Jay Leno's Bugatti Type 51. Image: Jay Leno's Garage

Jay Leno's Bugatti Type 51. Image: Jay Leno's Garage

Bugatti may be best known today for its Veyron supercar, but in the 1920s and 1930s, Bugatti was one of the world’s great race car constructors.

Its Bugatti Type 35 and its variants, built from 1924 through 1927, racked up over 1,000 race victories, at one point winning some 14 races per week.

Though built as Grand Prix race cars, Bugatti Type 35s were entered into events ranging from hill climbs and tours through Grand Prix events. They were even driven as road cars, something not possible with the specialized race cars of today.

By the end of the 1920s, Bugatti was losing races to manufacturers like Alfa Romeo and Auto Union on a regular basis. The Type 35 was no longer competitive, so Bugatti developed the Type 51 in 1931, in an attempt to recreate the dominance they enjoyed in the 1920s.

Adopting a new twin-overhead-cam engine design “borrowed” from American race car builder  Harry Miller, Bugatti was able to coax up to 185 horsepower (running on alcohol) from its 2.3-liter, supercharged inline-eight-cylinder engine.

That was quite an improvement over the 138 horsepower available in the later models of the Bugatti Type 35, but it wasn’t enough to fend off the government-backed cars from Italy and Germany. While it did win a handful of races, the Bugatti Type 51 never enjoyed the same racing success as its predecessor.

Jay Leno

is a huge fan of the marque, and he narrates the history of the Bugattis in his collection with the passion and reverence of a lawyer delivering a death-row appeal. In the video below, Jay explains the Bugatti Type 51 in impressive detail, before taking to the road to prove his point that the Type 51’s supercharged eight-cylinder engine is one of the finest sounds in all of motoring.

The car is impressive, but the mechanical involvement required from the driver just to start the car (pressurize the fuel line, advance the timing, turn on the supercharger oil tap, prime the carburetor and pray) is mind-blowing. Still, we’d jump at the chance to drive one, even if we’d need a cheat sheet to get it started and keep it running.

[Jay Leno’s Garage]