The late Fitzroy John Somerset, 5th Baron Raglan, is remembered with tremendous affection within the vintage racing world. Following a successful Chairmanship, Lord Raglan was only the third person to become Patron of the U.K.’s Bugatti Owners’ Club, in succession to Ettore Bugatti himself and the illustrious motor racing peer, Earl Howe. Indeed, here we offer the much-loved Bugatti Type 51 that Fitzroy Raglan raced “around the world” for almost 30 years, during which he and his chosen driver, Sir John Venables-Llewelyn, enjoyed immense success.
Today it is listed by the British BOC as chassis number 51153, fitted with engine number 32. Factory records confirm that this combination of chassis identity and engine was originally assembled at Bugatti’s Molsheim works in April 1933 as the first of a batch of five Type 51s.
Today two cars exist under this chassis identity—one in the U.S. and the other, “The Raglan Type 51,” in the United Kingdom. Each entity is very well known and well recognized within the international Bugatti fraternity. Each is listed as being Bugatti Type 51 51153 within the relevant national Bugatti Registries. While each car features a genuine Bugatti chassis frame of Molsheim manufacture, neither is believed to use the frame with which 51153 started life in 1933.
The Raglan Type 51’s frame as offered here bears the contemporary number 738, which is consistent with it being a late-series Bugatti Type 51 chassis, circa 1934. The American car’s frame bears the early-series Type 35 number 256, which dates from circa 1926.
It should be appreciated that Bugatti Type 35, 37, 39, and 51 chassis frames are essentially identical. Lord Raglan’s Type 51—as confirmed by the respected British Bugatti specialist David Sewell—incorporates the period-numbered, period-manufactured lower crankcase casting, gearbox and back axle that were built into the original 1933 works team car 51153 at the Molsheim factory.
Its genuine Molsheim-made mechanical components are also mounted in the period replacement chassis 738. Such a late-series frame number is consistent with 1934, at a time when 51153 is known to have required extensive repair and reassembly following severe crash damage sustained in that year’s Targa Florio road race in Sicily.
Original period body panels covering the body today include the scuttle and its cowl, which are understood to be from chassis 4950—the scuttle having been widened to suit—while the aero screen is also an original. The tail cowl is also considered original, as it is thought to have been sourced from Bob Robert’s Type 35C, number 4863.
So here we offer “Lord Raglan’s Bugatti Type 51” as brought back to life for him post-1979—and as campaigned so energetically and with such consistent and universal success throughout the many competition seasons since. Lord Raglan’s car has been recognized as representing 51153 within the British Bugatti Register for the past quarter century, embodying as it does at least three of five defining components—the basis of the engine, the gearbox and the back axle from the original car—and all installed in a genuine, period chassis frame.
|1933 Bugatti Type 51 Grand Prix
|Original List Price:
|Tune Up Cost:
|Chassis Number Location:
|Brass tag on left firewall
|Engine Number Location:
|Top of left rear engine mount
|American Bugatti Club
|1924 Alfa Romeo P2, 1932 Alfa Romeo P3, 1926 Maserati Tipo 26, 1924-30 Bugatti Type 35
This car, Lot 327, sold for $1,285,403, including buyer’s premium, at Bonhams’ Retromobile Auction in Paris on February 5, 2011.
One of the defining characteristics of great vintage racing cars is a sense of continuity; it’s why originality is so important in setting the value of different examples.
In the best cars, you can imagine that there remain some few molecules of the sweat and oil from some long-ago driver’s coveralls and hands still riding in the seat material and in the wood of the steering wheel. Perhaps some bits of dust accumulated during an epic drive some 80 years ago are still clumped around the chassis and suspension. There is an identification with glories of the past that stays with a truly original car, a palpable feeling that the souls of past drivers; of Achille Varzi, of René Dreyfus, of Louis Chiron, are somehow present and appreciative that they have not been forgotten. In many ways it stimulates the romance that attracts the serious collector to old racing cars.
Just old race cars
The problem with Bugattis is that they are arguably both the most romantic of the pre-war marques—and the least likely racing cars to have survived intact and unscathed from their early careers.
There are a number of reasons for this.
First, Bugatti can be usefully thought of as the Lotus of its time; for the racing cars at least, the designs were as light and minimalist as possible, which was a very different approach from the heavy and robust competition from Bentley and Mercedes.
These cars were never intended to last more than a few races or a season, with the result that they broke a lot in competition.
Second, whatever Ettore’s intent, these are cars that people never have stopped racing, so the use hours and opportunities for disaster have accumulated wildly over the years.
Third, Bugatti built a lot of extremely similar cars: the Type 35 was designed in 1924, and the essential chassis/body/mechanical components of the competition cars (and wannabe street racer 35A) remained easily interchangeable through to the Type 51 built until 1935, which was a production run of roughly 700 cars. After the first few years, whenever something broke or got crashed, it was a lot easier to go grab parts out of the Bugatti junkyard than to repair and reuse the original bits. They were, after all, just old race cars.
Few original racers left
Thus we have a situation where truly original, important Bugatti racers are revered and coveted, but there are very, very few left in existence. A further complication is that continuing use of the cars 80 years after the fact—and a thriving replica market—have spawned a cottage industry that supplies everything from brand-new replacement parts to complete cars.
In today’s world it is possible to spend anywhere from $250,000 (for a 2010 Argentine replica) to probably $5 million or more (for the very original “dirt and sweat” examples) to own a racing Bugatti—or something that looks like one. As you can imagine, in between is a huge range of intermediate possibilities—shades of gray, if you will—with appropriate price tags.
So, what can we say about the subject car? The Type 51 was the last of the traditional Grand Prix Bugattis. It used a twin-cam, 2.3-liter straight-8 copy of the Miller Indianapolis engine in place of the earlier single-cam 8 of the Type 35, but varied little beyond that.
The radiator and cowl were noticeably fatter to get better cooling and clear the cams, which is the easiest visual clue. They had the historical misfortune of having to compete with much more advanced cars from Italy and Germany in the early-to-mid 1930s and were not wildly successful—but they sold well, with 40 built.
Many consider the Type 51 it to be the ultimate iteration of the classic Grand Prix Bugatti, although others prefer the earlier, more successful Type 35. The originality problem exists in spades for the Type 55, with maybe five moderately original ones extant—and the rest are seriously compromised.
A bitsa with tons of race provenance
This Raglan car is in all honesty a complete “Bitsa” (bitsa this car, bitsa that one) with only the most tenuous connection to any real originality or history. But it is a very well-known example with mostly original parts and over 25 years of racing acceptance in the ownership of Lord Raglan, one of the most revered “Bugattistes” ever known. It’s a weapons-grade version of an extremely collectible car; your entry will be welcome anywhere, and you don’t need to worry about damaging history when something breaks.
It’s not a great car, however, and never will be. Seven pages of catalog “splainin’” didn’t kid anyone about its reality, and the market was very rational when the hammer dropped. My knowledgeable friends explained that the car itself should be worth $1m to maybe a bit more, with a reasonable premium added on because of the Lord Raglan association, and that’s almost exactly where things turned out. It’s an excellent and useable car for what it is, and I’d say well sold and fairly bought as a racer—not a collectible.