1937 Bugatti Type-57C Stelvio Cabriolet
Named for a mountain and built for the road, the Type 57 Stelvio is among Molsheim’s final few, and one of the last true great Bugattis. Words Richard Heseltine. Photography Manuel Portugal.
Tackling Portuguese mountain passes in the appropriately named Bugatti Stelvio
The sensation is exquisitely, queasily uncomfortable. It is downhill all the way, the hope being that it is literal rather than metaphorical. The blazing orange sunset has made way for darkness, the headlights barely poking holes in the black. The jagged edges of rock that flank the road are softened only in the faint shadows they cast. It’s just us, a Bugatti Type 57 and a mountain. Normal synaptic firing has long since been interrupted, replaced by an eddy of feelings; a sense of romantic fascination with the car and what it represents, if only in the mind’s eye.
It acts as a time machine, transporting you to the immediate pre-war era. It conjures images of beautiful people doing beautiful things in beautiful places, only with added sepia. This was every inch the nonpareil grand routier of its day, after all; a pure ‘pur sang’ machine with all that entails. It was the exotic of the late 1930s, made in small numbers and by hand. It was also a true road car, as opposed to a racing car with token nods to Highway Code adherence. Of course, the Type 57 wasn’t Bugatti’s first attempt at a pure road car; witness the voluptuous Type 55 and that great white elephant, the 12,763cc Type 41 Royale, that preceded it. Nevertheless, when launched at the 1934 Paris Salon, the model represented a concerted attempt at producing a fast and luxurious touring car in series, all things being relative. To quote marque authority Hugh Conway: ‘The model is the most celebrated non-racing car that Bugatti ever produced.’ Sadly, it also marked the final truly new model to emerge from the Molsheim works. The powerplant was, naturally, a work of art in itself, crafted with the sort of obsessive level of detail that makes the heart soar; a straight-eight with twin overhead camshafts driven by gears from the back of the engine. This unit was entirely new, although it followed familiar Bugatti practice in having a combined cylinder head and block. With a bore and stroke of 72mm x 100mm, it had a displacement of 3257cc and produced up to 140bhp or more in normally aspirated form, depending on spec, and as much as 200bhp with a Roots-type blower in situ. The crankshaft was supported by five main bearings, with a sixth overslung behind the camshaft drive gears. Very early chassis incorporated a split front axle, but most came with Bugatti’s hallmark hollow tubular axle with curved ends. What’s more, the factory went so far as to offer five ‘standard’ outlines, some from the pen of Joseph Walter, others by Ettore Bugatti’s hugely talented son, Jean. These were the Stelvio, as here; the four-seat, four-door Galibier; the two-door, four-seat Ventoux; the two-seater notchback Atalante; and the über-exotic Atlantic coupé, which looked as if it had just wandered off the set of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The original T57 was followed by the shorter, and sleeker T57S (Surbaisse, or ‘lowered chassis’) in 1935, while a supercharger became an option from 1938, thus creating the 57C (for Compresseur) and SC editions. And despite the 57’s relatively short lifespan (it was largely curtailed by the Second World War), developments and upgrades came thick and fast, with flexible engine mounts from 1937 plus hydraulic brakes and Allinquant telescopic dampers from 1938.
For all the roadgoing intent, T57-derived machinery showed impressively in competition, with Earl Howe finishing third in the 1935 Tourist Trophy aboard a skimpy, cycle-winged example. A year later, Bugatti dominated the French Grand Prix for sports cars at the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry, with future French Resistance heroes Jean-Pierre Wimille and Raymond Sommer sharing honours in their T57G with its radical full-width bodyshell. Throw in wins at the Le Mans 24 Hours in 1937 and ’39 and there’s no denying the pedigree here. Tragically, it was aboard the victorious car from 1939 that Jean Bugatti was killed, in a road accident close to the factory that same year.
The T57 chassis was a favourite blank canvas for many of the more fêted metal-wielding artistes of the day, with the works of Henri Graber, George Gangloff, Joseph Figoni, Letournier et Marchand, Carrosserie Vanvooren and Corsica Coachworks (named after Corsica Street in north London, rather than the island in the Mediterranean) to the fore. ‘Our’ car, chassis number 57411, wears a standard Stelvio outline as crafted by the favoured couturier, Gangloff of Colmar. While notionally a standardised body, predictably there were deviations between the cars. First-series iterations, for example, featured cutaway sections behind the doors where the hood was stowed when furled, a styling treatment that was later dropped. Some cars boasted fold-flat windscreens, while late-model editions were crafted around a steel latticework rather than timber, which greatly aided rigidity. A few had faired-in headlights. This example was acquired new by a Monsieur Bouchard in September 1936. At some point in the 1980s, it arrived in Portugal. While more than presentable, it displays a commendable degree of road rash, but then it gets used as its maker intended, primarily on long-distance rallies. The rest of the time it is parked next to a Type 57C Atalante, a Type 40 Grand Sport and a Grand Prix-spec Type 35B. The styling is striking – compelling, even – with just a soupçon of caddishness thrown in. The sense of drama isn’t just skin deep, either: the straight-eight’s rectilinear cam covers and engine-turned finish more than match the outer dazzle.
Inside, in contrast, it feels more restrained. Upon entry, you’re rewarded with deliciously patinated leather and the giddying scent that comes with it. This car smells old but not musty, the high waistline ensuring that you feel as though you’re sitting low in the car rather than perched above it. The vast wood-rim wheel sits atop at least a metre of polished steering column and juts out at chest level, the beautifully aged dashboard uncluttered and home to handsome Jaeger instrumentation. The speedo tops out at 160kph (100mph), which isn’t as fanciful as you might imagine: the car produces around 135bhp at 5000rpm and weighs 1580kg (3483lb). Three figure speeds are not in the realm of fantasy.
That it fires on the button first time, every time, comes as no great surprise, but what strikes you at pottering speeds is how leaden the steering feels on initial contact. It’s a worm-and-sector set-up, and ponderous with it. There’s no feel, at least not unless you count the slight flexing of the wheel itself. The roller-type throttle also takes a little getting used to, as does the sharp single-plate clutch. That it is so cumbersome rather takes the shine off the experience. It isn’t so much a disappointment, more that your preconceptions have been shattered. You start leaking confidence.
And then you drive it that bit harder. With cars of this vintage, it is generally best to let them do their own thing and in their own time – within reason. But that isn’t the case here. The faster you go, the better it gets to the point where you’re soon attuned to its quirks and respond accordingly. Suddenly, the steering comes to life and feels ideally weighted despite the occasional kickback, which is perhaps just as well as the test route corkscrews up and down at the sort of altitudes that makes your breathing turn raspy. But the choice of venue is appropriate, given that the design is named after a mountain pass. When you can see the road, the Bugatti is fun to hustle. The T57 changes direction far more quickly than appearances might have you believe, but then it is riding on large-diameter, narrow-section tyres. It isn’t exactly chuckable, though, but nor do you expect it to be. It certainly doesn’t wander. The faint aroma of hot oil adds to the sense of theatre but, really, the whole experience is dominated by the view across that acreage of bonnet, and that glorious straight-eight sited beneath it. The Bugatti will pull cleanly from low down, if not particularly strongly. On what passes for open stretches, it will cruise quite happily at 60-70mph without much in the way of fanfare. Under load, it’s a different story. While limited to no more than 4000rpm, it is tuneful in a manner that only a thoroughbred straight-eight can be, even if it doesn’t bellow like other variations on the theme. But then this is a grand tourer rather than a competition tool. The sonic spectrum also spans faint gear whine and the occasional harmonic thrum through the structure (there is some scuttle shake, as is to be expected). The four-speed ’box is a joy with familiarity. It doesn’t like to be rushed – which, again, is no great surprise – but time your changes accurately and it snicks into place cleanly and smoothly each time. The Bugatti rides well, too: less choppy than you might expect, but it helps that the roads are free from potholes. The brakes lack bite, but that rather goes with the territory. An evening spent with the Type 57 leaves a lasting impression. It is a precision instrument, but not a highly strung one. Anyone reasonably well versed with old cars could drive one competently once accustomed to its foibles.
It doesn’t turn you into a bundle of frayed nerves. Quite the opposite. There wasn’t anything like it in period, and no latter-day equivalent springs readily to mind, either. Style’s triumph is often substance’s loss, but not where Bugattis are concerned. The Stelvio is so many attractive things: enriching, stimulating, seductive and pleasurable. You cannot help but be lulled into some cinematically opulent, Walter Mitty-esque reverie; of being a moneyed rake not beholden to pedestrian lifepaths; of crossing continents in a single bound with only the vaguest notions of what to do on arrival. This car has that effect. The superlatives here are earned, the shame being that this was in so many ways the last truly great Bugatti. For all the plaudits levelled at more recent fare, many of which are justified, there isn’t the same level of artistry, or purity for that matter. The Type 57 represents love at first sight, and every sight thereafter.
Thanks to Adelino Dinis; Museu do Caramulo (museudocaramulo.pt)
Two-tone scheme complements the sweeping curves of the Stelvio shape. Above: elegantly simple dash with matching large four-spoke wheel. Type 57 awakens as the pace rises, becoming a joy through bends. Below right: glorious ‘eight’ was built on GP success – electric fan a useful later addition.
‘The aroma of hot oil adds to the theatre, but the experience is dominated by the view across that bonnet, and that glorious straight-eight’
‘The faster you go, the better it gets to the point where you’re soon attuned to its quirks – suddenly, the steering comes to life’