Exercising a 1930 Bugatti builds up a real sweat
People who regularly attend the Concours d’Elegance at Pebble Beach, or the one at Amelia Island, or the few other shows where the waxed and glassy elite of the concours world turn up, have surely seen a big Bugatti glide by. We’re not talking about the snarling Grand Prix cars, but the larger and more elegant bolides that Ettore Bugatti and Europe’s various coachbuilders constructed for the wealthy cream of pre-war European society. If you’re like me, you’ve imagined that these cars waft forward on a crest of silent and effortless torque, steam-shipping down a lane as if conveyed on the wings of angels, the occupants meditating on what brands of vermouth and grenadine are used in the sublime gin martini served at the Hôtel d’Paris in Monte Carlo.
That is not what it’s like. The spectacular 1930 Bugatti Type 46 that I drove over the hills north of San Diego required every ounce of concentration I could summon. I manhandled the cranky gear shifter through its unsynchronized gates while working the dash levers controlling the manual spark advance and the idle setting, all the while trying to keep two hands on the thick wooden steering wheel while peering well ahead, lest the nominal brakes needed to be called upon to stop the car sometime in the next mile or so.
When driving an 89-year-old Bugatti—indeed, pretty much any 89-year-old car—you cannot afford to be surprised by anything, or you will spend an afternoon explaining to the cops why some hapless Prius needs to be flossed out of your grille.
The opportunity to drive this somewhat-famous Bugatti Type 46 came unexpectedly from my coworker at Hagerty, Logan Calkins. Logan is tight with the American Bugatti Club, which recently held its annual meeting in San Diego over a weekend of drives, private garage tours, and fabulous buffets. At the age of 14, Logan started working in a restoration shop that specializes in Bugattis and other full classics and spent three years of his life on the restoration of this particular car. (He claims to have fallen asleep both inside it and underneath it on numerous occasions.) Before joining Hagerty, he shepherded the Bugatti when its owner, Richard Adams of La Jolla, California, took it to the 63rd Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 2013, where the car won its class.
As with almost every Bugatti, the history of this car has been exhaustively researched. The Type 46 was Bugatti’s luxury grand-tourer from the company’s middle period, featuring an extravagantly long chassis and a 140-hp 5.4-liter single-overhead-cam straight-eight with three valves per cylinder. A 160-hp supercharged version called the Type 46S was also built, though it did not stop wags from labeling the Type 46 the “Molsheim Buick,” partly because around 400 Type 46s emerged from the factory, making them relatively common for a Bugatti.
This one is not common. Feeling that the Type 46 wasn’t elegant enough and hadn’t sufficiently broken Bugatti’s stereotype as a maker of sporting cars only, Ettore Bugatti wanted to commission a one-off show car that would push the bijou of the 46 to new levels. He chose Gaston Grümmer, a Paris carrosserie from the high art-deco era known for chopped roofs and aero-streamlined bodies, and which had previously won the Paris Concours d’Elegance, a June event held in the city’s open-air Parc des Princes where body makers often went to showcase their talents and take note of the latest trends.
The result was this Type 46 Faux Cabriolet, a luxuriously exorbitant show car with a low roof, flowing puddles of metal for fenders, and a cockpit swaddled in lacquered wood and uncleanable suede. The Faux Cabriolet appellation is because the landau bars on the side, as with a ’65 Thunderbird, are fake, as the upholstered top does not actually fold. The two wide seats in front are complemented by a snug back bench with a well-stocked bar hidden behind one side of the headliner and a “library” of bookshelves hidden behind the other. Ah, the 1930s, when a wealthy gent could motor into the country with his lady’s hand in one palm and a Sidecar in the other.
Grummer only built three bodies for Bugatti, and only 10 Grummer cars in total are thought to survive. This particular car was built for the 1930 Paris concours, which it won, a news item that made the papers as far as way as Lansing, Michigan. The car went through a few owners, came to America, and fell into the hands of Adams’ father in the late 1960s, when it was just an old, used, and funky foreign oddity. It has remained in the family ever since.
Like most one-off exhibition cars of the type you’re likely to see at Pebble Beach, the Type 46 is none too easy to drive, and it had seen few miles since its Pebble showing in 2013. It had not turned a wheel in two years before Logan went over the week before to fire it up and put fresh gas in it. To be honest, Logan was doubtful about the car’s ability to complete the weekend, as this Bug had never been fully de-bugged. The car, he said, is almost absurdly complicated, with a rear-mounted transaxle, a propshaft-driven generator, and a twin-spark ignition. Over the years, Logan has perfected the procedure of removing the car’s engine, which he has painstakingly worked down to a mere 40-hour job.
Like an aircraft, the car comes with a laminated double-sided starting checklist developed by Adams and the restoration shop. It is wise to observe it because the engine’s dry-sump lubrication system requires a ridiculous amount of prep before the engine can be cold-started, and failing to do it all can result in a five-digit repair bill. Back in the day, the factory advised draining the oil out before each cold start and preheating it on a stove, before returning it to the reservoir. The oil is better today, and during the restoration, Adams had a number of modern systems installed, including an electric pre-oiler and a remote-control battery shutoff, all operated by a pile of keys and remotes. The car’s actual key is a small sliver of chromed brass that inserts into a receptacle on the dash and, rather than turning, is pushed in to engage the starter.
The lovingly polished and gleaming straight-eight cranks over with a heavy chugging that is somewhat startling, even though you are expecting it. By the end of the weekend the motor would be streaked with oil and coolant and fuel dripping out of the updraft carburetor, a good reminder that there’s a big difference between a show car and a road car.
Logan took the first shift, driving to our various destinations on Saturday with a concentration so focused that I had to force him to smile for the photos. The Type 46 is a full-time occupation to drive on modern streets choked with traffic and laced with stoplights. When the Honda Civic in front of you decides at the last second to veer into a Starbucks, panic ensues as the $2 million car (probably, nobody really knows as it hasn’t been on the market in over 50 years) bears down on its Bernie Sanders bumper sticker. You learn quickly to leave gaps big enough that the drum brakes, which are fighting the rotation of the huge 21-inch wheels and blocky tires carrying two tons of French art-deco sculpture, can do their work in their own leisurely way.
All in all, however, the Type 46 rumbled along without trouble until the final miles of the day when the engine started to misfire. An examination of the distributor showed the points to be a little tight, but it was thought that the ancient ignition coils were likely also overheating. We parked it for the night figuring that we would do as much of Sunday as possible and call Hagerty Roadside if it all went pear-shaped.
The next day started ominously; the big Bugatti stalled in traffic for no obvious reason, and Logan, desperate, gave the fuel pump a hopeful rap (after removing the rear seat and the cover hiding the pump). It worked! But not long after, the generator quit charging. As members of the club stood around making suggestions both helpful and inane, we pulled up the floorboards to expose the generator, which runs on a serpentine belt off the propshaft. Logan quickly deduced that the brushes in the long-idle generator had stuck, and a quick spritz of cleaner and WD-40 cured it. The Type 46 carried on as the tour moved to its furthest destinations, a woodworking shop and a restoration supply house in the distant San Diego suburb of Escondido.
Behind the right-handed wheel now, I began to make friends with the Bugatti. The three-speed’s shifter—a conventional H-pattern but turned backwards such that first was down and right, second up and left, third back and left—was indeed tricky, but a swift movement of the hand combined with a light tap on the throttle during the double-clutch usually resulted in a crunch-free upshift. Gaston Grummer had definitely not anticipated modern freeways or, really, other cars at all in the design of the body, which has precious little glass and a blind spot as big as the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. Mirrors weren’t even fitted to the car originally, but Adams added them in an attempt to make driving the car non-suicidal. Even so, it required two people and lots of hand gestures to negotiate the brisk flow of Sunday San Diego traffic. There are turn signals, but they’re just tiny lanterns on the windshield pillar; you might as well signal with concentrated brainwaves.
Though fuel economy was probably in the teens, the Bugatti has an enormous tank that we took the measure of with a wood painter’s stick kept in the enormous luggage box sandwiched between the cabin and the twin pair of spare tires. These cars are thought to run best with a swig of Marvel Mystery Oil to complement the ethanol-laced swill you get from the pumps these days.
By the end of Sunday, the Type 46 was still running, still covering miles as it was meant to, and we returned it to its garage happy to have kept it in one piece (though there was a screw coming loose on the front bumper). It was splattered with bugs and soiled from its own fluids, but this show-winning Bugatti, which you would expect to look pristine at all times, was so much more beautiful for it.