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This 1931 Bugatti Type 51 began life as a Grand Prix racer. (Greg Mahoney)
This 1931 Bugatti Type 51 began life as a Grand Prix racer. (Greg Mahoney)

Classic Car

If this Bugatti could talk Add to ...

When it comes to a storied provenance, this vintage Bugatti's eight-decade journey through time, which has taken it from track racer to boulevardier and back again - twice - has to be one of the most remarkable.

It began life as a Grand Prix racer in the hands of a French legend, morphed into a voluptuously re-bodied babe magnet with a Parisian playboy at the wheel, then was starkly re-skinned in its racing suit to take part in the American vintage competition scene. Finally, re-clad in its painstakingly restored haute auto couture street cruising attire, was named best in show at the recent prestigious Dana Point Concours d'Elegance in southern California.

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Unlikely as its elegant current bodywork would suggest, this Type 51 was built as a Bugatti factory team Grand Prix car in 1931. A successor to perhaps the best recognized racer developed by Milan-born prodigy Ettore Bugatti at his feudal-style Molsheim estate/car factory in France, the perfectly proportioned and highly successful Type 35 of the late 1920s.

The Type 51 was essentially a development of that Type 35, employing its steel channel frame, solid front and rear axles, unique spoked aluminum wheels with huge finned drums cast integrally and clad in horseshoe radiator and taper-tailed aluminum bodywork, but fitted with the latest twin-cam version of Bugatti's classic straight-eight engine.

This supercharged, 2.3-litre motor, with cylinder head "inspired" by American Harry Miller's racing engines, produced 160 hp (185 on alcohol) and through a four-speed gearbox could propel the skinny-tired Type 51 to about 225 mph.

Type 51's team cars were piloted by Italian Achille Varzi and two of France's racing heroes Rene Dreyfus and Louis Chiron in their 1931 debut season. Among the year's successes was Varzi's win in the Tunis Grand Prix, Chiron's victory in the Monaco Grand Prix and the pair teamed up to win the 10-hour French Grand Prix at Montlhery.

Chiron, born in 1899, took up racing in 1923, joining the Bugatti team in 1925. He went on to win two dozen major Grand Prix and finish second in another dozen, driving Bugattis and later Alfa-Romeos and Talbots, his last win in 1946 at the age of 56. He went on to manage the Monaco Grand Prix and the Monte Carlo Rally for Prince Ranier.

Bugatti gave Type 51 chassis number 51133 to Chiron at the end of the 1931 season and he campaigned it for a couple more before selling it. In 1936, it ended up in the hands of Andre Bith, the son of a French pharmaceutical manufacturer.

Young Bith cut off the tail and moved the spare back there from its side-mounted position, painted it black and upholstered it in white leather, which likely helped attract femmes fatales of the day.

But Bith must have also fancied himself a bit of a car designer and drew up plans for a coupe with a dramatic central tail fin seemingly inspired by the exotic-looking Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic designed by his good pal Jean Bugatti.

The car and the drawings were handed over to coachbuilder Louis Dubos in 1937, who finished the project within a few months. Painted in Bugatti blue with tan leather interior, it looked sensational but (as one story goes) didn't quite suit Bith's girlfriend, the reigning Miss France, who had him repaint it in a darker shade.

Maybe she was right. It was then entered it in the Bagetalle Concours d'Elegance where it won first in class and second overall honours, but Bith sold it shortly afterwards. It then went through a series of owners, including another great French racer Maurice Trintignant.

The car eventually found its way to the United States and into the hands of an enthusiast who removed the Dubos body and began a restoration of the chassis.

The un-finished Type 51 chassis was then purchased in the early 1960s by J.B. Nethercutt, co-founder of Merle Norman Cosmetics and creator of the Nethercutt Collection and Museum in Sylmar, Calif. He had a replica Grand Prix body created for it and, with cycle fenders and lights fitted, it was driven on the street and raced from time to time in vintage events.

But museum curator Skip Marketti says research revealed the chassis had at one time been fitted with the lovely coupe body created by Dubos. And this was tracked down to a gentleman who had purchased it and then created a completely accurate replica Type 51 chassis and engine to slide under it.

The Nethercutt collection purchased this car on its owner's death and began the process of reuniting the Dubos body with the original 51133 chassis. After a full historically correct restoration completed a few years ago, it won Best in Show at Amelia Island and added the Best of Show Honours awarded Jack and Helen Nethercutt at the Dana Point concours at the end of June.

"The dedication of the Nethercutts to restore this thing has been just incredible," says Marketti.

And the story doesn't quite end there. The leftover bits - the replica chassis and body - are being brought together to create an accurate representation of one Bugatti's most legendary racers.

Back in 1931

Author Mordecai Richler is born and goes on to become a force in Canadian literature with novels that include The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Barney's Version, Jacob Two-Two and Soloman Gursky Was Here. He died in 2001.

The Universal Pictures horror movie Frankenstein makes its debut. Based on the Mary Shelley novel, it tells the tale of a scientist and his hunchbacked assistant who put together a body from bits and pieces and bring it to life through the magic of electricity.

The Statute of Westminster goes into effect, granting Canada full legislative independence in national and international affairs with the British Crown represented by a governor-general.

Mao Zedong, who will go on to lead the communist party, and General Zhu Do proclaim the establishment of the Chinese Soviet Republic with backing from Soviet Russia.

One-eyed pilot Wiley Post and navigator Harold Gatty take off from New York in their single-engined Lockheed Vega "Winnie Mae" to fly around the world on June 23 and arrive back 15,474 miles and 15 days, eight hours and 52 minutes later, beating the Graf Zeppelin's time of 21 days.

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