Classic Sports Car
BUGATTI TYPE 59
What do you do if your dream Bugatti Type 59 no longer exists? Simple, if you’re one of the country’s leading marque specialists: you create your own
A glorious toolroom tribute to racer Ian Craig’s most stylish Molsheim equipe
Scalloped paint schemes are today more associated with hot rods and custom cars, but long before that American speed culture this dramatic style was a signature of Bugatti. Thanks to founder Ettore’s talented son Jean, the look dazzled admirers on the flowing forms of the Molsheim beauties, most famously the Type 55 roadster. Two-tone also featured on the famed Type 57G ‘Tank’ sports-prototypes, but never on a works-prepared Grand Prix racer.
Yet in 1938 a handsome enthusiast arrived on the British sprint and hillclimb scene with a spectacular team of three glorious Bugattis. Matching his Type 55 and a road-equipped Type 54 was a magnificent Type 59 Grand Prix car, all painted in bold monochrome scalloped liveries. With his film-star looks, C Ian Craig always competed smartly dressed in a jacket, shirt and tie, and throughout the 1938 season his equipe was the talk of the paddock wherever it appeared. The Type 54 was a converted GP titan built by George ‘Batch’ Bachelier, who prepared Craig’s cars from his workshop on Dunsford Road, Wimbledon. After Bachelier died of cancer, Craig took over his business.
The Type 59 made its debut at the Brighton Speed Trials on Saturday 2 July 1938, and that evening was transported on an open-sided truck directly to Prescott in Gloucestershire, where the following day Craig won his class in the Speed Hill Climb. For the rest of the summer the immaculately prepared ex-brian Lewis Type 59 was out almost every weekend at speed trials including Wetherby Grange, Poole, Lewes and two further Prescott meetings before the Gallic racer went into storage.
For his Prescott performances, where he set a best of 49.51 secs, Craig was awarded the Bugatti Owners’ Club Victor Ludorum Trophy, which was presented by Jean Bugatti at the club’s final pre-war dinner and dance at London’s Savoy Hotel in February 1939. I like to think that, during their chat, Bugatti complimented Craig on his Type 59’s stylish colour scheme.
‘During their chat at the Savoy Hotel, I like to think that Jean Bugatti would have complimented owner Craig on his Type 59’s stylish colour scheme’
Like so many Grand Prix machines, the Type 59 was hidden away during WW2 to protect it from bombing, although journalist and fanatical Bugatti enthusiast JG Lawrence was able to exhume the racer from its resting place for an article published in The Autocar in 1943. Craig had been conscripted, and while he was away fighting the car was snapped up by Reg Parnell, who was hoarding racing cars in Derby. When The Autocar’s journalist discovered that it was for sale, he did a deal and the GP beauty was transported to HSM Motors in Notting Hill. Just the experience of being towed across London in the Type 59 excited Lawrence.
With the return of peace, the Bugatti was acquired by Rodney Clarke of Connaught fame, who had Louis Giron rebuild it. Sadly, the two-tone paint was changed to blue as the racer was famously converted into road car. Craig became a film cameraman, and his motoring tastes switched to more modest machinery with the acquisition of a Fiat Topolino and the pre-war, ex-ken Hutchison Allard ‘Lightweight’ Special, which coincidently featured a pointed tail modelled on a GP Bugatti. After his dramatic appearances in ’38, Craig vanished from the car scene and all that remains of his showstopping Bugatti team are a few grainy photographs, taken mostly by Louis Klemantaski.
The surviving Type 59s have all been restored back to racing colours. Australian industrial designer Marc Newson CBE, the current owner of Craig’s old car, has in recent years talked about returning chassis 59124 to that fabulous two-tone scheme, but so far he’s stuck with the more historic works blue. Since I was a kid I’ve always loved that black-and-white, scalloped Type 59 and have painted several models in Craig’s team colours, including a slot-car. One of my automotive fantasies was to see a full-size car in the Craig livery and now, thanks to the vision of Bugatti specialist and long-term Type 59 enthusiast Charles Knill-jones, that dream has come true with his latest project.
Knill-jones’ fascination for Type 59s started when working for Nick Mason at Ten Tenths. “We were building up a Type 35 for Nick’s wife Annette using all the good bits left over from his racer,” says Knill-jones. “In 1996 I went to stay with Richard I’anson at Tula Precision to finish it off. The three T59s there enthralled me.”
A decade later, I’anson phoned to say that his business was for sale. “He told me I was the one to buy it,” says Knill-jones. “Nick didn’t want me to leave, so we hit on the idea of Ten Tenths and Tula working side by side. I sold my Morgan and Amilcar-riley to purchase the business, which included several Type 59 projects plus a mass of drawings, patterns and lots of parts, as well as the Type 52 ‘baby Bugatti’ venture.”
As a result, Knill-jones and his team became one of the premier Type 59 specialists, supplying components all over the world. Alongside customer projects, Knill-jones began building his own car in 2006: “It was the sixth built by Tula, based on a chassis and springs made by specialist Gino Hoskins. Fitting it in between Ten Tenths commitments, my Type 59 was finally finished in 2015. It was a massive passion. When we made parts, it made sense to produce extra for my car. I ran it at Prescott a few times and took it to Vintage Montlhéry, but when the business needed investment for a move to new premises, I had to sell it – though we continue to look after the car for the new French owner.”
The connection to Type 59s continued with development work for customers, including preparing American Charles Mccabe’s car for Goodwood. After a torque arm broke at the 2015 Revival, the car was fixed in time for KnillJones to enter the Williams Trophy, fulfilling a long-held ambition. In the Snetterton race, Knill-jones won from a determined Julian Majzub’s Type 35 and Simon Diffey in a Type 51. Not since the Trebor Bugatti Race at VSCC Silverstone in 1986 had a Type 59 landed the spoils. “From pole, I took it easy and followed Julian for a few laps,” recalls Knill-jones. “He’s
“We wanted to give it a new identity, and because the original liveries were around we chose to revive Craig’s two-tone colours”
a wily old dog, so my plan was to see where he was good and bad. The Type 59 was quicker down the straight and on the third lap before the Bomb Hole I passed him round the outside. For the last four laps Julian really chased me.”
On a dry track, the younger GP design could really put down the power: “Running on methanol, the engine was pulling cleanly up to 6500rpm and down the straight we were clocked at 140mph. My eyeballs were resonating and my vision was just a blur – it felt very, very fast. The power is fabulous and, sitting lower than in a Type 35B, you feel more connected. With a limited-slip diff there’s more bite out of the corners, but the Type 59 is now no match for ERAS and Maseratis on wider tyres. The steering is light and the brakes are superb, but you need the wider drums at the front to prevent fade. The early cars without the radius arms suffered from roll oversteer, which can cause a tank-slapper. If Jean Bugatti had listened to his drivers, this could have been sorted quickly as they did with the Type 50B and the King Leopold sports car.”
The clunk, clunk from the beautiful wheels on and off the power is a another unique feature, about which René Dreyfus was critical in 1934. “Even with a full-face helmet and the effect of the wind, you can still hear the wheel teeth
clicking,” says Knill-jones. “It’s astonishing.”
Once you get the carburetion sorted, a T59 is perfectly tractable for the road, claims Knill-jones: “Michael Whiting has produced carburettor drawings, and with my experience of fettling Nick’s Ferrari 250GTO, we’ve done lots of work to get the tuning right.”
The most recent Bugatti project to arrive at Tula, now completed as the monochrome beauty pictured here, came about in 2016 after a surprise phone call from Scotland. “The owner had bought it at auction in America in 2009 as ‘something vintage’ to go with his Veyron,” says Knill-jones. “It had been sitting in his museum in Argyll, and his local garage was having trouble starting it. They found our name on the internet, and eventually sent it down for us to sort.”
Despite claims that the car had done 1000 miles and speeds of up to 150mph, the Type 59 had clearly hardly run. Knill-jones suggested a total stripdown to make it safe and driveable. After learning the bad news, the owner lost interest and instructed Tula to find a buyer.
The Type 59 was chassis BC123 and had been built up around factory parts by the Guild of Automotive Restorers in Bradford, Canada, which is best known for the fabulous recreation of the Type 57 Aérolithe. Original components included the radiator, Zenith 52KI carburettors, camboxes and lids, steering box, oil and scavenge pumps, water-pump housing, front and rear spring packs, brake levers, plus the rear axle tubes, limited-slip diff and step-up gears.
By chance, a buyer was found the following year during the 10th Bugatti Grand Prix at Lime Rock Park, Connecticut. The event also featured the International Bugatti Rally, and in the bar one evening Knill-jones began chatting to a Danish customer who was looking for a fun car to restore: “The idea of a T59 project appealed. I insisted he buy it direct, but because the car was in my workshop it made sense for us to do it. As we took it apart, a series of horrors was revealed and it was clear the car hadn’t been driven.”
After being stripped to a bare chassis, the T59 was rebuilt and first ran without a body in 2019, but then came the question of the paintwork. “I felt it was important to give the car a new identity,” says Knill-jones, “and because all the original liveries of the Type 59 racers were around, we had the idea of reviving the two-tone colours Ian Craig had painted 59124 in 1938. The owner was fantastic and really believed in the idea from the start. The Bugatti Trust provided us with some reference pictures, and artist Stefan Marjoram produced some computer studies to work out the scheme.”
Although there are conflicting reports about the actual Craig team colours, with white, cream and yellow all mentioned in contemporary reports, Knill-jones decided on pure white for the best effect: “Stefan was a brilliant help and produced several designs based on photographs of Ralph Lauren’s black car. He also tried blackpainted wheels, which featured on 59124 just after the war. With no clear rear shot of Craig’s car to show how the paintwork was originally resolved, Stefan used some artistic licence and didn’t blend the black at the tip. All along there was no intention of copying the Craig car, it was more of an homage. We took the illustrations to Rétromobile in Paris last year and showed them to the client, who just told us to go for it.”
Once the mechanicals had been sorted during testing of the exposed chassis on local roads last summer, the Tula team focused on the bodywork: “We masked it all up to finalise the positions of the scallops, and sent it to Race & Restoration in Cirencester to do the paintwork. The pressure was on, because the owner wanted the car home in Denmark before Brexit.”
The bodywork was sprayed with two-pack paint, but without a lacquered finish: “To give it a more period look, we rubbed it down with 4000-grit sandpaper and then polished it with a tinted wax, which gave it a lovely lustre.”
The team worked flat-out during the autumn to assemble and detail the Type 59, and as the temperatures dropped with the onset of winter, testing became a challenge. “In the cold, it’s hard to keep the temperature in the engine and the carbs stop atomising the fuel,” explains KnillJones. “Bedding in the brakes was a problem, too, but the car was gorgeous on the road.”
Just prior to the transport truck’s arrival to collect the Bugatti in November, Knill-jones took it over to Prescott on a frosty morning for photography. Sitting silent on the startline under the gantry with its blue-and-yellow Bugatti Owners’ Club banner, the scene brilliantly evoked Craig’s dramatic performance in 1938 at the final Prescott before the outbreak of war.
The Type 59 is now in Denmark with a very happy owner, eagerly awaiting the summer to finally enjoy its spectacular performance. There are no plans to race it, but Vintage Montlhéry – postponed until 2022 – is already in the diary. Hopefully the car will come back to England for a service at Tula Precision and we’ll get to see Knill-jones gun it up the Prescott hill.