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1923 bugatti type 32 tank replica


Vittore Bugatti first entered the Grand Prix arena in 1922 following numerous successes over the previous two years with his 1½-liter 16-valve racing voiturettes. From 1922 to 1925 the regulations imposed a maximum engine capacity of two liters so Bugatti designed a purpose-built straight-eight racing engine which made its debut in a three-car team fitted with cigar-shaped bodies for that year’s French Grand Prix held on July 15, conveniently on roads between Strasbourg and his Molsheim factory. A single car ran in the Italian Grand Prix later in the season and five cars with modified coachwork took part in the 1923 Indianapolis 500, but victories at this elevated level of motor racing eluded their ambitious creator.

By the end of 1922 touring versions of the two-liter racing car were entering production and Bugatti duly put his mind to the design of a new Grand Prix car for the following season which he hoped would prove to be more successful. This entire car was novel, from the underslung chassis with its reversed quarter-elliptic suspension at both ends to its engine’s five main bearing crankshaft with roller-bearing connecting rods, its three-speed transaxle and its all-enveloping streamlined coachwork which earned it the nickname of the Tank.


One prototype was built, followed by a team of four race cars, which made their debut in the 1923 French Grand Prix held at Tours. The new cars were undoubtedly fast, one later being timed at 117 mph over a kilometer, but their remarkably short wheelbase caused high-speed handling difficulties for their drivers, aggravated perhaps by their bodywork generating aerodynamic lift. Maybe as a result, two of the Tanks crashed early in the race and another retired, leaving Friderich to finish the 500-mile event a distant third some twenty-five minutes behind Segrave’s winning Sunbeam. The Tanks never again ran in a Grand Prix and at the end of the season Bugatti retained one and sold three, one having already been written off at Tours.

In the early ’70s, Bob Sutherland became increasingly fascinated by the Bugatti Tanks. He avidly studied all the available published information until he became so hooked that he just had to have one. However he knew that there was only one survivor, the one that the factory had retained, and that it was hidden from sight in the Schlumpf Collection and most definitely not available. Additionally there was in private ownership in England, but also not for sale, an engine, transmission and various other parts. Accordingly, he decided such was his desire, that if he could not buy a Tank then his only alternative was to make himself one.

But how to proceed? There were no drawings, and not enough detailed photographs to permit the construction of a truly faithful replica. With insufficient information to work from and no complete car to inspect and copy, the ambitious project appeared to have stalled before even leaving the ground.

A year later a fortuitous turn of events in France resurrected the project when the Schlumpf Collection’s doors were thrown open to the public for the first time. With his restorer friend Peter Shaw, Bob set out in November 1978 for Mulhouse to examine their Tank in minute detail and thereby reappraise the viability of constructing a replica. They crawled all over the car and took thousands of photographs until they were satisfied that they had all the information they needed to proceed. The project was on again, and the Bugatti Centenary to be celebrated in Alsace in September 1981 was set as a target date for completion.

Peter Shaw in England began construction of the chassis and bodywork from the photographs while back in America a complete Type 35A Bugatti engine was purchased and its crankcase exchanged for one from a Type 30, the one-piece barrel design of which closely resembled that of a Tank’s, apart from the mounting details. Meanwhile, Paul Foulkes-Halbard, who owned the collection of Tank parts in England, generously had duplicates cast of his steering box casing, transaxle casing and brake master cylinder. Numerous other essential parts were provided by various Bugatti friends and suppliers.

Back in Colorado, Bob Seiffert was working on the engine, modifying the Type 30 crankcase to the exact Tank format and rebuilding the remainder of the unit. The original Type 30 three-bearing design of crankshaft was retained but fitted with modern metalled connecting rods. By early 1981 Shaw had completed work on the axles and had started to assemble the rolling chassis. The finished engine was freighted to England but time was running short. Seiffert and Shaw worked late into the night for a week before the start of the rally, and the car was eventually started up and briefly driven for the first time on the last afternoon. The following day they set out to trailer the car to Molsheim for the commencement of the rally.

During the course of the rally the car was greatly admired by Elizabeth Junek who, with her husband, had bought one of the Tanks from Bugatti in 1923 and had driven it in several Czechoslovakian hillclimbs. Immediately after the rally a number of initial teething troubles were resolved before the Tank was trailered to Tours where, fifty-eight years after the event, it was driven at representative speeds around the original 1923 Grand Prix course. The following year the car was shipped to Colorado after which the two Bobs, Sutherland and Seiffert, competed in the car in a number of West Coast historic events.

Over the intervening years the car has been exercised from time to time in suitable events, most recently by a third Bob, Antipodean Bugatti authority Dr. Bob King, first at Australia’s 1997 Winton Historic meeting, then at their Sandown and Phillip Island events and lastly at Winton again in 1998. Bob subsequently wrote in glowing terms of his impressions of driving this Tank in the Australian Bugatti Bulletin, praising in particular its performance and, contrary to expectations, its handling.

But surely the most picturesque driving cameo was provided in 1983 by Bob Sutherland himself, writing in his own inimitable style in Pur Sang, the quarterly journal of the American Bugatti Club, about how the car had been conceived and constructed: “You can well imagine that with no firewall there is intimate communication between driver and machinery. The clutch whirrs dangerously close to one’s left leg, the pipes get hot, oil splatters all over you, and there is a lot of exhaust, hot water, steam, noise and danger. The exhaust glows, gas dribbles steadily on your feet, and backfires light up the universe. All very exciting.”

{analysis}{auto}340{/auto} This car sold for $105,000 at Christie’s Auction at Pebble Beach on August 20, 2000.

As a rule I don’t like replicas, but this is not just any replica, and it does not replicate an ordinary car. The Type 32 was a milestone car, which introduced the concept of streamlining for the first time in automotive history. Only four cars were built to contest the Grand Prix of France in 1923 at Tours. The Bugatti streamliner was affectionately nicknamed le Tank. With a 78\" wheelbase and an overall height of only 31\", the T32 is a strange sight today, even more so in 1923. Constructed to comply with the Grand Prix requirements of the day (engine displacement versus weight), the car had a 2-liter SOHC straight-eight engine, and weighed about 1,750 lb. Besides the streamlined body, the T32 featured front hydraulic brakes (revolutionary for Bugatti) and an underslung chassis. The French automotive press, usually very patriotic (or unashamedly biased) hated the car with passion.

Not only was Bugatti present with his weird car, but another French manufacturer, Gabriel Voisin, had a car with a similar body that was even more radical: it was missing its chassis. Gabriel Voisin had the audacity to construct the first monocoque chassis. That was a bit much for the portly gentry who were les patrons d’Automobile Club de France, who tried to ban the Voisin. At the end, as the French always do, everyone kissed and made up, and the Voisin was allowed to run. This auspicious moment in automotive history had another first: the French motoring press actually praised an English car (a conventional Sunbeam).

None of the French cars were covered with glory. The best the T32 could do was a distant 3rd behind two Sunbeams. Two Tanks retired and the third one was totaled. They were victims of very effective streamlining, which at top speed (almost 120 mph) produced aerodynamic lift. Add to that its go-kart wheelbase and it becomes clear why the cars were so twitchy in a straight line, and virtually impossible to drive.

Le Patron, being nobody’s fool, retired the remaining T32s, and they never raced again. He kept one, sold one to Madame Elizabeth Junek, and the third one disappeared.

The late Bob Sutherland needs no introduction to anyone even vaguely interested in vintage cars. He loved them, he raced them with passion and he gave us the Colorado Grand. The story of why and how he created the T32 replica is told very eloquently in Christie’s catalog description above. The bottom line was that he had to have one and there were none to be had for love or money.

I had a personal experience with this very T32 replica. Recall the other French car at Tours, the one missing the chassis, called a Voisin. My French friend, Philipp Moch, wanted that very Grand Prix Voisin. He had a small problem; none were in existence. So in the late ’80s he decided to build an exact replica of that car. (Moch races three-wheeled Morgans and old bikes with sidecars, in addition to being a serious Voisin collector.) During his years of collecting, Moch had amassed a treasure trove of basic components for the GP car, and he had access to the Voisin archives. His task was daunting, but easier than Sutherland’s. . .that’s why it took him only six years. After building and sorting out his car, he raced it and showed it all over Europe. He did it all; well, almost all. By the end of ’94, there was only one thing left for him to do: recreate a duel of the two rival French makes that almost took place at the 1923 Grand Prix of France. Put in plain language, he wanted to race Sutherland and his T32 replica, mano a mano, any place, any time. Since Moch does not speak English and Sutherland did not speak a word of French, your humble scribe became a translator. The arrangement was easy; Sutherland was as enthusiastic as Moch. We had a duel in the sun: Laguna Seca, Sunday, August 20, 1995.

That Friday morning, August 18, I took my first look at both replicas, which were pitted next to each other. I usually salute replicas with one finger, but this time I couldn’t do it, not even in my mind. Both cars were dirty, with stone chips and leaking oil. They looked like real race cars.

Even more fascinating than the cars were the two drivers. They were engaged in animated conversation, using sign language, baby talk, and a few mispronounced words of each other’s language. My services were needed only occasionally. Their passion for their cars, and what they were about to do, was so intense that it made them able to communicate.

There is no scarcity of fascinating race cars in the pits at Laguna in August, but our pits were mobbed. The two replicas were crowd favorites. I thought that the race itself would be anticlimactic, because the relationship of two drivers was so intensely amicable in the pits and during practice. I thought, to use an old boxing expression that they might “leave the fight in the gym.” How wrong I was; they went at it like two undefeated Mexican featherweights, standing in the middle of the ring, neither man willing to take a step back, raining punches on each other. They were passing and re-passing each other at every turn. There were many quicker, later model cars in that race, but all you could hear from the

announcer was Sutherland, Moch, Bugatti and Voisin. The crowd went wild. They stole the race; they were the race.

To tell the truth, I never knew who won the race of two replicas; I was in the pits, Madame Moch was bored—so I did my best to entertain her. But on second thought, I know who won—their passion was the winner.

I guess I always knew that all replicas are not created equal; this is a noble one. . .and if you had to have a T32, you missed it. This one was as close as it gets.—Raymond D. Milo (Milo is SCM’s French car expert, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .){/analysis}

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