|Bugatti Type 51 Dubos Coupé|
This unique Bugatti Type 51 Dubos Coupé is a prime example of a tradition typical for the 1930s; the re-bodying of obsolete racing cars for road use. By combining the race-bred underpinnings with luxurious roadster and coupe bodies, the cars were given a new lease of life. This was particularly common practice for Alfa Romeo 8C 2300s but this Type 51 (chassis # 51133) is proof that Bugattis were also subject of these conversions. When historic racing became increasingly popular, many of these cars were re-bodied once more. This could be fully justified as they were returned to their original condition. In the process many coach-building works of art were however lost. For many decades the Dubos Coupé and its Bugatti chassis were also separated but fortunately both have survived.
Chassis 51133 was completed in February of 1931 as a Bugatti Type 51. This was the company's latest Grand Prix racer, which featured the all-conquering Type 35 chassis with a brand new twin-cam eight cylinder engine. In fact chassis 51133, and several others, actually used bits of one of the left-over Type 35 frames. The Type 51 was a very typical Bugatti design with a steel ladder frame and solid axles at both ends. The front suspension was by semi-elliptic leaf springs and friction dampers. At the rear Bugatti's hallmark reversed quarter-elliptic springs were fitted in combination with friction dampers. Another distinct Bugatti feature found on the Type 51 were the cast alloy wheels with integral drum brakes.
As mentioned earlier, what set the Type 35 and Type 51 apart was the engine. The 35 used an straight eight engine with three vertical valves per cylinder, actuated by a single overhead camshaft. The change to a twin-cam design was inspired by Miller's eight cylinder engines. Ettore Bugatti had acquired several examples and ran them on his dyno, only to find out they were much more efficient. He was so impressed that he had his engineers make near identical copies of the design. The Miller derived twin-cam head was first found on the Type 50 road car of 1930 but soon found its way onto the Type 51 competition car. To suit the various classes, the supercharged engine was available in 1.5, 1.9 and 2.3 litre versions, producing between 130 and 180 bhp.
The Type 51 had a very successful debut season. Achille Varzi took the car's first major win in the April 1931 Tunis Grand Prix. A month later Louis Chiron won the Monaco Grand Prix, while two other Type 51s finished third and fourth. During the second half of 1931 Italian rivals Maserati and Alfa Romeo caught up and the twin-cam Bugatti gradually lost touch. Nevertheless Bugatti managed to sell an impressive 40 examples of the various versions of the Type 51. Chassis 511133 was among the earliest examples and used by the Bugatti Works team throughout the 1931. At the end of the year, the car was given or sold to Louis Chiron. He continued to race the car together with René Dreyfuss for another two seasons. After changing hands several times, it was acquired by André Bith in 1936.
The heir to a vast pharmaceutical fortune, Bith was a well known Parisian playboy. He had big plans for the tired Type 51 and drew up a design, which was clearly inspired by the Type 57 Atlantic Coupé penned by his friend Jean Bugatti. Universally admired today, the Atlantic was clearly already considered something very special when new. To make his dream a reality, Bith turned to local coach-builder Louis Dubos. Although he worked mainly on more common French cars like Peugeots and Delahayes, Dubos felt he was up to the task of creating a 'mini Atlantic.' He reportedly billed Bith 20,000 French Francs for the work, which was almost enough to buy the latest Citroën Traction Avant. The Type 51 entered the Dubos workshop in April of 1937 and the transformation was completed in a very short period.
Apart from its compact dimensions, there was little that reminded of the original Type 51 when 51133 was returned to Bith. Dubos had crafted a very aerodynamic body that was styled very similarly to the Atlantic but also incorporated unique features like the fin on the tail. The French Racing Blue finish was another at the car's origins. Shortly after taking delivery, Bith entered the Dubos Coupé in the Paris-Nice. Upon the Type 51's return to the French capital, it was repainted a much darker blue. In this guise it was entered in the Bagatalle Concours d'Elegance by Miss France Jacqueline Ganet, who was Bith's girlfriend at the time. The unique coupé was promptly awarded the best of show award. Little over a year later, Bith sold the car. Among its subsequent owners was Maurice Trintignant; another famous French racer.
Next the Bugatti Dubos Coupé suffered a fate all too familiar for these converted racing cars; the body was removed from the chassis. Fortunately, it was not scrapped but fitted on a replica chassis. This car was a regular sight on the American vintage racing scene. The original 51133 was acquired by the Nethercutt Collection and fitted with a Grand Prix style body. In 2000 the opportunity presented itself to buy the Dubos Coupé body at auction. With the help of André Bith, who by now was in his nineties, the chassis and body were reunited after being apart for nearly half a century. The work was completed in time for the 2003 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance where Bugatti was the featured marque. The unique Type 51 finished second in class behind one of the three original Type 57 Atlantics, which went on to win best of show.
Over the next few years the Nethercutt Collection showed the car at several other shows, including the 2004 The Quail, a Motorsports Gathering where it was awarded 'best of show.' Especially for the Bugatti Centenary celebrations planned for the 2009 Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, the Dubos Coupé was returned to the highly skilled Nethercutt restoration department. During the second restoration, the dark purple paint was replaced by a deep metallic red. The Nethercutts participated in the Tour d'Elegance on Thursday and a few days later picked up the 'best in class' (Bugatti - 100 Years of Style and Speed) award in front of the Pebble Beach Club House. It is shown above both in 2009 and in 2004.
Only very few Grand Prix Bugattis were ever re-bodied, which can quite easily be explained; Bugatti had the market covered with their own racing car derived models. The Type 35 had found its way to the road in the form of the Type 43 and the fabulous Type 55 was nearly identical to the Type 51 under the skin. None of these, or any of the other converted Grand Prix cars, was fitted with a body quite as spectacular as this Type 51. This is underlined as much by its concours wins in period and in recent years as it is by the simple fact that the Dubos body is still around for us all to admire.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on October 14, 2009
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