Why the Bugatti Type 51 looks suspiciously like a first-generation Mazda RX-7
Michael ShafferCar and driver
Starting the 90-year-old Bugatti Type 51 requires a complex procedure. First, you need to pressurize the fuel tank, using a pesticide sprayer type pump handle on the left edge of the engine facing dash, just above the passenger’s left knee . Then you need to open the fuel supply line with a small lever and inject fuel into the engine with a round, knurled-grip pump knob on the other edge of the dash. Then you have to open the hood to add oil to the supercharger, probably so it doesn’t burn itself out spinning as fast as it does. Then you close the hood and put the metal gated gear lever – which is on the outside of the right side of the car – into neutral. Then you hit the starter, which looks a bit like a silverware drawer the size of the Lusitania being maraca’d by the Greek god Polyphemus. You adjust the idle with another dial until the delicate white-faced Jaeger tachometer indicates the car is running at around 700 rpm. Then the car stalls and you have to repeat the process.
Did I mention this is all happening while wearing a vintage cosplay style light blue Bugatti jumpsuit, elastic cinched at the waist like an acid wash denim leisure suit? Luckily, no leather helmet or ridiculous goggles were needed.
Fortunately, in the face of this expensive process, this Bugatti, which is part of Bugatti’s own collection, is equipped with Luigi Galli. He is the specialist in the heritage and certification of the flagship Franco-German-Italian brand and a human Wikipedia when it comes to vintage Molsheim whips. Incredibly young, Luigi is also incredibly patient.
The Type 51 was developed in the late 1920s as the successor to the Type 35, Bugatti’s most successful racing car. Although it had some significant updates to this lovable demon’s tiny inline-eight engine – like a 2.3-litre displacement, twin-cam design and the aforementioned supercharger – which allowed it to produce this which Luigi says is “well over 150 horsepower and going over 200 km/h” (124 mph), state-sponsored teams from the rising fascist Axis powers in Germany and Italy beat him on Track.
Still, it’s a real racing car. A fact I discover after squeezing my rather cramped self into the extremely cramped driver’s seat and cramming my feet into the straw-width floorboard. This area is worth describing, as the trio of metal pedals that occupy it appear to have fallen from a surreal kinetic sculpture. The clutch looks like a small upright racing flag, the brake looks like a towering art deco champagne flute (albeit one with a screw in the dregs), and the gas is nothing more than two suspended rolling wheels. with a long stem. Why? “The Bugattis were a family of artists,” explains Luigi.
First gear is bottom left, like on my 1978 Porsche 928. But it’s not a dogleg, dog. The second is directly above. “That’s all you need to know,” Luigi said. Although this Type 51 – which was originally owned by a Czech gentleman, followed by a life in Japan before being repatriated to Alsace in 2002 – is allegedly legal on the road, I will only drive this relic at six or seven figures on the grounds of the historic Château Bugatti, next to which is the company headquarters workshop where he builds his Chirons and Centodiecis, and I don’t need to go too fast. (I manage to get the car into the third straight line, towards the closed security hut.)
Direct, honest, surprisingly flexible
Despite the obscure start-up procedure, the Type 51 looks incredibly familiar. The wood-rimmed aluminum steering wheel is light and precise in its communication, perhaps the result of the larger aluminum wheels and wider tires that were another upgrade from the Type 35. The gear lever, despite its strange pattern, precisely snaps into his triggers the required grinding, which Luigi ignores, perplexed). The non-power brakes require a bit of thigh but do their job easily. And the engine pulls with a raucous fervor, in part because of the car’s light 1600-pound weight. It reminds me, oddly enough, of a Japanese sports car from the 1970s, like a Datsun 240Z or a Mazda RX-7: direct, mechanical, honest, powerful, precise, cheerful, unexpectedly smooth. Not brutally fast, by today’s standards, but certainly fast.
My commute is pretty short, but when I hit the kill switch and untwist myself (and pull Luigi out) in order to back out of the ribbed leather driver’s seat, I realize that this comparison isn’t so odd. The Type 51 was the F1 racing car of its time, winning the Monaco Grand Prix, and was therefore among the most sophisticated vehicles on the market. It was decades ahead of its time in technology and capability, and so was able to jump the space-time continuum and deliver a driving experience that would take the Japanese a generation of single-minded engineering to achieve.
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