Ettore Bugatti was one of the great racing car designers of the 1920s. Unfortunately his stubbornness and conservatism held him back in the following years. With religious conviction he continued to use solid axles and cable operated drum brakes at a time when the competition had moved forward with independent suspension and hydraulic brakes. It's a testament of Bugatti's talent that his 'old fashioned' Grand Prix cars were still relatively competitive. The last successful Bugatti Grand Prix racer, the Type 59, was built for the 1934 when the new '750 kg' regulations came into effect.
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The Type 59's chassis was nearly identical to the one used for Bugatti's previous Grand Prix car, the Type 54. So much so that the chassis numbers of the new car actually started with '54', suggesting Bugatti actually considered them equal. A steel ladder frame formed the basis of the chassis. At the front the solidly mounted engine provided rigidity while rear halve was intentionally 'soft' to aid the handling. Unusually the front and rear axles were constructed from two halves treaded together in the middle, adding some flexibility to the traditional solid axles. Needless to say the large drum brakes were operated by cables.
While at first glance the straight eight engine fitted in the Type 59 also looked familiar, it did represent a brand new development. It was designed in 1933 for a dual purpose; to not only power the Type 59 but also the upcoming Type 57 grand tourer. It distinguished itself from the earlier designs by using six plain bearings for the crank instead of a roller bearing crank. The twin overhead camshafts were driven by gears and actuated two valves per cylinder. In Grand Prix specification, it was fitted with dry-sump lubrication and a Roots-type supercharger. At its debut the engine displaced 2.8 litre, which was soon enlarged to just under 3.3 litre.
A separate four-speed gearbox was fitted between the engine and rear-axle. The propellor-shaft ran down the centre of the car with the driver's seat off-set to the right; Ettore Bugatti stuck by the idea that Grand Prix cars should also be able to seat two. From the horse-shoe grille back to the pointed tail, the all-aluminium bodywork was again reminiscent of the earlier Grand Prix Bugattis. The completed car was however noticeably lower thanks to its underslung rear suspension and dry-sump engine. Beautiful finishings touches were the brand new wheels with piano-wire spokes. They supported radial loads only; an aluminium back-plate dealt with the torque from the drive and the braking.
Lengthy delays meant that the Type 59 did not debut until late in the 1933 season at the Spanish Grand Prix in San Sebastian. The two cars raced finished a solid fourth and sixth. A three car team was readied for the first season run under the new regulations that mandated a maximum weight of 750 kg. One of the Bugatti drivers was none other than Tazio Nuvolari, who was backed by French drivers René Dreyfus and Jean-Pierre Wimille. In its original 2.8 liter guise, the new Bugatti was no match for the then two year old Alfa Romeo P3s. This problem was soon cured by stroking the engine from 88 to 100 mm. This lifted the power to 250 bhp.
The upgraded Type 59s not only faced the seasoned Alfa Romeo but also the newly arrived 'Silver Arrows' built by Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union. Bugatti had to use their own money to go racing while the Italian and German government had made racing a matter of national importance and supported their own teams. The Type 59 only managed to score a lucky victory in the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, in the hands of Dreyfus, when all top runners crashed out. Antonio Brivio made it a one-two win. Late in the year Wimille finished first in the minor Algiers Grand Prix. Especially the cable operated brakes hampered the new machine's performance.
Facing an insurmountable mountain to climb, Ettore Bugatti did the only sensible thing and withdrew from Grand Prix racing at the end of the year. Four of the existing Type 59s, now with 59*** chassis numbers, were sold to British and French privateers, while at least two cars were retained by the factory. The fine handling Type 59s faired very well in the hands of the privateers, especially in Britain. Two of the cars that remained in Molsheim were converted into sports cars to campaign in lucrative French events. Thanks to Ettore Bugatti's conservatism, the conversion was very straightforward; all that was really needed was to fit cycle-wing fenders. The cars were also fitted with naturally aspirated engines.
The thinly disguised Grand Prix racers were not welcomed with open arms and Delahaye even threatened to boycot any race where the Type 59s would start. It did not help as the two Bugattis scored a one-two victory at their very first outing. Over the following months and years the two 'sports cars' were further developed and eventually regained their superchargers. One of them was even renumbered with a Type 57 number to underline it really was a sports car. Alongside these existing cars, Bugatti built several more specials based on the Type 59 chassis for Grand Prix and sports car racing. These were raced with little success until Germany decided dominance on the racing track just did not suffice.
The Type 59 was the last Grand Prix car produced by Bugatti in relatively large numbers. It represents the ultimate development of the all conquering Type 35 built nearly a decade earlier. Sadly its results show that it was overtaken by time even before it hit the racing track. Some of the four surviving Grand Prix cars were raced with great success by the likes of Patrick Lindsay and Neil Corner in historic events after the War. Today these rare machines are prized collector items and none of them have been used in anger for many years. In 2005 a genuine survivor, in original but non-running condition, changed hands for £1.3 million at a Bonhams auction. Current values are at least twice as high.