Bugattis in Australia
The Bugatti marque has a proud history in Australia and, although it is believed that no pre-World War I Bugattis came here, Brescias and Type 30’s were being imported in considerable numbers by the early 1920s.
Australia was a wealthy country in the early part of the 20th century, thanks to the sale of wool, gold and wheat to the rest of the world. Much of its wealth was concentrated in cities and, in particular in the banking, merchant and port cities of Melbourne and Sydney. As a result of this affluence, fine cars were imported in large numbers, not only by city merchants but by the prosperous graziers who were mostly descended from the original land owners.
In 1922 alone, eight new Hispano Suizas were registered in Victoria. Several Bugattis had also been imported and were soon making their mark in competition.
Pre-World War I speed events were usually point to point, but intercity record-breaking became hugely popular during the 1920s, attracting widespread newspaper coverage. The police finally put a stop to these activities in 1930 by banning all racing on public roads; however clandestine and semi legal long-distance road trials remained in vogue. Hill Climbs had long been popular. One of the early events, held just north of Melbourne at Mount Ridley, actually crossed the Melbourne-Sydney Highway and what passed for traffic had to wait during each competition run! Bugattis were popular for such events and often achieved the fastest time of day. Australia’s oldest continually conducted motor sport event, The Alpine Trial, first organized by the RACV in 1922 and then by the Light Car Club of Victoria, was a popular long-distance competitive event through the Victorian Alps which also proved attractive to Bugatti drivers.
By the mid-20’s the demand for legitimate motorsport was growing and this led to the construction of purpose built tracks in the major cities. The most notorious was Maroubra in suburban Sydney. The steeply banked track was less than 1 mile in circumference but soon earned a reputation as a killer track. The inherent danger is not surprising, as the high banking saw the faster cars lapping at 90 mph with some capable of in excess of 100 mph. At least two cars flew off the top of the banking, killing their drivers. The Brescias were very successful at Maroubra, with the one lapping a touch over 100 mph; however the fastest lap fell to a “Fronty Ford” at 102 mph. Unfortunately little is known of the history of the Maroubra Brescias but it is likely that two or three were factory racing cars; one possibly a 1920 Le Mans car, and two others competitors from the 1922 Isle of Man Tourist Trophy. The Maroubra Brescias were so highly developed that they regularly beat some later models, including Type 37’s and two 1925 Grand Prix des Voiturette Type 39’s. Maroubra and similar venues in Melbourne attracted increasingly sophisticated machinery, with an Alvis [ex. 200 Mile Race at Brookands], Indianapolis and French Grand Prix Ballots, 1922 Grand Prix Sunbeam and, of course, Bugattis taking part.
While Sydney racing activities were centred on Maroubra and other speedways, Melbourne circumvented the ban on road racing by using closed roads on an island. Thus Phillip Island, in Western Port Bay approximately 80 miles from Melbourne, became home to the Australian Grand Prix (“AGP”). It hosted the first race in 1928 and each subsequent race until 1936 when it was decided to hold the annual AGP on rotation in different states. The Phillip Island era was the glory days for Bugattis in Australia. After a narrow loss by a Type 40 because of vacuum tank problems in 1928, Bugattis went on to win the next four AGP’s; three to Type 37A’s and one to a Type 39. While they did not win any later AGP’s, Bugattis continued competing in Grand Prix events for many years, either in original form or as typical Australian Specials where their Bugatti engines were replaced by American iron such as a Ford V8’s or by Australia’s own Holden six. The last Grand Prix appearance of a Bugatti using its original motor was at the 1957 AGP at Caversham in Western Australia.
The success of Bugattis on the track undoubtedly helped sales to the merchants and graziers and, against the background of the more sporting Brescia’s and Type 37’s, there were steady sales of touring cars, particularly Types 30,38, 40 and 44. Approximately 50 Brescia’s found their way to these shores, along with an even greater number of later models. Unfortunately the Great Depression had a devastating effect on a country relying on a primary produce to create its wealth and the importation of new Bugattis virtually ended in 1930.
A high percentage of the cars which came to Australia have survived, in part as a result of the ingenuity of the ‘bush mechanics’ who managed to keep old wrecks alive. But credit is also due to the Australian habit of never throwing anything away that might possibly be useful in the future. Although many Bugattis have left the country in recent years, we are still fortunate to have enough to of these wonderful cars for them to be a prominent part of our vintage motoring scene. Bugattis are still viewed with reverence today, many years after the passing of those that could remember the sound and smell of them in their heyday.
– Bob King