St. John found the original #13 gearbox at the Sotheby’s auction of Alan Haworth’s Bugatti spares in 1989.

Werner raced #51132 in several historic events, including the Nürburgring, then sold it to Chairman Lee of the Samsung Corporation in the mid-1990s, from whom it was acquired by the current owner in 2007. Since that time, its entire aforementioned history has been exhaustively researched and confirmed.

Since 2006, #51132 has been examined by Bugatti experts Pierre Yves Laugier, Malcolm Gentry, Geoffrey St. John, Julius Kruta and of course David Sewell. There is no doubt in their minds that this is one of the finest surviving examples of a Type 51 Grand Prix Bugatti. Their opinion is emphatically supported by extensive documented research, which is available for viewing.

Bugatti historian David Sewell comments that chassis 51132 is “a remarkably complete and original car and there is no doubt to its authenticity.”

Given the rigors of competition and the stress and wear it creates in racing cars, it is rare to find a car that has remained unscathed. To find a car of this caliber, with this provenance and in this condition is extraordinary – even carrying its original factory Grand Prix coachwork.

David Sewell concludes that “accordingly it ranks amongst the finest survivors of the highly desirable Bugatti Type 51 Grand Prix.”

This car was auctioned off by RM Auctions in August of 2010 at the Portola Hotel & Spa and Monterey Conference Center, Monterey, California.

185 hp, 2,262 cc DOHC supercharged inline eight-cylinder engine, Zenith carburetor, four-speed manual transmission, front semi-elliptic springs, rear quarter-elliptic inverted springs, live axle, four-wheel mechanical brakes. Wheelbase 94.5"

Source: RM Auctions
Photo Credit: Copyright Simon Clay

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