The Last of Its Kind
Bugatti works racing cars are extremely elegant and rare. Only a few were built in Molsheim, Alsace, from 1909 to 1963 – including many models built in small numbers with corresponding significance for the brand. More than 80 years ago, Bugatti designed its last pure Grand Prix racing car under the leadership of company founder Ettore Bugatti, the Type 59.
One of the most important of these: the Bugatti Type 59/50 BIII with chassis number 441352 and frame number 6, the so-called “Cork Car”. The Type 59 is already considered the ultimate evolution of the Bugatti Grand Prix racing car era which began with the Type 35. At the same time, the Type 59 was Bugatti’s last Grand Prix design before the outbreak of World War II. Ettore’s son Jean Bugatti was instrumental in designing this ravishingly beautiful Grand Prix racing car with perfect proportions. Details such as the piano-string spoked wheels testify to innovation, attention to detail, and perfectionism – a road-going work of art.
It was powered by a 3.0-liter inline eight-cylinder engine with dual overhead camshafts and a supercharger. Experts therefore consider the Type 59, including its further developments, to be not only the most beautiful racing car of the pre-war years but one of the most beautiful of all time. It was also the last official Bugatti works racing car to compete in a Grand Prix. The vehicle demonstrates Bugatti’s versatility, eagerness to experiment, and constant pursuit of improvements. Over the years, two bodies – a two-seater and a single-seater – were built on the Type 59 frame as part of the works racing program. Several further developments with varying displacements were used in this chassis, culminating in the Type 50 BIII three-liter engine – the final variant.
But the Cork Car also demonstrates the connection between automotive engineering and art that makes Bugatti unique. Ettore Bugatti already designed his first own vehicle, the Type 10, in a different way than was usual at the time. Bugatti fused technical automotive engineering with innovative design to create works of art. This hardly came as a surprise: Ettore Bugatti hailed from a creative family. His father studied architecture
and later created unique pieces as a cabinetmaker, painter, and architect. With his interpretation of Art Nouveau, he created extravagant pieces of furniture, often inspired by Turkish and Japanese ornaments and characters. Rembrandt Bugatti, Ettore’s younger brother, modeled the elephant standing upright as the hood ornament of the Type 41 Royale as well as other animal sculptures. Today, Rembrandt Bugatti is considered one of the pioneers of Art Deco.
Based on the eight-cylinder Type 59, the ultimate version of all previous Bugatti Grand Prix versions was created. Bugatti continued to develop the Type 59 racing car until the end of 1938 – both technically and visually. The Type 59 with frame number 6 made its debut at the French Grand Prix in Montlhéry in June 1935. In this specification with an almost five-liter eight-cylinder supercharged engine, the car only competed in this one race. Jean Bugatti commissioned further development work on the car, designed with a pure single-seater body. In 1936, the race car with frame number 6 received a new, more powerful 4.7-liter 50 BI engine with a light-alloy block and a larger supercharger that produced over 400 hp. With minor modifications, it competed in the Swiss Grand Prix and the Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island, New York, in the same year – where it finished second behind Tazio Nuvolari.
At the Cork Grand Prix in April 1938, the Type 59/50 racing car enters the race with a new, lighter, and even more elegant single-seater body and a completely new engine – hence its name «Cork Car». The car with frame number 6 receives a newly developed 3.0-liter engine – the 50 BIII with a supercharger. This Type 59 with the 50 BIII engine contested its last race in 1938 at the French Grand Prix in Reims. Pilot Jean-Pierre Wimille had to start from the back of the grid because he had arrived too late for practice. Wimille fought his way to the front after the start, but unfortunately, a spin by Auto Union driver Rudolf Hasse, who was driving directly in front of him, ruined his race. Wimille reacted with lightning reflexes and swerved but was unable to keep the car on the track. The Bugatti grazed an embankment, damaging an oil line in the process, and retired. This was the last official race for this car and also the last time Bugatti competed in a Grand Prix before the Second World War and in the era of Ettore and Jean Bugatti.
At the beginning of the war, Bugatti moved all its inventory from Alsace near the border with Germany to Bordeaux to prevent material from falling into the hands of the German troops. It was not until the 1950s that the racing car reappeared – as a rolling chassis without the elaborate bodywork. In 1964, American Bugatti enthusiast Ray Jones bought the prestigious Type 59 and tracked down the further developed 3.0-liter supercharged Type 50 BIII engine in the Bugatti works. Ray Jones had been searching and collecting for nearly four decades until he managed to gather all the original parts of the car. In 1995, the now completed Bugatti Type 59/50 BIII went on public display in its original elegance for the first time since 1938 with extensive documentation.
Today, the Type 59/50 BIII with its 3.0-liter engine is one of the rare genuine Grand Prix works cars from the 1930s in private hands and among the best-documented Bugatti of all. The ornate and elegant bodywork makes the car an automotive sculpture that is as much at home on racing circuits as it is at art exhibitions. It is also the most powerful Bugatti Grand Prix car to have proven itself in historic motorsport. Therefore, it is still a great race car for historic events – and unique.