The World’s First Supercar: the Bugatti Type 55

Published on Tuesday, October 8, 2019.
Updated on Friday, November 15, 2019.
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What makes a car a supercar? How is it that we put in a class above all others certain versions of road cars as if to say these are ‘the cars of the gods…’?

In 1931 Jean Bugatti, the prodigious son of Ettore Bugatti, founder of the eponymous, legendary, automobile manufacturer, penciled the design of a street going race car’ for the most prestigious (and wealthy) of Bugatti’s customers. This car, the Bugatti Type 55, is the world’s very first supercar: the nec plus ultra automobile of the 1930s.

Although some of today’s supercars are not built in workshops or even factories that otherwise turnout race cars, fortunately for all of us, some are. Bugatti, the father, the designer of many of the masterpieces of automotive history, knew the importance of winning in order to sell cars. Bugatti’s cars won a lot of races. The claim is that the Type 35 Grand Prix (Ettore’s famous invention) and its derivatives won more races than any other race car. Now, that may be true, or it may not. But if it isn’t, it is still is a hell of a lot of victories. Thousands no doubt.

Bugatti Type 55 #55201

Bugatti’s plan was to put those winning mechanical innovations in his touring cars. Refine performance at the race track on Sundays and sell the performance to the customers on Mondays. Others did the same: Alfa particularly before the war and then Ferrari in the 50s and 60s (not forgetting where Ferrari was in the 1930s…).

Jean Bugatti was born with the right strand of DNA. At the age of 22, he crafted the most incredible design of a street going race car, refined, with some comfort, to sell to their most exclusive and demanding customers. This very special car would be based on a race proven chassis with a race proven high performance engine: voila the Type 55.

The 1932 Mille Miglia Bugatti T55, chassis 55213, sold in 2016 by Goodings for $10,400,000

Jean designed an open two seat roadster with sweeping fenders running from front to back – no doors, a long front bonnet, racing wheels and a fold down windscreen, one of the most emblematic designs associated with sports automobiles: the Jean Bugatti Super Sport Roadster, the first ever supercar was born.

Presented at the Paris Automobile Show in October 1931, chassis 55201, the very first Type 55, was the acclaim of all. Early orders filled the books and production began in early 1932. Of the 38 Bugatti Type 55 built between 1931 and 1935, no less than 23 were built in 1932, due to the enormous preliminary demand.

The Bugatti Type 55, chassis number 55234, winner of the Salon Privé Concours d’Elegance 2018

The Type 55 took the racing chassis from the Bugatti Type 54 Grand Prix car (shortened slightly) and the engine from the Type 51 Grand Prix car (detuned slightly, as well). This very special engine, the DOHC 2,262 cc straight 8 cylindre, with a roots compresseur, producing 130 hp, provided the Type 55 with a top speed of 180 km/h on a wheel base of 2.75 metres (vs. 2.40 metres for the Bugatti Grand Prix models T35, T37, T39 et T51) for 816 kg.

Jean Bugatti set a road speed record at the wheel of a T55 while traveling from Molsheim to Paris in 1934 in just 3h47 minutes, running the 454 kilometre distance at the amazing average speed of 120 km/h. Let’s not forget that in 1934, the road from Molsheim to Paris was virtual all dirt tracks.

Although the Type 55 was meant to be a luxury, road going supercar, no less than six Type 55 participated at Le Mans between 1932 and 1935. In 1932, one Type 55 even ran the Mille Miglia. First owners of the Type 55s had the luxury of choosing between the Jean Bugatti roadster and/or coupé, or the bodywork of any outside shop of their choice. Well less than half received the Jean Bugatti designs: 13 roadsters and 6 coupes only were built. Vanvooren (4 or 5) and Gangloff (7 or 8) were the most popular yet others went to Billeter & Cartier and Figoni, for example. Bugatti dealers in Paris, London and Zurich placed most of the cars among their clients: Lamberjack in Paris & Bucar in Zurich.

The owners’ list today resembles that of the owners of the Ferrari GTO or like this year’s Pebble Beach entrants – the best of the best: Keller, Cointreau, Pope, Corner, Mullin, Guasti, Collier, Renaud, Davis, Edmonds, St. John, Estes, Chambon, Fimat, Bishop & Huët – It is believed that 29 of the original Type 55 survive today. Yet, 33 appear on the comprehensive list of chassis numbers…

The Schlumpf Collection owns no less than eight of the 38 Bugatti Type 55. Fritz really knew what he was doing. In 1963 when he learnt that John Shakespeare’s collection of 30 Bugatti was for sale, he became absolutely obsessed with the need to acquire this fantastic lot. Perhaps the subject of a future article, suffice it to say for now that Fritz acquired three Type 55 in that transaction in January, 1964.

The Mille Miglia 1932 car, chassis 55213, sold in August 2016 at Pebble Beach, by Goodings & Company, for $10,400,000, sales commissions included. Completely original, all matching numbers, with a fully documented history. Just what real collectors are looking for.

Bugatti Type 55 no. 55221, to be offered by Bonhams at the Rétromobile sale February 2020

The best of the best however is chassis 55234. Here is its CV:

  • Jean Bugatti Roadster, the most original of the 13 roadsters built (and of the only 5 remaining in all original condition).
  • Engine no. 34. Never restored, with less than 80,000 original kilometres.
  • Original license registration number: 3558RM5.
  • Acquired by Miles Coverdale in 1953, New York, reregistered 7811NN, only 43241 km.
  • Sold to Rob Rubin in 1988, with 68538 km.
  • In 1998 sold via Lukas Huni to an European collector.
  • Proposed for sale by Lukas Huni, RétroMobile 2016, for €10,000,000. Also at Techno Classica 2016 and again at RétroMobile 2017.
  • Sold to Robert Bishop in 2017, with new registration WSJ 388.
  • Best of Show, Concours d’Elegance Salon Privé 2018.
  • Runner up, Best of the Best Concours at the Peninsula Hotel in Paris, February, 2019.
    Not bad…

At the upcoming Bonhams Rétromobile sale on February 6, 2020, will be offered the Bugatti Type 55, chassis 55221. This car participated at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1932 with race number 15, driven by Louis Chiron et Guy Bouriat. Due to a leaking petrol tank, they were forced to retire early in the race. Purchased by Jacques Dupuy, Figoni built a roadster body in 1933 that it retains today. Purchased by Geoffrey St. John in 1962, he is offering it for sale for the first time in 57 years. No estimate has been given yet by Bonhams. Probably a good choice for entry at Villa d’Este, Pebble Beach, Chantilly and to do the Mille Miglia and the Le Mans Classic. Oh, and don’t forget Goodwood. Why not?

Daniel Brooks

Daniel is a contributor for Forbes France writing texts in French language for their daily newsletter and trimestrial print editions.  His articles cover the classic automobile market as well as luxury and lifestyle of classic automobile collectors.

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