Model history: In the mid 1920s, the straight eight engined Bugatti Type 35 dominated motor racing by scoring literally thousands of victories. Simple, but very effective, the Type 35 was available with a number of engine displacements; either naturally aspirated or supercharged, making it eligible for almost every class. Capitalising on the motor racing success, Bugatti decided to launch a road going version of the racer in 1927. Dubbed the Type 43 Grand Sport, the road car featured a 2.3 litre Type 35B supercharged engine, installed in a lengthened and widened chassis to accommodate four passengers. Despite its high price the suitably named Grand Sport was quite successful with 160 cars being produced between 1927 and 1932.
By 1930 the competition had finally caught up with the small French racer, so it was time for a replacement for the ageing Type 35 and its derivatives. A new engine was designed to meet the increased demands, although it was very similar to two twin-cam Miller units Ettore Bugatti had acquired a few years earlier. After being showcased at the Paris Motor Show late in 1930, the Type 51 took to the track and picked up where the '35' had left off by racking up many wins. After the success of the Type 43, it was no surprise that a road going version of the new Grand Prix racer would again be produced. Announced late in 1931, the Type 55 'Super Sport' was similar in idea to the Type 43, but much different in execution.
While the four seater Type 43 was a big hit, Jean Bugatti's increasing influence persuaded his father Ettore to do something different for the Type 51 road car. The twin-cam engine was carried over from the new racing car, but fitted in a ladder frame chassis similar to the ones used for the sixteen cylinder Type 45/47 and the 4.9 litre Type 54 Grand Prix car. The chassis was slightly wider and a lot stronger, making it ideal for the road going Type 55. In good Bugatti tradition the chassis was suspended by solid axles and leaf springs. Slightly detuned for reliability reasons, the straight eight produced around 145 bhp. It was mated to the same four-speed gearbox used in the Type 43.
Jean Bugatti, just 22 years old at the time. added his magic touch by designing an absolutely stunning looking two-seater Roadster bodywork that has gone into history as one of the all time greats. Its lovely lines were further accentuated by a two-tone finish. The eight-spoke cast-aluminium wheels with integrated brake drums were directly lifted from the Type 51 and revealed the car's competition roots. In addition to the Roadster body, the Type 55 catalog also featured a Coupe design along similar lines. Most of these bodies were built by the factory with the exception of a few Roadsters that were constructed by Gangloff to relieve the work-load in Molsheim. With such a spectacular 'standard' design, it was not surprising that less than a handful were clothed by other coach-builders.
Even though the last one was not built until 1935, more than half of all Type 55s were constructed in 1932. Compared to the Type 43, the Type 55's production figure of just 38 examples might sound disappointing. However, considering it was a substantially different car and aimed at the richest of customers, the number constructed and sold is still relatively high, especially after the commercial failure of the Type 41 Royale. A true supercar in its era, the Type 55 Super Sport is still a highly desirable car thanks to its design and great driving characteristics.
This is the very first Type 55 constructed and as the prototype the only Roadster fitted with louvres on the top of the engine covers. Following its show duties at the Paris Auto Salon in September of 1931, chassis 55201 was sold to its first owner, the Duc de la Tremoille. For reasons unknown, the car was soon after modified with Figoni-style fenders and a removable tonneau that revealed rear seats. In the early 1950s, the car was sold to the United States. Left in disrepair and without an engine, it was eventually acquired by noted Bugatti collector Peter Williamson in 1963.
He commissioned Ray Jones to meticulously recreate the body. To ensure his work was accurate, Jones was able to use John Shakespeare's Type 55 for measurements, just days before the entire collection was shipped to France to join the Schlumpf stable. Finished in cream white and black, the restored Type 55 was Williamson's favourite Bugatti for road use. Following his untimely death, it was offered by Gooding in their 2008 Pebble Beach auction, where it changed hands for close to $1.8 million. The new owner had it carefully restored again, including the addition of the unique vents to the engine cover. The work was completed in time for the 2012 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance where it is seen here.
Like the majority of Type 55s built, this example was built in 1932 and fitted with the Roadster body at the factory. It was delivered new to France and has since passed through the hands of noted collectors like Ralph Lauren and Bill Ainscough. Since 2005, chassis 55231 has been in Dutch ownership and regularly entered in concours and road rallies. It is seen here at two such occasions, the 2006 Concorso d'Elegance Villa d'Este and the 2010 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance where it finished second in class.