Not for the first time, one of motor sport’s most successful cars was a huge flop when it made its debut. In this case, it was the Bugatti Tipo 35, six of which were driven on the public roads from Molsheim to Lyons in late July 1924, to compete in the Grand Prix of France.
Ettore Bugatti, who personally drove one of the cars to the race, didn’t do things by halves. Three railway wagons and two draw-bar trailer trucks humped the team’s spares, equipment, personnel, and creature comforts to the Rhône region’s capital city for the race. When they got there, the Bugatti family “made do” with a super-luxury caravan; and the 45 drivers, mechanics, and other staff lived in a well-appointed tent with beds for all, bathing facilities, toilets, a kitchen, and even an ice-box.
The T35s made a great impression on the thousands who turned up for the Grand Prix. The cars were smaller and much more refined looking than people were used to seeing. They looked like single, all-encompassing entities rather than their older brethren, which seemed to be a chassis on wheels with various “boxes”—engine, cockpit, fuel tank—almost haphazardly strewn along their length. The Bugattis’ crowning glory was, of course, their powder-blue color, which bathed the cars in a hue it was hard to dislike—especially for the French!
But only two 35s finished the race: Jean Chassagne came in 7th and Mlle Renée Friderich 8th in the cars. The rest fell by the wayside, mainly because their tailor-made tires were not vulcanized properly, so the treads separated from the carcasses.
An inauspicious start for a car that became an icon, one that has been revered for the best part of a century for its achievements and consummate beauty. In its various forms, the Tipo 35 would eventually turn Bugatti into the 1926 World Champion Grand Prix racing constructor and win literally thousands of races—more than 30 of them top international Grands Prix, five consecutive Targa Florios plus three Coppa Florios—dominating motor sport most of its competitive life. And when that was coming to an end, the T35 was born again as the Tipo 51, essentially a 35 with twin overhead camshafts, and that car kept winning and taking top places in the upper echelons of the sport right through to the end of 1933.
About 345 Tipo 35s and around 40 T51s were built in almost a decade during the Twenties and Thirties. The T35 that flopped in the 1924 French GP was powered by a straight eight-cylinder, 1991–cc sculpture of an engine. The 2292–cc 35T was built in the spring of 1926 for the rigors of the Targa Florio. The 35C of 1927 was a supercharged 1991–cc car and the T35B of the same year a supercharged 2292–cc. The Tipo A, called the “Race Imitation 35” at the factory, was a less expensive version of the car. It had headlights, wings, windscreen, and hood and won many voiturette races.