#0112 - Bugatti Type 51 Coupé by Louis Dubos, #51.113, 1931
An Incredible History: Since they were responsible for bodying so many of their own cars, the number of custom coachwork Bugatti autos is small compared to other classic era sporting marques, (namely that popular triumvirate: Delage, Delahaye, and Talbot-Lago). It is this method of complete car building that gives Bugatti a very specific aesthetic—one that they own, described by doing things their way, apart from sharing technical similarities and coachwork providers with competitors. So it's fair to bundle up those others—Delage, Delahaye, and Talbot-Lago—whereas Bugatti stand on their own. The same can be said of Voisin.
Of course, what Bugatti and Voisin have in common is the creative drive of their eponymous founders, technical genius blended with an unwillingness to compromise on what each man's machines should be.
Stepping aside for a moment, this Type 51 is a rare exception to the rule, because it's not about the Bugatti family.
The Type 51 was Bugatti's dual overhead cam Grand Prix racer. Let the comparisons to Henry Miller flow—presumably, we'll get into that later. For now, however, we merely need to say the Type 51 was the mainstay works effort that replaced the great Type 35-B, the main difference being that more advanced dohc head. This particular chassis, #51.113, was the works mount of team drivers Louis Chiron and Rene Dreyfus, great names of Grand Prix lore. Subsequent to racing duty, the car is believed to have been given to Chiron. Whether gifted or not, it was available for his personal use according to period photos.
Within a few years, #51.113 passed to a friend of Jean Bugatti named André Bith. By this time, Jean had completed his Type 57 Atlantic Coupé, and Bith was so smitten by the design that he decided to embark upon a transformation of his Type 51. The aim was to create a baby Atlantic, and it is possible that as a benefit of being friends with Jean Bugatti, Bith was able to enlist the aid of factory driver André Roland to pen the design and help contract a coachbuilder.
The house of Louis Dubos was engaged, a firm just outside Paris that weighs less prominently in the world of luxury French automobiles, yet, for a reported sum of 20,000 Francs a complete coupé transformation was completed in 1937.
Photographs subsequent to the change show the car rallying and attending auto salons. The Type 51 retained its French blue racing livery when returned by Dubos, and was soon repainted navy blue following its entry in a concours event at Bagatelle, where it actually won Best of Show.
Only a year later, Bith sold the car for reasons not disclosed today in easily accessible print, and #51.113 passed from buyer to buyer, one of whom was noneother than Maurice Trintingnant. So it is interesting to note that a string of great Grand Prix drivers raced and owned this car, but representing successive generations in motorsport.
Eventually, the Type 51 came to the United States, whereupon the chassis and body were separated in order to make the car suitable for vintage racing. The body was retained, however, a fortunate consideration allowing it to be reunited with the chassis in 2003. By that point, the car had been acquired in racing guise by the Nethercutt Collection, and after finding the body, they were able to complete a full restoration to 1937 form.
Morphology: So let's talk about that form. First off, you can see from images on the nets that the initial 2003 restoration left this car in somewhat uninspiring black paint. More recently, the Type 51 has worn this deep shade of candied burgundy with a touch of metallic flake. And it's a beautiful compromise—a dark color to set off the lines, but with the potential to shine on the curves and give a dimension of fantastic presence without being too overtly flashy.
You don't need flashy color with this shape. As it is for the goutte d'eau, there's a lot of curvature packed into a tight space. The front fenders are grand gestures, rolling way out in front of the grille much like the Aerolithe Coupé, while the rears enhance a completely wrapped posterior that ties into a narrow band below the dramatic slant-back. Paul Jaray would be proud, and would probably applaud that big dorsal fin and rakish windscreen, too.
Altogether, it's a tremendously individualistic take on the Bugatti aesthetic, retaining those signatures cues that make for a factory Bugatti, even though it isn't one. These would be the bonnet and nose configuration, first and foremost, but also the aforemention windscreen angle, which hearkens back to coupés like the Ventoux.
A glimpse of a Grand Prix spec cast aluminum wheel is seen at the rear, whereas in period the car alternately wore discs overtop on the front pair, or went without. Today, the discs look perfect, helping to smooth out the profile and condense the curves into a pleasing whole, even if that glimpse of the rears wants to give away the car's racing origins.
Now I must apologize for not being around this car at a time when I could get shots of the motor or the interior. The cabin, in particular, is astonishing, and not simply because of its fine appointments. It's rather that you can see very clearly how a road-going coupé was built directly over the existing Grand Prix frame. The original bulkhead sits within the cabin, much narrower than the flanks, with slender footwells for the driver and passenger, and the original racing layout. This means the vestigal brake lever is in the sill pocket, between the bulkhead and the coachwork.
The cabin frame is a beautiful honey-colored sycamore, with quilted beams extending along the door sills and around every piece of glass. And fuel filler access was never relocated to the exterior. Instead, the filler cap is still on the back deck, inside the car, only surrounded by a tan leather platform beneath a pair of opera lights.
This car must be intoxicating, what with road car aspirations built overtop a racing frame. Perhaps that's why Bith parted with it. After the novelty wore off, it might not have proved to be the most comfortable way to travel, particularly for a Parisian playboy. So in no small way, we might presume that #51.113 proves there sometimes is a discernable line between race cars and road cars. Even in an era when the two often flirted with one another, practicality still seems to have had a say.
UltimateCarPage: Good history and photographs on this one, worth seeing for the motor and interior shots.
Supercars.net: And be sure to check out their expanded gallery.
Mark Savory: Worth checking into for the period photos and restoration shots.
Coachbuild: With a couple later examples of Dubos coachwork.
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