1937 Bugatti Type 57 Surbaisse 3.3-Litre Four-Seat Sports Grand Routier 'Dulcie'
This uniquely important Bugatti has, in effect, been preserved for the past 51 years within the single ownership of an exceptionally well-qualified British-based engineer and Bugatti marque enthusiast – the late Bill Turnbull – and it has now been established that its distinctively lightened chassis – adopted as its basis by the Bugatti factory at Molsheim during the winter of 1936-37 - re-uses mainframe members of the type designed for the renowned works-entered Bugatti Type 57G 'Tank' streamlined sports-racing cars. These super-successful aerodynes dominated both the 1936 French Grand Prix and subsequent Marne GP before setting astonishingly high-speed class world records over a range of distances and durations.
While this important car's long years in Mr Turnbull's ownership have seen it mechanically restored and rebuilt to his uncompromising personal standards – since he was Chief Engineer of the renowned JCB company's Hydrapower Division during this period – its British-built Corsica bodywork, dating from 1937, has been preserved virtually untouched. In fact '57503' as offered here is believed bodily to be the last surviving 'unrestored' Type 57S.
Only some 42 of these Bugatti Type 57S cars were produced in their limited run at the Molsheim factory. They were powered by an unsupercharged 3.3-litre, twin- overhead-camshaft straight-8 cylinder engine with dry-sump lubrication, and magneto ignition.
This power unit drove to the live rear axle via a two-plate clutch and 4-speed manual gearbox. The rear axle was mounted on the forward ends of two reversed quarter-elliptic leaf springs and, unique to this model, passed through two large apertures in the deep-section chassis side members instead of being slung beneath them. This feature lowered the car considerably, reducing its centre of gravity height and enhancing its roadholding compared to that of the far more numerous standard Type 57 . In fact the 'S' suffix of '57S' is generally accepted to indicate 'surbaissé' – the French term for 'low' or 'lowered' - while the alternative 'Sport' is also widely applied.
The hollow front axle was suspended upon two leaf springs, each passing through the axle tube in typical Bugatti fashion. However, the Type 57S front axle was built up from two halves, with a centreline joint featuring external left- and right- hand threads supported internally by a double-ended tapering mandrel. These two halves are joined by a double-threaded external collar, permitting a limited degree of independent rotation as the springs flexed.
Highly efficient, sophisticated and complex De Ram shock absorbers damped suspension front and rear. Large-diameter finned brake drums housed cable- operated alloy brake shoes. Bugatti '57503's electrics were principally by Scintilla, the windscreen wiper motor a Bosch WS12. As delivered to its first owner ex-works in 1937 the car was equipped with Scintilla headlamps, Lucas front side lights, an Ace Cornercraft rear light box, and a chrome-plated Notek 'Drive Master' driving lamp. The car also featured a Ki-gas starting system. As discussed Turnbull correspondents (and fellow Bugattistes) Leonard Potter and Ronnie Symondson, it seems probable this system initially had only two jets adjacent to the carburetor, subsequently altered to four - as surviving on the car today.
Factory records show that Colonel Sorel - Bugatti's UK agent based in Brixton, London, placed an order with the factory on November 7, 1936, to fulfil a sale just secured by Jack Barclay Ltd. A copy of the original Jack Barclay Sales Record Card survives in this car's accompanying history file – a rare provenance document indeed. Their new customer was Mr Robert Ropner (later knighted in 1959 as Sir Robert Ropner), 28-year-old scion of the Ropner shipping- line family.
Bugatti shipped 'Chassis Nu' ('unbodied rolling chassis') '57503' to England on January 29, 1937, £850 being the invoiced sum paid by Jack Barclay Ltd on February 2 that year. They took Mr Ropner's Mercedes-Benz 540K in part- exchange valued at £800, plus a balancing cheque of £450 9s 3d - Sir Robert's 1969 memory of the price having been £1,250 being correct to within a few shillings and pence.
Bugatti Type 57S chassis '503' was delivered to the London firm of Corsica Coachworks at Cricklewood, West London, where Corsica's craftsmen completed and fitted the customer's chosen low-slung and rakishly handsome body by March 3, 1937. The completed Bugatti Type 57S with its distinctively-shaped radiator cowl was London-registered 'DUL 351' on March 5, Robert Ropner completing his purchase that same day. Both the Bugatti and the 540K are vividly remembered to this day by his son - sometime amateur racing driver and bobsleigh champion - Bruce Ropner who recalled to Bill Turnbull being taken in the 57S by his father on a midnight 96mph run up the Great North Rd, now the A1, when aged 7...
Before the car's most recent owner, Bill Turnbull, acquired the car in May 1969 he researched its history and provenance, and in 1968 inspected and photographed it twice. He also wrote a series of enquiring letters to all four previous keepers, whose responses survive in the voluminous documentation files preserved with '503' today.
Sir Robert Ropner responded on August 29, 1969, explaining how he had taken '503' back to France in May 1937, but lapping the Montlhéry Autodrome at up to 112mph had resulted in his returning it to the factory for engine repairs which were completed free of charge. Robert Ropner affectionately nicknamed the car 'Dulcie' after its 'DUL' registration number, and he continued to run it up to the outbreak of World War 2 in 1939, before laying it up "for the duration".
In 1945 he sold this Bugatti to Rodney Clarke for the believed sum of £1,650. Rodney Clarke was a well-known motor trading driver of high-performance cars and a partner (with Leonard Potter), in Continental Cars Ltd, based at Send on the A3 road through Surrey, south-west of London. With backing from building magnate Kenneth McAlpine he would create the Connaught motor racing marque manufacturing sports-racing, Formula 2 and ultimately Formula 1 cars. In 1955 a works team Connaught driven by young Tony Brooks would become the first British-built postwar winner of a significant Continental Formula 1 Grand Prix race, the Syracuse GP in Sicily.
Recalling his immediately postwar ownership of '503' also in August 1969 , Rodney Clarke confirmed to Bill Turnbull that he had bought it from Robert Ropner, and after its six wartime years of disuse returned it to running order. Unfortunately, the car had then been damaged in a road accident caused by a lorry suddenly turning across Clarke's path. The impact damaged the right-side front- axle half and engine mounts, and bent both the right-side chassis longeron and radiator grille. Despite such right-side damage being serious, the Corsica body survived unscathed, as did Rodney Clarke apart from "...minor facial cuts".
He began to repair the car but before the work was completed he found a buyer in consulting engineer (and later honorary curator of Newbury Museum) H.H. Coghlan. In an early-1969 letter to Bill Turnbull - during pre-purchase discussion - he confirmed that "Clarke had taken the car to pieces to the very last nut and bolt. When I bought it the only thing he had done was the bare chassis frame which had been very well straightened and painted. The chassis and the body (which was not damaged), came here in a van with loads of small pieces".
Mr Coghlan completed '503's repair to running order and returned it to the road in May, 1948. In a subsequent letter published in the Bugatti Owners Club magazine he declared: "The T57S was the first Bugatti which gave me complete satisfaction. As a fast and comfortable sports car it was ideal. Indeed, it was so good that I had no temptation to fiddle with it, and during the five years I ran the car, I never experienced any mechanical trouble". He personally decarbonised its engine after 16,500 miles and had driven some 20,000 miles in the car before selling it in 1953.
Mr Coghlan confirmed that during the rebuild he incorporated gearbox No '37S' and rear axle '37S' into the car, though the gearbox lid is original to '57503' and is stamped '16S'. The former components came from an 'Atalante'-bodied Bugatti Type 57S chassis serial '57573' registered as GPB 2 – actually the 16th and last works-bodied 'Atalante' as featured in the excellent book 'The Bugatti Type 57S' by Julius Kruta and Bernard Simon. That car had been photographed by Louis Klemantaski on Continental Cars' premises at Send around the time of Rodney Clarke's accident in '503', and in August 1987 when Bill Turnbull contacted Clarke's former business partner Leonard Potter for recollections of '503', Mr Potter recalled "I remember driving it at one time when it lost all the gears. What seemed a selector problem turned out to be a broken gearbox mainshaft (or was it layshaft?) which was quite a problem with these cars". Later in the same letter he also speculated that both the gearbox and rear axle might have been damaged in the accident and had been exchanged at Continental Cars for that reason.
Leonard Potter had himself owned the sister Corsica-bodied Bugatti Type 57S '57412' and in another letter (in fact to Bugatti authority Pierre-Yves Laugier) he clarified that he and Clarke had their "own cars" and "the business cars", and did not mix the two...
On May 28, 1948, Mr Coghlan re-registered '503' as 'EMO 207'. His surviving 1948 Registration Document shows '16S' entered as the chassis number and '16S57503' as the engine number. This simple transposition was reportedly to allow him to claim that the car was new, so qualifying for a lower rate of Road Tax... To support his claim, he also stamped '16S' on the top flange of the nearside chassis longeron, using plain sans-serif English punches.
On July 14, 1953, by letter, he offered '503' to a Dr K.C.A. Cock, for an "absolute minimum "...of £850", and it was registered to the new owner on July 28, 1953. The car's contemporary 'buff' logbook survives with it, bearing the signatures of Messrs Coghlan, Cock and Turnbull as successive owners.
Dr Kenneth Cock worked for May & Baker, a large Dagenham-based pharmaceutical company. As early as 1968, Bill Turnbull made contact with him, expressing his interest in purchasing the Bugatti. Today, Dr Cock's receipt dates the eventual sale to May 19, 1969, agreed price £1,500. At that time he had covered over 22,000 miles in '503', which was MoT-tested by him for the last time in February 1969. Bill Turnbull drove his new acquisition home from Bishops Stortford to Wolverhampton, some 120 miles.
He then ran the car that summer, visiting friends in Cheltenham and at Prescott Hill Climb, where it was photographed both in the car park and "on the Hill". At Prescott prominent Bugattiste T.A.S.O. Mathieson recognised it as Ropner's car which had been at Corsica Coachworks simultaneously with his own T57S '57491'.
During the 50 years of his ownership Bill Turnbull assiduously researched '503's history, collected spare parts and recorded the progress of his own repair and restoration programme, generating the wonderfully comprehensive documentation archive accompanying the car today.
In 2001, the DVLA UK Registration Authority accepted a submission supported by the Bugatti Owners Club that 'EMO 207' and the original 'DUL 351' were indeed the same car and issued a new Registration Document, dated September 2001. Mr Turnbull made further applications in 2016 and 2017 – backed by irrefutable evidence of the car's pre-war date of first UK registration and immediate use in Ropner's ownership. The DVLA conceded that the car had indeed been manufactured and used in 1937, and issued a new Registration Document in confirmation, but perversely did not and will not change the date of first UK registration from September 5, 2001.
However, against the overwhelming body of evidence available – and the norms of common sense – that decision remains a bureaucratic irrelevance., and may yet be overturned... All correspondence with the DVLA and all supporting documentation, including letters from Mr Turnbull's Member of Parliament, are chronologically arranged in the car's accompanying history file.
Overall, the full ownership history of Bugatti Type 57S '57503' is therefore thoroughly well-established and well-understood from 1937 continuously to the present day.
Mr Turnbull was its fifth owner. He owned the car for 50 years until his passing in 2019, and he compiled very comprehensive records throughout that period. Despite not having been on the road for decades the car is extremely well known within Bugatti circles. It is described in detail in books devoted solely to the Type 57S written by respected marque historians Julius Kruta and Pierre-Yves Laugier.
While Bill Turnbull was an outstandingly well-qualified hydraulic engineer his wood-working skills were to cabinet-maker standards. Over his 50 years of ownership of '503' this multi-talented man stripped,overhauled and precisely reassembled many of its major components and such complex sub-assemblies as the dry sump oil pumps and steering box, often using special tools which he himself designed and made Sadly, he did not complete the total re-assembly he had planned. He was ahead of his time in preserving original fabric and finish wherever possible and '503' as offered here carries the most original coach-built Corsica body of any Bugatti, including all leather upholstery trim panels and scuttle tool holders, unmodified. Maker's plates and canvas shielding survive on both sills. The car retains its original body panels, lamp bars, wing struts, spare-wheel mounting, oil tank cover, windscreen, side screens, dashboard, hood frame, door and boot locks and handles, tonneau cover and tonneau bag. The hood is in poor condition but will serve as a pattern. No carpets have been replaced during Mr Turnbull's ownership. The two rear wheels were made to the correct stepped hub pattern by Turino wheels, all others are respoked originals. There are four period aluminium wheel discs. All Bugatti metric threads have been used where original; with all BSW, BSF and BA threads in the British-built body and fittings.
An earlier modification – perhaps made by Dr Cock - to incorporate scuttle vents into the rear of the bonnet side panels was removed by Mr Turnbull in 1992 while the vents themselves are preserved.
Notably, Mr Turnbull deployed his wood-working skills to make strong trestles for the chassis and a dedicated stand for the Corsica body which kept it well-supported and 'true' during its long years of separation from the chassis frame. The stand is included in the sale today.
Mr Turnbull made two noteworthy mechanical modifications, enhancing design of '503's differential carrier with improved radii for greater stress resistance and to accommodate large angular-contact drive-shaft bearings. This differential carrier replaced the original assembly about which he often said "...it was not a question of 'if' the original design would break but 'when' it would break". His new design was drawn up and manufactured for him by Brineton Engineering.
For the same reason, Mr Turnbull redesigned and strengthened the central casing of the brake differential cross shaft. The gearbox has been fully rebuilt by Andrew Smith (Mercedes Formula One transmission engineer) using all-new genuine gears bought from the factory by Mr Turnbull. Andrew Smith also rebuilt and balanced the propeller shaft, the twin-plate clutch assembly and the Stromberg UUR2 carburetor.
The rear axle has been reassembled personally by Michael Hope of Brineton Engineering. The front axle was electroless nickel-plated at Nitek (Chesterfield). New kingpins and bushes were made and fitted by Michael Hope. Important work on the engine has been accomplished. The crankshaft has been reground and balanced with the flywheel and clutch by Automotive Services (Northampton) Ltd. The main bearings and big ends were re-metalled by JEL Bearings (York). Precision measuring, machining and hardness testing was carried out by Leek Gears Ltd, and surface hardening by Haucke, Telford. The speedometer and tachometer were overhauled by Chronometric Instrument Services (Nottingham). Drawings were supplied by The Bugatti Trust, with particular thanks due to David Morys. The original seat backs and squabs have been conserved by the Leather Conservation Centre, Northampton. Following Mr Turnbull's passing, the car has benefited from some reassembly for this Sale by specialist Bugatti restorer, Tim Dutton. Completion to running order remains to be completed to the new owner's preferences.
Chassis '57503' – Aerodyne Archaeology
Soon after his 1969 appearance in this wonderful Bugatti Type 57S at Prescott hill- climb, Bill Turnbull - troubled by a noise from the gearbox - began to investigate the car's entire structure and condition in preparation for a comprehensive rebuild to his painstaking personal standards. In two hand-written notebooks he recorded what he found and work carried out.
Early on, he noticed that '503's chassis frame material is 4mm thick in contrast to the specified standard 57S frame thickness of 3.5mm. He found two numbers stamped on the inner face of the front dumb irons, and rivet holes suggesting that the two channel-section frame cross members had been moved or changed. The footbrake cross-shaft mountings had been moved, while the positions of the engine mounts, steering box and engine/gearbox mounting plate (or bulkhead) had been marked on the top frame flange, using scribed lines, dot punches and 3mm stamped letters. Mr Turnbull recorded and photographed everything.
The series of 27 lightening holes in the chassis, ranging in diameter from 55mm to 110mm puzzled him. Despite meeting with arch Bugatti collector Fritz Schlumpf, he could not find another 57S with such lightening holes. Concluding they were non-original - probably the work of Clarke or Coghlan - he filled them with precision-cut 4mm plates, welded into place. Mr Turnbull's detailed signed statement describing and explaining his investigation into '503's chassis lightening holes is preserved in the car's history file.
But in 2006 he received pictures of a car under restoration - taken in 1974 at Roquebrune, France - for Bugattiste Uwe Hucke. That car is the only known surviving Bugatti Type 57G 'Tank' streamliner, today within the Simeone Collection, in Philadelphia, PA. Its chassis frame had lightening holes apparently identical to those Mr Turnbull had so carefully filled in '503's frame. Corroberation was later found in the August, 1936, edition of 'Motor Sport' magazine the French Grand Prix sports car race report describes how: "...Bugatti had entered three cars....... The chassis was the recently introduced Type 57S, beautifully drilled and lightened, and with the rear axle passing through the side members".
After further research into the Type 57G 'Tank' works-team cars, Bill Turnbull became convinced that his chassis had begun life as the basis of one of them, with only its subsidiary cross-members uniting the two distinctively-designed main longerons having been changed for 57S re-use. Consequently, he had 26 of the main-longeron lightening holes accurately re-cut, but deliberately left one of his welded discs in position, for the record.
Meanwhile, Bugatti authority Julius Kruta had examined stampings on the chassis' front dumb-iron forging – comprising a figure '1', over-stamped '8'. He concluded that the assembly had been a frame number '1' before being re-used as Type 57S frame number '8'. Pierre-Yves Laugier also pointed out a matching No '8' stamped in the centre of the frame's rear tubular cross-member.
In fact Bugatti customarily broke up and re-used cars and their components as standard business practise. In October 2019 the two leading British marque experts, David Sewell and Mark Morris, were commissioned to examine the chassis and review all available factory records and documentary evidence. They concluded that the side frames of '57503' had indeed been marked-out in the Bugatti Competitions Department and possibly underpinned the works-team Type 57G which wore race No '82' in the 1936 French Grand Prix run at Montlhéry on 28 June 1936, and No '14' in the Grand Prix de La Marne at Reims-Gueux, driven on both occasions by Robert Benoist. They believe this was also the aerodynamic-bodied 'Tank' last seen and photographed at the October, 1936 Paris Salon exhibition. That car is then presumed to have been dismantled, and the main longerons of its valuable lightweight chassis frame – re-united by production-style cross-members – then re-used for sale in '57503' – as had been ordered via Sorel and Jack Barclay Ltd for their enthusiastic new British client. Robert Ropner.
Fellow British Bugatti authority Max Tomlinson – author of the impressively- researched book 'Bugatti Type 57 Grand Prix – A Celebration' (Published by Veloce – 2015) – having studied the chassis, concurs, expressing certainty that the frame main members are from "...plainly one of the 1936 team car chassis".
The detailed reports upon '503' compiled by independent experts Laugier, Sewell and Morris - confirming this uniquely important Bugatti's startling qualities - are of course available for inspection. Bugatti Type 57 authority Pierre-Yves Laugier agrees upon frame member re-use , but feels they are more likely to have come from the prototype Type 57G which began three days of high speed and endurance testing at Montlhery on 7 June. His research found that the car was damaged in further testing on 15 June but had been repaired by 23 June. Both possibilities remain open – but such initial use in a works Type 57G 'Tank' is mutually agreed. This is what makes '503' as offered here so uniquely important within the world's treasury of surviving Bugattis.
Crucially, while '57503' as offered here sports the last surviving unrestored Type 57S Corsica coachwork – preserved and conserved since new in 1937 – its intrinsic being, its chassis frame, has ex-works-team Bugatti racing history.
It would at that time have been clad in the magnificent and influential Type 57G wheel-enclosing aerodynamic body form as conceived – perhaps jointly – by Bugatti design draughtsman (since 1931) Antonio Pichetto and Jean Bugatti himself – and it could well have been subjected to the control inputs around Montlhéry or the Reims- Gueux circuit of such legendary racing drivers as the veteran Robert Benoist and 'The Kid' Jean-Pierre Wimille – both of them renowned as the standard-setting uncrowned World Champions of their respective eras - Benoist in the 1920s, Wimille reaching full stature as the race-driving standard-setter of the late-1940s.
And both – furthermore – were wartime heroes of the French resistance, active maquisards for which Benoist paid with his life...while Wimille survived, only to die in a motor racing practice-period accident in Buenos Aires in 1949.
Truly, this mouth-watering Bugatti Type 57S simply simply radiates history. Its tremendous level of originality conveys a time machine quality, while its under-pinning structure embodies resolution of a long-lasting Bugatti mystery. Plainly, it offers a new owner double-edged opportunity – both as the long-preserved ex-Robert Ropner/Rodney Clarke/Bill Turnbull Corsica-bodied Type 57S – and (after what has been described as potentially "a day's body exchange") as an evocation of only the second of those wonderful Bugatti Type 57G 'Flash Gordon rocket ships' to have come down to us.
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