Saturday, 11 February 2012


You can belly up to any bar between Sandy Hook and Nob Hill and get an argument by alleging that Joe Louis is the greatest fighter who ever lived, or that George Herman Ruth could out-hit Joe DiMaggio. Was Bobby Jones really the last word in golf? The nineteenth-hole experts will not concede it. Was Reggie MacNamara, the bone-setters’ delight, really the finest rider who ever strapped his feet to a racing bicycle, and was Tommy Hitchcock truly the greatest thing that ever happened to the game of polo? The hot-stove statisticians will deny it, and hurl Torchy Peden and Cecil Smith in your teeth. And so it goes in almost every sport from tiddlywinks to weight-lifting. But there is at least one exception, and that is automobile racing. This pastime, the practitioners of which are divided into two classes – those who get killed before they get good and those who get killed afterwards – had for years one absolute unchallenged boss, a small, fiery Italian named Tazio Nuvolari.

Nobody who knows anything about it will argue the proposition that Tazio Nuvolari was the greatest driver who ever held the wheel of an automobile. He was the racing driver’s driver, the epitome of the absolute professional. When Nuvolari was driving only the ranking experts could appreciate how good he was, and understand why, though conceding that they could not hope to emulate him.

Tazio Nuvolari had broken his back trying to go fast before most of his contemporaries had learned to shave, and he started his final races knowing that at the finish, if he could last that long, they’d have to lift him out of the car, his chin dripping with blood that had welled up into his mouth as he drove.

For more than a quarter of a century Nuvolari devoted himself to racing with a passion, an intensity of purpose, that has almost no parallel in any other sport. Nuvolari waited for the fall of the starter’s flag with the same savage, single-minded determination that marked Jack Dempsey waiting for the bell. Other fabulously good drivers came up, ran against him for a while and then went on, most of them killed at the wheel. His las great rival, Achille Varzi, died in the rain on a fast bend in the Swiss Bremgarten circuit in 1948. Rudolf Caracciola, the best known of Nuvolari’s contemporaries, is in retirement in Switzerland. But the little man from Mantua quit only when he had to, and then bitterly and reluctantly.

The kind of racing that produced Nuvolari has had no large-scale parallel in America sine World War I. It is road racing, altogether a different matter from the track racing known in the United States. The European circuits are laid out in three forms:

(I) Ordinary roads in everyday use, closed on the day of the race. The Rheims circuit, scene of the French Grand Prix, is such a course, a tough triangle formed of two main roads linked by a secondary highway and measuring just under five miles to the lap. The circuit can be lapped at 100 miles per hour and top speeds of around 190 are possible.

(2) Courses laid out in city streets. The Grand Prix of Monte Carlo is an example: 100 laps of two miles, with ten sharp turns, some of them hairpins, to the lap. Roughly there are 1000 turns and 2000 gear changes in the course, and many drivers have been lifted out of their cars after finishing, their glove stuck to the blistered palms of their hands.

(3) Courses built for racing and used for nothing else, some of them incorporating an oval track together with a great deal of regular roadway. A fabulous example of this type was the German Nürburg Ring, fourteen miles to the lap. Cut into the Eifel mountains just across from the Belgian frontier, the Nürburg Ring was built as a public works project in the 1920’s and is certainly the most spectacular racing circuit ever laid out. Two thousand feet above sea level, it carries about 175 curves, and a speed range of 60 – 160 miles per hour is needed to negotiate it with any hope of winning. The one straight in the course is about three miles in length and has two camel-back bridges cunningly arranged to put daylight under all four wheels of the cars as they pass at speeds in the desperate 150-m.p.h. category. One of these bridges killed the very able German driver E. von Delius when he came down to tick the rear of the car in front of him. When his big Auto-Union stopped bouncing it was a good quarter of a mile off the course.

(During the last few years American road racing has been revived, and some competent drivers are now practising in the country. But the U.S. races have been run by sports cars – high-efficiency passenger-carrying vehicles – with top speeds in the 130-m.p.h. range, rather than the full Grand Prix machines of 200-m.p.h. potential that dominated Europe in the years before World War II. Too, the distances run have been much shorter: 100 miles, for example, instead of 350.)

Running over the first-rank European courses in the three years 1934 – 1936 – the middle of the best decade auto-racing ever saw – Nuvolari won fourteen Grand Prix races and placed in nine. Allowing for the difference in length, say it’s the equivalent of winning five times in succession at Indianapolis and placing four times. Nuvolari’s nearest competitor, the master Caracciola, won nine times and placed four in the same years.

Although as many as 400,000 people have watched a race at the Nürburg Ring and crowds of 100,000 were common at other courses during the ‘30s, it has never been easy to extract the maximum commercial return out of a road race, with spectators scattered over half a country getting a free look. It was this factor, as much as anything else, that killed off U.S. road races, the Vanderbilt Cup and others. Nuvolari ran in the revived Vanderbilt races, in 1936 and 1937, when they were run on a special track full of bends and hairpins, on Long Island. In the 1936 race Nuvolari took the lead at the beginning and held it to the end. Mauri Rose and Wilbur Shaw, both three-time winners at Indianapolis, ran in the 1936 event. Rose came in 25 minutes behind Nuvolari. Shaw did not finish.

Nuvolari appeared again in the starting line-up at Long Island in 1937, but his Alfa-Romeo caught fire early in the race. He was accelerating out of a hairpin turn when a roaring sheet of flame slammed into the cockpit. The little man stood up on the seat, steering the car with one hand until it stopped, and cursing in Italian at the top of his voice. He never got the car started again. The Germans mopped up that year, although the American Rex Mays put up a tremendous show in an outclassed car and finally finished third for a great personal triumph.

Skill of the kind that characterized Nuvolari’s work is not routinely required in a track race, and thus the Americans have never developed drivers like him, or Seaman or Varzi or Rosemeyer.

This is not to suggest that Indianapolis, for example, is for boys. It is certainly nothing of the kind, but endurance of man and machine counts for more at the Indiana track than in most road races, and it is one of the dullest big races in the world to watch. It is, however, fast and easy to follow, and its devotees, many of whom see no other racing the whole year round, like it for those reasons.

It is the ability to get around corners that wins Grand Prix road races, and not since the first one-lunger chugged down the road has any mortal taken corners with Tazio Nuvolari’s abandon, grace and virtuosity. The method is simple and easily understood. Just as any musician can tell you how to play the fiddle, though it may take a Heifetz to do it properly, so any driver can tell you how to put a car through a corner, any corner, from a 15-mile hairpin to a 150-mile bend. If you’re an orthodox, you take the line on the corner that everyone else is following – there’ll be a lot of rubber on it to point the way – because you believe that there is only one correct line for any given corner, and that it cannot be varied by more than a foot either way. You believe that a coin placed in the road before the race should be hit by your right front wheel every time around.

We’ll assume that this is a right-hand bend, so you turn the wheel ever so slightly to the right. As the car goes into the bend the rear naturally starts to come around, building up a skid. You correct y turning the wheel to the left, ever so little. The engine is now pushing the car in the direction its nose is facing (right) while centrifugal force is pushing it to the left, and you are in what is known as a power slide. Thereafter you steer with the throttle. To go to the right, you use more power; to go to the left, you use less. As you come out of the curve, you twitch the wheel to centre again, perhaps correct a slight skid to the right and off you go.

Everyone knows this is how it’s done. But it is a little hard to learn because if you allow a couple of hundred r.p.m. too much, or one twitch of the wheel too little, you are off the road. People have lived through such incidents, but when they came out of hospital most of them found that they had suffered compound chronic impairment of the zeal.

Generally speaking, it’s considered poor form to slide too much in a curve. It looks spectacular, but it’s rough on tyres and the average driver will lose time in a slide. Nuvolari habitually broke this rule. Just as he broke almost every other rule in the business.

He did not believe that there was one and only one correct line on a corner. He might go into the curve straight and come of it sliding, or her might slide the whole way through. He might go into the curve with the car pointing the wrong way for the entrance but the right way for the exit, and hold it in that attitude all the way through. He could slide a car through a curve at 150 m.p.h. with the front wheels six inches from a fence at the beginning of the bend and the same six inches from it at the end. No one has ever bettered his fantastic judgement of a car’s balance: its speed sideways as well as forward, and the exact amount of weight resting on each of the four wheels as the load shifted from side to side and front to back under braking, turns and acceleration.

The little man’s career is full of examples of his weird art. In 1935 the Grand Prix of Monte Carlo was driven in a heavy rain. One car broke an oil line in the middle of a double bend, dumping an enormous quantity of oil on the already rain-slick pavement. The next car through crashed. The second crashed. No. 3 crashed. No. 4 piled into him and No. 5 repeated. Nuvolari was sixth and he hit the corner with his foot well down. He not only steered the car through the oil, slamming the wheels from side to side faster than the eye could follow, but he never touched one of the five cars stacked up all over the place. If it wasn’t the greatest display of sheer virtuosity ever seen on the road it will have to do until something better comes along.

Nuvolari was born in 1892 – November 16 – in the tiny village of Castel d’Ario in the province of Mantua. They still call him ‘Il Mantovano Volante’ – the Flying Mantuan. He was a strange, lonely, arrogant child. Because he was small as a boy he exercised violently to be strong and he was head man among the kids of his age in Castel d’Ario. When he played, he played to win: he was a hard winner and a poor loser. He would take no lip from anybody.

Nothing slowed the boy down. When a plane crashed near his home,, Tazio appointed himself salvage expert. The ship was one of the early broomstick-and-baling-wire affairs, and he rebuilt I to his own specifications. Then he hoisted it to the roof, tied it to the chimney and cranked up the engine. When it was turning over he cut the rope and took off. The flight was short, practically straight down, and the boy was picked up with a broken back. T was his first crash. He was to have seven major smash-ups later in life. They left him with one leg an inch and a half shorter than the other, a missing index finger and bone fractures too numerous and varied for him to remember.

Nuvolari at speed was never smooth, imperturbable, steady, like Caracciola, or the Frenchman, Louis Chiron, or the Siamese, Bira. He yelled, shook his fist, he bounced up and down in the car like a jack-in-the-box, he drove with one hand and beat on the side of the car with the other. Nuvolari, at his peak, was a show-off in spades, bit with a difference – he had what it took. He wasn’t bluffing.

Tazio’s long-suffering father eventually bought him a motorcycle and the unhappy villagers speedily learned the wisdom of getting off the road when they heard him coming. He learned that you could go faster, and get into less trouble, in a race, and so he got down to business and turned pro.

During the next few years he won about 300 races in Italy and abroad. There was a time at Monza when he found himself in a cast on the day of the race, forbidden to move out of a hospital bed for thirty days. He made his friends carry him to the track and strap him on the bike. Once they’d started him, he could stay on as long as he kept it moving. He kept it moving. He won!

He graduated to automobiles in 1921 and places second in his class the first time out: the Garda Circuit, 122 miles long. He ran again in 1922 and was absolute second, regardless of class, driving an Ansaldo. He won his first big race, the Tigullio Circuit, in 1924, and won his class in the Savio Circuit the sae year. Absolute winner that year was Enzo Ferrari, an automobile designer from Modena.

For the three years from 1924 to March 1927 Nuvolari raced only motor-cycles. Then in 1927 he ran a Bugatti in the Mille Miglia, perhaps the toughest race in the world and always his favourite. He came in fifth. In June 1927, he won the International Royal Prize of Rome race and decided to give up motor-cycles for good. From then on he drove in every big automobile race he could enter.

By 1929 Nuvolari was an acknowledged ranking expert. He switched from the French Bugatti car to the Italian Alfa-Romeo and began to trounce the great men of the day, drivers like Campari Arcangeli and Brilli Peri. He was 90 seconds behind Achille Varzi at Leghorn that year, and when the 1930 Mille Miglia rolled around again Nuvolari was out for blood.

The Mille Miglia has no exact counterpart among the world’s big races. Run over approximately 1000 miles of ordinary highway, it starts at Brescia, runs down to Rome, and then up the peninsula again to Florence, Turin, Milan and Brescia again. It is usually run in about 16 hours, and as many as 200 cars may start. Nuvolari took 16 hours 18 minutes 59 seconds to win it in 1930, and it was the first time anyone had averaged more than 100 kilometres (62 miles) per hour. Caracciola, in a big 6-litre Mercedes-Benz, was an hour behind him. Eighteen years later, in 1948, Nuvolari came within a hair of doing it again.

In ’31 Nuvolari really got going. He won, among other contests, the Targo Florio. The next year he won the Targa Florio again and the Coppa Acerbo at Pescara. The Pescara Circuit was a typical Grand Prix car killer, sixteen miles to the lap, a four-mile straight along the Adriatic sea-coast, then 2000 feet up into the mountains, through a couple of villages, and down to the sea again, the downhill leg being enlivened by a bend that had to be taken at 130 m.p.h. if one had any intention of finishing with the rest of the boys.

Nuvolari kept it up during 1933, taking the Mille Miglia once more, the Le Mans 24-Hour race in France, and many others. During 1934, Nuvolari ran in Maserati cars, then went back to Alfas again, winning often and finding time also to set new international records for the kilometre and the mile, flying and standing start both.

The winning of the German Grand Prix in 1935 may be the most authoritative measure of Nuvolari’s ability because to do it he had to beat the two finest stables of drivers in the world (the Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union) who were driving cars that were infinitely faster than his own. The Mercedes-Benz was incredibly quick, and by 1935 the Auto-Union car was producing 400 horse-power and was good for 200 m.p.h. It had only one drawback: because of the placement of engine and driver, it was perhaps the hardest car in the world to drive. It was so tough, in fact, that the Auto-Union firm preferred to hire men who had never driven racing cars before and train them from scratch. If drivers had anything to unlearn as a result of having driven conventional cars, they were usually pretty sad on Auto-Unions, and the star driver of the team, Bernd Rosemeyer, was a converted motor-cycle racer who had never driven a racing car in his life. Nuvolari, of course, was something else again. When he got around to driving Auto-Unions, just before the war, he drove them as if he’d been born in one.

But in 1935 he was still driving an Alfa-Romeo of the type that had been supreme until the Mercedes-Benz came along. It had an eight-cylinder engine with the flywheel in the middle of the block, two carburettors, two superchargers, and two drive shafts, each one running to a separate differential on the back axle.

Both Auto-Union and Mercedes could leave Nuvolari’s Alfa in acceleration, and could outrun it on a straightaway. Further, they had superior braking and could thus hold speed for a fraction of a second longer before entering a curve. Nonetheless, the little man from Mantua beat their ears off over the rugged Nürburg Ring circuit in 1935 and did it on sheer driving and nerve. Stuck of Auto-union was second, Caracciola of Mercedes was third, Bernd Rosemeyer was fourth. Nuvolari had warmed up for this triumph the year before, when, driving his own Maserati asan independent, he had taken second in the Coppa Acerbo and third in the Czechoslovakian Grand Prix Masaryk, both times against the full factory-backed teams of Auto-Unions and Mercedes-Benzes.

Still driving for Alfa-Romeo in 1936, Nuvolari – or ‘Il Maestro’, as they were calling him now – won five Grand Prix races. He was second at Monza and the Eifelrennen in Germany. He continued to drive Alfas during 1937, but the car was so hopelessly outclassed by the big Germans that he accepted an offer to drive for Auto-Union during the next season, and won twice, at Monza and the Donington Grand Prix in England. In the thirtieth lap of the latter race he demonstrated again the art of driving on oil. An English Alta had blown up, dumping all its oil on the track. Nuvolari went through it safely; the next two cars through skidded out of control. Donington was the last Grand Prix race of 1938, and in 1939, before the war put an end to racing, Nuvolari picked up the Grand Prix of Yugoslavia for Auto-Union.

The little man began to drive again as soon as races were organized in Europe. But his health was going fast now, and what he did, he did on nerve. He ran in the Italian Champion’s Circuit in ’46, but didn’t place. He won the Grand Prix of Albi (France) in a Maserati, but collapsed after the race, holding the traditional winner’s bouquet of flowers. He won at Forlí and Parma in the new Ferrari, a post-war car. He entered the 1947 Mille Miglia, his old favourite, driving a tiny Cisitalia. He drove like a madman and was well ahead of the pack at Florence, more than half-way through the 1125 miles of the ‘47 course. But the last half of the race was run in a torrential downpour of rain, so heavy that some competitors stopped altogether, quite unable to see ahead, and on the last third of the course, between Turin and Milan, Nuvolari’s engine was flooded. He lost about twenty minutes changing the magneto and was nosed out for first place by a 2.9-litre Alfa, a closed coupe of vastly more power than his little pen Cisitalia. They had to lift him out when he came into Brescia.

In the 1948 Mille Miglia (Nuvolari would very much have liked to win this one once more) he came to into Rome, the half-way mark, thirty minutes ahead of the other 150 cars in the running. But his Ferrari had shed its bonnet. He was still ahead, and gaining, at Florence and at Bologna, but he had ripped the mudguards off the car and the seat was broken. Nuvolari has always been hard on his mounts, a great flogger of automobiles, a car killer. One spring after another let go until finally, near Modena, the Ferrari quit completely. It could not take the beating Nuvolari had given it. He sat in the car, miserable and dejected, until an old priest came along and took him to the parish house, made him eat and put him to bed.

At Bari, in the spring of 1948, he had to come into his pit during the practice, bleeding from the mouth. For a time he tried wearing a mask to keep the exhaust fumes out of his throat, but it didn’t work. At Pescara, in August 1948, a similar attack kept him from starting. He couldn’t get out of bed. He cried then, and for the first time he was heard to say, ‘I’m through.’

In 1951 he entered hospital in Verona for a tonsillectomy, hoping that the operation would enable him to tolerate exhaust fumes again, but to no avail. Still he would not admit absolutely that he could not hope to drive again. He had little else to sustain him. His two sons, Alberto and Giorgio, had been taken from him by death. Nuvolari had made some wise investments, was moderately well off, but business held no attraction for him.

In 1950 he fell in love with another automobile: the twelve-cylinder rear-engined Cisitalia, a Grand Prix car of the first rank which has yet to run as this is written. This fantastic little automobile had five speeds forward, an elective four-wheel drive, an estimated top speed of 230 miles per hour, and Nuvolari was sure, when he first read the plans, that with this car he could beat everything in the world. But the Cisitalia manufacturing company was financially too weak to contemplate the cost of financing a Grand Prix campaign for the car. A minimum of $75,000 in additional capital was required. Nuvolari undertook to raise the sum single-handed. ‘I shall make myself responsible,’ he said. It could not be done. The Cisitalia company moved from Italy to Argentine, and the twelve-cylinder Grand Prix car went with it.

‘Nivola’ won his last race, the Monte Pellegrino, on April 10, 1950, driving an 1100-c.c. Abarth. He was 58 years old. At one point in the running of this race he had one wheel spinning in empty air over a precipice, but he brought it back. He would not consider such a trifle notable. He could recall more exciting incidents: the time, for example, when he had had to leave a burning car. He go it down to 100 miles an hour, but there was no time left. He jumped. He was racing again in two weeks. A contemporary once remarked that in a race with the Devil he would have to bet on Nuvolari.

To win his second Mille Miglia, Nuvolari had to pass Varzi in the last 100 miles or so. Varzi was well ahead, and to keep him off his guard Nuvolari drove 60 miles through the pitch-black country roads with all his lights turned off! His riding mechanic, a brave man, and indifferent to ordinary hazards, was horrified. Nuvolari was within feet of Varzi when he flicked on his lights, blasted past and won by 500 yards!

In his lifetime this incredible man had finished in 130 automobile races. Won 64 in all, 52 absolutely (regardless of engine size). He won 12 races of the grandes épreuves category, the first rank, and 49 grands prix races. In 1933, a typical year, he entered 15 races, won ten of them (including the Mille Miglia and Le Mans!), was second three times, fifth once, eleventh once. In his whole lifetime he finished second only 17 times, third only 10 times! Usually he either won or broke up the engine.

Tazio Nuvolari was very ill the last two years of his life, and in a paralytic coma for many weeks before his death on August 10, 1953. He died at his home in Mantua.

Most authorities think we will not see again the like of this little man. Nuvolari was 29 years in putting together his fantastic record, and merely to survive 29 years of professional automobile road-racing is miraculous. But no one who ever saw him can forget him, and there are many who close their eyes and remember him, remember the slight, short figure, the brown hairy arms, the blue mechanic’s trousers, the yellow turtle-neck sweater with its flamboyant monogrammed ‘TB’, the turtle brooch, a gift from D’annunzio, the lean, tanned vulpine face with its great out-jutting jaw that was like no other jaw in the world save that over which Juan Belmonte, terero, matador, immortal, stared as he killed 3000 bulls.


From 1909 to 1925 the Mercer Automobile Company flourished and performed good works in Trenton, New Jersey. Mercer made two-seaters, four- and five-passenger touring cars and limousines of superior mechanical quality. From 1910 until 1915 the company made a two-seater, called a ‘Raceabout’, designed both for racing and ordinary road use and powered by a big four-cylinder T-head engine. Of the perhaps 800 specimens of this model produced – the company made only 150 a year – about 21 are known to survive today. There are American cars that rank higher in rarity than the Mercer Raceabout, but no car ever built in America is more sought after or more prized. There are two reasons: the sports cars of the years between 1900 and World War I were starkly functional, unburdened by frills or the weight of useless metal, a characteristic much to be desired; and of all the many contemporary two-seaters, the lean, high-striding Mercer is indisputably the best-looking. Second, most antique automobiles are not at all fast, and this one is. A good Mercer Raceabout will cruise all day at 60, show 70 or more on demand, and it has the steering and the road-holding to go with its speed.

This is the story of a car like that, a car which spent World War I blocked up in a garage, World War II hidden from metal salvagers in a grove of poplar trees in Canada.

In the October 1948 issue of True I had a piece on sports cars, and in it said: ‘…The hardest-to-get American car today is no streamlined Detroit wonder wagon; it’s the Mercer Raceabout made before World War I. Dumb luck may get you one of these New Jersey-built sports jobs, but mere money won’t….’

One Saturday night towards the end of that month a man named Don Brown walked into a drugstore in the tiny Canadian town of Delburne, in the province of Alberta. He picked up a copy of True, leafed through it and came upon the sports-car story. There was a picture of a Mercer, a 1919 model. Mr. Brown had a Mercer himself and had never seen a photograph of another. He bought the magazine. The next night he sat down and took pen in hand.

…You speak of the Mercer Raceabout of before World War I. I thought it might be of interest to you to know that there is at least one still undiscovered, so to speak. I have it stored away near here. I bought this car in 1932. It is a 1912 model. The party who sold me the car – one Joseph Steele – told me that the mileage showing was all the actual mileage it had done: 14.413.Really it is a wonderful car to drive. It has a terrific burst of power and handles far nicer that any 1948 car – you can really see what you’re doing and where you’re going. Mr. Steele had a certificate to the effect that the car made 90 m.p.h. on a dirt track in California in 1913 – I think it was near Santa Monica.1 I had it to about 70 on a gravel highway, but that was all I felt like taking, the road being what it was….

Ten days or so later Mr. Brown had an answer, and thus began a correspondence that lasted for five months. I told Brown what I knew bout Mercers and their value, and Brown on his part sent photographs of the car and described it exactly. A price was finally agreed upon, and Mr. Brown ordered a goods wagon reserved. The despatch of the car from Delburne was not without incident. Brown wrote:

…I got up at5 a.m., took the truck and my hired man and we went and towed her in. We had it in the car by 7.45. Well, we had breakfast and then went back and fastened it. You needn’t worry about that. It isn’t going to move an inch, and it wouldn’t if it went to California and back. I wrapped both axles with burlap and chained them bolts run through the freight car floor and double-locked underneath. Then we built a cribbing of 4 x 4 timber around the Mercer. The car was sealed and no other goods will be put into it along the way.

It was about 11.30 when I went to the station to fix up the shipping bills and the agent said that I would have to have those forms from the American Consul. I phoned them in Calgary and then the fun started. They said they had to know the date it came into Canada, who brought it in, the Port of Entry, size of shoe I wear, my grandmother’s birthstone, etc., etc. They said I would have to come to Calgary, they couldn’t do all this over the phone. We got there at 4 o’clock and I got home about 3 a.m.

Apart from being cut out of the train and stuck on a siding in the wilds of Quebec for several days, the Mercer had an uneventful ride, and in about three weeks the railway announced somewhat waspishly that the Mercer was in the yards and would somebody please come and get it, lest $18 a day demurrage be added to the $540 bill for carriage.

Fortunately, I didn’t go to pick up the car alone. If I had, I’d have cut my throat. For while Mr. Brown’s description of the car was entirely accurate, the appearance of a car that has not felt a paint brush for 37 years practically defies description. Mr. Conrad Lofink, who had undertaken to restore the car, went with me. Mr. Lofink is a man of maturity and wisdom who was working on automobiles when most people thought they’d never displace the horse. He has the sloped shoulders of the enormously strong and a mind crammed with such unlikely information as the bore and stroke of the 1908 Isotta-Franschini and the valve clearances of the 1916 Locomobile. Lofink restored a number of cars in the famous James Melton collection.

‘As of this minute,’ Mr. Lofink announced, happily surveying the grisly-looking automobile, ‘I think this is the best Mercer I ever saw. Take a pull on the handle.’

I did, and wonder of wonders the engine turned over easily and smoothly.

‘It’s beat up on the outside – though not half as bad as some I’ve seen – but as far as I can tell now it’s never been left ungreased, and that’s a miracle,’ he said. ‘Let’s get it on the truck and take it home.’

Someone had rigged up a home-made leather wind-breaker incorporating a Model T windscreen, and this we ripped off and left in the goods yard. The head-lamps, also Ford, were thrown away too, and so were the tyres. The upholstery was completely gone. Oddly enough the wood throughout the car was solid, including the artillery wheels. It was all discarded, nonetheless.

Lofink had been right about the internal workings of the car. There was not a spot of rust anywhere, and every working surface was covered with grease or oil. The two-ring pistons had been extensively drilled out for lightness, presumably at Barney Oldfield’s order, the connecting rods had been machined down and an enormous amount of metal had been turned off the flywheel. The Mercer Raceabout was guaranteed to do a mile in 51 seconds new, and there was every reason to believe that this one, restored to factory condition, would be even faster. Except for piston rings and the replacement of the second-speed gear which was missing, no new parts were needed.

An old car cannot be effectively restored if it isn’t taken apart practically to the last nut and bolt. The engine was taken out of the Mercer, the body removed, and the wheels – except for the hubs, of course – thrown away. The frame was then scraped to bare metal and repainted. New hickory wheels were made up, the wooden framework in the tail replaced with ash, a new dashboard and sills (they cover the main chassis members) made of mahogany. New seats were made and sent away to be upholstered in red morocco, and all the brass on the car, which is plenty, was laboriously polished.

There were bits and pieces missing, of course: a certain kind of brass bolt here, a fitting of another kind there. Usually Mr. Lofink solved these problems by climbing into the attic of his garage, where his friends suspect he keeps one of everything ever made for an automobile. Other components were dug up around the country by dint of diligent correspondence. A pair of brass headlamps came from Florida, a bulb-horn from Kingston, New York, a hood-strap from Washington, D.C. The engine, stripped, reassembled and steam-cleaned, was dropped into the chassis finally, bare of paint and upholstery. When the question of putting a starter on the car had come up, Mr. Lofink had said it was unnecessary, and he had promised that when he had finished setting up the engine it would start at one pull of the crank, stone cold or red hot. He was right. The car started at a touch and went like a bomb. It came out of the pain shop in September. It had been in work for six months and careful book-keeping showed that there was just under $4000 in it, purchase and transportation included. If this seems a lot, it must be recalled that even a firm ready and willing to make wood-spoked wheels (and you won’t find one in the phone book!) must spend several days setting up machinery to duplicate a wheel pattern exactly; if enamel is replaced in a hub-cap it must be done by a ceramist or it won’t last; a craftsman capable of first-grade upholstery work in fine leather cannot be expected to charge slip-cover prices. Old-fashioned 34 x 4 ‘Non Sid’ tyre are not expensive at $182.50 a set, considering what you’d have to pay to get some if Firestone didn’t carry them in stock!

Although driving a Mercer may have a high per-mile cost, nothing the writer has ever sat in offered half as much sheer enjoyment. The enormous attraction of the Mercer derives from its starkness. There are no useless gadgets. Everything on the car contributes something. Visibility? You can see the ground under the right front wheel! You can gauge a corner literally to one inch, and the merest twitch of the steering-wheel will pull you around the car ahead of you. You have to pay for this quickness, of course: it takes muscle to turn a wheel that goes only one and a quarter turns from full right to full left. The men who drove these cars in the great races of the years before World War I were men indeed: Pullen, Hughes, de Palma, Wishart, Barnes, Knipper, Bigelow. In May 1912 Ralph de Palma drove a Raceabout 150.506 miles in 130 minutes 43 seconds, an average of 69.54 miles per hour – on a road course. The next day he took the same car to Los Angeles and hung up track records for one mile, 2, 3, 4, 5, 10, 15 and 20. Averages in the high 60’s and 70’s over all kinds of courses at distances up to 500 miles were often made by the Mercer, averages that would not be easy to duplicate today despite all that has been learned about fast motoring in the almost 40 years that have passed.

To put the Mercer into its proper frame of reference, to understand its tremendous appeal for the motorists of its time, one must ponder for a moment the fact that strictly stock Mercers were often taken straight from the show-room to the track. In August of 1912, for example, a stock Type 35C Raceabout was taken from a Columbus, Ohio, showroom floor to a dirt track where it set up new records for distances from 75 to 200 miles. If you can imagine going into an Indianapolis sales-room today and buying a car to take out to the brickyard for an assault on the lap record you can imagine the kind of automobile the Mercer was.

The Mercer was not by any means alone in its field, of course. The stark two-seater was a recognized body type and many other manufacturers turned them out. The Lancia, designed by the great Italian driver, was one of them, and a lovely thing, too. The Lancia was rather small, and very pretty. The National, built in Indianapolis, was another ‘Raceabout’ type, a monster in size. There was the Simplex, too, one of the truly great American automobiles, and the Marion ‘bobcat’. And, of course, the Stutz, the ‘Bearcat’, ‘The Car that Made Good in a Day’.

The Stutz-Mercer rivalry was bitter in the years before World War I, and it still is. The Stutz was a wonderful car, and as a racer it may take pride of place by reason of he fact that Stutzes were still running in competition in 1929, by which time Mercer had given up the ghost. But in the years 1911 -1915, when a ding-dong battle between the two makes enlivened nearly every major American road and track event, the struggle was fairly even. Brutal objectivity might give the decision, by th width of o hair, to Stutz, on the ground of most races won. But the Mercer had the smaller engine of the two, and if the results were weighed on that basis, the Mercer would come out ahead.

The Stutz had a remarkable career. Harry C. Stutz built his first car in five weeks and it ran very well for him in the 1911 Indianapolis race, the first one. That was the year Ray Harroun won with a Marmon, another great U.S. car. Marmons were made until 1933, the big, turbine-smooth V-16 model being properly ranked among the finest automobiles we’ve ever had.

Stutz’s fine showing at the Indianapolis brickyard brought it the slogan, ‘The Car that Made Good in a Day’. An from then until 1935, when the last one came off the line, it was a much-admired carriage. Stutzes ran at Le Mans in 1928, 1929 and 1930. They came in every form, from fast two-seaters to great long-wheelbase town cars, but the best-known were the legendary ‘Bearcats’. There is one fast-growing notion about the Stutz ‘bearcat’ that should be quashed here. That is the belief that the open, bucket-seat racing ‘Bearcat’ was the favourite mount of young bloods in the raccoon coat and hip flash era. Nothing of the sort is true, since the bucket-seat car was not made after 1915 and the bathtub-gin-and-flapper phase of U.S. culture developed after the war. In those days another ‘Bearcat’ appeared – a true roadster, with a top, doors and other refinements. It did share one characteristic with its forebears: the brake and gear levers were out of doors. Even so knowledgeable a writer as John O’Hara has helped assign the earlier ‘bearcat’ to this place of dubious distinction. The Stutz can rightfully claim many an honour. Remember the Stutz DV 32, four valves to the cylinder? Stutz was an early user of safety glass, hydraulic brakes, overhead camshafts.

In my own view, the early ‘Bearcat’ is a gaunt and ugly piece of machinery when laid alongside a Mercer Raceabout for comparison. It has a high and heavy profile, badly misses the lithe look of the Mercer. Anyone who suggests that I am prejudiced is dead right. I am. I think the Mercer was the better car: better in design, better in basic material, and infinitely better in aesthetically. The designer of the T-head Mercers, Finley Robertson Porter, still lives, and if there was ever a man entitled to take pride in work well done, Porter is that man. Only Porter and Bugatti and Bentley of all designers and makers lived to see the fruits of their minds and hands reborn, as it were, and venerated decades later as they had been in their own time.

The Mercer renaissance began around 1935 and reached boom proportions in the middle 1940’s. It brought about an organization formed for the express purpose of idolizing this make of automobile: The Mercer Associates – ‘an order dedicated to the preservation of America’s most famous sports car’. The location, ownership and condition of every running Mercer extant – there are about 95 of all models – is known to members of this California-based club.

Of course there have been angry voices raised in dissent. One such, Theodore B. Brooks, issued public challenge not so long ago: ‘I say phooey!’ said Mr. Books. ‘I think there are many, many makes as good and lots better. In fact, I will be willing to wager one pair of new Haynes driving lamps, black enamel, value $10, against anything of like value that I can trim any stock Mercer built prior to 1915 in a one-mile run-up to a medium steep grade in third speed with my 1912 White seven-passenger touring car….’

It is not recorded that the wager was taken, but the reaction of one Mercer owner was probably typical: ‘Let him make it ten miles, and all gears, and I’ll spot him half a mile and beat him dragging a bobsled behind me.’

It is a misery and a sadness that no American firm is currently in heavy production with a two-seater quality automobile equally suited for high-speed touring and for racing. Weather protection aside, the Mercer offered the ideal combination in its day. A good Mercer is perfectly docile if set to puttering along in fourth, or high gear, and can in fact be throttled down on a hill in high until the driver can almost count the explosions; but you can also drop it into third, bear down on the out-door accelerator pedal and run away from the ordinary modern passenger car, given any kind of a winding road to allow the Raceabout’s cornering ability to make itself felt. This diversion is most fun with the cut-out opened simultaneously with the throttle, a gambit which jars most Sunday drivers to their shoes. My car had an exhaust of sewer-pipe dimensions, much thicker than standard, even for Mercers, and the bark of the four big cylinder could be heard a mile away with no difficulty at all. It is most effectively used on a nice wide highway with lots of traffic. Mr. and Mr. Herman Clot and their brood, sliding up behind, can almost be heard to say: ‘Oh, see the quaint old automobile! Say, it runs pretty good. Must be doing all of 40.’ As they pull alongside so that everybody, including the driver, can stare over for five minutes or so, the plug is pulled (the exhaust being conveniently placed on the left side so that they can get the full benefit of it), bang into third and the hell away from there. It may be five miles before they try to pass again.

Oddly enough this manoeuvre is not usually regarded as offensive, and I was once ill-advised enough to do it to a brace of highway patrolmen without ill-effect. On another occasion a patrol car chased my Mercer for about two miles because the pipe was open. The road was winding, he couldn’t get by, and no-one in the Mercer could hear hi siren over the exhaust. We thought the gendarme was merely a tourist in a black Ford too close tour rear end for comfort. The Mercer was doing a decorous 45 and went no faster until the road widened and the arm of the law, pretty red-faced by then, pulled alongside. The drill on such occasions is to stop promptly, get down quickly, and have the bonnet up, exposing the beauties of the engine, a symphony of brass, copper, grey and red paint, by the time the man gets to you. This offers something to talk about, and takes his mind off his work. Most officers seem to feel that they would look foolish flagging down a car older than they are for speeding, although they are eager to know about lights, insurance, and such details if they come upon you standing. It is a fact, too, that owners of the old cars usually drive very carefully, having due regard for the monetary cost of an accident, and they are apt to be better-than-average drivers, too, because the old ones demand to be driven, not just steered, and they wont tolerate much bone-headedness from the pilot.

Marvel though it be, a Mercer Raceabout is not without its little flaws. The brakes are pretty amusing, for example. Driving a Mercer requires that strict attention indeed be paid to the territory a long way ahead. The foot brake is a contracting type operating on the transmission. Vigorously applied it will slow the car down enough so that you can notice it if you pay attention. I used mine only for helpless old ladies with perambulators, stalled goods trains and similar imperative necessities. The hand brake, sited out of doors, retards through expanding shoes on the rear wheels only. This does a much better job of despeeding the car, although the driver is kept busy setting up a genuine hard stop, five controls being involved in getting a lower gear and applying both brakes – or seven if you want to be fancy and adjust the throttle and spark hand levers, too. The gear change is delightful, smooth and easy, although it has a long travel.

The Mercer’s frame is not as beefy as it might be, and many cars show the results of chassis strain in welds. My car bore two such wound-stripes, possibly due to being run with frozen shock absorbers. The aluminium bearers of engine and transmission are another weak point. Saddest flaw of all, from the passenger’s point of view, is the total omission of wind protection on his side. In addition to the front blast, he gets a sideways eddy from the driver’s windscreen, and the whistling blast up his left leg as he jams his foot against the brass stirrup can be very disconcerting on a cold day. Twenty-five miles at 22 degrees represents the farthest north in winter Mercerizing for me, and on that day neither of us, taking turns driving, had the guts to go faster than 40, despite visions of warming whisky poultices awaiting us at home.

Cart-sprung fore and aft, with Hartford shock absorbers that give ground bitterly and reluctantly, the Mercer puts up quite a hard ride. But while it’s tough on rough roads at low speeds, it levels out nicely when under way, and in any case what movement there is seems natural, like the movement of a horse under you. You sit in the seat, not just on it, both feet are solidly braced, and you feel very safe, no matter what. You couldn’t turn a Mercer over with a derrick.

You never need to worry about anyone’s stealing it, either. It would take a thief a week to figure out how to start it, the complete drill being: (I) Open cylinder primers and turn over engine a few times to put a little oil here and there; (2) Close primers; (3) Fill half-full of petrol, drain and close again; (4) Open cut-out; (5) Switch magneto to intake-side plugs; (6) Set spark and throttle levers; (7) Check fuel pressure; (8) Check gears for neutral; (9) Crank; (10) Switch magneto both sets of plugs; (11) Get in and go some place.

And remember those brakes, Jack.

1 Later investigation indicated that the car had been owned and raced by Barney Oldfield.

Friday, 10 February 2012


If all the automobile advertising copywriters were assigned to the hell-fire burning their falsehoods down the years have richly earned for them the blaze would be of a size to light up the planet, and the beady-eyed Martians might well take it as a signal. Speed the day! To the red-hot grates with the mocking slaveys who thought up ‘leopard-gait’ and ‘elbow action’ and ‘tank-top’ and called them new and wonderful. Lead off with the genius who boasted of the millions his employers had spent to develop the ‘new and astonishing’ hemispherical combustion chamber, just for the lucky Americans – when every high-performance engine built since grandfather’s day had had nothing else!

But when this jolly holocaust is kindled one group of hucksters will be standing safely aside to watch their brothers’ burning. These will be the quiet men who write advertising copy for the Rolls-Royce. It may well be that Rolls-Royce is the only automobile firm in the world that has never exaggerated its wares. Its slogan is a simple one, simply stated, and it has never changed. The Rolls-Royce, it tells you, is ‘The Best Car in the World’. That’s all. The best, and no discussion. And who, knowing anything at all about motor-cars, will argue?

The Rolls-Royce is not only the best car the world has ever seen, it is very probably the best piston-engined car the world ever will see. It is much to be doubted that the predictable future will produce an economy capable of sustaining the kind of workmanship and therefore the money that goes into a Rolls-Royce. One can go further: there is probably no mechanical device in the world as good as a Rolls-Royce. For in no other category of machines does one make possess such obvious and overwhelming superiority. No ship is as much superior to other ships as a Rolls-Royce is superior to other cars, no aeroplane, no house or clock or camera, printing press or child’s toy. The Rolls-Royce is first. There is no second and no third.

Rolls-Royce is so sure of its product that it issues a three year guarantee with each chassis sold. This contrasts with the dubious 90-day guarantee of the ordinary car. Let anything go wrong, great or small, in three years of driving, and it will be mended or replaced, free of charge. Such a guarantee would bankrupt the average firm long before the first three years were up. When a well-cared-for R-R turns its first 100,000 miles it can be considered just nicely broken in. There are pre-World War I Rolls-Royces with engines so vibration-free that they will still pass the classic test: with the engine running, a half-crown balanced on edge on the radiator won’t tip over.

What makes a Rolls-Royce so good? Are there thousands of bright young engineers, housed in modern laboratories of glittering glass, engaged in the testing, on fabulously expensive machines, of each and every part? No. R-R testing devices are simple and almost primitive rigs, often ‘designed’ and bolted together on the spot. Nor are they costly. An engine running on test is forced to turn a dynamo hooked up with the factory’s electrical supply, and the heat from its exhaust is used to warm wash water! Are the finished cars tried out on elaborate and beautifully landscaped testing grounds, where they can be driven through water troughs for the benefit of photographers and the edification of yokels? Again, no. They are tested by being run over astronomical mileages on the roads, where they will spend their working lives.

There is, alas, no magic. If there were, any car could be as good. The Rolls-Royce is good because everyone connected with the firm from the chairman of the board to the last foundry sweeper is determined that it shall be good. An absolute refusal to allow anything but the very best obtainable to be put into the car, from fan belt to upholsters’ tacks, characterizes everybody in the organization.

Sir Henry Royce once said: ‘It’s impossible for us to make a bad car. The doorman wouldn’t let it go out!’

An illustrative point is made by the quest for silence that Rolls-Royce has pursued down the years. The car is so quiet now that extraneous noises must be sought out by testers using doctor’s stethoscopes. An amount of gear hum that couldn’t be heard by the keenest-eared musician who ever twanged a bowstring will get a car sent back. So it comes about that when a Rolls-Royce passes on the street, the loudest sound a man on foot car hear is the rustle of the tyres. Rolls-Royce doesn’t make tyres.

Throughout the Western world the words Rolls-Royce are a common term, a word in lingua franca, meaning quality. Quality and, of course, luxury. Everyone knows that Rolls-Royce begins where every other make of car leaves off. But not many know that the R-R is a good passenger car today because it was, once upon a time, a great sports and racing car. In the decade between 1904 and 1914 Rolls-Royce cars set up murderous competitive standards over English and European road courses.

It could be argued that the car should have been called the Royce-Rolls, for Royce, Frederick Henry, son of a miller, began it all by building a two-cylinder car in 1903, when he was 40 years old. He set about the job because he was certain that he could design and make an automobile superior to the cranky and uncertain vehicles that whuffed and chugged along the roads of the day. It took him six months. He worked day and night and drove his few helpers with the consistent callosity of a Roman overseer. He grudged the time it took to eat and was baffled by the lack of enthusiasm of any man who entertained scruples against working through a week-end. The standards of perfection that have characterized the R-R company ever since began with this very first car. Lightness combined with great strength was the order of the day, and a component bit which was in Royce’s view too heavy for its function would send him into a glowering rage. He was once profoundly shocked to hear a mechanic say that a certain part was ‘good enough as it is’. He upbraided the man in terms suitable for the denunciation of a traitor to the crown.

Much of the first car was made by Royce’s own hands. He was a skilled mechanic, and more: he had a great gift, amounting to a touch of mechanical genius. No theoretician, he couldn’t even use the official badge of the engineer’s office, the slide rule. But he could pick up a piece of brass stock and a hand file and make a fitting by eye measurement alone.

He made three cars in 1903 and 1904: a three-cylinder 15-horse-power and a four-cylinder 20-horse-power in addition to the original twin which produced 10 horse-power. In 1904 he met Charles Stewart Rolls, third son of the first Baron Llangattock. Rolls was an energetic young man well born in a time that suited him. He was of the essence of the pioneer. He chased new sensations as other men chased money. He was a cyclist, an automobile racer, a free balloonist. He had had his first cr – a Peugeot – in 1894. He had won the Thousand Miles Trial of 1900. In partnership with one Claude Johnson, a quiet bookish man later to be an enormously important figure in the Rolls-Royce company, he had set up an automobile agency in London, selling Belgian Minerva and French Panhard et Lavassor cars. But Royce was politely contemptuous of their wares, offered to take them for a ride and show them why. They were not long in being convinced. Rolls was particularly struck with the silence of the car, for in those days it was taken for granted that a motor-car had to be noisy. If it comes to that, even the august London Times was impressed. Reporting on the first showing of the car, at the Paris Salon in 1904, The Times said, ‘When the engine is running one can neither hear not feel it, and pedestrians never seemed to hear the car’s approach.’

The first agreement between Rolls and Royce was dated December 23, 1904, and two cars were entered for the Tourist Trophy race in the Isle of Man the following year. This race was for what we would call ‘stock’ cars. One of the two R-R’s broke down, the other finished second to a field of 42. They came back the next year to win: the car driven by C. S. Rolls finished the 208-mile course almost half an hour ahead of the field. Rolls set a road record that year, too, from Monte Carlo to London. He took the winning Tourist Trophy car to New York and set a new mark for 25-horse-power machines on the old Empire City track. The same car won the 20-mile championship at the Daytona Beach speed trials in 1907.

But it was the “Silver Ghost” Rolls-Royce of 1906 that really jolted the motoring world. This was a big car, rated at 48.7 horse-power (Royal Automobile Club) and it was wheeled out at the London Motor Show. The body was grey, the engine was silver-plated. After the Show it was run from London to Scotland and back, locked in third gear, which gave it a range of from 3 to 53 miles an hour. It was then promptly put on the road again and run day and night (Sundays excepted) until it had covered 15,000 miles. At the end of this performance impartial examiners could find no way in which to spend more than a trifle over ten dollars to restore it to as-new condition.

The Royal Automobile Club ran a Touring Car Trial in 1908 which required competing cars to travel to Scotland and back and then race for 200 miles on the Brooklands track near London. Rolls-Royce offered to bet £1000 against any car that would undertake to do all this and then go on to run an additional 15,000 miles. There were no talkers, so the Rolls proceeded to win its class in the Trial anyway.

Except for the two Tourist Trophy races Rolls-Royce competed as a company in no actual races, preferring instead to enter the long-distance touring type of event which could do most for the continuing development of the car. In private hands, however, the Rolls was successfully used in races on a good many occasions both before and after World War I.

In the 1930’s, Rolls-Royce-powered cars in the hands of Malcolm Campbell and George Eyston were to push the world’s land speed record to better than 350 miles per hour.

One of the immortal R-R models, the ‘London-Edinburgh’, was named as a result of a challenge by the Napier firm. In 1911 a Napier Six was run from London to Edinburgh and back in high gear, averaging 19.35 miles to the gallon of petrol. A touring-car model 45/50-horse-power Silver Ghost was promptly despatched over the same course and showed a petrol consumption figure of 24.32 miles to the gallon. Immediately after finishing the return leg of the trip the car was taken to the Brooklands track and did a lap at over 78 miles per hour in the same gear. The low, slim ‘London-Edinburgh’ car was one of the best-looking touring automobiles ever built and put up a standard of performance that would be good today. Given a light body and high gearing, one of these cars exceeded 100 miles per hour at Brooklands.

The ‘Alpine’ Rolls-Royce was a Silver ghost slightly modified for the 1913 Austrian Alpine Trial, a long and wicked up-mountain-and-down affair covering 1645 miles. These cars had bigger-than-standard radiators, heavy cantilever springs replacing the regular semi-elliptic type at the rear and a four-speed gearbox. The compression ratio was a little higher, a bigger carburettor was used and the brakes were more powerful than those of the ‘London-Edinburgh’.

The firm entered four cars for the 1913 Alpine and won the event with absurd ease. No one of the four required so much as a drop of water during the entire 1645 miles, a fantastic performance for cars of 1913 – or 1954 for that matter. Only the fact that a non-competing driver ploughed into one of the R-R entries prevented them from finishing one-two-three-four. A privately entered Rolls-Royce won the 1914 event after which World War I put a stop to competitive motoring in Europe. In 1921, when the firm resumed passenger-car manufacture, the ‘Alpine’ engine and gearbox went into all cars. Incidentally the Rolls-Royce company did not name the car the ‘Alpine’. The firm called the model the ‘Continental’, and continued to do so for some time after the general public had christened it ‘Alpine’. In 1932 R-R put out another ‘Continental’. That time they made it stick. It had a high compression ratio, a spring-spoked steering-wheel, a floor cut-out. Rolls-Royce executives have ever been stubborn lot, slow to change a good thing when there’s no need to. Most of us think that the Model T Ford was in continuous production longer than any other car ever built, but it isn’t true. The Silver Ghost Rolls was made for nineteen consecutive years, the Ford for eighteen.

Although the car could never have come into existence without Charles Stewart Rolls, and although Sir Henry Royce’s personality is stamped into its every part, the amount of time spent by the partners at the plant was negligible. Rolls was killed flying his own Wright aeroplane in 1910. In the same year Royce collapsed from the effects of prolonged overwork. He went to the Continent to convalesce, and although he returned briefly to England after a few months, he never again visited the factory. He built a house near the village of Le Canadel, in France, and until his death in 1933 he lived there and directed the company by mail. A permanent staff of three designers, two secretaries, a nurse, a housekeeper and a chauffeur stayed with him. So tremendous was the driving force in this man that he dominated everything that was done at Derby, and he functioned so perfectly through the great Claude Johnson and other executives that he was present almost in fact at their council tables. One is reminded of Joseph Pulitzer, blind, running the New York World from Europe during its golden period. When at last Sir Henry Royce died one of the few really radical changes ever made on the car was authorized, after sober debate, by the directors: the word Rolls-Royce and the two big R’s on the name plate were changed from red enamel to mourning black.

By standards prevailing in lesser manufactories, Rolls has offered few models since 1925, when the last Silver Ghost was made. There were the small Rolls-Royces – the delightful miniature 20/25 horse-power models (that’s rated, not developed, horse-power) and the Phantoms I, II, III, IV, and the Silver Wraith, the Silver Dawn. Most Rolls-Royce owners, it is safe to say, have not been much concerned with the model designation of their cars. Indeed, there have been Rolls owners who thought that their cars had eight-cylinder engines, although nearly all of them in existence today are sixes. (The comparatively rare P.III is a twelve-cylinder car, and the P. IV, not yet in production, is an eight.) But the man, or woman, who buys a new Rolls-Royce is not as a rule much concerned with things mechanical. (It is the second-hand buyer, the third-, fourth-, fifth-hand buyer who esteems the car as the embodiment of mechanical perfection.) The first purchaser buys two other things: the name, and utter luxury. There is a cachet in the ownership of a new Rolls-Royce conferred by the possession of nothing else. An ocean-going yacht does not mean more, may not mean as much. For new Rolls-Royce owners are a select lot indeed. Millionaires, film stars, royalty ranging from kings both active and at liberty to fabled Indian maharajahs have formed the glittering core of R-R clientele. But the men of Crewe, England, who make and sell the cars have not erected their present reputation by being out of touch with the times, and the cost of a Rolls-Royce has gone down of late, not up. Inflation may have raised the cost of other luxury items, but you can buy a brand-new Rolls-Royce off the peg today for a hair under $10,000 instead of the $15,000-$20,000 it used to cost. That is the price tag on the Silver Dawn model, and it represents a break with R-R tradition: the “Dawn” is the first Rolls-Royce ever offered at the factory complete with body. Until the introduction of this model, in 1950, Rolls-Royce made chassis only, the bodies being designed and built to customers’ specifications by one of the great English coach-building firms. The Silver Wraith model, somewhat bigger, is still offered, of course, and sold in the old way: chassis only.

When the last polisher has given the last lick to a Rolls-Royce leaving the Hooper or H. J. Mulliner or Park Ward body works it is as nearly a finished product as anything wrought by man can be, and I am speaking now of the ordinary – if the word may be used – body of typical Rolls-Royce conservatism. Its upholstery, whether of cloth or leather, will be of the best. The walnut dashboard, rails, window fillets will be of prime stock, polished to a blinding gloss or conservatively matted, as the owner wishes. There will be clocks, radios, speaking-tubes, cabinets, tables, folding seats, perhaps a small bar – all the normal, ordinary appurtenances of a luxury automobile. But for many a buyer it isn’t enough. For some, such an interior doesn’t represent even a beginning. It must be made more luxurious. This is a phenomenon that seems to appear most often in relation to the Rolls-Royce. Some owners appear to view the reputation of the Rolls-Royce as the most luxurious motor-carriage in the world as a challenge and a threat. They must improve upon the flawless. This aberration has produced some truly fabulous interiors.

The ordinary or garden variety of custom installation is built into a Rolls-Royce at the instruction of a grande dame of society, an international cartelist, or an heir to ancient millions. An American woman specified a make-up case that cost $3000, a clock that cost over $1000. A duplicate instrument panel for the rear seat is commonplace and so are odd and unusual seating arrangements; oversize single seats, built-in wheel chairs and ramps, etc. (The Englishwoman who specified a built-in chamber pot was, however, considered to be eccentric. It was done, nonetheless.) Rolls-Royce limousines have been built with unusually high roofs, to clear a tall man in a top hat, and with extra leg room for those who like to ride on the backs of their necks. A British connoisseur had all the operational switches on his car labelled in Old English.

But this kind of thing, expressing the whims of ordinary mortals, executed at comparatively trifling cost, is insignificant beside the passionate devotion to individuality of some of the Indian princes who are good and faithful Rolls-Royce customers. A man of taste like the Maharajah of Patiala, who bought 35 Rolls-Royces in a bundle, so to speak, a couple of years after the end of World War II, can afford to indulge himself. The Maharajah of Patiala runs to gold-plated dashboards, fur floor-coverings and medicine chests that are inbuilt.

The Nizam of Hyderabad, whose claim to the title of richest man in the world has not been recently disputed – he could, if need be, lay hands on $2,500,000,000 – has about 50 Rolls-Royce cars of various body types. His favourite is a Silver Ghost of 1911.It had done under 500 miles the last time anyone looked at the odometer. The Nizam has another Silver Ghost of some luxury too, This is a ‘London-Edinburgh’ with a body hammered out of solid silver. Its cost, which is unreported, must have made even the Nizam blink a bit, and one would expect the weight of metal to affect adversely the car’s otherwise sprightly performance. This latter is probably not of primary concern to the Nizam, however, since his motoring trips are infrequent, slow and short.

One could go on for a long time. ‘What a pity,’ an English authority once remarked, ‘that there were no Rolls-Royce cars in the days of Nero – or Louis Quatorze!’

It is the versatility of the car, not its luxury, that bemuses the onlooker. The Silver Ghost chassis that transports an Indian rajah in silence and princely splendour is identical twin to the armoured, tanklike Silver Ghosts with which Lawrence of Arabia hounded the Turks in World War I. These were the cars that first demonstrated to the world the standard to which Sit Henry Royce adhered. For they were after all built for ordinary passenger use under ordinary load. They were never meant to carry armour, to run week after week in sand and through it, to go indefinitely with haphazard maintenance or none. Still, so tremendous was their overstrength that they did, and Lawrence credited them with much of his success. Indeed, after the war T. E. Lawrence once remarked that if he could have anything in the world that money could buy, he would have a Rolls-Royce with petrol, and tryes to last it for his life.

Although Lawrence’s first armoured cars were improvised Rolls-Royce did, of course, produce vastly for military usage during both World Wars. R-R aeroplane engines powered many Allied bombers and fighters in the 1914-1918 conflict. The first plane ever to cross the Atlantic non-stop (Alcock and Brown, 1919) was engined by Rolls-Royce. The great Schneider Trophy victories in the ‘20s were won with Rolls-Royce engines, and the Battle of Britain, that engagement which was the hinge of civilization, was won by Spitfires and Hurricanes carrying the Rolls-Royce ‘Merlin’ engine. And of course tank engines were produced in thousands. Today the Crewe factory is turning out superlative jet power plants and a range of four-, six- and eight-cylinder military engines designed for an extraordinarily high interchangeability of parts is in work. Obviously most of Rolls-Royce’s output is now and for years has been destined for military and other heavy-duty work – but even though production of cars may not run more than 20 units a week, those 20 are still nearest the hearts of most of the company’s people.

Fewer than 25,000 Rolls-Royce cars have been built. Of these, a few hundred were made in Springfield, Massachusetts, from 1921 to 1931. Those built at Springfield from 1924 on have left-hand drive and the gear level is a long one, sprouting from the centre of the floor, but they are otherwise identical with contemporary models turned out by the English factory, then at Derby. The venture did not survive the depression of the ‘30s, however, and since then the cars have been built in England only. You can find a good Rolls-Royce service station almost anywhere in the civilized world, although it may take a bit of looking for. There are perhaps three in the United States in the hands of whose mechanics a Rolls can be maintained in the tight mechanical pitch in which it left the factory.

It is not true, incidentally, that a Rolls-Royce engine is sealed at the factory and that it may not be opened by anyone other than a factory-trained mechanic without invalidation of the guarantee. This legend has died hard. It is true, however, that a Rolls-Royce owner of chauffeur can enrol for a driving and maintenance course in England designed to teach him how a fine car should be treated. The course lasts for 12 days – four of them devoted to gear-changing! – and at the end the proud graduate is given a silver pin testifying to his superior knowledge.

What does a Rolls-Royce feel like to the driver? Like nothing else in the world.

You have here – consider the Silver Wraith – a car of 10 feel 7 inches of wheelbase, running perhaps 17 feet over-all. You have a six-cylinder engine, overhead intake, side exhaust valves, the so-called ‘F-head’ type, of 4256-cubic centimetres (260 inches) capacity, developing 122 horse-power. It will propel the car 23 miles per hour in top gear for every 1000 revolutions per minute it turns. It gives about 18 miles to the gallon. The car has four speeds forward, a steering-wheel that turns three and one-half times from lock to lock. It will do 90 miles per hour effortlessly and in total silence.

So much for the bare recital of the essentials. But that cannot cover the case. Consider the brakes, for example. They cannot be, of course, full hydraulic brakes, because hydraulic brakes fail on occasion, rarely, it is true, but still they fail, usually due to loss of fluid, and to subject a Rolls-Royce owner to such indignity and danger would be unthinkable. On the other hand, they cannot be full mechanical brakes, because mechanicals require high pedal pressures and are apt to get out of adjustment easily. Therefore Rolls-Royce uses a braking system of its own. The front brakes are hydraulic. The rear are mechanical. And they are applied, not with the force of the driver’s foot alone, but with the force of the car’s forward motion. When the pedal is depressed, a clutch moves to engage a constantly-running disc powered from the gearbox, and the braking force is thus in direct proportion to the speed of the car. You can really stop a Rolls-Royce is you need to.

The gear lever is short and stiff and it lies just beside the right-hand corner of the front seat, where the hand falls naturally upon it in a right-hand drive car. The Silver Dawn gear lever is on the steering column, an innovation that caused many a pang to tradition-minded Royce lovers. There is a hand throttle, of course, a light to warn of low fuel level, a shock-absorber control level, and a pedal which, when pushed, meters a correct amount of special oil to all chassis parts. A Rolls-Royce is never given a ‘grease-job’. Thermostatically operated radiator shutters open or close as the engine warms or cools, maintaining a proper temperature. A flip of a key will cut off the entire electrical system in the vent of a short circuit, a stuck horn or any such unlikely contingency.

The most advanced Rolls-Royce now in existence is the Phantom IV limousine owned by Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom and her husband. His is a regal automobile, nearly 19 feet long, over six feet high, dark green in colour and equipped in a quietly luxurious fashion. It has, of course, the square radiator that has never changed its shape – nor ever will. Its straight-eight engine probably produces about 190 horse-power. The body is done in the style – never used on a modern U.S. car – known in Britain as ‘razor-edge’. In this style all surfaces which would ordinarily be finished in rolling curves, surfaces such as the line of the roof or the sweep-down of the back, are brought up into sharp knife-edge lines. One of the advantages of this design is that it allows for an exceptionally shallow roof with consequent large window area, as advantage in a car intended, as this one is, for state occasions. Part of the rear window areas can be blanked off, however, whenever the Queen or her husband prefer privacy. The rear doors are over three feel wide (at the bottom they flare out to seal the wide running-boards against dust), but the seat is narrow by U.S. standards, since it is designed to provide for no more than two persons. Those two, however, will be very comfortable indeed. There are enough interior lights in the car to provide any degree of illumination from pin-point to full brilliance. There are three heaters, and thermostatic arrangements on the engine provide that the heaters are fed the very firs hot water available so that they can produce warm air instantly the engine is started. The windscreen is warmed by a separate unit drawing hot air from the radiator. A glass panel in the roof can be covered by a motor-driven blind, and the curtain over the rear window is, of course, motor-driven as well. The window-winders, however, are manual.

The interior of this royal carriage is considered to be ‘very simple’ by Rolls-Royce standards. The cabinet-work, while executed by master craftsmen in fine figured walnut, is not elaborate. Only the standard appurtenances are provided: clock, radio with two speakers and remote controls, two folding tables and chairs, ashtrays, cigarette-lighters, glove box, and hand mirrors. A bit out of the ordinary is a small three-compartment locked filing cabinet.

All in all, a barouche that would have pleased Sir Henry Royce had he seen it slide away for delivery to its royal owners. He would have been particularly happy with one detail: the radiator ornament of this car is not the ‘Silver Lady’ so beloved by Rolls-Royce owners that most of them, on parking the car for any extended period, always remove it and replace it with the thoughtfully provided plain cap. The royal Phantom carries instead a silver statue depicting St. George in the act of slaying the dragon. When the builders of the car first saw the piece they found it quite acceptable as art but wanting in engineering. They wondered if the mass of horse and rider, highly placed as it was, might not eventually detach itself from the dragon, writhing below. A suitable testing machine was devised and the statue was bumped and banged in a way that a year of riding over railway tracks could not duplicate. As a result the statue as redesigned with a view to better apportioning of the stresses. The dragon’s head was moved to support the horse from the side, and the dragon’s tongue was imperceptibly lengthened in order to furnish support for the horse’s belly, while St. George’s lance was firmly embedded in the evil beast, the better to support the rider. As art, the statue is still good; as engineering, it now meets Rolls-Royce standards and thus can never, never be jounced the least bit out of line!


Ettore Bugatti was in Italian who made automobiles in France. During his working lifetime – from the age of 17, when he built his first car, until he died in 1947 at 66 – Bugatti built about 9500 cars, hardly a respectable week’s production by Detroit standards. Yet Bugatti automobiles a quarter-century old are still treasured; an international club of Buggati addicts – the Bugatti Owner’s Club – in existence for 20 years, is dedicated to the preservation of the Master’s creations; a magazine dealing with nothing but Bugatti lore has been published for more than a decade; and in England a great hand-wrought iron gate has been erected as a permanent memorial to Ettore Bugatti and his Jean, who died testing a car in 1939. In 1954, the Bugatti Owner’s Club produced a Register listing the model, history, ownership and whereabouts of every Bugatti known to exist.

The man whose cars arouse this unique fanaticism[1] was a demonstrable genius, a combination of artist and engineer. His life was a compound of paradox. He did not particularly care for motor racing, yet his cars were fastest over the ground of their time. He was a mild and courteous man, yet he liked to be given, even in his home, the autocratic title, ‘Le Patron’. (He took his daughter’s name from his own initials: Ebée.) The products of his wizardry were twentieth century to the minute, yet he ran his factory, with which was combined his aviaries, his kennels, his stables, his vineyards, his museums, his distillery, his boatyard, like a prince’s domain. He spent his life in France, yet he remained an Italian citizen until just before his death. He was not wealthy, but he refused to consider the question of cost in the making of a motor-car, and a chance remark at the dinner-table inspired him to tool up for a series of cars to cost $30,000 each – for the bare chassis. The body cost another $10,000 or so. Most of his cars, of course, were cheaper: roughly two thousand to ten thousand dollars, cheerfully laid down by happy customers who maintain to this day that if you haven’t driven a Bugatti you haven’t driven anything.

What kind of cars inspire this devotion? Are they dead silent, smooth riding as mobile feather beds, quick to start in the blackness of zero mornings, so easy to drive that a child can manage them? They are not! Most Bugattis are noisy in every way a car can be noisy, plus a few ways peculiar to themselves; when the temperature slips to the area of 30F. most of them are seized with a stubborn reluctance to fire at all, and indeed Bugatti himself blandly advised purchasers of his cars to invest in heated garages. The models of the late ‘30s,equipped with the legendary De Ram shock absorbers ($1000 a set, they automatically and continually adjusted themselves to varying road surfaces), were smooth riding enough, but some of the most worshipped earlier models would jar the back teeth out of a clothing store dummy. And no Bug ever built was designed to be driven by children of the rich, and the full racing cars built for Me Juneck of Czechoslovakia, probably the greatest woman driver of all time.) The multiplate Bugatti clutches are often either all in or all out and nothing in between, giving the car a marked tendency to start off with a neck-snapping jerk. The clutch on some models must be adjusted to a hair and dosed with just th right mixture of kerosene and oil, lest it refuse to come free at all, thus forcing the hapess driver to make gear changes with hope and prayer. Bugatti favoured cable-operated brakes demanding heavy foot pressure, and on one occasion loftily told a customer that he made his cars to go, not to stop. Heavy thought they were, the race-bred Bugatti brakes were efficient and virtually fade-proof. Bugatti detested detachable cylinder heads. On one model the rear axle, transmission and crankshaft must be removed before the valves can be ground. The Bugatti water pump is something to make strong men weep, and some of the racing models fling oil about like a gusher gone berserk. ‘It comes out of everything but the tyre valves and gets into everything including your hair,’ one devoted owner reports.

To the man who owns a Bugatti and becomes its willing slave for life, none of these things matter. Though his children go shoeless, the car will have English castor oil if that is what it requires. Should mechanics, told that th crankshaft comes apart in thirteen pieces, run in horror, the owner will buy overalls and metric wrenches, advertise for instruction books in Australia, England, France, write pitiful letters to cognoscenti all over the world and learn, skinned knuckle by skinned knuckle, to do the work himself. He will insist that the car is worth any amount of trouble. The prime cliché of Bugdom is, ‘There’s nothing like a Bugatti, and there never will be.’

From the little Type 13 of 1910 to 1939’s big supercharged Type 59 a bad Bugatti was never offered to the public. Utterly thoroughbred to the core. In the golden period of the ‘20s Bugattis were supreme on the roads and tracks of all Europe (1927 for example: 806 first places win by Bugatti!) They won more races than any other car ever built. Indeed they won more races than all other makes put together. They would dothings that no other car could do. They still will. Many a Bug-lover will bet money he can get from point A to point B faster on a 1938 Bugatti than you can on any comparably-sized modern car you care to mention, and he’ll tell you the distance can be anything you like from 5 to 500 miles. Keep your wallet in your pocket. He may have one that will get up to 130-150 m.p.h., and even the slower Bugattis proved long ago that their superior road-holding and controllability enabled them to beat much faster cars. The Type 35, for example, the greatest racing car ever built, consistently beat machines capable of higher top speeds.

The key to the greatness of the Bugatti automobiles lies in the fact that their creator was by temperament and training an artist. His brother Rembrandt was a sculptor. His father, Carlos, was an artist of formidable talent and range, a designer, engraver, metalworker and architect. Ettore Bugatti himself intended to be an artist, and as a young man studied sculpture. But before he had left his teens he came reluctantly to the conclusion that his brother’s talent was superior to his own, and so he turned from the arts to other things. Bugatti was not a man who enjoyed being second to anybody.

In 1898 the just-emerging idea of individual, self-controlled travel by autombole had the same compelling excitement more, perhaps – than the potentiality of atomic energy has today, and young Bugatti was fired by it. He bought a petrol-powered tricycle (the question of three wheels versus four was still open at the time) and taught himself to drive it. Quite innocent of any technical training up to that time, he decided to learn the business properly, and apprenticed himself to a Milan machine shop. A year later he had built a tricycle of his own – with two engines instead of one – and entered it in ten Milan races. He won eight of them.

He next designed a four-engined car which was not a great success. He designed a third car but the firm to which he was bound decided at that time to abandon the automobile business, and Bugatti found himself a designer without production facilities. He persuaded two Italian noblemen to back him, built the car and had the pleasure of proving that it would do 40 m.p.h., an excellent speed for the day. The car was such a success that a year later Bugatti was offered an enticing deal by the De Dietrich manufacturing company, and in 1902 he left Italy for Alsace, then German territory, where he was to spend most of the rest of his life. Seven years later, after having worked with two other firms, he rented a large property in Molsheim, in Alsace, and began to make cars himself, under his own name.

Two years later Bugatti was famous. For the Grand Prix of France, 1911, he entered a tiny white four-cylinder car in competition with the monster racing machines typical of the times: huge high-sided brutes with pistons the size of cabbage heads. The little 660-pound racer, looking like something built for a child, motored merrily around the court without fuss or fury. While the big chain-driven locomotives running against it skidded violently through the turns, the Bugatti went around like a toy on the end of a string without a trace of slide. It was the first demonstration of a quality that was to mark all Bugatti automobiles: ability to hang to the road at high speeds. It would have been incredible if the little car had won. It placed second, which was merely miraculous. The advertising value of the race was tremendous, and from that time on Bugatti had no trouble in selling. He competed in other races, including Indianapolis, 1914 (retired in third place, rear axle bearing), and designed a small car for the Peugot company. This little voiture, the Bébé Peugot, was the great-grandfather of all small cars. It was on the road ten years before the Austin Seven, generally considered the first of the little ones. The Bébé was a pretty little car, with a five-foot wheelbase, a track of three feet five inches and a really Lilliputian four-cylinder engine. It carried a straight exhaust pipe and heralded its coming and going – at a 40 m.p.h. top – with the veritable Bugatti exhaust note, full of decibels and bite. A strong head wind would slow it to a walk, which was rather more than its brakes could be sure to do, and the two speeds in its repertoire were delivered by two propeller shafts, one inside the other.

When it became obvious, with the approach of World War I, that Alsace-Lorraine would be a battleground, Bugatti moved, via Switzerland and Italy, to France. For the French government he designed a sixteen-cylinder aeroplane engine developing 400 horse-power. This engine was made under licence by Duesenberg in the United States and Bara in France, a total of 15,000 of them being produced. The engine has an interesting history, resulting as it did from the joining of two straight eights. Bugatti had built his first straight eight around 1913, about six years before the type was standardized and hailed as one of the milestones of automobile creation. When the war began in earnest he build a 205-horse-power straight-eight aeroplane engine for the French, and followed it with the sixteen-cylinder model. Immediately after the war, two straight-eight engines appeared at Indianapolis: the Duesenberg and the Ballot, the latter designed by Henri, employed by the Bara company during the period when that firm made the Bugatti aeroplane engine. Many indications of Bugatti derivation, particularly the Duesenberg’s three valves per cylinder, were plain.

After the war Bugatti returned to Molsheim and in 1920 he won the first post-war French race, a light-car Grand Prix held at Le Mans. The three cars Bugatti entered at Le Mans were six years old but they were definitely superior to everything else on the track., the first Bugatti coming in 20 minutes ahead of everybody. Again, they were light in weight – at a time when most designers held the antediluvian theory that only heavy cars could hold the road – and their engines were small and fast. These cars were known as the Type 13, and are generally considered to the first true Bugattis. For the road race at Brescia, in Italy, the following year, Bugatti entered four Type 23 cars. These were modifications of the Type 13, four cylinders, sixteen valves. They finished the race in first, second, third and fourth places for a clean sweep. These so-called ‘Brescia Bugattis’ were immediately in great demand, and many of them were sold, usually as ‘Modified Brescias’. The exact counterpart of the racing model, the ‘Full Brescia’, is rare.

Ettore Bugatti’s practice of putting on sale exact duplicates of his successful racing cars was unique. Other manufacturers would sometimes offer replicas of their cars when they began to be out-dated, but Bugatti would cheerfully sell the exact model. Since his mind was full of improved designs, it didn’t matter in the least to him that the secrets of the cars could be filched by anyone who chose, and the Bugatti was soon the favourite of the hordes of amateur drivers who roared around Europe during the Golden Twenties.

In the years between the two Great Wars Ettore Bugatti enjoyed an eminently satisfying life. He lived in the twentieth century, but the pattern of his existence was something out of the Renaissance. He was no mere automobile manufacturer. He was an original creator, an artist whose great pride it was to conceive a project, go to the drawing-board and design it and then send it to the shops to be built forthwith. He sometimes made extremely complicated designs within 24 hours. He would not have a draftsman on the premises who drew merely in the flat, as blueprints are drawn. If a draughtsman wanted to work for Bugatti, he had to be able to draw any part of a car in three dimensions, as an artist would draw it.

Over the years the Bugatti factory expanded and grew out until it was a self-contained community, a little duchy. There was no need to go anywhere for anything, it was all on hand. Food and wines were grown, liquors distilled, poultry raised. When the power company had the temerity to argue with him, M. Bugatti put in an electric generating plant of his own. There was a fast course on which the cars could be tested. Le Patron was a horseman, so there were stables and a riding hall. (The famous Bugatti radiator derives from the horseshoe. Although the line of the curve varies from model to model, these radiators, the most beautiful ever put on automobiles, are all basically horseshoe-shaped.) There was one museum to house the works in sculpture of his brother Rembrandt, who died a young man. The horse-drawn carriage was the antecedent of the automobile, and as such was important to Bugatti. Thus there was a second museum filled with examples of fine coachwork, There was a hotel – the Hostellerie du Pur Sang – for the convenience of those customers who came to the factory to pick up their cars – and to pay cash in francs for them, nothing else being acceptable. There was a boatyard and of course there were foundries, machine shops, body shops and everything else needed to produce automobiles. Over all this Le Patron benignly presided. Only he carried the key that would open every one of the identical oaken doors on the premises. Usually he toured his domain on a bicycle. It would be, of course, one of his own design The cycle manufacturers of France and Italy, the best in the world, could not make a bicycle to his liking. He considered their products unnecessarily heavy, ugly and inefficient, so he built his own, at what cost is not recorded, but he wouldn’t have cared anyway. The cost of building a machine as it should be built never interested Bugatti. He insisted, too, that his cars be made in an atmosphere of absolute cleanliness. Every floor in the factory, no matter what the work going on, had to be kept the next thing to surgically sterile, and Bugattis biographer, W. F. Bradley, has reported that when it was suggested that the cost of cleaning materials was outrageous and no doubt indicated that they were being stolen by the employees, Le Patron was not interested. ‘Things must be kept clean, very clean,’ he would say. This insistence of cleanliness was now whimsy or eccentricity. All fast drivers known that dirt on an automobile is the great concealer of mechanical defects. (To the hot-rodders of California, a dangerous car is ‘unsanitary’. Cleanliness is particularly important to a Bugatti, because of questions of metal-to-metal joinings matters of balance, and multiplicity of tiny, easily-blocked oilways.

Bugatti was profoundly uninterested in other people’s ideas about automobile design. He proceeded happily on his own way. His comments on other automobiles and their makers were likely to be acid. Of W. O. Bentley, designer of the Bentley, a great but unnecessarily big and heavy car, ‘E. B,’ said: ‘I have the greatest respect for Monsieur Bentley. He builds the strongest and fastest lorries in the world.’ For a long time he refused to use a supercharger, maintaining that to do so was to violate the rules that stipulated a racing car’s engine should be of such-and-such a cubic capacity. His cable brakes were so good that they could not be made to fade no matter how hard the car wad driven, therefore why should he change to hydraulics?2 He ultimately did so, in 1939. He was not much interested in track races, maintaining that the test of a car was its behaviour on regular open roads, and on the road the Bugatti was supreme.

The measure of the Bugatti’s supremacy over contemporary automobiles is well demonstrated by the firm’s record in the Targa Florio races in Sicily, which Bugatti won five times in succession. The Targa Florio was run on a mountain circuit, 67 miles to the lap for a total of more than 350 miles. Beginning at sea level, to rose to 3000 feet in 35 miles, dropped back to sea level again, and included one straight stretch eight miles long. There were about 1200 bends and curves in the course, and the race was one long nightmare of all-out acceleration, violent braking and slides around hairpins looped atop unfenced precipices. No ordinary passenger automobile could last a lap of it. It required 24 hours to find one driver after he’d left the road.

The Grand Prix de Monace, run uphill and down dale through the streets if Monte Carlo, was another index, and two amateur Bugatti drivers once beat the great Rudolf Caracciola over this circuit, although he was driving a Mercedes-Benz of three times the Bugatti engine capacity. The list of such successes is a long one. In 1925 and 1926 Bugatti cars saw the checkered flag of victory exactly 1045 times!

Of the 70-odd separate designs that came off Ettore Bugatti’s drawing-board, not one was uninteresting. Some were more successful than others. One, the 3.3-litre Grand Prix car, is probably the most beautiful racing car ever built. If it is not, the Type 35 is. One – a beetle-bodied slab-sided monstrosity – was certainly the ugliest car of its time, but it set a record at Le Mans by running 2043 miles in 24 hours. Of the passenger cars the three best were probably Type 44, Type 55 and Type 57. Of the racing cars the Type 35 was the best – the best Bugatti and then some: on the record, it is the best racing car ever built.

The Type 35 was designed in 1924, and it was responsible for the phenomenal string of Bugatti first-place wins that ran down the years from then until 1930. It is worth a close look. It was a straight-eight engine of 2 litres capacity, et in a chassis of extraordinarily sound design. Even when Bugatti was finally forced to the use of a supercharger, the Type 35C would not do much better than 125 m.p.h., yet on road circuits it consistently beat faster cars – the Alfa-Romeo, for one. The answer lay in the mathematic perfection of the chassis. Like all Bugattis, the car ran as if geared to the road. Te steering – one of Bugatti’s great points of pride – was flawless, and the brakes were so good that the loud-pedal could be kept on the floor well past the ordinary cut-off point. As Dennis May, an English automobile journalist, has put it, a Bugatti will forgive its driver many mistakes. ‘A Bug seems always to be on your side.’ And there is about a Bugatti a sensitivity to control, loveliness, a willingness to work that seems to endow the car with life, a being of its own. The Type 35 had these virtues in the highest degree.

Strange and outlandish were many features of the Type 35. At the extreme front end the main chassis frame members are only three-quarters of an inch deep. They don’t look strong enough to old up a good-sized kiddie-car, but half-way back, where the load is greatest, there’s an additional six inches of steel. The rear springs are novel: quarter elliptics bolted to the chassis behind the axle and from there jumping backward to join the chassis. The eight flat aluminium spokes of the road wheels are a Bugatti characteristic. The wheels were cast integral with the brake drums, so that when the wheel is taken off the drum comes with it, the working parts of the brake exposed for instant adjustment. Because of the rapidity with which work could be done on the Bugatti brakes, these wheels won races. The front springs pass through the front axle, which is hollow. Not only is it hollow, but it has two diameters: large between the front springs, small between the springs and the wheels. How did Le Patron arrange this machinist’s conundrum? By reaming a solid bar with a large drill, forging the ends closed again and redrilling them with a smaller drill. Not an operation for mass production, yet the finished axle was one of the reasons for the excellent road-holding and steering of the Bugatti. Another of Monsieur Bugatti’s bright ideas was to run thirteen little copper tubes straight through the sump, from front to rear. Both ends of these tubes were open, and since they ran directly through the oil, the blast of air through them kept it efficiently cool. This was a useful device, because the Type 35 engine ran very hot with its tiny radiator. The clutch had a system of levers working on the governor principle: the faster the speed the greater the clutch pressure. Evidence of Bugatti’s freedom from conventional restrictions is not lacking I the Type 35, either. Any designer will say that the inlet valve on a petrol engine should be larger than the exhaust valve. Bugatti made his the other way round. It worked well. He put the sparking plugs on the cold side of the engine, too – another unorthodoxy. He liked them better that way.

The sound of a 35C being fired up is a mad symphony. One advanced Bugattiste made a ten-minute recording of it. ‘Let this be the last thing I hear before I die,’ he said. It is not a simple sound to describe. No hollow, motor-boat burble marks the cranking of a Bug. The discerning ear can pick out three distinct themes: first, the excruciatingly sharp cr4ack of the exhaust, a high-level ripping sound; second, the characteristic growling, rattling, bucket-of-bolts noise of the roller and ball-bearing engine. A racing Bugatti engine in good shape always sounds as if it were about to fly to pieces. Third, there is the sinrenlike rising and falling scream of the supercharger. Ah, joy! For this the owner has drained the crankcase, heated the oil like a baby’s formula and poured it back again. For this, distilled water has been brought to 70C. and decanted lovingly into the radiator. For this, many an hour of greasy labour has been given. A bit of warming-up at 800 revolutions per minute, the gear lever, moving like a knife through butter, bites into first and we go – gently with the accelerator, lest the car fling itself across the road. The car is 24 years old, and nothing it will meet is safer to drive. And if the pilote is willing and able to stick his foot well on the floor, nothing it will meet can stay with the Bug – nothing mass-produced in the United States, at least.

As much could be said of many of the passenger cars Bugatti produced. There was great variety among them. When a new Bugatti came out it was not last year’s model with chrome added or mudguards swept down instead of up, it was altogether different from its predecessors. A small touring car, the Type 40 of 1926, sold for around $1800 (chassis) and would do 70 m/p/h/, much better than anything else in its class at the time. Next to it in the series was the Type 41, one of the very biggest passenger cars ever built, of which more later. There was the Type 43, a sports car, eight cylinders supercharged, 112 m.p.h., cost around $6000. There was the type 44, usually with a closed body, a maximum of 80 or so delivered more quietly than some of the others, and priced at $2600 (chassis). The 46 was a big, luxurious closed car, and was one Bugatti that would start amiably in cold weather. There was a supercharged version, too, the 46S, a carriage grand de luxe if one ever rolled down the roads of France. The Type 50, usually a two- or three-seater, would do 115, and the Type 55, which carried virtually the same engine as the Type 51 Grand prix racing model – twin overhead camshafts, supercharger, tremendously strong frame – was faster and cost the speed-minded of the day around $7000. Most road Bugattis were bought as chassis and had coach-built or custom bodies, but the 55 usually came with a factory-built body carrying the lovely continuously curved mudguards and running-board characteristic of Bugatti coachwork.

The Type 57 is probably the best of all the passenger carrying Bugattis. When it appeared in 1934 it was an entirely new design from end to end, quiet, smooth, capable of a genuine 95 m.p.h. It appeared in four additional variations: the 57C, a supercharged 57, 20 miles an hour faster; the 57T, specially tuned and with a high rear-axle ratio, 115 m.p.h.; the 57S, doing 120, the 57G, 135; and the type 57SC, probably the pinnacle of Bugatti design.3 The 57SC would do 130 m.p.h. as delivered, its 220 horse-power giving acceleration that would frighten the average driver out of a year’s growth. It would accelerate from zero to 80 m.p.h. in 19 seconds! Nearly fifteen years later the fastest American car was the Cadillac: 0 to 80, 32 seconds. In 1951, a 57SC was offered for sale at $9000.

An English Bugattiste, Mr. C. W. P. Hampton, tells of a 1937 ride in a 57S:

I had a trial run up the Barnet by-pass with Williams, the Bugatti works demonstrator, who had brought over a Type 57S electron coupe ‘Atlantic’. It was simply terrific: 112 m.p.h. till accelerating over the croassroads past the Barn – and the road cluttered up with the usual Friday evening traffic. Along the next stretch we did 122 m.p.h., and I though, under the circumstances, that was enough, and said so in no uncertain fashion. Thereafter we ‘cruised’ along at a mere 90-95 m.p.h., once doing just over 100 in third gear. Except, possibly, for the run I had with Jean Bugatti in France, it was the most alarming experience ever; yet Williams drove superbly, absolutely at ease and complete master of every situation. But the speed constantly maintained was prodigious… along almost every yard of the crowded thoroughfare. Apart from the amazing engine, which was remarkably silent, the suspension (aided by De Ram shockers), cornering and road-holding were a whole street better than anything I had previously experienced which, together with the extremely powerful cable-operated brakes, made the whole show feel considerably safer than would have been the case with a lesser car.

If the 57 Bugatti represented the peak of Le Patron’s genius, the type 41, variously called ‘La Royale’, or ‘The Golden Bug’, best demonstrated his ducal indifference to cost and the soaring flight of his imagination. An Englishwoman may have been primarily responsible for this colossal vehicle. At dinner one night, the tale runs, an English lady seated next to Ettore Bugatti remarked, ‘Of course, M. Bugatti, everyone knows you make the best racing cars and the best road cars in the world; but for a town carriage of genuine elegance, one still must go to Rolls-Royce.’

Le Patron’s reply is not recorded, but he was quietly outraged. The next day found him at the draughting tables. The year was 1927. This would be the biggest, most luxurious automobile the world had ever seen. It would be a car for royalty, a carriage of such superb mass and elegance that it would shame the Rolls, the Daimler, the Minerva and every other pretentious motor-car that preceded it. Le Patron envisioned a car the size of a small bus; the wheelbase fourteen feet, two inches. It would have a straight-eight engine of 12,760 cubic centimetres capacity – equal to two Cadillacs plus an Austin and a half! – and it would range in speed from a dead-smooth 3 miles and hour or a perfectly steady 125. The engine was to be machined to zero tolerance – not so much as a thousandth of an inch one way or the other in any working part. The bare chassis would sell for £6000 sterling, then $30,000, and what of it? Bugatti ordered the factory to tool up for 25 of them.

On this car Bugatti lavished everything. No detail was overlooked, from horn buttons (one underneath the steering-wheel at each of the four spokes) to crankshaft, which weighed more than 200 pounds after it had been machined out of a solid forging, and ran in nine individually water-cooled bearings. With the engine merely idling at 1000 revolutions per minute the Golden Bug would do 72 m.p.h. in top gear. From windscreen to radiator the measurement was exactly seven feet. With each car the purchaser received two things as a gift from its creator: a guarantee of free service and overhaul for life, and, as a radiator ornament, a white elephant!

The depression beginning in 1929 spoiled the market for $40,000 automobiles, of course, and only seven Royales were built. Bugatti himself kept the first one, King Alfonso of Spain had one. King Carol of Rumania had a$22,500 armoured body built on his. King Albert of the Belgians had one. Jean Bugatti put a roadster body on a completely chromed chassis, the total cost $55,000 – or $27,500 per passenger carried! This car was sold by the Bugatti family in the summer of 1950. The King Carol car is in the United States. An English-bodied limousine is owned by Jack Lemon Burton of London, an eminent Bugatti specialist. The King Alfonso Royale was bought by a Dr. Joseph Fuchs in 1931, who had a $13,000 convertible coupe body built on it by Ludwig Weinberger of Munich and later took it to America. The car disappeared for a time, was found in a New York junkyard in 1943 by Mr. Charles Chayne, a vice-president of General Motors, who bought it for a sum never disclosed but said in knowledgeable circles to have been $350 – surely the biggest bargain in motor-car history! The others were acquired in 1950 from the Bugatti family, one by Mr. Briggs Cunningham of Connecticut, one of the foremost American road-racing drivers, the other by Mr. D. Cameron Peck of Chicago, a collector who has owned, over the past few years, some 250 fine automobiles. The Bugatti estate retains one Royale.

When the market fell in the ‘30s, Bugatti found himself with a number of Type 41 engines on hand. He went into the railway business with them. Two of them, put into what the French call an automotrice, a railcar, propelled it at 118 m.p.h., set a new record for the run between Paris and Strasbourg, and a new world record for railway speed to boot. This model would seat 68 persons, but bigger trains, made up of three units, carried 152. They went like the very devil and many are still in use. Seated in lonely glory in a little cupola atop the car, the engineer had a wonderful view, could see an approaching station soon enough to slow down and avoid blowing out window-panes as Jean Bugatti once did in the course of a demonstration for railway officials! True to his own ideas, as always, Le Patron designed cable-operated brakes for his automotrice. They functioned splendidly.

In the middle ‘30s the German and Italian governments began to subsidise great firms like Mercedes-Benz, Auto-Union, Alfa-Romeo, and it became impossible for private initiative to compete against them, since the cost of building and running a team of Grand Prix cars for a season could total $1,000,000. The French government refused to enter the lists against the Nazis and the Fascists and as a result Bugatti, who had long carried French racing largely on his own shoulders, began to concentrate on sports-car races, a field that interested him more anyway, since it more nearly conformed to his conviction that racing cars should not be poles distant from regular road machines. He did, however, produce a 4.9-litre Grand Prix car in 1939. The Bugs continues to win races: the French Grand Prix of 1936 (run for sports cars that year), the Le Mans of 1937, the Le Mans of 1939. The record set at Le Mans that year, incidentally, was the record for the course until 1950: an average of 86.85 m.p.h. for 24 consecutive hours.

For Ettore Bugatti, however, the best years were past, the great days were waning. For some time he had concerned himself less and less with the actual business of racing management. He rarely appeared at the courses, leaving most of that work to his son Jean. Too, the industrial unrest that marked the whole decade appeared at Molsheim. It came late, but it came nonetheless and despite Bugatti’s refusal to believe it could happen to him. True, he no longer knew by sight and by name every man who worked for him, as he had in the old days, but still it was a small force: little over 1000 men, and he insisted that Molsheim was still just a big family. It was not, and in 1936 his plant was closed by strikes, Worst of all, Bugatti himself was forbidden to enter the factory. This blow was too heavy. He left Molsheim, moved to Paris, and came back only when imperative business required.

In 1939 another grievous blow fell. Jean Bugatti was testing a Type 57 on a semi-closed road near the factory when a postman brushed past Roland, guarding an entrance, and rode down the course on a bicycle. Jean came around a bend at great speed, attempted to avoid the man at all cost, and was killed in the ensuing crash. He was 30. A month later, World War II began.

Bugatti moved his factory to Bordeaux and began the production of components for the Hispano-Suiza aircraft engine. When the Germans invaded France this factory was lost, of course, although Bugatti, being still an Italian national, forced some payment for it. He then retired to an apartment in Paris and concerned himself with design and with such work in the Resistance as he could do. Two great Bugatti drivers, Robert Benoist and William Grover, an enigmatic Englishman known for years simply as ‘Williams’, were among the important Resistance figures and both finally died at the hands of the Nazis.

During the early years of the war Bugatti’s father died, and his wife soon afterwards. He pressed on with designs for post-war projects: a 1.5 litre (90 inch) racing car, a modification of the Royale engine for marine use, a tiny one-cylinder engine, and a beautiful 350-cubic-centimetre (19 inch) supercharged engine with cylinders no bigger round than half-crowns, designed to turn at 12,000 revolutions per minute. In 1945 he became a French citizen, and after the liberation began action to recover his properties at Molsheim and elsewhere. The difficulties were enormous, complicated by his Italian citizenship at the time the properties had been confiscated, but finally, in August of 1947, he won the case and all was restored to his name. He went home that night, went to his bed and never rose from it again.

Another Bugatti took over the Molsheim works – Roland, who was named after Roland Garros, a fighter pilot famous in World War I for the invention of the synchronising device that allowed machine-gun fire through a plane’s propeller arc. Under Pierre Marco, veteran general manager of Le Patron, men are busy at Molsheim making all manner of things: railcars, agricultural implements, fishing boats – and a very few automobiles. A new Bugatti, the Type 101, appeared at the Paris Salon of October, 1951. It was received with a great display of sentiment, but small real enthusiasm because it was a slightly modified Type 57 chassis wearing new coachwork. Fewer than a dozen had been built by mid-1953. Still at the factory is one example – the only one ever made – of the Type 64, designed by Le Patron before the war to succeed the Type 57. The dies, tools and jigs were lost in the war. Bugatti had also completed the designs for a four-engined racing car; there was a one-cylinder baby car, the Type 68. There was the 73B, a small four-door saloon; the 73C, a 1.5-litre racing car. There is talk of an entirely new sports car, the ‘Type Ettore’. The husband of the second Mme. Bugatti, M. René Bolloré, has promised that car production will continue. But none is ready as this is written.

Even is these cars do appear, the designs of all but the last names will have been outstripped by time. And then who will design the new ones? Who will sit down at the drawing board and create cars like the crotchety, cranky, noisy old 35’s and 51’s, cars that will, with twenty years of hard driving behind them, still go out on the road and mop up everything in sight? Who will command the creation of cars like the whining flight-fast 57SC’s and the regal Golden Bugs? Not, alas, Ettore, the genius of Molsheim.

[1] Insatiable craving for a Bugatti has led many people to desperate acts, but the case of Violet Nozier of Paris is unique. In 1934, Mme Nozier killed her father for money with which to buy a Bugatti for her boy friend.

2 S. C. H. Davis, dean of British motoring journalists, recalls a highly original Bugatti approach to the problem of brake-lining wear during races: spare wheels with smaller drums!

3 The type 57S Bugatti is one of the fastest stock passenger cars ever built. In 1936, a 57S put 135.42 miles into one hour at the Montlhéry track in France, Robert Benoist driving. This record was still standing in August 1954.