Racing history for sale
The winner of the first Monaco Grand Prix is up for grabs. Simon de Burton on the incredible tale of a timeless classic
Tuesday 30 August 2005
But there is one person among the crowd who isn't interested in picking through the cases of old Bordeaux or checking out the rag-tag bits of furniture. He's a scrap-merchant called Edmond Escudier, and he's there for just one thing: an old Bugatti, which was found gathering dust in a barn among the wine casks.
He wants it so much that, over a Pastis and several Gauloises in the village bar, he agrees to stand lunch for all the other prospective buyers in exchange for their promise that they won't "bid him up". They don't take much persuading. An old car like that? What good is it to anyone?
In fact, they couldn't resist a giggle as a couple of people not in on the act made perfunctory bids, pushing the eventual price M. Escudier had to pay to the heady sum of 120 francs. For the sake of argument, let's call that £12 in English money.
The only person laughing today, however, is the 84-year-old M. Escudier, because his £12 investment is now set to return the astonishing sum of up to £2m when it comes under the hammer again, 51 years later, at Bonhams' "Goodwood Revival" auction next month. It won't be the top Bugatti price achieved at auction - that distinction belongs to a Type 41 Royale, sold at Christie's in November 1987 for £5.5m. However, it is still an impressive barn find.
Call it foresight, call it a hunch, but M. Escudier just knew there was something special about the 1928 Type 35B. What he probably didn't realise is that by never attempting to restore it, modify it or improve it he was adding to its value. Originality is all, it would seem. For Ettore Bugatti (1881-1947) created cars that were as much works of art as feats of engineering.
The earliest Bugatti cars were built in 1909 in an abandoned dye works at Molsheim, near Strasbourg, which produced the first "baby" racing cars in 1911. It was not until 1924, however, that the Type 35 GP car appeared. With its cast-alloy wheels, functional yet beautiful bodywork, ultra-light components and jewel-like eight-cylinder engine it was hugely expensive, yet, in the hands of the gentlemen (and women) racers who could afford it, the model became the most successful "off the shelf" racing car of all time.
Only 90 supercharged Type 35 Bugattis were built, and the example being sold by Bonhams is one of just three "B" models of its kind to survive.
In the case of this one, M. Escudier was preserving what is now regarded as one of the most original pieces of motor- racing history to be offered for sale in decades, because the 1928 Type 35B, chassis number 4914, is the actual car that won the very first Monaco Grand Prix.
Held over 100 laps around Monte Carlo on 14 April 1929, it was an entirely new event and, as such, an unknown quantity that held little interest for the big works teams run by Mercedes and Alfa Romeo.
The field of 16 starters, however, did include most of the top independent drivers such as Rudolf Caracciola in his fire-breathing SSK Mercedes and, in the winning Bugatti, the English racer William Grover-Williams.
Since the cars were to be painted in the national colours of their drivers, the Williams Bugatti received a healthy coat of green paint before the off - and one of the many features of the car's patination that is currently exciting lovers of the marque are the traces of this very green paint showing through where bits of the subsequently applied blue have chipped off.
Later in the year the car was sold to a Bugatti agent in Nice for Fr110,000 who, in turn, sold it to a Parisian sportsman called Albert de Bondeli, who spent his winters in the Riviera town.
De Bondeli wanted it for his protégé, a young racing driver called René Dreyfus, who enjoyed success in the car before it fell into the hands of another racer, Aristide Lumachi, who was the last person to campaign in it before it was bought by the wine merchant and then its current owner.
Simon Kidston, the head of Bonhams' European car department, who has been tracking the Bugatti for the past seven years, says M. Escudier had no idea of the car's victory in the first Monaco Grand Prix until 1963 when Hugh Conway, an expert on the marque, learnt of its existence and established its fabulous racing history.
"One of the most remarkable aspects of the story is that many people have tried to buy the car from M. Escudier over the years, including the collector Fritz Schlumpf, who effectively offered to pay him any price he demanded. The owner just wasn't interested in selling," says Kidston.
"After Hugh Conway discovered it was the actual car that won the first Monaco Grand Prix it became quite a well-known sight in the South of France - it was used to open the Monaco course prior to the Grands Prix of 1965 and 1997 and, for the past 11 years, it has been one of the main exhibits in Prince Rainier's motor museum.
"The Type 35 B is the definitive Grand Prix Bugatti and, of the few that survive, this undoubtedly has the best history... We believe it to be the most original and unspoilt Bugatti in existence. Everything on it is genuine, even down to its factory-fitted brass lap timer - which is actually a converted billiards counter - and we can truthfully say that it will be sold with real Monaco air in the tyres."
The Monaco Grand Prix-winning Bugatti will be sold by Bonhams at the Goodwood Revival meeting in Chichester, West Sussex, on 16 September. For more information, call 020-7393 3900 or see www.bonhams.com
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