Ettore Bugatti, who had founded the car manufacturing company that bore his name, was a rather prickly gentleman. He once famously retorted to a buyer of one of his cars, who was complaining that it was difficult to start on a cold morning, that anyone who could afford a Bugatti should be able to afford a heated garage!
He also hated losing. Bentley's 3 litre car was seriously eroding Bugatti's record at the 24 Hours of Le Mans by having an engine of relatively simple design, but immensely strong, with a larger engine capacity. This made it a heavy car; Bugatti dismissed it with an insult, calling it the fastest lorry in the world. Nevertheless it was a very successful car, particularly on endurance races.
Bugatti's son Jean had a similar ambition to grab the Le Mans crown back from Bentley by beating them at their own game; he wanted to use the most powerful production car that Bugatti had ever built, the Type 50.
The engine for this car was in many ways a slimmed down version of the 13 litre engine built for the 1927 Type 41 Royale; this was a huge and luxurious car that Ettore planned to sell to persons of royal status and upwards only, and which he is only said to have built because he heard a lady critically compare his cars to those of Rolls-Royce! There were not many royal families in the world at the time though and so only three of the seven which were built were actually sold.
The engine for the Type 50, which was designed as a sporting coupe and not as a racing car, was reduced down to 5 L capacity but the engine had a shorter stroke and double overhead camshafts. With a supercharger the power output from this 8 cylinder motor was estimaterd to be more than 200 bhp.
Jean Bugatti, who would worked extensively himself on this engine, asked his father to provide the racing team with three have these machines; sons of rich car manufacturers could do that in those days; and he entered them for the 1931 Le Mans race. The engines were tuned up even further to produce a massive 250 brake horsepower. By this time arch rival Bentley was in receivership and would not be contesting the race so hopes were high.
In the event tragedy struck. Jean asked his three drivers to go carefully because he was concerned about the tyres on such a heavy and powerful car. His warning was quite prophetic; the rear left-hand tyre of the car driven by Maurice Rost blew out, the tread wrapped around the brake drum, the car went off the track and three spectators (who were in an area from which they were supposed to be excluded) were injured, one of them fatally. Rost himself was seriously injured - he retired from racing after his recovery - and the other two Bugattis were withdrawn from the race.
It was afterwards alleged that the engine was simply too powerful for the chassis, which was flexing; and so production cars after this date were detuned to produce a slightly lower 225 brake horsepower.
The type 50 was not a cheap car. As was usual at the time it was sold as a rolling chassis only; in other words there was no bodywork on it when it left the factory. The customer could then pick a body in which ever style was desired from a number of specialist coachbuilders. There was a choice of either a sports chassis or a longer one designed for touring cars and so no two type 50s were ever exactly the same.
The high cost of these cars, together with the fact that the stock market crash of 1929 had wiped out a lot of fortunes worldwide, meant that sales were few and far between; and although the type 50 is reckoned by many enthusiasts as being the finest car that Bugatti ever built only 65 or so were ever made.