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Bonhams to offer 1931 Bugatti Type 51 racer

Bugatti type 51

Tazio Nuvolari in #51121 with Earl Howe (right) and Hugh McConnell, Brooklands scrutineer (left). Courtesy of The Brooklands Society.

SAN FRANCISCO – Bonhams has announced an early headliner to its Quail Lodge Auction in August – the 1931 Bugatti Type 51 Grand Prix two-seat racer previously owned and campaigned by Earl Howe and driven by Tazio Nuvolari.

Purchased new by one of the most famous privateer racers in history, Francis Curzon, the 5th Earl Howe, first president of the British Racing Driver's Club and long-term Bugatti client, it was one of the first Type 51s to be delivered and the first chassis number in a series of just 40 cars – 51121.

No. 51121 was campaigned in Great Britain and across Europe at race circuits including Brooklands, Donington, Nürburgring, Montlhéry, Monza and Reims, and at hill climbs including the Klausenrennen and Shelsley Walsh where it set fastest time of the day in 1932.

Most notably, it was entered by Howe four times in the Monaco Grand Prix, placing fourth in 1932, and running to the late stages in the 1933 event, which many consider to be one of the greatest races of all time. The car was driven by Nuvolari, the Flying Mantuan, and fellow Italian Piero Taruffi at Brooklands in 1933.

Campaigned in the national color of British racing green with Howe’s distinctive blue and silver stripes along the side of the bodywork, the GP racer was also visually notable by its large fuel filler caps fitted from its earliest days. In addition to Nuvolari, Taruffi and Howe himself, the car was also piloted in period by The Hon. Brian Lewis and Clifton Penn-Hughes.

The successor to the legendary Type 35, the Bugatti Type 51 is famous in its own right but also has a fascinating link to American engineering by way of the Miller racecars. Ettore Bugatti was so impressed by Harry Miller’s twin-cam engines that he traded three of his own Type 43 cars for two Miller 91 cars. Bringing them back to his factory in Molsheim, Bugatti had them dismantled, learned of their technology, and then built his own version. Thus the Type 51 was born.

Bonhams’ annual Quail Lodge Auction will take place Friday, August 19 in Carmel, Calif. For information, visit

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