One could argue all day about the most successful racing car of all time. The Cosworth Ford DFV won its first race ever and went on to score a record 155 grand prix victories between 1967 and 1983 – but was of course merely an engine not a whole car. In 1988 the McLaren MP4-4 won 15 out of 16 rounds of the F1 World Championship, losing only Monza (to Ferrari) which in any case many felt was more of an own goal than anything else – but that was still just one car in one season. And whilst it’s true that various Reynards and Formula Fords have won literally hundreds of races, these are mostly at club level so whilst the numbers are high the prestige is somewhat lacking.
Take a look at the Bugatti Type 35, however, and you’re looking at something really special. There are faster Bugattis than this one, like the twin-cam Type 51 which came after it. There are much rarer Bugattis, such as the ill-fated Type 59 which never quite cut it against Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union and was terminated after just half a dozen had been completed. There are certainly much, much more expensive Bugattis out there too, most obviously the Type 41 ‘Royale’. And there are even a few better-looking Bugattis out there, such as the . . . no, hang on, scratch that. There aren’t any better looking Bugattis, and actually if there’s a better looking racing car out there I struggle to imagine what it might be.
The truth is the Type 35 got everything right. A 1924 design (that was the 35, the supercharged ‘B’ came three years later) it was compact, beautiful, technologically revolutionary for its day, and above all the perfect synthesis of form and function. A bit like the Spitfire a decade later – that is Supermarine’s version not the Triumph – its appearance was chaste, elegant but nevertheless totally, unwaveringly purposeful. It also managed to do what its creator set out to do, winning more than 1,500 races in its day – scores of them big international majors and against the most serious competition – and today powder-blue Type 35s and 35Bs are still winning races in vintage events right around the world.
Indeed if you go back to the 1920s its possible to find pictures of races in which every single car competing was a Type 35 of one sort or another. That wasn’t just a testament to the brilliance of its design and execution, but also the consequence of Ettore Bugatti deciding, for the first time ever, to sell one of his grand prix designs to privateers. (A move which must have been hugely lucrative and, for a whole variety of reasons, quite out of the question for a leading team today.) Similarly the same engine was employed in a roadcar, the four-seater Type 43 Grand Sport which, as the first 100 mph sports car ever offered for sale to the public, was in more ways than one very much the Ferrari of its day.
In the 1920s, clearly top-level motorsport was far less sophisticated than it was to become, but there was nothing at all unsophisticated about this particular contender. Besides the aforementioned supercharger, the 2.3 litre straight-eight featured a roller-bearing crankshaft, three large valves per cylinder – this despite the fact that earlier ‘Brescia’ Bugattis had four – and a single overhead camshaft. Combined with a really superb chassis, sleek bodywork behind the company’s distinctive horseshoe radiator, and outstanding ribbed brake drums (which were integral to Bugatti’s innovative, trademark eight-spoke cast aluminium wheels) it was a formidable package.
There’s an element of romance to the Type 35 too, in that it was born of failure, something which, if anything, makes it even more desireable.
In 1923 the autocratic and ferociously competitive M. Bugatti was naturally keen to see his young company at the very forefront of grand prix racing, and particularly so following the humiliation he suffered as a consequence of his ugly, dismally performing, tank-like Type 32. The Type 35, the car which was to put everything to rights, he decided had to be different and Bugatti set out to refine the lessons he had learned from Fiat and from the British Sunbeams which had trounced the 32.
Characterised by its simple, narrow, long-tailed shape, the new car was not just beautifully streamlined but also beautiful period, and caused a genuine sensation when five of them – including the prototype piloted by Le Patron himself – turned out for the Grand Prix de Lyon in 1924. It was evidently a very clever design too, with some imaginative features such as the lightweight, single-piece hollow forged front axle which soon became a Bugatti standard. This had square boxes at the end to take the springs, a particularly neat idea whose inspiration may have come from Fiat but whose execution – and clean aesthetic – was pure Ettore.
As it happens Fiat had pioneered supercharging as well, something which initially at least Bugatti thought unethical. He soon came round to the idea, however, and as the successful Type 35 morphed into the phenomenally successful Type 35B the cars really began to make their mark. For a while indeed every year was a good year, but 1926 was the best of the lot with Bugatti winning every major event – T35s came first, second and third at Milan – as well as scooping the World Championship, setting 47 new world records and notching up an incredible 351 race wins all told.
So as a classic this one’s got the lot, really. Looks, the name, an impeccable pedigree, a track record literally second to none, and of course rarity as well (with just 210 built) because when you’re talking Bugatti even the bestsellers were hardly what you’d call mass-market.