Successfully combining purity of form and raw mechanical presence, the 1926 Bugatti Type 39A Grand Prix is a racing icon
Without doubt, Ettore Bugatti found his feet as an internationally recognized manufacturer of high-performance motor cars in 1926. The Type 39A was his first supercharged racer that really worked and gave little if any teething trouble. The 1926–27 Grand Prix Formula demanded cars of no more than 1,500 cc, with a minimum weight of 1,320 lbs, 110 lbs less than the limit for the 2-liter Grand Prix category of 1924–25. Riding mechanics were not required and a cover was permitted for the unoccupied second seat.
Bugatti modified his successful and highly reliable Type 35 straight-8 cylinder engine design to match this new capacity. To achieve maximum horsepower and torque, these 1.5-liter engines were now supercharged, the first time a Grand Prix Bugatti employed forced induction. This smaller-engined but now "blown" Type 35-derived model emerged from the Molsheim factory as the Type 39A.
The 1926 Bugatti Type 39A offered here--chassis serial 4802--began life as the first of three sequentially-numbered 1,493-cc supercharged two-seat cars built for the new 1.5-liter 1926 Grand Prix Formula. Bugatti's own supercharger was based upon the Moglia prototype and fitted to his three entries for the French Grand Prix. The radiator was moved forward slightly to provide space for the blower drive, while a tell-tale feature was provision of a round hole in the right side of the engine hood adjacent to the manifold relief valve blow-off port. Driven by Mr. Bugatti's friend and agent Bartolomeo "Meo" Costantini, 4802 finished second to Jules Goux's similar Type 39A in the season's inaugural event on the Miramas circuit near Marseilles. Unfortunately, only Bugatti reported for duty that day, sportingly running a walkover race for his drivers Costantini, Goux, and de Vizcaya. Goux won from Costantini, the only two finishers.
But the Type 39A worked and scored three Grand Prix wins to one for Delage and one for Miller (in the Indianapolis 500, which counted for the Championship.) The Meo Costantini Type 39A took two second places and one third in its four Grand Prix-class races during 1926, making an important contribution to the Bugatti World Championship for manufacturers, the first such championship to be organized.
Never one to miss a commercial opportunity, Bugatti frequently retired the team's Grand Prix cars, replacing them with newer vehicles and selling them to buyers who could bask in their racing history. That seems to have been the case with the three 1926 works Bugatti Type 39As. The engines were modified to the latest Type 39 specification, then offered for sale in 1927 through the company's fashionable showrooms in central Paris. This car may even have had its frame replaced as part of the post-season factory refurbishment.
Bugatti 4802 has been carefully maintained, and has participated in a number of North American events, including the Copperstate 1000, historic races at Laguna Seca, Loudon, and Lime Rock, and concours at Loudon, Castle Hill, and Pebble Beach.
Overall, 4802 retains all its main mechanical components, save for its larger radiator and supercharger, both of which are major enhancements. And as for the cachet of having been one of the first three supercharged Grand Prix Bugattis ever built, we commend 4802 as a very special example indeed of Le Pur Sang.
The SCM Analysis
This car sold for $1,175,000 at the Bonhams & Butterfields Brookline, Massachusetts, sale on April 21, 2007.
The Bugatti Type 35 Grand Prix car is one of the icons of competition history. It was successful and combined a purity of form with a raw mechanical presence.
The Type 39A was one of the first supercharged Bugattis, developed from the Type 35, but with reduced stroke to meet the 1.5-liter limit. One of the drivers who took this new model into competition was Bartolomeo "Meo" Costantini. He was a WWI fighter ace born in 1889 who began his auto racing career before the war in 1914 and continued until 1927. He was successful, with results in 15 major and two minor Grands Prix, and four wins and 12 top ten finishes to his credit. Among his results were two second places and one third place in this particular Bugatti Type 39A in 1926.
Earlier changes seem to matter less
In valuing a race car such as this, some of the usual rules don't apply. The primary identifier of any car is the frame, and this car most likely has had its frame replaced. Does that make it less valuable? Perhaps not. Prevailing opinion holds that the earlier changes such as this were made, the less it seems to matter. Based on the records of the Bugatti club and other sources, the new frame was installed shortly after the end of 4802's factory competition career and before it was sold into private hands. There is little doubt the frame it has today was the one installed then, with this serial number.
Since its first-line European racing career, 4802 has spent most of its life in the U.S., with its first American owner being Horace Dodge. Rumors suggest that he may have sponsored its entry in the Indianapolis 500, but proof is lacking. More recently it has been an active vintage racer on the East Coast, with many appearances at the Fall Vintage Festival at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut, as well as on the Copperstate 1000 vintage rally in Arizona. It is prepared to a very high visual and mechanical standard and is ready to run. As such, it represents the "working" end of the vintage race car market.
Objets d'art or sports equipment
Miles Collier, noted collector of sports racing cars, sees in this a trend. "We'll see a bifurcation in the population of collectible cars between museum and user-quality--an objet d'art and a piece of sports equipment." Speaking of the very original Bugatti Type 35C sold by Gooding & Company at their 2006 Pebble Beach auction for $2.6 million, Collier points out it will never see a race track again. "If it did run, a lot of its value would be compromised. On the other hand, one that has been used more and has more replacement parts can actually be driven as intended."
While this Type 39 cannot be said to be the most original example of the ten made and was not driven by one of the more famous Bugatti pilotes, it's certainly one of the most usable. Any of the Type 35 variants must be counted among the most desirable vintage race cars one could own, and this one, with a known history and superb preparation, has to be judged as correctly valued.
Years Produced: 1926–29
Number Produced: 10
SCM Valuation: $700k–$2m (at time of print)
Tune-up Cost: $1,000
Distributor Caps: $500
Chassis #: 4802
Chassis # Location: Brass tag on left firewall, also on engine
Engine # Location: Left rear mounting flange on block
Club Info: American Bugatti Club, 600 Lakeview Terrace, Glen Ellyn, IL 60137
Web Site: http://www.americanbugatticlub.org
Alternatives: 1925 Alfa Romeo P2, 1926 Maserati Tipo 26B, 1926 Delage 155B
Investment Grade: A