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Pebble Beach: Hitching a ride in the Bugatti Veyron's ancestor

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Imagine it'’s 1932 and you'’re an automobile lover with a robust bank account looking for a sports car that will turn heads and land you at the front of the valet line and also at the front of the pack at your local racetrack or road rally. You would then, as you might now, look for a Bugatti. Today, it’'s the Veyron. In 1932, it was this Type 55 Cabriolet, which will go up for auction Sunday at Gooding & Co.'’s Pebble Beach event.

The Type 55 was considered a road-going race car, built using the same 2.3-liter inline, supercharged eight-cylinder engine as the Type 51 race car. Here, it makes 135 horsepower at 5,500 rpm. This Type 55 routs that power through a four-speed non-syncho manual transmission.

Only 38 of the Type 55 chassis were ever made, and this particular model is the only one with the body work made by the French company Billeter & Cartier (keep in mind, this was an era when you bought the chassis from the automaker and then often had a separate coach-builder craft the body to your specifications).

To see its compact dimensions in person demonstrates that this was indeed a car built for speed and agility. Cars of this era were traditionally leviathans, so the tidy size of this vehicle stands out when parked next to peers from the same era.

Yet the Type 55 accommodated me and Gooding & Co. Specialist Paul Hageman comfortably as we took a pre-auction cruise last week. (Given that this Bugatti is expected to sell for $5 million to $6.5 million, I was more than content to remain a passenger. No one wants to be known for introducing irreplaceable history to a guardrail or the back of a minivan.)

To hear this inline, eight-cylinder engine push high into its frenetic, wailing powerband is to know that it was built for rapidity rather than slow comfort. It’'s a noisy affair, but one that exposes you to all the mechanical processes of supercharging and internal combustion, on a scale more modern cars have lost sight of.

Hageman works the non-syncho gearbox with ease, despite the need for double-clutching with each shift. During our drive, he mentions that this was a car that could easily eclipse 100 mph in its day, a phenomenal figure in line with the eye-watering 268 mph top speed of today'’s Bugatti Veyron.

This car was originally purchased by a wealthy French surgeon who was an avid fan of Bugatti’s, having bought at least 14 during his lifetime. By 1935 the car was on to its second owner, and spent the next several decades with a handful of owners. By the 1970’s, a restoration was in order, with another coming in 1987 and a mechanical overhaul in 2007. A final restoration, including bringing it back to as-delivered specifications and the color scheme you see here, was finished in 2011.

Since this final project was completed, this Bugatti Type 55 has not been shown at concours car shows around the world, making it possible for the new buyer to enjoy the very real chance of taking home some trophies from future concours events.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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