Art. Déco. Racer. The Bugatti Type 59/50 BIII

There are rare and legendary cars. And then there is the Bugatti Type 59/50 BIII, also known among connoisseurs as the »Cork Car.« And no, it's not just its elegant bodywork that makes it special. Rather, its entire history is incredible - and incredibly exciting. Also for the Molsheim brand itself.
Text Marko Knab
Photo Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S.

Racing cars usually already have a decidedly eventful history - which is in the nature of their places of use around the world. But even among Grand Prix racers, there are vehicles that have an absolutely extraordinary history. Like the Bugatti Type 59/50 BIII. For it can be considered the last of its kind: The epoch of elegant Grand Prix racing cars from Alsace was founded in 1924 by the Type 35, and the sports cars from Molsheim were present in motorsport for more than ten years.

The Type 59 competed at the French Grand Prix in Montlhéry in June 1935 for the first time. An almost five-liter eight-cylinder supercharged engine was installed in the car frame, which bore the number »Six«. But it will remain the only race with this engine. For just one year later, the »Six« chassis received a new, more powerful 4.7-liter 50-BI engine with a light-alloy block and a larger supercharger producing more than 400 hp. Ettore Bugatti sent it to the starting line with minor modifications in the same year at the Swiss Grand Prix and the Vanderbilt Cup on Long Island, New York - piloted by Jean-Pierre Wimille, it reached the finish line in second place - only the legendary Tazio Nuvolari was faster.

At least as significant as the constant striving for better driving performance are the design background and the artistic ideas that characterize Bugatti vehicles. Ettore's son Jean Bugatti conceived the vehicle as the final evolution of the idea that had already characterized the Type 35, with perfect proportions and innovative details such as the piano-string spoked wheels. Some see it as a driving work of art. Others point to the family tradition: Jean Bugatti's grandfather already studied architecture and later created unique works as a cabinetmaker, painter and architect. With his interpretation of Art Nouveau, he designed extravagant pieces of furniture, often inspired by Turkish and Japanese ornaments and characters. Rembrandt Bugatti, Jean's uncle, modeled other animal sculptures as a sculptor in addition to the upright elephant as the radiator mascot of the Type 41 Royal, and is today considered one of the pioneers of Art Deco. Finally, applying this creative spirit to the technical possibilities distinguishes the vehicles.

The Type 59/50 reached its final stage of development in April 1938 - on this date it also received its nickname: At the Grand Prix of Cork, the car was entered for the first time with a new and lighter single-seater body and a completely newly developed 3.0-liter engine - the 50 BIII with dual overhead camshafts and supercharger.

Less than three months later, the grand finale was already waiting: on July 3, 1938, at the French Grand Prix in Reims. It was to be the end of an era: Once again, Jean-Pierre Wimille is behind the wheel. However, he arrives too late for training. Therefore, the later Résistance activist has to start from the back - and shows great fighting spirit. After the start, he worked his way forward place by place in the Type 59/50 BIII until the Auto Union driver Rudolf Hasse got in his way: Driving directly in front of Wimille, Hasse spun, and although the Bugatti driver reacted in a flash and took evasive action, he was unable to keep the car on the track. The car hits an embankment, an oil line is damaged, and Wimille retires. It would not only be the last race of the Type 59/50 BIII - but also Bugatti's last at a Grand Prix before the Second World War and in the era of Ettore and Jean Bugatti.

The Type 59/50 reached its final stage of development in April 1938 - on this date it also received its nickname: At the Grand Prix of Cork, the car was entered for the first time with a new and lighter single-seater body and a completely newly developed 3.0-liter engine - the 50 BIII with dual overhead camshafts and supercharger.

The following year, World War II broke out. Bugatti then moved all its inventory from Alsace, near the border, to Bordeaux. The material was not to fall into the hands of the German troops. The Type 59/50 BIII? Disappears from the scene. It seems as if the ultimate Art Déco Racer has suffered the same fate as many other art and cultural assets: devoured by the war.

Fortunately, this is not the case: In the 1950s, the Type 59/50 BIII reappeared as a rolling chassis. There was no trace of the ornate bodywork. Until Bugatti enthusiast Ray Jones came onto the scene. In 1964, the American bought the car and made it his life's work to find not only the further developed 3.0-liter Type 50 BIII engine with supercharger, but also all the other parts. Jones searches and collects for almost four decades until he has all the car's components together. In 1995, with extensive documentation, the now completed Bugatti Type 59/50 BIII is on public display in its original elegance for the first time since 1938. Today, the Type 59/50 BIII with its 3.0-liter engine is one of the rare, genuine Grand Prix works cars from the 1930s.

On top of that, it is one of the best-documented Bugatti sports cars in the world and the most powerful Grand Prix racing car from Molsheim ever to prove itself in historic motorsport. Or to put it in other words: here you can see the living history of one of the most legendary car brands of all times.


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