|Bugatti Type 59/50B I|
By the mid-1930s, Bugatti's dominance of Grand Prix racing seemed but a distant memory. First the Italian and then the German manufacturers took over with superior designs and budgets. Demand for customer competition cars also dwindled, so Bugatti had little incentive to produce brand new machinery. Instead the fabled manufacturer soldiered on with evolutions of existing designs during the final years of the decade.
In response to the new '750 kg regulations', Bugatti had introduced the new Type 59 in 1933. New was even in this case perhaps not the best word as it featured a classic Bugatti Grand Prix chassis with a slightly smaller, supercharged version of the Type 57 road car engine. The car handled well but the arrival of the German teams in 1934 left Bugatti's latest Grand Prix machine struggling. Larger engines were tried but the cars were so far off the pace that Bugatti decided to sell four examples to privateers, who mostly fielded them in sports car races with some success.
One of the Type 59s retained by Bugatti re-appeared with a brand new straight eight engine. Although officially referred to as a Type 50B, it was considerably different than the Type 50 based engines used in the road car by the same name and the Type 54 Grand Prix racer. The most fundamental difference was the use of lightweight alloys for the block. This was essential to keep the weight of the complete car down to the 750 kg maximum as dictated by the regulations. Displacing just over 4.7 litre, the supercharged 'eight' was hoped to produce in excess of 500 hp but reliability was already an issue at boost levels that were good for 400 hp.
The new engine was installed in what is believed to be the sixth and final Type 59 chassis. With clear roots in the hugely successful Type 35 of the 1920s, this design was really showing its age by 1936. Ettore Bugatti conviction that solid axles and cable-operated drum brakes were still the way to go, prevented any development on the chassis. One benefit was that the Bugatti engineers had vast experience with this configuration, so the cars handled very well but for ultimate speed the independently sprung rivals would always have the edge.
What really set the new 'Type 59/50B' apart from its predecessors was the true single-seater driving position; all previous Bugatti Grand Prix cars could accommodate a passenger, making them eligible for sports car racing. Furthermore, the car was clothed in an aerodynamic body with a fully cowled radiator. This was another break with tradition as the previous generations all shared the same basic design dominated by the horse-shoe shaped radiator. The wheels, which doubled as the brake drums were vintage Bugatti and virtually identical to those used on the Type 59.
Bugatti debuted the Type 59/50B at the 1936 Monaco Grand Prix for Jean-Pierre Wimille. Unfortunately technical problems prevented the car to start the race. Wimelle was back out with the new Grand Prix machine at the Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten. A gearbox failure cut this effort short. The car was then shipped to the United States where it finished a commendable second in the Vanderbilt Cup. In 1937 it was rebuilt to Type 59/50B II specification with a naturally-aspirated, 4.5 litre version of the engine. This was done to compete in the one million Franc race organised by the French government at Montlhery. Wimille was beaten by Dreyfus in a V12-engined Delahaye.
This was still not the end of the line for the now five year old machine. New regulations were announced for 1938, with displacement restrictions of 3 litre for the forced-induction engines and 4.5 litre for naturally-aspirated units. Despite having a 4.5 litre version of the engine that complied with the regulations, Bugatti nevertheless opted to develop a downsized, supercharged variant of the alloy straight eight. Known as the Type 50B III, it sported an identical bore and stroke of 78 mm to give a displacement of 2,985 cc. The chassis was modified to accommodate for the engine's massive 300 mm supercharger. Wimille raced the car twice in this guise but was dogged with engine failures on both occasions.
Despite the poor results of the original Type 59/50B, Bugatti built at least one more for 1939 to replace the ageing machine. Fitted with the supercharged, 4.7 litre variant of the engine, it may have been built on the other Type 59 chassis retained by Bugatti but that is not clear. Fitted with hydraulic brakes, the second Type 59/50B debuted at the La Turbie Hillclimb where Wimille finished first in class and second outright. He went one better at the Coupe de Paris at Montlhery, scoring the type's first victory. The Bugatti works driver would go on to finish second at the Prescott Hill Climb and take a victory at the 1945 Coupe des Prisonniers in Paris, immediately after the War.
Production at Bugatti did not resume after the War, making the second Type 59/50B the very last Grand Prix car built by the fabled French manufacturer under its original ownership. Unfortunately it could not live up to the standard set by the all-conquering Type 35 and equally impressive Type 51. Had the War not intervened a new generation of Bugattis may have been introduced as an independently sprung road car was in the process of being completed. The lessons of this model would have surely also had an effect on the company's, be it very limited, racing activities.
Article by Wouter Melissen, last updated on February 22, 2013
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