Aesthetic Lessons for the Modern Racecar Builder

~ Excerpt from The Amazing Bugattis ~


"For the 1923 French Grand Prix at Tours, Bugatti produced a remarkable 'tank' car, of a supposedly aerodynamic, all-enveloping design, more likely as a result of some free-thinking than from observation. This used his relatively successful eight-cylinder 2-litre engine (with earlier bearing weaknesses now overcome by the use of ball and roller bearings) in a box-like body with a very short (2metre) wheelbase and a quasi-aerofoil side elevation. This was ranged alongside an even more strange-looking car from the aeroplane designer Voisin, and a number of relatively conventional and good-looking cars from Sunbeam, Delage and Rolland-Pilain. The press reception of the strange 'beetles' from Bugatti and Voisin was not good: 'nightmarish monsters' was a typical comment, and this was not alleviated by the leading Bugatti arriving third, behind two Sunbeams, 25 minutes after Segrave in the winning car.


The strange 'tank' car which Ettore produced for the 1923 Grand Prix at Tours foreshadowed later aerodynamic designs but was unsuccessful. Prince de Cystria is at the wheel.


Ettore must have gone home from Tours disappointed at the poor showing of his car, still smarting from the disasters at Indianapolis, and certainly stimulated, whether consciously or subconsciously, by the Fiats, Sunbeams and even the Rolland-Pilains from the Grand Prix. The lack of press eulogy would not have helped his ego.

Something happened that winter to change his whole approach to racing-car design; we do not know what for sure, except that it was to have a profound significance for the future course of his work and his productions. Up to that moment his chassis design had been excellent, elegantly conventional in the main, and his personal interest in new design had been in the engine. He had proven and excellent clutches, gearboxes and rear axles, all of which had virtually been designed in 1908 or 1910. He knew he had an eight-cylinder engine that was reasonably powerful and which, if he could solve its bearing problems, should also be reliable.

What he lacked, or had not bothered to achieve, was a decent-looking vehicle. The successful four-cylinder Brescia model, winning races and hill climbs all over the world, was an ugly duckling of a car, not even particularly well finished. The eight-cylinder engine was handsome enough, with its narrow rectangular lines which appealed to the artist's eye; but the eight-cylinder chassis in racing trim could not compare with the competition.

It seems to this writer that the most likely cause of his change of thinking came from the 1923 Fiat racing car, the 805, which appeared first at Tours (unsuccessfully), and a few weeks later won at Monza for the Italian (and that year's European) Grand Prix. Fiat had already beaten Ettore in 1922 at Monza, and he knew it was not sensible to enter the unhappy tank cars there in 1923. What his Italian confrires from Turin could do, could not he? He did not agree with their use of a supercharger on the engine, but he could acknowledge the aesthetic appeal of their handsome 8o5, and much of its detail. He could appreciate their mechanical front brakes, but could think of a simpler way of doing it, to replace his relatively unreliable hydraulic ones. He liked the way the Fiat body and chassis frame swept in at the rear to give a good shape to the tail. And in particular his eye noted the elegant front axle, hollow and with holes in it through which the springs passed. If it were split in the middle to allow it to be hollowed out, could he not think of a way to have an axle that was hollow in the middle and closed at both ends?


The handsome 2-litre Fiat 805 of 1923 was the car that inspired Ettore's masterpiece.


There seems little doubt that in the winter of 1923-4 Ettore did some hard thinking, even unconsciously turning over a new leaf. All the cars he produced from then on were aesthetically delightful, all were eye-catching, and the designer's attempts at treating the external appearance as well as the mechanical detail of each one were apparent.

In April 1924 he wrote to his friend and faithful customer Junek in Prague, sending him the sketch of what the 1924 car was to look like. 'Springs and so on are completely within the body works,' he wrote. 'The under part of the car is completely straight, only the cooling ribs project through. The front axle is a mechanical masterpiece. It is a hollow axle of quite new construction.' Later he explained that he had abandoned the thick aerofoil body used on the tank cars 'in spite of its technical advantages, simply with the object of obtaining a more elegant shape, to facilitate sales'.


The sketch of the 1924 car, the Type 35, which Ettore sent his friend Junek.


The 1924 car, the Type 35 Bugatti, was the result, perhaps the best-looking of all racing cars, and a technical and aesthetic tour deforce. This is not the place to describe the car in detail, except to draw attention to particular elements or features.

The overall lines are very fine, the balance of position of wheels, radiator, cockpit and tail are near if not absolute perfection. If one contemplates the bodywork, bonnet, scuttle, tail, undertray and fairings it is difficult to suggest the slightest improvement. The affinity between the draughtsman's pencil and the panel-beater's hammer in defining and flowing one shape into another is immediately apparent.


Jules Goux at the weigh-in for the San Sebastian race in an eight-cylinder Type 39A.


The engineering detail too is excellent, subject to some criticisms to be advanced later. The front axle combines lightness and strength in bending and torsion in its tubular construction, the ends being forged solid to form the kingpin eyes after boring through. The passing of the springs through the axle eliminates an unhappy offset and lowers the chassis height. The axle's polished smoothness contrasts with the earlier die-forged H-section used by Ettore.

The cable-operated brakes are extremely effective, geometrically correct, and have the subtle feature at the front that, by being disposed above the axle centre line, axle twist on braking provides the front brakes with positive feedback or servo action (very effective with 1924 brakes, but rather too effective with the enlarged brakes used by 1934). 

The eight-spoked cast and weight-saving aluminium wheels, with integral well cooled brake drums, were a much noted feature of the car, and in practice a source of speculation when continuous tyre trouble (not in fact related to the wheel construction) caused the cars' failure in the Lyons Grand Prix, where they first appeared. A Bugatti innovation in 1924, cast wheels are now commonplace. A detail feature of the early wheels, which used the so-called straight-sided or beaded edge tyres, was a restraining band that clamped between the tyre beads inside the wheel - another Bugatti novelty reinvented since.


Ettore is the centre of attraction at the Lyons Grand Prix of 1924 with his new beauty.

The 2-litre engine was as before, except that it now had a full ball and roller bearing crankshaft - a remarkable production built up from many pieces and capable of being dismantled and reassembled while remaining in balance and truth. If Ettore could not understand how to design proper plain oil-lubricated bearings, he could at least get round the problem by using rollers.

The magneto was mounted on the dash, protected from the weather and engine heat. The dash carried only essential instruments, but a clock was included for the benefit of drivers in a five-hour Grand Prix. The steering wheel was wood-rimmed in walnut, and as pleasing to hold as to look at. The steering of the car was superb, with the front wheels clearly visible from the driving seat so that one could drive on the proverbial sixpence. Before the days of 'over' or 'understeering', drift angles and side-slip, the car could be placed and cornered to perfection.

Although tyre troubles at the 1924 French Grand Prix prevented success, a month later the car did well in Spain, and from 1925 until about 1930 it swept most if not all before it, establishing itself as the most successful of all early racing cars, only recently yielding pride of place to Ferrari and Lotus. Year by year the model developed, with a supercharger being added in 1926, the engine enlarged to 2.3 litres (the Type 35B), and a modified twin-overheadcamshaft cylinder construction in 193 1 (the model then being designated Type 5 1). Visually the car remained the same, except that the radiator and tyre section became larger, and only the knowledgeable can distinguish a 1924 model from a 1931.

Inevitably, simplified, lower-cost versions were produced, some with the eight-cylinder racing engine, some with a new four-cylinder engine (Type 37). A total of 16 cars was delivered in 1924, about go in 1925 and no less than 250 of all versions in 1926, with a peak monthly Output Of 32 cars in June 1926. Total production of the full-race version was no less than 350, together with about 300 of the sport versions - a remarkable output.

Customers were delighted with their cars and did not fail to write to Ettore to say so.

Mr Bertrand from Barcelona wrote in December 1924: 'It is a veritable jewel ... my trip was triumphal, at Barcelona wild success ...'

Member of Parliament Sir Robert Bird of Solihull (who took delivery of the Olympia Show car) wrote at Christmas 1924: 'what satisfaction I have from my "little blue phenomenon" this thoroughbred of thoroughbreds ...'

Lady Cholmondley wrote from London in March 1925:  ... it is a joy to drive, and I am astonished with the results from the point of view of speed, and acceleration, all achieved with complete safety...'

Mr Aisman-Ferry wrote in April 1925: '1 am really enchanted with the car which is the mechanical perfection of the century.'

Even a competitor to Bugatti, Louis Delage, was generous in his praise: 'Your cars handle so well, and have such acceleration ...' "