1926 Bugatti Type 38A
December 28, 2007 11:58 AM
The house of Bugatti is known for producing some of the fastest, most exclusive cars of all time. By 1900, 19-year-old Ettore Bugatti had already built his first car, and went on to work as a designer for a series of European automobile manufacturers. In 1907, Ettore built a small car with a four-cylinder, eight-valve 1208 cc engine and shaft drive in his basement apartment on his days off. The “Pur Sang” - or Pure Blood - would become the prototype for the cars he was to build when he opened his own business in an old dye works at Molsheim, in the Alsace region of France.
In the early years, Bugatti earned a reputation for advanced engineering, despite Ettore’s lack of formal training, becoming the first manufacturer to design cars as an entire concept, rather than treating chassis and body separately. By 1911, Bugatti began its domination of Grand Prix racing, winning the first ever Monaco Grand Prix. The legendary eight-cylinder Type 35 was introduced in 1924, and went on to become the most successful race car of all time, a record which still holds today.
Jay’s Type 38A roadster was built in 1926, and serves as a prime example of Bugatti’s artistry. Chassis number 38435 was the first Type 38 to receive a supercharger. The car was delivered to Mendocino resident Charles Howard, who became famous as the owner of Seabiscuit, and was reputed to be the most successful Buick salesman of all time. Howard sent the car to Murphy Coachworks of Pasadena, known for luxury coach-building, especially of Duesenberg bodies. Thus, this particular Bugatti became the only one ever to receive an American-built body. As such, it’s a true California car, with no running boards, no windows, and no top.
As with many cars of its ilk, this Bugatti has a fascinating history. It was made famous when used in the 1933 film, “Christopher Strong,” starring Katherine Hepburn in her second leading role. Hepburn played a daring aviatrix, who sat in the 38A for publicity stills to symbolize her character’s stature as a “modern woman.” Ironically, a Hispano Suiza stork was fitted to the radiator for the film, and the trunk was replaced with a rumble seat, to house the camera.
The list of subsequent owners includes some of the great names in American racing. Phil Hill had it as a teenager, and Bunny Philips stuck a Type 35 engine in the car and switched out the wheels to race it. After being stored in a garage with a dirt floor, the car was restored by Bob Kountz, as featured in a 1956 issue of Road & Track, but Kountz’ restoration wasn’t authentic. By the time Jay got his hands on the car, it needed to be restored yet again. Jay enlisted Randy Ema to help bring the car back to factory standards. The only trouble - the supercharger was gone. After calling all over the world looking for an authentic Bugatti supercharger, Jay found a guy in nearby California who had held onto a supercharger for over 40 years and wanted a lot of money for it. When Jay relented, and got the supercharger back to Big Dog Garage, he was thrilled to find that is was his Bugatti’s original supercharger!