Jay Leno Plays Art Deco Racer in a 1931 Bugatti Type 51 Dubos Coupe

1931 Bugatti Type 51 Dubos Coupe article highlights:

  • An evolution of the Type 35, the Bugatti Type 51 is a true Grand Prix race car that can work on the road
  • The 1931 Dubos Coupe is unique even amongst seven-figure Bugatti Type 51s for its coachbuilt body—and that body was lost for roughly 40 years
  • Jay Leno had a fabulous time driving it

It doesn’t happen often, but veteran car collector Jay Leno gets star-struck from time to time, too. His garage might hold rarified Duesenbergs, antique Bentleys, and a long-lost Talbot-Lago, but some things are beyond even him. So, when one of those hyper-unobtanium cars swings by, he gets a chance to geek out like the rest of us. And that’s precisely what happened when the Nethercutt Collection’s 1931 Bugatti Type 51 Dubos Coupe dropped by.

The Bugatti Type 51 picked up where the legendary Type 35 left off

A blue 1931 Bugatti Type 51 Grand Prix race car by an old farmhouse
1931 Bugatti Type 51 Grand Prix race car | Bonhams

For many, the Type 35 is arguably the purest expression of Ettore Bugatti’s engineering vision, at least where racing is concerned. However, while it’s one of Bugatti’s winningest models, the company didn’t stop evolving its two-seat race car formula there. If you really want “the ultimate expression” of classic Bugatti racing, MotorTrend says, you need the Type 51.

Introduced in 1931, the Bugatti Type 51 doesn’t look terribly different from the earlier Type 35 at first glance. Some Type 51s were even built on unused Type 35 chassis, Bonhams claims. But it has some exterior tweaks, such as cast-aluminum wheels instead of bolt-on rims and twin fuel filler caps. However, the lithe roadster had some more significant upgrades under its skin.

Firstly, while the Type 35 and Type 51 both have supercharged straight-eight engines, the latter has a larger 2.3-liter engine. In addition, the 2.3-liter engine has dual overhead camshafts rather than one. As a result, the Type 51 makes 160 bhp, 30 more than the Type 35B. And because it only weighs 1653 pounds, this 1930s car “is modern-car fast,” MT reports.

Also, its precise shifter and light clutch are easy to use even by modern standards. And while the brakes are, um, there, the narrow tires provide a “shocking” level of grip, MT adds. This is basically a 1930s supercar, Bonhams says. Or, more accurately, a Grand Prix race car that you could easily add mudguards and lights to for road use.

One owner, though, went a bit further than that.

The 1931 Bugatti Type 51 Dubos Coupe is a Grand Prix race car wrapped in a stunning Art Deco coachbuilt body—and it has a crazy history

The burgundy 1931 Bugatti Type 51 Dubos Coupe with its hood open on the streets of Beverly Hills, California
1931 Bugatti Type 51 Dubos Coupe side | MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images

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Roughly 40 Bugatti Type 51s exist, but there’s only one Dubos Coupe. After famed racer Louis Chiron—yes, the Chiron’s namesake—won the 1931 French Grand Prix in chassis no. 51133, René Dreyfus took it for a few spins. Parisian businessman Andre Bith then bought it in 1932 and converted it into a road car. You know, by adding some mudguards and some lights.

That was fine for a few years, but Bith eventually wanted more. So, in 1937 he took his Type 51 to French coachbuilder Louis Dubos for a wardrobe update. The coachbuilder crafted a swoopy, sleek coupe body and stylish interior for the race-turned-road car. And forever afterward, this car was known as the 1931 Bugatti Type 51 Dubos Coupe.

Well, not quite forever, as shortly before WWII, Bith sold the Dubos Coupe. It luckily survived the war, but its next owner separated the body and chassis. Chassis no. 51133 became a ‘regular’ Bugatti Type 51 again and the body…well, we’ll get to that.

By the time American entrepreneur and car collector J.B. Nethercutt bought the re-bodied Bugatti Type 51 in 1959, its second body was gone. So, he had a Bugatti expert re-re-body it in its Grand Prix form for his collection. And chassis 51133 stayed that way until 2000 when a familiar swoopy body popped up for auction. Yup, the original Dubos Coupe body had somehow survived in fellow collector Bob Sutherland’s collection. And after the Nethercutt Collection won the auction, the body and chassis were reunited.

The Nethercutt Collection let Jay Leno drive this “jewel” of “automotive royalty”

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Now, Jay Leno has a few Bugatti classic cars. But as noted earlier, there are some even he can’t get his hands on. For example, the obscenely-rare Type 57 SC Atlantic. However, in a way, getting to drive the Type 51 Dubos Coupe is almost like driving an Atlantic. That’s because Bith asked Louis Dubos to design a body that resembled the Altantic’s flowing form. Job well done there.

While the Bugatti Type 51 Dubos Coupe is undoubtedly striking, it’s also somewhat quirky. For example, its sole fuel filler cap is inside the leather-upholstered interior. Also, while quad exhaust tips aren’t unusual today, the Bugatti’s pipes are all in a row. However, while the airplane-style machined-metal dash, rear-hinged doors, and prominent exterior fin look antique today, they were actually state-of-the-art back then. As Jay Leno notes, “Lindbergh had just flown the ocean, so people were just crazy for aircraft.”

Speaking of airplanes, driving this car back in the day must have felt like flying. Thanks to its enclosed body, the Bugatti Type 51 Dubos Coupe tops out at 140 mph. And keep in mind, this thing still has cable-operated brakes and a non-synchronized four-speed manual. Bugatti has come a long way since 1931.

But even so, driving the Dubos Coupe today still feels “fabulous,” Jay Leno says. It might lack synchros, but the transmission is extremely durable. The engine might be “cold-blooded,” Leno notes, but it has plenty of torque. Plus, the brakes have hydraulic-level strength, and the ride is surprisingly decent. And the Nethercutt Collection doesn’t just keep it locked up in a climate-controlled garage: it regularly exercises it. As a result, “it drives amazingly well,” Jay Leno reports.

Also, just look at it.

You can’t get the Bugatti Type 51 Dubos Coupe at any price, but Type 51 replicas exist

The rear 3/4 view of a blue 1931 Bugatti Type 51 Pur Sang replica
1931 Bugatti Type 51 Pur Sang replica rear 3/4 | Bonhams

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While the Dubos Coupe is firmly in the Nethercutt Collection’s hands, regular Bugatti Type 51s do come up for auction occasionally. But like other Bugatti classic cars, they have house-mortgage-sized price tags. One car went for $4 million at a 2016 Bonhams sale, and even ‘cheap’ Type 51s command near-seven-figure prices.

However, there is a more affordable alternative: Pur Sang. The Argentina-based company makes true Bugatti replicas, hand-shaped body panels and all. Admittedly, they’re not cheap per se: new ones cost around $250K and Bonhams sold a ‘used’ one in 2016 for $163.6K. But they offer the same sound and driving experience. If you want a Dubos Coupe lookalike, though, you’ll have to find a willing coachbuilder.

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