A Bugatti in Calcutta

Pradeep Gooptu

A Bugatti in Calcutta! When a friend from the USA conveyed this information, it was like a bolt from the blue. Here’s why.

What is a Bugatti?
Ettore Bugatti was a fine engineer and designer who decided to make his first car in 1911. Called the Type 13, it established Bugatti as a top maker of light sports-racing cars with overhead camshaft 4-cylinder engines. By the 1920s, two 4-cylinder motors were merged to give the trademark Bugatti 8-cylinder sports-racing legends and limousines.

Bugattis also got unique horseshoe-shaped radiators replacing the square radiators seen on earlier cars. Exquisitely designed, they made cars like the Rolls Royce appear like taxis! Only six Bugatti Royale models were built but today they are referred to as the finest cars ever made.

Bugatti buyers were the elite. J R D Tata drove and raced a Type 35. That model won nearly 2000 races in the 1920s and 1930s all over the world (Ettore Bugatti is driving a Type 35 in the picture). The 7000-odd cars Bugatti made used special alloys and aluminium extensively. As a result many have survived. Only one Bugatti – in pieces – exists in India.

Calcutta Connection
In August-September 1937, a Type 57 Bugatti bearing chassis number 57581 and engine number 416 rolled out of the factory for a buyer in Europe. The Second World War (1939-1945) followed and the car was hardly used till in 1946 Bernard Thorpe, a foreigner residing in Calcutta, bought the car and shipped it here.

Thorpe owned it till 1967, when he sold it to the celebrated rally driver Peter Harper in England on his return. His choice was unmatched – his Type 57 Bugatti Ventoux was among the best from a superlative line.

With a 3300cc 8-cylinder engine which generated up to 150bhp, it could power the car to around 100 miles an hour. It was the last in the line of unique Bugattis which had the same chassis suitable for all body types:  2-door 4-seater Ventoux; 4-door 4-seater Galabier; 2-door Stelvio convertible; and 2-door closed sports racer Atlantic.

This was the last car designed and approved by Ettore and his son, Jean. While over 700 were sold, it is also associated with tragedy. It was while testing a modified 57 that Jean died in a car crash and that ended the life spirit behind the company. It shut down soon after.

While documents are scarce, it appears the Thorpe Type 57 was possibly maintained in at least two local garages, according to an elderly gentleman familiar with the corporate circles of that era. At that time, motor racing was a vibrant sport in the city with Indians and many foreigners racing against each other in imported and assembled sports-racing cars.

Certification
The certification for the Calcutta Bugatti is provided by the foremost expert on the subject, Hugh G. Conway. He is the internationally-recognized expert on the Bugatti family and all aspects of Bugatti cars, with many books and articles to his credit. In 1987, Conway, along with a small group of Bugatti enthusiasts, formed the Bugatti Trust. Conway’s collection of original Bugatti photographs, writings and artwork was the core of the Bugatti Trust Archive. The sale of one of Conway’s Bugattis provided the funding for the purchase of the Bugatti Trust’s present home at Prescott Hill in Gloucestershire, England.

Bugatti’s name has been revived with the fabulous Veyron model today. As a result Bugattis continue to be precious as pinnacles of automotive engineering irrespective of year of manufacture.

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