1931 Bugatti Type 51
- Year of manufacture1931
- Car typeOther
- Lot number048
- Exterior colourOther
Bugatti (built and registered new as team car in July 1931)
Jean-Pierre Wimille, France (acquired from the above in December 1931)
Charles Brunet, France (acquired from the above in 1932)
McClure Halley, Brooklyn, New York (acquired from the above in late 1934)
Ralph Stein, New York (acquired from the above in 1936)
Bill Schmidlapp, New York (acquired from the above in 1939)
Louis McMillen, New York (acquired from the above in 1940)
George Weaver, Boston, Massachusetts (acquired from the above in 1940)
David V. Uihlein, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (acquired from the above in 1948)
Thomas Rosenberger, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (acquired from the above in 1960)
Paul Moser, Santa Barbara, California (acquired from the above in 1980)
Klaus Werner, Germany (acquired from the above in 1984)
Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1993)
David Woolley, London, England (acquired from the above in 2007)
Current Owner (acquired from the above in 2010)
Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps, July 1931, Divo/Bouriat (DNF)
Algerian Grand Prix, Oran, April 1932, Wimille (1st Overall)
Casablanca Grand Prix, May 1932, Wimille (DNF)
Pau Grand Prix, February 1933, R. Brunet (DNF)
Tunis Grand Prix, March 1933, R. Brunet (DNF)
Picardie Grand Prix, May 1933, R. Brunet (DNF)
Nîmes Grand Prix, June 1933, R. Brunet (DNA)
Coppa Acerbo, August 1933, R. Brunet (DNF)
Italian Grand Prix, Monza, September 1933, R. Brunet (10th Overall)
Casablanca Grand Prix, May 1934, R. Brunet (9th Overall)
Picardie Grand Prix, May 1934, R. Brunet (3rd Overall)
Penya Rhin Grand Prix, June 1934, R. Brunet (6th Overall)
Grand Prix de la Marne, July 1934, R. Brunet (DNF)
Vichy Grand Prix, July 1934, R. Brunet (DNF)
Albi Grand Prix, July 1934, R. Brunet (6th Overall)
Nice Grand Prix, August 1934, R. Brunet (9th Overall)
Grand Prix du Comminges, August 1934, R. Brunet (7th Overall)
ARCA USA Grand Prix, Montauk, New York, June 1935, Halley (12th Overall)
Vanderbilt Cup, Long Island, New York, October 1936, Evans (14th Overall)
ARCA USA Grand Prix, Montauk, New York, July 1940, McMillen (DNF)
Beginning in the late 1920s, Bugatti had enjoyed an incredible winning streak with its famous Type 35 racer. As other manufacturers continually upped the ante, Ettore Bugatti would not rest on his previous success. In 1931, the company stepped up its racing lineup with two additions: the Type 51 and Type 54. The Type 51 represented a high point for Bugatti race car construction and featured a new engine layout that borrowed heavily from the design of the two Miller 91 race cars that Ettore had exchanged for three Bugatti Type 43s in 1929. The specification included a 2.3-liter engine with dual overhead camshafts, a new cylinder head featuring 96° inclined valves, and wheels with ribs inside the spokes that made them significantly stronger. The model soon proved very competitive. A Type 51 won the Monaco Grand Prix and several other major races in 1931, and it was a Type 51 that earned Bugatti its last significant Grand Prix victory against major opposition at the 1933 Monaco Grand Prix.
Between 1931 and 1935, Bugatti manufactured 40 of the Type 51 Grand Prix cars. Five were prepared for the 1931 season, of which chassis 51122 to 51125 were used as works entries. Chassis 51121 was sold to the famous English privateer racing driver Lord Howe, and by mid-1931, six more cars, numbered 51126 to 51131, had been sold to other privateer drivers. After that came six factory team cars. The first of these was numbered 51132, which was registered by the factory on July 7, 1931, and fitted with engine no. 15, gearbox no. 13, and rear axle no. 15. Chassis 51132 raced for the first time in the 10-hour Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps on July 12, 1931, driven by Albert Divo and Guy Bouriat, but did not finish because a rear tire blew and wrapped itself around the axle.
On December 19, 1931, the factory sold 51132 to the famous driver Jean-Pierre Wimille for 80,000 francs. The car was registered in his name on January 12, 1932, and he soon began racing it. He won the Algerian Grand Prix at Oran on April 24, 1932, having led the race and recorded the fastest lap. At the Casablanca Grand Prix on May 22 of that year, Wimille in 51132 once again had the fastest lap, this time at 80.58 mph, and led the race for a time, but he had to retire with engine problems on the 32nd lap. Meanwhile, Wimille had acquired an Alfa racing car and decided to sell his Type 51. It was at this time that the Bugatti factory rebuilt 51132 with a new frame, number 732, but the car retained its original engine and rear axle. During the process of rebuilding 51132, Bugatti fitted the bodywork of another Grand Prix car, 51138; that car survives today in the UK with the original frame of 51132. In December 1932, Wimille sold the newly rebuilt 51132 to Charles Brunet, whose son, Robert, continued to race it until late August 1934.
Brunet entered many Grand Prix races with 51132, beginning at Pau on February 19, 1933. That year, he also competed in the Tunis, Picardie, Nîmes, and Coppa Acerbo races, as well as the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. In 1934, he piloted 51132 in no fewer than eight Grand Prix events, beginning with the Morocco race at Casablanca on May 20 and ending with Comminges on August 26. He then decided he needed a faster car and offered 51132 for sale, asking $500. The car went to the Zumbach Garage in New York, where it was overhauled and sold to McClure Halley, a car enthusiast and employee of Anna Thompson Dodge, widow of US automobile magnate Horace Dodge.
Halley had Zumbach fit an outside exhaust and other distinctive elements, many of which are still evident on the car today. He then entered 51132 in the ARCA USA Grand Prix in June 1935. Halley spun the Bugatti four times before finally crashing, damaging the right rear wheel and axle, and he ultimately was classified as finishing 12th. Halley then entered 51132 in the Vanderbilt Cup, held on October 12, 1936, but wisely hired Dave Evans to drive the car. Evans qualified 36th, out of 45 entries, and finished in 14th Place. Recognizing his limitations, Halley then sold 51132 to Ralph Stein, a well-known early collector and automotive writer, in late 1936. The car had thrown a rod when Mr. Stein bought it, so he had the engine repaired in Molsheim and then sold the car to Bill Schmidlapp in 1939. Mr. Schmidlapp entered 51132 in the ARCA USA Grand Prix at Montauk, New York, on July 6, 1940, with Louis McMillen as driver.
McMillen ran as high as 4th in the race, but on the 18th lap the crankshaft broke. McMillen nevertheless bought 51132 from Mr. Schmidlapp in 1940 and gave the non-running engine to Jacques Shaerly of the Zumbach Garage. A Peerless engine was installed in the Bugatti, and the car was subsequently sold later in 1940 to George Weaver of Boston, who removed the Peerless motor and replaced it with a 16-valve OHC Ford Frontenac powerplant. Meanwhile, collector Dave Uihlein of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, had purchased 51132’s original engine (no. 15 ) from Mr. Shaerly.
In 1948, Mr. Uihlein finally persuaded Mr. Weaver to sell him 51132. Mr. Uihlein then sent engine no. 15 to “Bunny” Phillips in Los Angeles with the intent of having it recommissioned before reuniting it with the chassis. But the order was never given, and Phillips ended up buying the engine for stock. In 1960, this Type 51, still fitted with its Ford motor, became a rather magnificent Christmas present from Mr. Uihlein to Thomas Rosenberger, his mechanic. Rosenberger kept the car until 1980, when he sold it to Paul Moser of Santa Barbara, California. In 1984, Moser sold 51132 to noted collector Klaus Werner in Germany.
Phillips finished rebuilding engine no. 15 in 1986. The engine incorporates a factory replacement lower crankcase, a correct Molsheim upper crankcase and supercharger, as well as the original numbered cam boxes and oil lines, which are variously stamped with the original engine number (15) and corresponding assembly numbers (10 and 10C).
Phillips sold engine no. 15 to Mr. Werner on the condition that it would finally be reunited with 51132. The deal was completed, and Mr. Werner had Type 51 expert Geoffrey St. John in the UK thoroughly restore the car. Miraculously, Mr. Werner was able to purchase 51132’s original gearbox (no. 13) at the auction of Alan Haworth’s Bugatti spares that was held in 1989. Subsequently, Mr. Werner raced 51132 in several historic events, including the Nürburgring. In 1993, Mr. Werner was persuaded to sell the Type 51 to a private collector from Asia. The car resided in Europe, warehoused as part of this collection until 2007, when David Woolley of London purchased the Type 51.
The consignor, who has one of the world’s preeminent collections, acquired the Type 51 in 2010. During his tenure, 51132 was entrusted to renowned specialist Sam Jepson to get the car in running condition. Jepson was directed to attend to the mechanical aspects of the Bugatti, but not to disturb the wonderful patina, and to preserve the overall cosmetic condition of the car.
This Type 51, numbered 51132, has been scrutinized by the world’s leading Bugatti experts – Pierre-Yves Laugier, Malcolm Gentry, Geoffrey St. John, Julius Kruta, David Sewell, and Sandy Leith. As Sewell has remarked, 51132 is “a remarkably complete and original car and there is no doubt to its authenticity.” The car’s provenance and period racing history are of the first order, and it is only quite rarely that it is even possible to acquire a truly great example from the days when gentlemen privateers raced alongside the big boys. 51132 is simply one of the world’s most desirable Bugatti Grand Prix cars.