Editor: Jaap Horst
Surely it was
F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda leaning over the fence that I spotted from
the cockpit of the polished aluminum ’26 Type 35T Bugatti while swooping
down the downhill sweeping corner. The narrow tires were drifting evenly
and predictably out of the corner then rushing down the front straight
passing the slower lesser cars was a real wind in the face high!
The upright seating position gave a great view over the long hood housing the straight eight and of the small narrow tires. We were passing slower more modern cars at a great rate and the sight of the crossover bridge flashing overhead reminded me that turn one was quickly approaching. The thinking part of my brain reminded me that the combination of cold narrow tires, cable brakes, expensive borrowed car and minimum experience in this time machine dictated that I should exercise caution into this first corner.
The brakes were smooth, firm and progressive as I squeezed them on. The transition and turn in was as smooth as I knew how and the Bugatti responded even more smoothly. The little silver bullet drifted smoothly with both ends sliding equally and predictably on their bicycle sized tires with tire patches about the size of a quarter. These were the really authentic 1926 size tires not those trick wide ‘27’s with tire contact patch the size of a fifty cent piece.
We clipped the apex right on and began the long drift to the outside where at my aiming point I had allowed at least 24 inches of extra pavement as a unknown car factor.
Well I only used half of the safety space as we sped on the the next right- left -right and up the back curving straight. Topping the hill the car rose lightly and I was reminded of all those old prewar photos showing the stiffly sprung cars with two and four wheels off the track. Of course while all this was playing out I was conscious of sorting out the backward, upright, but outside the cockpit gear pattern, the fuel pressure gauge which just might signal the need for a few quick strokes of the hand pump to assist the engine mounted cam driven pump to pressurize the enormous fuel tank at my back. The gear change was the proverbial hot knife through butter but with no sinchromesh the double clutching rewarded precision work on the throttle, brake and clutch.
The time trip was all too soon brought to an end on this Friday morning session as the engine began to cough and miss. Assuming fuel pressure loss I reached to the left side under the dash, turned two petcocks to open the line and ferociously began to put pressure into the tank. Of course being careful not to pump the handle just below that pumps reservoir oil into the engine sump to make up for that used in long distance races.
Alas to no avail the stutter continued, so a quick turn into the pits was in order and so ended my first track experience with one of the fabled Bugatti 35 models of race cars.
Of course the best was yet to come! The friendly camaradrie and competitor help that is typical of vintage racing. The minute we wheeled into the paddock we were surrounded by pre war competitors anxious to help. Including Scott Ebert who had restored his Bugatti over a dozen years, Gordon White author of the just published book, “Offenhauser.” Bill Vaccaro the quick man in the session in his own supercharged 35 GP car and of course Don Koleman and his Competition Motors Shop manager Ben Bragg who quickly orchestrated the trouble shooting routine. As is so often the case real professionalism is exhibited under duress and lack of time. Since the car had not been race prepped by the shop it was a case of a quick run through before the Friday afternoon practice. We had borrowed the car courtesy of Don Koleman’s Competition Motors of Salem Mass. and Bob Sutherland owner of the polished Aluminum Bugatti 35T.
We had borrowed the car courtesy of Don Koleman’s Competition Motors of Salem Mass. and Bob Sutherland owner of the polished Aluminum Bugatti 35T.
Don cohosts with Victory Lane the Pre War Paddock Party held Friday after practice for the past few years at the Lime Rock Fall Vintage Festival. He also brings out such interesting Pre War cars such as a Buick Indy Car for Ben Bragg and a Maserati or Bugatti for his own racing. He had been threatening me with a Pre War drive for a while and after a few glasses of Thomas Fogarty and Far Niente Wine at the previous event I agreed that if he supplied the car, I would drive it.
The call came only a week before the event. There might be a Bugatti at The Lime Rock Fall Festival for me to race. Was I available? After a moment of silence to consider taking on the reponsibility for a possibly half million dollar car, I quickly said yes. Don would call back. A few days later he called and said that the Bugatti 35T was available and although they didn’t have time to race prep it, that it had been running great at its last race, the Monterey Historics. It did run great long enough at Lime Rock to learn why these cars have such a fantastic reputation and following.
The unique construction details, the many small unique approaches to brackets, engine auxilliary mounts, and instruments were quickly apparent as we did the check out. Then as I sat in the car and became more familiar with the controls the sheer mechanical feel and almost victorian sturdiness came to the fore. A drive around the paddock and skid pad reinforced this feel. It was as if a solid block of steel and aluminum had been carved out and wheels and controls mounted. Upright and solid, a real contrast to a contemporary low, fluid slippery race car.
After our first session and some quick at track fixes of new plugs and fuel system improvements we planned in the second Friday session to concentrate on starting to build up speed.
What an experience! The car responded to the increased pace like the proverbial thoroughbred. The carved from a block, solid feeling of the chassis was confidence building as we pressed on with increasing rev limits on the straights and deeper breaking into the corners yet higher apex speeds as we explored the limited adhesion of very skinny tires. Narrow is an overstatement. The classic drift was definately the fun cornering technique with the car responding smoothly to the throttle for direction while the front wheels were pointed in line with the chassis.
As we became better at the heel and toe relation of brake and throttle for quick down shifts, the precision of the gear change became even more apparent, mechanical, solid. The cable brakes were great with the feeling of a good hydraulic system.
Certainly no fade from the huge finned drums cast into the wheels. The car lept off the corners with the smooth turbine like torque of the 8 cylinder 2.2 liter engine. We didn’t have the time to explore ultimate velocity but the speed on the straights made the car very competitive.
As we ended our run the ultimate vintage racers dilemma or compliment popped up. What lottery do I need to win to buy one!
Reprinted from Victory Lane Magazine