The Incredible Story about the Junkyard Bugatti.

·         Posted by CCW

Ettore Bugatti was a showman. You could even say at times a P.T. Barnum -type promoter, only instead of the biggest elephant in any circus he had the biggest luxury car, which (coincidence?) had an elephant as its radiator ornament.

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He had it designed at the end of the 1920s. The Type 41 was intended to be the most magnificent car ever created, a car fir for Kings.

Royalty had Rolls-Royces, Bentleys but park the Royale next to any of those and they looked small. Plus there were over 400 Duesenberg Model J’s so they were quite common by comparison. The popular rumour is that the car was created after Ettore took exception to the comments of a British lady who compared his cars unfavourably with those of Rolls-Royce. He would show them!

Adjusted for inflation, the Royale would have cost about $700,000 back then when a working man’s salary was $5,000 a year.

Accounts differ on if royalty ever partook of his car. One story is that he refused to sell one to poor King Zog of Albania stating, “The man’s table manners are beyond belief!” Another Romanian Royal had one, King Carol II , who had the second car rebodied to more closely resemble the Coupe Napoleon bodied by Parisian Henri Binder. The wheelbase was 169 inches. It tipped the scales at 7,500 lbs. The drum brakes are 18 inches in diameter and the cast wheels predicted the tall wheel craze by more than half a century by being 24″.

The engine was the biggest ever offered in any production car– a 12,763cc straight-8 later used in some French train locomotives. Another rumour is that the engine was originally designed as an aircraft engine but when the French Air Ministry didn’t want it, he decided to build a car around it.

It was a very modern engine in the details– SOHC and 3-valves per cylinder and rated at 300 hp. almost twice that of the Cadillac V16’s 165 hp.

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Ettore’s timing was terrible. He brought the car out just when Europe was going to hell. Only six Royales were built between 1929 and 1933, with Ettore only able to sell three to external customers, but incredibly, eight decades later, all six still exist. (And were reunited at Pebble Beach a few years ago, after exhaustive paperwork was filed to prevent them from being claimed by various claimants…)
Each has unique bodywork. The first Royale, in fact, was rebodied five different times.

This particular car is particularly interesting because it represents the Ultimate Barn Find. Chassis # 41 121, was ordered new in 1931 with a Weinberger body done in Munich by Dr. Josef Fuchs of Munich. an obstetrician, for the equivalent of what would have then been $43,000. But Dr. Fuchs became alarmed by the Nazi party and he and his family loaded up in the car and left, first for Italy and then, oddly, Shanghai (not, as it turns out, a good idea considering the Japanese subsequently invaded China).

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They ended up living in New York. The Doctor did not properly secure the car against the winter cold and the block cracked. This is not an engine you could just buy a new block for around the corner. So the car went to a junkyard. It is amazing it wasn’t cut up because by now it was WWII and there was a craze to melt down old cars for war material. (Another report says the junkyard sold it in 1946)
Fortunately in 1943 an engineer named Charles Chayne got a tip from a car loving buddy about a huge black car with yellow trim in a junkyard. Chayne got on the phone and bought #41 121 for $400 plus $12 tax. Now Mr. Chayne was not just an engineer but the head of Buick engineering at GM. He had thousands of engineers working for him so for them to cast a part from scratch, no problem. The biggest change he made was to have a new intake manifold made with four carburettors to make it more drivable.

He restored the car and eventually he and his wife Esther donated it to the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, MI, where it’s been on display for half a century. Ironically Chayne was also involved with the Pebble Beach Concourse and could have donated it to that event, but it is safe to say that Pebble Beach back then was just a small local car show, not the grandiose enterprise it is today, so he thought the Ford Museum a good recipient.

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He modified the car somewhat but not as badly as another Bugatti he owned –that one got a Buick aluminium block V6. He was a Purist, to be sure, but a practical man and the fact a car had an updated engine wasn’t as important to him as getting the car out and about.

The moral of the story is: when some buddy calls you and reports “a strange car in a junkyard” then pay attention. It could be another Royale-type car. The value today? I’d say $20 million would be reasonable for an opening bid….

Report by Wallace Wyss

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