I felt like I had entered a tinkerer’s medieval blacksmith shop. Vintage Gran Prix Bugattis from the 1920s and ’30s were strewn haphazardly about the courtyard of the tony Chaminade Resort and Spa in Santa Cruz, CA, and seemingly half of them were being taken apart and put back together.
The tap, tap, tap of a hammer came from one car as a front suspension was taken apart. Another Bug had its engine out and dismantled, and a new crankshaft that had been flown in from England was installed, the mechanic carefully turning it to seat it properly in its Babbitt bearings.
Canadian SCMer Robert Follows greeted me and asked if I happened to have a brass mallet with me. “I’ve got a few adjustments to make on my Type 44,” Follows said.
Resting regally in front of the resort was a pair of Bugatti Veyrons, and they seemed to be watching their ancient brethren with royal detachment—it would be most unlikely for a Veyron owner to adjust the spark as he crank-started his car.
I had been invited to join the American Bugatti Club as it celebrated its 50th anniversary. More than 70 pre-World War II Bugattis—and a few EB110s and Veyrons—were driving from Monterey to Los Angeles.
During the next three days, I had a chance to drive a supercharged Type 51 and a normally aspirated Type 35A for a few hundred miles. In addition, I spent a couple of hours behind the wheel of a Bugatti Veyron, and covered what seemed to be about 1,000 miles in the process.
In terms of value, many of the early Grand Prix cars command more than $1m when they come to market, similar to the price of a new Veyron. Of course, the driving experiences couldn’t be more different.
My first 50 miles on the tour down Highway One were spent piloting a 1931 Type 51, chassis number 51153, RHD of course—and part of the Peter Mullin collection. The engine was a 2-valve, 2.3-liter straight 8, with double-overhead cams with supercharger. Driving the car was preceded by a quick stop at Target to find shoes narrow enough to fit in the tight footwell. A pair of Aqua Socks, at $9.99, was perfect; I’m wondering if there is a market opportunity here for SCM.
The car was better than I was. Power was plentiful, steering tight and brakes excellent. My instructor, Bugatti historian Julius Kruta, gave me, “An A for shifting, sometimes, and a C- when you forgot the shift pattern.” The non-synchro gearbox responded well to a deft touch, but the shift pattern itself was backwards, with first down and to the left, and second straight up. In fact, this is the same pattern that we have in our Isetta, but the cars didn’t have much else—actually anything—in common.
Every vintage Bugatti owner needs a Leatherman tool in his pocket—several stops were made to tighten various nuts, like those holding the wings to the body, as they tried to work themselves loose.
As we motored, I wondered whether the Brescias, Type 35s and 37s were the Cobras of their eras. They are brutally fast, robust in construction and relatively affordable—and immediately at home on the race track.
After lunch, I continued driving the 51, alternately directing the shifter through the gearbox like the proverbial knife through hot butter, and, when I got it wrong, creating the sound of walnut shells dumped in a blender.
The prodigious amount of torque available made the 51 easy to drive despite my ham-handedness, and I wondered if there were a version of Gran Turismo available where I could practice shifting on a $100 console instead of a $1.5m classic.
The next morning, as we left the Cavalier Resort in San Simeon, I slid behind the wheel of one of the Veyrons. I’d driven one before, but only on an airport runway in a rather ridiculous and irrelevant demonstration of its acceleration.
By this time, we were on lightly-trafficked, twisting two-lane, and I asked if I could push the car. The response from my handler was, “Don’t be gentle, it’s a rental.” I didn’t ask again.
During the next 100 miles, the Veyron simply made the straightaways disappear. With 1,001 horsepower on tap, when you push the throttle, you’re instantly at warp speed. You set up for a turn, power through it, floor it and boom—you’re at the next turn.
The Sport Mode of the transmission was obtrusive, as the Veyron’s computer and I had different ideas of which gear was needed. However, the paddle shifters were perfectly placed and changed gears nearly instantaneously.
“Tossing around a Veyron” is not something one would do casually on a public highway, as when you get to a high enough speed where the car begins to talk to you, you are going really fast—and if something should go awry, the chances of an unfortunate, not to say disastrous result are very high.
Flashing by the vintage Bugattis provided a near-dioramic experience, as this supercar of today often passed the supercars of yesteryear at a speed differential of more than 100 mph.
Much has been written about the technology and performance of the Veyron, and there’s little to add after 100 miles at speed. My overriding impression remains that if you want to go impossibly fast, in an impossibly expensive car, the Veyron is the way to do it today.
As with any modern supercar, much of the fun of owning it comes from the attention it brings. With most vintage cars, a large proportion of the joy comes from the mastery of the mechanicals. Assuming that spending $1.5m on a toy fits within your budget, whether you find your sweet spot in an effortless 175 mph or in a laborious 75 mph will decide your ride.
My last afternoon was spent driving a 1925 Type 35A, chassis 4631, owned by SCMer David Duthu from Taylor Lake Village, Texas. It had a naturally-aspirated two-liter 8-cylinder engine—not the torque-monster the Type 51 was, but powerful enough. My shifting was better, perhaps because David was kind enough to say, “Wrong gear! Wrong gear!” when I tried to pull away from a stoplight in second.
Driving through downtown Solvang during rush hour presented as many challenges as most vintage races I’ve driven. I had to be in the right gear at the right time, try not to rear-end modern Kias that could stop in one-quarter the distance of the Bug, and to keep an eye of the gauges as well.
I envied the Bugatti owners as they set off on their journey the next morning. Some still had thousands of miles ahead of them as they headed on to the Colorado Grand, exercising their nearly 100-year-old race cars on public roads, confident in their abilities to repair whatever might go wrong. In fact, being behind the wheel of the right vintage car turns the rest of the world into an automotive Disneyland, where every driver is Indiana Jones and every road is his Adventure.