1931 Bugatti Type 51. Photos courtesy of Bonhams.
At first glance, the Bugatti Type 51 Grand Prix car looks nearly identical to the company’s earlier Type 35, a car that dominated European motor racing in the latter half of the 1920s. Under the hood, however, the two cars are distinctly different, thanks in part to the genius of American Harry A. Miller, who had a profound impact on Ettore Bugatti, and hence, the Type 51. Last weekend, a 1931 Bugatti Type 51 with a purloined pedigree crossed the auction stage in California, where it sold for a fee-inclusive price of $4 million.
Harry Miller’s work with engine design, and later, chassis design, revolutionized American racing in the 1920s. An early adopter of front-wheel drive, Miller’s cars proved so dominant that displacement reductions were put in place, dropping Miller engines from 181-cu.in. to 121-cu.in., and later, 91-cu.in. Named for the size of its engine, the Miller 91, which debuted in 1926, was eventually available in both front-drive and rear-drive configurations.
In 1929, two front-drive Miller 91s, sponsored by the Packard Cable Company, competed in a tour of European racing circuits. It was there that the Millers caught the eye of Ettore Bugatti, and when the rigors of European road racing caused mechanical problems for the Millers, Bugatti himself stepped in with a solution. Fascinated by the dual-overhead camshaft design of the American racing engine, Bugatti offered up three of his company’s Type 43 grand tourers in exchange for the pair of broken Miller 91s.
Two years later, the Bugatti Type 51 appeared. Like the Miller 91, the Bugatti’s inline engine employed dual-overhead camshafts and a supercharger, but that’s more or less where the similarities ended. The Bugatti
doubled the Miller’s number of cylinders, relying on eight instead of four, yet used just two valves per cylinder instead of the Miller’s four. Displacement-wise, the Bugatti’s inline-eight measured 138-cu.in. and produced between 160 and 180 horsepower; by comparison, the 91-cu.in. Miller made as much as 250 horsepower in race trim. Perhaps Bugatti’s changes were intended to ensure the engine’s longevity, but in any case it’s hard to see the Miller engine as more than just a muse for the later Bugatti design.
Chassis 51121, last weekend’s record-setting Bugatti Type 51, was sold new to Francis Richard Henry Penn Curzon, better known as Lord Howe. A late bloomer in motorsports, Lord Howe didn’t begin competing until the age of 44, yet still managed to amass a racing resume that included a win at the 1931 24 Hours of Le Mans with co-driver Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin. Perhaps in celebration of the win, Lord Howe’s Bugatti was purchased the same year, and actively campaigned by its first owner (who later became president of the British Racing Drivers Club) through the 1934 season, including four entries into the Monaco Grand Prix.
The Bugatti passed through three more owner/drivers for the remainder of the 1930s, but at decade’s end was acquired by D.M. Jeninson, who’d own the Type 51 until 1954, when it sold to A.M. Mackay. Mackay would keep the car until 1983, when it was purchased by the consignor, who initially competed in vintage events but later took the car out of circulation in an effort to preserve its originality. In addition to the short and documented list of previous owners, the Bugatti’s overall condition and in-period race history contributed heavily to its value.
1930 Duesenberg Model J Town Cabriolet.
Other cars in the top-10 at Bonhams Quail Lodge sale included a 2014 Ferrari LaFerrari, which sold for $3,685,000; a 1904 Mercedes-Simplex 28-32hp five seat rear entrance tonneau, which sold for $2,805,000; a 1985 Ferrari 288 GTO, which sold for $2,112,000; a 2014 McLaren P1, which sold for $2,090,000; a 1955 Lancia Aurelia B24S Spider America, which sold for $1,402,500; a 1930 Duesenberg Model J Town Cabriolet, which sold for $1,254,000; a 1989 Ferrari F40, which sold for $1,155,000; a 1956 Porsche 356A Carrera GS Speedster, which sold for $891,000; and a 1965 Shelby Cobra 289, which sold for $880,000.
For complete results from Quail Lodge, visit Bonhams.com.