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Bugatti Black Bess

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Driving Ettore's five-liter, chain-drive supercar.

It's a stupid hat, I know, but stupid in a good way – it always raises a smile. I first wore it when editor Coucher and I did the 2007 Mille Miglia in a Triumph TR3, and it went down a storm. I’ll never forget sitting in a typically Italian traffic jam next to a hatchback being driven by a typically gorgeous young Italian female who was wearing a typically Italian sullen pout. ‘Show her the hat!’ whispered the ed, and seconds later the pout was replaced by a brilliant smile. Chaps, if you want to charm the ladies in Italy, what you need is a tweedy deerstalker-type thing with flaps.

It also does a damn good job of keeping your head warm, which is more to the point when you’re driving a vintage open car in the depths of a British winter. Chilly ears are an unwelcome distraction, especially when the car in question is as challenging as the 1913 Bugatti known as Black Bess. The owner’s insurance valuation of ‘oh, round about a million’ underlines in a casual but very effective way just how rare and significant a car it is.

This isn’t just any old Bugatti, if such a thing exists. No-one knows for sure how many of these five-liter, chain-drive Edwardian supercars were built, but best guess is that you could count them on the fingers of both hands. Today there are three left. One is in the Schlumpf Collection, while another was recreated from a pile of mostly original parts in the 1970s and is privately owned. The third is Black Bess, an outstanding survivor with a continuous and well-documented history since new. And what a history – it would fill a book.

In fact, it already has. Legendary journalist Bill Boddy published a book about Black Bess in 1993. His own history with the car goes back to 1933, when he discovered her lying neglected in a works in Derby, and he was directly responsible for her being rescued and restored. Since then she’s led an active and visible life in the hands of a few key Bugatti enthusiasts – she was even chosen to counterpoint the Bugatti EB110 at the latter’s Paris launch in 1992 – but her early history is particularly fascinating.

Ettore Bugatti was barely out of his 20s when he created Black Bess and her sister cars, some time in the period 1908-1912. They were essentially road-racers, suitable for competition use or for fast cross-country road trips, unusual for Bugatti in that they had big four-cylinder engines and chain drive to the rear wheels. Seven are known to have been built, and two of those (one with shaft drive) went to America to take part in the Indianapolis 500.

The name Black Bess wasn’t bestowed until the 1920s and its recipient started life as the less romantic chassis number 474, Type 18 (or so some historians believe – the type number isn’t certain). But she certainly had a romantic first owner, being supplied new to the dashing French aviator Roland Garros. He was the archetypal magnificent man in his flying machine, having been the first to cross the Mediterranean in an aircraft, set a new altitude record and achieve various other flying-related feats. He took delivery of 474 in 1913, shortly before signing up for the air corps of the French Army in WW1.

Garros was shot down in April 1915 and spent three years in a prisoner-of-war camp, before escaping and returning to the front line in February 1918. In October, just a few weeks before the Armistice, he was shot down again, and killed. Ettore Bugatti later named one of his children after him.

After Garros’ death the car was sold to Louis Coatalen, chief engineer of Sunbeam. Coatalen’s specialism was engines, both car and aircraft, and he may have been intrigued by the Bugatti’s overhead camshaft and three valves per cylinder – two inlets and one exhaust. He certainly enjoyed it. Many years later, in 1945, he wrote in a letter to Black Bess’ then-owner: ‘During [the time] that car was in my possession I used it for running between London and Paris, and I had many delightful runs in that wonderful big four-cylinder car.’

Coatalen didn’t keep Black Bess very long, however. In 1922 or thereabouts she passed to a racy young lady called Miss Ivy Cummings, who had already been competing in a Bugatti Brescia and many other sporting cars in the speed trials and hillclimbs that were so popular in the early 1920s. She seems to have done well with the Type 18, regularly putting up competitive times against more modern machines; contemporary pictures show her throwing this old-timer around loose-surfaced corners in dramatic oversteery slides. She was also responsible for the nickname Black Bess, after the horse that highwayman Dick Turpin stole and supposedly rode from London to York in record time.

Miss Cummings’ fun was curtailed somewhat when the RAC banned speed events from public roads in 1925. She sold Black Bess to an Oxford undergraduate called LH Preston, who also raced the car quite a bit at Brooklands and elsewhere before selling her to someone else. This chap then went abroad, and a new buyer came forward in about 1932, a young actor called James Robertson Justice. Yes, that James Robertson Justice, who would later beome a stalwart of British comedy films such as the Doctor series and, appropriately, the vintage Bentley-starring The Fast Lady.

JRJ was a complete unknown at the time, and discovered that Black Bess needed work he couldn’t afford. So she sat, abandoned, in McEvoy’s works in Derby until Bill Boddy followed up a rumour that there was a strange Bugatti lurking there and wrote about her in the Bugatti Owners’ Club magazine Bugantics. This stirred up interest in the car and she was rescued by Colonel GM Giles, vice-president of the club and a serious Bugatti enthusiast – as was his brother Eric, who was president.

Col. Giles’ purchase of Black Bess on May 24, 1935, was the turning point in the old warhorse’s fortunes. He restored the car to a standard that was pretty unusual in pre-war days, spending a lot of money on having the body and mechanicals overhauled. He also paid for a hood, interior retrim, new windscreen and a set of electric lights.

That’s how Black Bess is presented today (minus the hood). For the past 20 years she’s been looked after by Bugatti specialist Ivan Dutton and his son Tim, and it’s Tim who’s on hand when Octane’s man rolls up for a test drive. It’s a busy day – a client is turning up for advice on how to get the best out of his Type 35 – so Tim suggests a quick demo of how to drive Black Bess, and then he’ll leave me to it.

O-o-kay, then…

Black Bess stands tall and proud but she’s not actually that big, with a short 8ft 4in wheelbase and skimpy rear Labourdette body. Climbing in and out is straightforward, thanks to the staggered seats that allow the driver to hurl the big steering wheel about without clouting his riding mechanic on the chin. You’re greeted by a wooden dash that’s well stocked with period Bugatti and Jaeger dials – and a few Dymo labels, an anachronism that reminds you this old racer has been regularly used throughout her life. There’s a big tachometer projecting from the dash, its face marked up to a lowly 3000rpm. As I’m about to find out, you’ll never get near that figure in normal driving.

Fortunately, a week spent living with a Pur Sang replica Type 35B last winter (see Octane issue 57) means I’m already up to speed with a Bug’s starting procedure. Turn the petrol on, in this case by pushing in a plunger, and give a couple of pumps on the Ki-gass primer if the engine’s cold. Use the petrol hand pump – it looks like an old-fashioned insect sprayer – to pressurise the fuel tank. Fully retard the ignition using the brass lever on the right. Check the four-speed gearchange is in neutral and push out the clutch, then press the button for the electric start while your foot hovers over the central throttle, ready to catch the engine as soon as it fires.

Which it does instantly, a brassy boom shattering the peace outside the Dutton workshops. The revs fall back to a lumpy idle as the big five-liter, in-line four churns its cold oil, muttering and rumbling away to itself as if already impatient to get out onto the open road. Black Bess is running a full-length exhaust system to make her a bit more sociable in public, but there’s a stubby side pipe siamesed off the main system for competition use, and the noise that makes must be phenomenal. Probably not unlike that of the Morane-Saulnier Type L
monoplane Roland Garros was flying when he owned Black Bess, in fact.

Tim warns me about the brakes. ‘They work, but they don’t work very well, so you must always assume you won’t be able to stop. The foot pedal operates on the transmission so it’s best to ignore that and rely on the handbrake, which acts on the rear wheels. This is still a 100mph car and it’s too easy to get carried away, come piling round a corner and then find something stationary in the middle of the road. If that happens, you’re stuffed.’

Leaving this cheery thought ringing in my ears, Tim hops out to tend to his customer and I’m on my own. It takes a few minutes to adjust to the 1913 driving experience but, after some initial left-foot clutch jerkiness, it all comes together and I realise that, far from being a highly strung and temperamental thoroughbred, Black Bess is actually as docile as Steptoe and Son’s cart horse Hercules. The gearchange, in particular, is a delight – first, slight pause and feel it into second, then up and across into third as swift as you like, then a straight easy move into fourth. If you can drive a 1920s Ford or Morris, you can pilot five liters of Edwardian chain-drive Bugatti.

The engine is a low-revving slugger. Its estimated maximum power of 100bhp comes in at all of 2400rpm but it feels as though it delivers most of its torque well below that; there’s rarely a need to go above half that rpm before changing up. And you’re not hanging about when you do that: the car is so tall geared that it’s difficult to get out of the second ratio in a 30mph limit. While doing the action photos for this feature, I had to ask the camera car driver to put his foot down a bit between photo runs, to clean off the plugs. Acceleration is of the brisk rather than rocket-like variety but this 95-year-old car will still do the ‘ton’ and the high gearing gives a genuine 70mph cruise – provided you can see far enough ahead to deal with any requirement to slow down again.

The ride is surprisingly firm, but then this is a road-racer rather than a tourer and she also has a shortish wheelbase. At the rear are Bugatti’s trademark reversed quarter-elliptic leaves but there are two pairs of narrow semi-elliptics at the front; Tim Dutton explains later that this gave insurance against breaking a leaf on poor roads, while also reducing the internal friction that a single, wide leaf spring would generate. There are twin lever-arm dampers on the front, a later addition by Colonel Giles – Black Bess didn’t have them originally, although the cars that raced at Indianapolis in WW1 certainly did.

As expected, the steering needs some heft in tighter corners, and it weighs up massively in really sharp turns: I suspect that any sensation of understeer is at least partly due to the sudden effort required of the driver who, until now, has been basking in the almost delicate way BB handles when travelling in a mostly straight line. Tim confirms that Black Bess is a fairly neutral-handling machine: ‘She will ultimately understeer but not as much as you might expect – the gearbox is mounted right back in the chassis, so the weight’s not all up front. If you want to drift around a corner, you have to set it up beforehand because you can’t kick the back end out by getting on the throttle in a corner; that’ll just spin the inside wheel.’

And those brakes? Well, they’re not terribly effective, but they do at least pull the car up square – eventually. In fact, when you’re approaching a junction and need to change down, you can use the ratchet on the handbrake to apply progressive retardation while leaving your right hand free to manipulate the gear lever. Hopefully you will have plenty of time to do this, for Black Bess lives up to Ettore’s famous retort that ‘I build my cars to go, not stop.’

Ettore seems to have had fond memories of Black Bess, for he personally responded at some length to a letter from Colonel Giles in June 1935, offering to have spare parts specially made if the Colonel sent him the old ones as patterns. Col. Giles did not keep the car for very long, however. In 1938, as the approaching war started to impinge on his free time, he put Black Bess up for sale for £200 – to include the spare engine and chassis from no. 471, which almost 40 years later were built up into the third car that still survives.

Another leading Bugatti enthusiast, Rodney Clarke, bought Black Bess and continued to campaign her in VSCC events, duelling with other great Edwardian ‘finds’ such as Sam Clutton’s 1908 Itala. When Clarke had to sell the Bugatti due to illness in 1948, she was bought by yet another big-time fan of the marque, Peter Hampton. He put the car through an even more comprehensive restoration than Col. Giles had done and kept BB for all of 40 years, using and enjoying her just as all the previous owners had done, until old age and increasingly heavy traffic in his part of Sussex caused him to part with her. The following keeper did just the same, this time for a ‘mere’ 20 years, and now she’s looking for someone to continue the tradition.

Back in Buckinghamshire, as I wait to turn BB around in the entrance to a conveniently located industrial estate, a lady in a smart Mercedes draws up. She sees the hat, she smiles; I wave, she waves back. And sitting at the wheel of a truly great Bugatti, I don’t feel at all self-conscious wearing a stupid deerstalker-type thing with flaps.

Thanks to the car’s owner and to Tim Dutton at Ivan Dutton Ltd, www.duttonbugatti.co.uk.

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