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Editor: Jaap Horst

Volume 18, Issue 2

Bugatti Type 37A – Chassis Number 37332

By Emily Biasotto

This Type 37A was produced by the Bugatti Factory in Molsheim, France in November 1926, but as a standard Type 37, and was soon sold through Colonel W L Sorel of the British Bugatti Agency for 26,928 French francs. It was delivered to England by train and ferry on 6th January 1928 and later registered for road use by the London County Council with registration number YW 2943.

Ellison with the car at the Klausen Hillclimb
Its initial owner is unknown, but the subsequent history is very well-documented. Miss Eileen Ellison purchased the car in 1931 from a London dealer. She formed a friendship with New Zealand’s first Grand Prix race car driver, Thomas Pitt Cholmondeley-Tapper (who, it was said, was a relative of Lord Cholmondeley), and the two raced the car extensively over the next five years. Ellison’s time with the car is significant not only because of her success in racing, but so too her status as one of the most impressive female drivers of all time. Tapper talks about his test drive in the car in his book Amateur Racing Driver, “I well remember the trial run in London, a hair-raising drive round busy City streets with the demonstrator attempting to show the car’s paces to the best advantage; a run that certainly showed me a new type of car, what with the roar of the engine and the scream of the straight cut pinions in the gearbox… Suddenly the bonnet blew up in front of us and whipped back on to our heads, the front strap holding it in position not having been properly secured.”

Along with Eileen’s brother, the team of three travelled all over Europe. Initially, they used just 37332 itself, making up for the lack of seating by interchanging the third person every 20 minutes who would sit on a pillow on the tail-end of the car. Despite their enthusiasm and innovative mode of transport, the trio eventually sought a more practical (and indeed safe) way to travel. They towed the 37 with a Type 40 which also helpfully doubled as a parts bin.

Miss Eileen Ellison and Thomas Pitt Cholmondeley-Tapper with the Type 37
Together, the Ellison-Tapper duo celebrated exceptional racing performances. Perhaps most impressive was Ellison’s win at the 1932 Duchess of York’s race for female drivers at Brooklands, which was presented by the Queen Mother. This win is mainly responsible for her fame in the racing world because she won the race from Kay Petre who was arguably the most well-known female racing car driver of the time.

Tapper showed his skill in motor racing when, in the 1935 Grand Prix de Lorraine, he led Veyron by nearly ten minutes with half an hour before the finish, in another Type 37 (this was at a time when 37332 was struggling consistently in races due to oil loss). Unfortunately, however, the brakes failed in the lead up to a right-angled corner and Tapper slid off the road and was forced to wait for help which delayed him for fifteen minutes, causing him to lose his lead. Tapper also had countless successes at Brooklands, Shelsley Walsh and Donington, and abroad at the German Mountain Grand Prix (Freiburg, 1934 and 1935), Belgian Grand Prix des Frontičres (Chimay, 1935), German Eifelrennen (Nurburgring, 1935) and the Grand Prix de Lorraine (Seichamps, 1935), many of which were products of his eagerness to always drive or walk on the course well before official practice had begun.

It was these and other performances that impressed none other than Ettore Bugatti himself and later, the car was treated to a Works rebuild by Le Patron. Tapper describes in his book that the car had in fact been dismantled and put back together, having parts replaced if they showed wear. The first engine that had been built had blown up on trial so another was made, leaving Tapper no choice but to run the car in by driving it to Berne as the Prix de Berne was just two days away. Tapper finished in tenth place.

Richard Seaman at the 1936 Brooklands Meeting
Following its revamp, the ambitious and hugely adventurous Miss Ellison decided that, after a few more Continental races, she would take the car to South Africa and race it in the 1936 South African Grand Prix. She held fourth place for most of the race but finished in 11th place due to an incorrect fuel mixture.

There is much speculation into the relationship between Ellison and Cholmondeley-Tapper. They no doubt shared a strong friendship during their time racing the Bugatti. The car carried both their names on its body. It is unfortunate then, that the role Ellison played in his life and her efforts with the car were only briefly documented in Tapper’s book. Their relationship’s assumed bitter end is considered to be a result of either Tapper’s less-than-favourable comments about women in motor racing or the friendship that was formed between Ellison and her late first husband.

Soon after, in May 1936, the car was sold to Lieutenant R. B. Lakin, RN who commissioned English engineer Leslie Ballamy to convert the front suspension to one of his independent front suspension designs (IFS). In the same year, Ballamy raced the car at Brooklands with its new configuration and later, Richard Seaman, England’s most famous driver of the time, drove the car in the Brooklands Whitsun Meeting. Ballamy raced the car multiple times over the next few years, mainly at other Brooklands meetings but also in the Novice’s Cup, which he won. Despite its continued success, the car didn’t have such a good run at Brooklands in September 1938, when the engine blew up. The core of the engine was given to the wartime scrap metal drive and the rest of the car remained at Major Sheepshanks’ property, used as a decoy in the war (with the intention of slowing the Germans down should they try to use the car as an escape).

John Cummins at Bathurst, Easter 1961
Fourteen years later, the car found itself in the hands of John Cummins. The car still had its original supercharger and supercharger drive, carburettor and oil tanks which were all sold to Herb Ford. The shell of the car was brought back to Australia and installed with a triple-carbed Holden Engine. Cummins competed in various hillclimbs and race meetings all over Australia, including Bathurst, the Australian Grand Prix Meeting and the Rob Roy Hillclimb. In 1963, the car was sold to Peter Johnstone and then later to Eric Pengilley. In 1980, Tom Roberts bought the car and set about a restoration. In 1959 Roberts had purchased the parts (supercharger and supercharger drive, carburettor and oil tank) that had been sold to Herb Ford and these were used in restoring the car. Specifically, it involved the inclusion of ERA wheels, changing the colour from blue to white, the addition of the original blower and associated parts and another Bugatti Type 37 engine.

In 2005, the car was bought by Andrew Cannon who sent the car to Auto Restorations in Christchurch, New Zealand to return it to its Ballamy configuration (16-inch wire wheels, blue paintwork, cable braking, a replica of the original radiator and the Ballamy front suspension has been reset to provide improved ride and handling by reducing its roll resistance). It is also now equipped with a Brooklands external exhaust system.

Since its final restoration, the car has been raced and has shown itself to be quite the competitor. Particularly, at the Winton Historic meeting in May 2008, it set the second fastest Bugatti lap, beating other Grand Prix Bugattis, four of which were Type 35B and 35C models. For a four-cylinder 1500cc supercharged engine, this is very impressive considering its competitors carried engines twice the size. The car has also been on display numerous times at different exhibitions, including at the RACV Motorclassica (Australian Internationals Concours d’Elegance & Classic Motor Show) and the Australian Grand Prix.

Ruapuna Raceway, Christchurch, New Zealand 2008
Owners and Drivers
1931 – 1936 Miss Eileen Ellison and Thomas Cholmondeley Tapper
1936 – 1938 Lieutenant RB Lankin RN, driven by Leslie Ballamy and Richard Seaman
1938 – 1952 Used as a decoy in the war (Major Sheepshanks)
1952 – 1963 John Cummins
1963 – 1963 Peter Johnstone
1964 – 1980 Eric Pengilley
1980 – 2005 Tom Roberts
2005 – present Part of the Australian Yacht Squadron Art and Automobile Collection

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