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Park a spindly, short-chassis Brescia alongside a glamorous coachbuilt Type 57S Atlantic coupé, and initially it’s hard to see the links between Ettore Bugatti’s engineering genius and his son Jean’s gift for styling.
But closer scrutiny reveals characteristics that span the three decades between 1910 and ’34.
The motoring world had changed in so many dramatic ways, but the pragmatic Ettore’s philosophy of curing a technical problem so that it was never a worry again is clear throughout all of his great cars – and the brilliant Brescia is the very foundation of the marque.
And in 2021 the model celebrates its centenary.
From the chassis construction – near-identical to the legendary Type 35 bar a stiffer centre section – to the reversed quarter-elliptic rear springs that match a Type 57, that design tradition is amazingly consistent for such revered thoroughbreds.
For that reason, the Brescia is one of the most important Bugattis. Not only did this super-sports model promote the young concern through a string of racing victories – its name originating from a dominant 1-2-3-4 win in the poorly contested 1921 Italian voiturette GP – but its clever engineering set the template for so many Molsheim trademarks.
Monobloc, engine-braced frame, toggle clutch, chain brake compensator and anti-squat torque arm all feature on the Brescia, and were carried through to the Le Mans 24 Hour-winning ‘Tank’ 57S in 1937 and ’39.
The H-section front axle contrasts with Ettore’s later signature hollow forged type, although he’d yet to study the 1923 GP Fiat.
So what constitutes a Brescia? They are identified primarily by different wheelbase lengths with pre-Great War eight-valves called the Type 13 (2m), Type 15 (2.4m) and Type 17 (2.55m).
Whereas the Type 13 designation continued post-1918, the T15 became the Type 22, and the T17 turned into the Type 23.
Various frame sizes were offered because the cars were sold in bare form for wealthy enthusiasts to take to their favoured coachbuilder. By the end of production in 1926, Bugatti had produced nearly 2000.
Specs varied according to the customer’s needs.
The T13 began with distinctive curved ‘banana’-type tappets that dispensed with rockers, but a 1368cc 16-valve race engine was built just before WW1.
Fearing that the Germans would steal the advanced design, it was buried for the duration of the conflict.
Come peacetime, the bottom end was further refined with its crank running in two ball-races and one plain bearing, plus roller-bearing big ends with 68 x 100mm bore and stroke pushing capacity to 1453cc.
Twin Zenith carbs and dual magnetos, located behind the dash to protect them from heat, road splash and leaking oil, gave c33bhp, but the performance was remarkable in such a light car.
Only its poor lubrication design – with oil pump driven from the overhead camshaft – proved limiting. The Brescia’s is one of few engines whose pressure goes up when it gets hot!
Other standout details were the superb worm-and-wheel steering that was firmly mounted on the chassis (early eight-valves had worm and nut), and a wonderful gearbox with high-speed layshaft that allowed lightning changes. Four-wheel brakes had to wait until 1925, though.
It’s the stubby, exposed racing models and Modifié that epitomise the Brescia’s mien.
From the pear-shaped rad to the oval fuel tank and rear-mounted spare, this spartan sports car shouts ‘drive me fast’ even when just standing still.
The Brescia’s appeal is instant and, like many fans, Charles Knill-Jones was hooked on the early Bugatti after witnessing VSCC hero Hamish Moffatt in action.
“I was trialling with Dad in his Alvis 12/50 in the Lakes and, as we queued for the spectacular Drumhouse stage on the Honister Pass, a Vauxhall 30-98 popped its handbrake and rolled into Hamish’s Brescia. He was livid, and stormed up the stage like there was no tomorrow.”
The sight and sound of that Brescia rasping up the long, steep quarry road – with Moffatt sawing at the wheel – left an indelible impression: “I’ve been sold on them ever since.”
While at Ten Tenths, Knill-Jones drove Nick Mason’s 1927 Type 23 Long Chassis: “It’s a great car, with four-wheel brakes and twin mags. One summer evening, I borrowed it to go to the local VSCC meet and Chris Hudson turned up with his Short Chassis Brescia. I was captivated after he let me have a go and talked about it all night.”
Finding a Brescia proved a challenge, but, while visiting Maserati specialist Peter Shaw in 1996, Knill-Jones spotted a kit of parts that was destined for a fascinating 850cc Miller power unit.
Despite regular requests – “I phoned every month for eight years” – Shaw wasn’t interested in selling, but the completed rolling chassis went to Ireland in ’04 where new owner Andy Johnson sourced an original Brescia four-valve unit.
Johnson ran a sealed-bid sale when the Brescia next came on the market in 2007: “After posting a cheque, it was a nerve-racking time to hear if we’d bought the car. We won by just £500.”
Now also heading his own Tula Engineering, and ever the perfectionist, Knill-Jones started detailing the Brescia – partly inspired by Moffatt’s racer.
“It was pretty basic – without a windscreen – and I wanted to turn it into a road car.”
He has transformed the car with new wings, raked ’screen, luggage rack – complete with tailor-made leather ‘gun case’ to carry tools that neatly fits around the ‘bolster’ tank – plus more authentic gauges, including a superb German aviation item for fuel pressure.
A full set of lights, with wonderful ‘diver’s helmet’ rears, finished it off.
Since he’s fettled the Brescia, Knill-Jones has enjoyed every type of vintage competition with it: “There’s nothing like VSCC trialling, which is great fun for two people, but I’ve also hillclimbed and raced it.
“Its performance really surprises people – particularly around Cadwell Park, where, in the dry, I ended up ahead of two supercharged Type 51s and finished seventh.”
“The Brescia is very light, which is key to its speed,” he continues. “My early engine will rev to 5000rpm and, with a single Zenith triple diffuser updraught carburettor, it’s beautifully torquey.
“I prefer a single magneto down on the engine rather than the twin set mounted on the dash – those are really noisy. The four-wheel brakes are really good, but the biggest weakness is the gearbox mounts, which break with chassis twist.”
Upstaging bigger guns with the Brescia is an overpowering temptation: “The VSCC Cotswold Trial is a favourite because I can drive there and back from home. It makes a great day out.
“One of my highlights was overtaking Ben Collings’ Bentley on a bypass. Flat out, it’ll do a ton.”
Likewise, William I’Anson was indoctrinated into Bugattis at a young age. His father was the founder of Tula Engineering, so he has been around Molshiem’s finest for most of his life, but has always had a special fondness for the Brescias.
“American collector Bob Sutherland was my hero,” remembers I’Anson. “Aged nine, I went with Dad to the International Bugatti Rally in California, and Bob invited me to ride in his Brescia down Highway 1 to Big Sur. That was an unforgettable trip. Later, we did a treasure hunt in the Brescia from Bugatti legend Bunny Phillips’ home in Southern California, and we were back ages before the other crews.”
After a diversion into yacht racing – including competing with the British America’s Cup team – I’Anson returned to his first passion.
“I was lucky to try Nick Mason’s Long Chassis T23, and thought it was amazing. They look great value against Grand Prix Bugattis. Hamish Moffatt was another role model and, when his old Crossley-built car came up, it had to be bought.”
Few people know that Bugattis were produced under licence by Crossley Motors Limited in Manchester from 1921, together with Diatto in Italy and Rabag in Germany.
Although not as zippy as the Molsheim-built cars, contemporary road testers reported that the plain-bearing Crossley Brescia was more refined, with a smoother, less-noisy driveline. Well priced at £350, just 24 were built of which three survive.
I’Anson’s car is well known in the Bugatti Owners’ Club, and competed at the first Prescott in 1937.
A young Moffatt acquired it in 1961 but with bodywork, radiator and front axle missing. With the help of Bugatti authority Hugh Conway, Moffatt tracked down the missing original components, and began restoration inside his Hampstead home from 1961-’63. Visitors recall the hallway being blocked by Brescia parts.
The body was missing, so Moffatt set about designing his own, which is still fitted to the car including his personal constructor’s plate ‘Carrozzeria Moffatt’.
Once it was finished, the Brescia became his everyday car and it chalked up 60,000 miles over the years including racing.
“Hamish even used it as a tow car for his Type 35,” says I’Anson. “It was only sold following his divorce in 1975. After several years in France with Nicolas Seydoux and Bernhard Simon, it was brought back to the UK and it hasn’t been changed.
“I love the way that it handles, particularly on the beaded-edge tyres. It’s so light and nimble. You always have a grin when driving it.”
Highlights for I’Anson have included regular trips to Prescott, where he’s taken his son up the hill as a passenger, and a fantastic all-Brescia rally around France’s Alsace region in 2013: “There were 40 on the event, which was fantastic fun.”
Like Knill-Jones and I’Anson, I’ve marvelled at the mud-plugging antics of Brescias on VSCC trials, and watched them tip up on two wheels around Prescott’s tight Pardon Hairpin.
The way that these nimble jewels carry momentum on skinny tyres through the fast, flowing Esses always impresses.
I’ve also ridden with two of the most committed Brescia pilots – Rodney Felton and James Diffey – neither sadly still with us.
Once, on the way home after the Welsh Trial – with Diffey going like the clappers as always – I suddenly spotted a wire wheel passing us, and instantly the famous picture of Raymond Mays three-wheeling his rapid Brescia ‘Cordon Rouge’ at Shelsley came to mind.
Thankfully, Diffey’s masterful car control avoided an inversion and injury as we slithered to a stop, sparks flying from the grounded brake drum.
Other than a few brief drives, I’d never had a proper go in a Short Chassis Brescia, particularly one as sorted as that of Knill-Jones.
The rudimentary, exposed bodywork is a snug fit, and is best entered from the passenger side to avoid the tall external handbrake and gearlever.
The high wheel initially feels close, although the steering’s fantastic light action doesn’t require much arm
work. It’s as responsive as a motorcycle once on the move, and demands a similarly smooth technique. The throttle and brake pedals are very tightly placed, but its trusting owner advises me to use just the handbrake so it isn’t a problem.
The liveliness of the engine is immediately apparent, and it takes a while to adjust to this surprising trait.
This vintage motor loves to rev. Match that eager power to a superfast gearchange that’s as slick as a Grand Prix Type 35, and you soon appreciate why the Brescia can match much more powerful cars on a twisty route. The ratios are closely matched and, with such urgent torque, you’re soon flying along in top.
The Short Chassis initially feels nervous – particularly on a bumpy B-road – but its brilliance is clear once you relax and tune in to its sharp, fast attitude.
The Brescia’s impressive pace focuses your mind on the road ahead because braking is limited with those narrow, tiny drums, and emergency stops don’t bear thinking about.
This is the Lotus Seven of the vintage era, and I can’t imagine the stunned reaction of motoring journalists in 1923.
Little wonder the likes of Henry Segrave, Brooklands ace Leon Cushman and a young Raymond Mays were quick to order one. Moffatt had a great eye for form, as his car’s skiff-style coachwork and flared wings demonstrate.
The Long Chassis is a much more relaxed, less exposed experience. The steering and the gearchange – now inside the wider body – have the same light, instinctive feel, but the extra inches in the wheelbase create more refined and less nervous behaviour.
The engine has impressive flexibility and, when combined with the improved ride quality plus more progressive handling, it makes a better touring car.
Choosing between the two is tough. As a wealthy motorist living in the ’20s, I’d go for the long-wheelbase model with a stylish Lavocat et Marsaud four-seater body to take friends out on road trips along the Côte d’Azur.
But today, the challenge of VSCC trials following in the wheeltracks of much missed heroes Moffatt, Felton and Diffey would make the devilish charms of a classic Type 13 irresistible.
Images: Tony Baker
This is based on a feature that was originally in our January 2015 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication