Bugatti’s Type 35 was the most successful racing car of its day, reportedly winning over 1,000 races from 1924-’30, including the 1926 Grand Prix World Championship. While most racing cars lead hard lives, especially as they age, some are blessed with more considerate owners and more forgiving circumstances. Perhaps by chance, the 1925 Bugatti Type 35 Grand Prix carrying chassis number 4487 is one such car, having passed through just three owners over the past 92 years. Next January, this Bugatti, said to be largely original except for a single repaint in French Blue, will be in search of owner number four at Gooding’s Scottsdale sale.
How Wallace C. Bird made his fortune isn’t exactly clear. Some sources say he was an heir to the Standard Oil fortune, while others attribute his wealth to his father, a prosperous Wall Street attorney. Even the spelling of his name is a matter of debate, with some sources (including the auction listing) citing Wallis and others (such as Princeton University, his alma mater) using the more conventional Wallace. What is clear is this: in 1925, Bird purchased the Bugatti in Paris, shipping it to his Oyster Bay, Long Island mansion, Farnsworth, where Bird lived with his wife, Marjorie Winifred Bird.
All 96 Bugatti Type 35 models produced (excluding A, C, T and B variants) used a 2.0-liter inline eight-cylinder engine with a single overhead camshaft and three valves per cylinder, mated to a four-speed manual transmission. Fed by a pair of Solex carburetors, output was rated at 95 horsepower, sufficient to deliver a top speed of 118 MPH. As for handling, the Type 35 used a rigid front axle and a live rear axle, both with leaf springs and friction dampers, as well as cable-actuated drum brakes on all four wheels.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that Bird raced the Bugatti on occasion, with some sources citing his entry into the revived 1936 or 1937 Vanderbilt Cup races, or even the 1939 World’s Fair Grand Prix. There’s no entry for Bird or his Bugatti listed in either Vanderbilt Cup race log, and given that the venues were intended to attract the best drivers and fastest cars from around the world, it isn’t likely that a then-11-year-old race car could even qualify for such an event. Still, the Vanderbilt Cup Races website provides evidence that the Bugatti was modified under Bird’s ownership for easier carburetor access, indicating that Bird ran the car in competition on more than one occasion.
A sportsman with a variety of motorized obsessions, Bird was killed in a 1941 plane crash. His wife remained at Farnsworth for a brief period, but opted to live in the smaller caretaker’s home instead of the more opulent main house. Eventually, she moved to France, and in 1950 met Nicholas Sturdza, a man who claimed to be a Romanian prince. Within a decade, Sturdza had spent a sizeable amount of Bird’s fortune, and in 1961, conspired with Gerard Savoy, a former Swiss physician, to poison Bird. Bird died on July 22, 1961, and in the years following both Sturdza and Savoy were tried and convicted for a variety of crimes relating to Bird’s death and to her missing jewelry.
Farnsworth was then in a state of disrepair, watched over by a largely indifferent (and likely under-paid) caretaker. Bird’s collection of cars hadn’t been run in over 21 years, and though the assemblage contained desirable vehicles, all were in need of restoration. On May 12, 1962, a sale billed as the “Car Auction of the Century” was held at Farnsworth, and Henry Austin Clark, owner of the Long Island Automobile Museum, became the Bugatti’s second owner, reportedly for an investment of $1,750.
Clark displayed the Bugatti in his museum up until its closure, after years of decreasing traffic, in 1980. The same year, chassis #4487, along with most of the other vehicles in the collection, were auctioned off, with the Bugatti being purchased by its current consignor. That any car would survive for 90 years is remarkable enough, but a purpose-built race car surviving for this long, with just three owners and no significant restorative work aside from one respray, is truly worth noting. Gooding & Company predicts a selling price between $2.6 and $3.2 million when the Bugatti Type 35 crosses the auction stage in Arizona next month.
The Scottsdale sale takes place on January 20 and 21 at the Scottsdale Fashion Square. For additional details, visit GoodingCo.com.