The much anticipated 1937 Bugatti Type 57S Atalante Coupe auction fetched a stunning €3,417,500 ($4,423,612) including buyer’s premium. While it is below the high estimate of £6 million ($8.6 million), the price is nevertheless an amazing amount paid for this unique vehicle (1 of 17 made).
About the car:
Francis Richard Henry Penn Curzon was born in Mayfair, London, in May 1884 into a privileged background and, following family tradition, adopted a career with the Royal Navy after leaving school, serving as a Battalion Commander of the 2nd Brigade Royal Naval Division in the Great War, seeing action at Gallipoli and in Salonica, France and Belgium. Upon cessation of hostilities the Rt. Hon. Viscount Curzon entered politics, winning the Battersea South seat in London for the Conservative Party in 1918, while still retaining his Naval connections, taking up the rank of Captain and becoming Commanding Officer of the Sussex Division of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve in 1921. He succeeded to the peerage in 1929 upon the death of his father, becoming the 5th Earl Howe. This elevation to the peerage ended his Parliamentary career and it was about this time that he began his long and distinguished involvement in motor racing.
Howe’s place in the history of motor sport was assured by his victory at Le Mans in 1931, driving an Alfa-Romeo and partnered on that occasion by Sir Henry Birkin, completing 1,875 miles at an average speed of 78.128mph. He was to drive at Le Mans on six occasions between 1929 and 1935 and in his final year put in the fastest lap of the race at a speed of 86.751mph, although sadly retiring after a hard fought 1,087 miles.
Howe mixed with the ‘Bentley Boys’, Benjafield, Barnato, Kidston and Birkin ranking amongst his close friends in motor racing circles. With Howe’s support and encouragement Dudley Benjafield was to establish the British Racing Drivers’ Club in 1928 and Howe was to be elected its first President at the 1929 Annual General Meeting. He was a regular at Le Mans and Brooklands, raced at Donington Park, winning the Donington Park Trophy Race in 1933, carrying off the winner’s laurels in the 1938 Grosvenor Grand Prix in South Africa and recording many podium finishes in a racing career ending in 1939. Amongst pre-war motor sport heroes, Earl Howe’s name ranked alongside those of Campbell and Segrave – super heroes of their day who mixed in the upper echelons of London’s high speed and fashionable society.
Howe, as Viscount Curzon, had driven a Type 43 Bugatti with some success in the 1928 Ulster Tourist Trophy Race, achieving fastest lap in Class D then sadly retiring with petrol supply problems, and enjoyed mixed success on occasion partnering Campbell in a similar car at Brooklands and other venues in 1929 and 1930. In 1931 he was to secure delivery of one of the first Type 51 Grand Prix cars that he was to campaign as an amateur in the 1931 Monaco Grand Prix. Howe’s warm relationship with Le Patron is evidenced by the fact that he took delivery of one of just a handful of the fearsome 4.9-litre supercharged Bugatti Type 54 Grand Prix cars for the 1932 season. Regrettably, the Type 54 failed to distinguish itself against the might of Alfa Romeo, Mercedes-Benz and Maserati. Finally, in 1935, Howe was to take delivery of a Works Team Bugatti Type 59, one of four Grand Prix cars to be sold to British amateur drivers including Martin, Eccles and Lewis when Le Patron scaled down factory racing involvement. This pedigree of race cars, which Howe experienced at first hand, undoubtedly influenced and spawned the Type 57S – surely a Grand Prix car in touring car guise.
It is not surprising therefore that Howe, when choosing his personal road car, would seek out the highest standards in road holding and engineering refinement, maximum performance combined with comforts that one of his social standing would expect, and an elegance reflecting the very pinnacle of styling finesse in the mid-1930s.
Bugatti’s Type 57S ticked every one of those boxes – perhaps the ultimate pre-war sports car. Its production run was but brief as manufacturing costs were too high, however, Howe recognised the outstanding nature of the beast. Bugatti’s Type 57 had already established its credentials but although the 57S shared many of its features, its differences set it in a league apart. Mechanical excellence was achieved by fitting a modified crank case with dual oil pumps and dry sump lubrication. High compression pistons gave the new engine a significant performance edge and the clutch was reinforced to cope with the extra output. Ignition was by a Scintilla Vertex magneto driven from the left-hand camshaft. The fundamental difference between the 57S and the standard 57 cars however lay in the frame design. The new low-slung frame featured a shorter wheelbase, the rear axle passing through the frame, while de Ram shock absorbers provided damping cleverly engineered to increase with speed. The new low-slung chassis and distinctive vee-shaped radiator design of the 57S was a gift to the stylist and the Jean Bugatti-influenced Atalante Coupé styling blended impeccably with the sculpted radiator design.
It was not surprising that Bugatti should field a team of specially designed 57S racing cars, winning in 1936 Le Grand Prix de l’A.C.F., le Grand Prix de la Marne and le Grand Prix du Comminges and setting new One Hour, Six Hour and 24-Hour records at Monthléry. Notably Jean-Pierre Wimille and Robert Benoist drove one of these cars to victory at Le Mans in 1937 at an all time record average speed of 85.125mph and covering 2,043 miles in 24 hours. With these credentials, little wonder therefore that Howe’s car of choice in November 1936 was the 57S.
On 2nd November 1936 Bugatti factory ledgers recorded an order (allocated no. 903) from their British agent, Col. Sorel, for a Type 57S Atalante Coupé for their valued client and Bugatti Owners’ Club President, Earl Howe of Penn House, Amersham, Buckinghamshire. Perhaps optimistically that order quoted a delivery date of 25th January 1937. Chassis no. 57502 and engine no. 26S were allocated to this order. Whatever the cause of the delay might have been, the factory-built Atalante coachwork was not completed until 5th May 1937. It was liveried in Howe’s racing colours of blue and black, furnished with pig skin upholstery and equipped with twin spotlights and a split front bumper. Bearing factory trade plate 1127 W5 the car was photographed in the Alsatian countryside ( as illustrated here and Bugatti – le pur-sang des automobiles, H G Conway, 1963, page 261) and was finally road tested by Pierre Marco on 7th June 1937 prior to delivery to Sorel on 9th June 1937. Old style buff log books from the 1940s and 1950s record first registration variously as 15th June 1937 and 15th July 1937. It seems likely that 15th June 1937 would be the correct date of first registration as no doubt Howe was eager to road test his new car, having ordered it some seven months previously. At an early stage Howe equipped 57502 with distinctive rear view mirrors, a luggage rack on the tail and replacing the split front bumper with a single bumper and adding a similar rear bumper. Howe’s new car was selected by Sorel for illustration in their next sales brochure, the same photograph also featuring in the July 1937 issue of Bugantics.
Howe’s new car was registered DYK 5 and proudly displayed by him at the Eastbourne Concours d’élégance on 20th July 1937. DYK 5 shared the motor house at Howe’s Amersham home with a fine stable of other European sports and racing cars and became a familiar sight in the paddock at British motor sport venues. It is believed that the car was stored at Penn House for the duration of the war, following which Howe used this car, in his capacity as President of the British Racing Drivers’ Club, to formally open the first British post-war motor sport event, the Cockfosters Rally. Following an accident in 1945, Howe replaced this car with his friend Lord Cholmondley’s Type 57C Atalante.
At the time of cataloguing in early January 2009, the precise movements of 57502 was not recorded but correspondence on file suggested that it passed via Car Mart Ltd of Euston Road, London, to Continental Cars Ltd of Send, Surrey. However, on 1st January 2009 – as a result of media exposure – Bonhams were contacted by a Mr R. M. Oliver, who wrote in email correspondence, “Having been the director of Continental Cars who dealt with the purchase and subsequent re-sale of EWS 73, I was interested to discover that it has re-appeared. Earl Howe sold it to the London dealer, Car-Mart. When I went to see it in their showroom I was told that the only alteration which had been made to the car was the colour. Howe’s cars always incorporated his light blue, sometimes referred to as “Howe blue”. It was a condition of the sale to Car-Mart that it must not be sold in that colour, so they had the blue painted maroon/dark red. I took the car for a short trial run and bought it on behalf of Continental Cars Ltd. I drove the car a number of times before selling to John P. Tingay, an architect. When he came to collect it from us at Send he brought his wife with him, and I was under strict instructions not to let her know how much he had paid for it! About £2,000 or a bit more I think as that is what 57S’s were making – a considerable amount of money in those days. I am attaching a photograph of the car taken when Continental Cars had it for sale.
This email correspondence is now offered with the Bugatti and neatly completes the continuous history. Other research indicates that in September 1946 it was re-registered with the number EWS 73, the original DYK 5 number being transferred to a Jaguar. And, as previously mentioned, John P Tingay of Eastcote in Middlesex is recorded as the owner of this car in early 1947, having acquired it from the aforementioned Mr Oliver of Continental Cars.
In Bugantics in November 1948 Tingay records the fitting of a Marshall K200 supercharger and modified manifolding, effectively upgrading the car to Type 57SC specification. The next recorded owner on 13th January 1950 was Metal Castings Ltd of Worcester, whose director, Marmaduke Harry Ferguson of Stanklyn House, Stone, Kidderminster, became the recorded owner on 19th March 1951. On 31st December 1953 this car was recorded in the ownership of Matthew White Ridley, the 3rd Viscount Ridley, of Blagdon Hall, Seaton Burn, near Newcastle. Ridley would of course have been a close acquaintance of Howe in racing circles in pre-war days, having actively campaigned Alfa-Romeos and indeed developed and built his own Ridley Special to compete with Herbert Austin’s diminutive supercharged racing cars. Ridley’s ownership of this car was comparatively brief, but during that ownership it was most probably seen regularly in Newcastle-upon-Tyne by Dr Harold Carr whose family had business interests in that city.
Dr Carr had a passion for the finer things in life and had no doubt followed the motor racing exploits of the likes of Howe and Ridley in pre-war years. His choice of a Type 57S was deliberate and, prior to acquisition of 57502, he had already corresponded with J H Bartlett Ltd, Sports and Competition Car Specialists of Notting Hill Gate, regarding 57573, the ex-Abecassis 1937 London Show car. He had also corresponded with Peter Thorneycroft, President of the Board of Trade, in February 1955 regarding the possibility of importing a Type 57 from Belgium. Perhaps it was no coincidence that 57502 returned to Newcastle when Dr Carr bought the car for £895 from J H Bartlett Ltd in April 1955.
History does not record to what extent Dr Carr used 57502 but correspondence on file suggests that he spent some time trying to enhance the performance of the de Ram shock absorbers and Scintilla ignition. It seems likely that the car saw little use during the doctor’s ownership and the present recorded mileage of 26,284 miles may well be correct, bearing in mind the laid up period during the War and the fact that the car is known to have remained in a partially dismantled state in the doctor’s garage for 50 years or so in preparation for a full rebuild. That rebuild was destined not to happen.
The doctor’s very private nature resulted in 57502 remaining largely out of sight until his death in the late Spring of 2007. Recent careful cleaning and conservation and refitting of various ancillaries clearly shows the absolute integrity of this significant emerging motoring icon, with all major components being original to the car and the original body number, always thought to be no. 9, now confirmed by visible bonnet valance stampings and stampings to the rear wheel spats.
A new owner now has the opportunity to carefully retain the present patina or to carry out a sympathetic restoration, starting from an outstandingly original baseline. It is thought that the engine of 57502 has not been fired up for more than 50 years and, following stripping and rebuilding, the new owner will have the pleasure of firing up 26S and hearing that turbine-like sound that so excited Earl Howe when he collected this car from Sorel in 1937. Once again 57502, a true supercar with impeccable credentials, emerges to take its place on the world stage.
The car’s discovery has been brought to the attention of the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance selection committee, and they have kindly granted the car a fully transferable entry in its present condition (and subject to their entry criteria) for the Pre-war Preservation class of their 2009 event, which is available to the new owner.