Jean-Pierre Wimille

2009 was the seventieth anniversary of a remarkable event in the history of Prescott Speed Hill Climb and the Bugatti Owners’ Club. The meeting held on Sunday, July 30th , 1939 was the first International Meeting to be held at Prescott.

The entry of the French racing driver, Jean Pierre Wimille with the Works’ Bugatti and with Jean Bugatti in attendance, underlined the international status of the event. Wimille, who was the son of a Parisian journalist, had just won the Le Mans 24-hour race for the second time, and was then at the height of his fame as a racing driver. As the programme notes heralded: ‘ It is a grand thing to realize that the Bugatti equipe, including M. Jean Bugatti himself, has come here specially for today’s event, all the way from Molsheim in Alsace, and we wish him a pleasant visit and the best of good luck.’ Both Jean Bugatti and Jean Pierre Wimille were booked in at the Queens Hotel, Cheltenham. 

A ‘cordial welcome’ was also extended to Mr. Raymond Mays, ‘holder of the Shelsley Walsh record and too well-known to need any introduction with his 2-litre E.R.A. This is Mr. Mays’ first visit to Prescott and we look forward with confidence to the shattering of our course record.’

Jean Pierre Wimille was in car number 3 in Class 8 (Racing Cars over 2000cc). The Works’ Bugatti being based on a Type 59 chassis with a Type 50B engine of 4700cc. On the other hand, Raymond Mays in the E.R.A. R4D, car number 12, was in Class 7 (Racing Cars 1501 to 2000cc). The E.R.A. having an engine capacity of 1988cc.

Other notable drivers on the day were to be Jack Lemon-Burton, Arthur Baron and Kenneth Bear all in Bugattis, Kenneth Evans in his Alfa Romeo, Bob Ansell with his 1480 cc E.R.A. and Reg Parnell in the B.H.W. (non-starter) and his Challenge(r).

Shakspeare was entered in the ‘Club Car’, being a type 51 Bugatti given to the Club by Ettore Bugatti. Then there was A.F.P. Fane, one-time record holder at Shelsley Walsh, Percy Maclure, H.L. Hadley and C.D. Buckley in the works’ Austins and A.H. Beadle in an Alta.

The sense of anticipation of the Prescott faithful in seeing a driver of International distinction driving a Works’ Bugatti is no better illustrated than in the event report from Bugantics September 1939: ‘Shortly after practice had commenced, we were thrilled to see a large blue lorry arrive with a familiar red badge on the side and two typical Molsheim mechanics in the cab. The Works car had actually arrived!’ It is worth quoting the report further as it gives the period feeling of excitement for the event with the details given: ‘The whole equipe proceeded up the hill to the courtyard of the house, where a garage had been put at their disposal. Some while afterwards, we went up to see what there was to see, but of the Grand Prix there was no sign. The mechanics had dismantled quite a proportion of the lorry engine, because apparently, on the way down it had failed to maintain the steady 60 mph which from many sources we heard it had kept up on the way home!

However, on a later visit, after both M. Jean Bugatti and Jean Pierre Wimille had arrived and this time were rewarded by seeing the car itself. It all brought back vivid memories of Molsheim to see the racing car, the blue clad mechanics, Jean Bugatti and Wimille and the Works lorry amidst the stone surroundings of Prescott House, and it seemed so absolutely right that the car and equipe should have come from the chateau at Molsheim to what is almost its equivalent over here.’

The Works’ mechanics referred to were Robert Aumaitre and Lucien Wurmser. Prior to this meeting the holder of the Prescott record was George Abecassis, who in his supercharged Alta had achieved a time of 47.85 secs. on July 3rd 1938. Abecassis was to be a non-starter at this meeting.

Rain fell on the Friday night and continued for the Saturday morning practice sessions (rain and hill-climbs is not a new phenomena!) and it was not until the middle of the Saturday afternoon that the road had dried sufficiently for good times to be made. Raymond Mays, Wimille and Beadle, the latter in his Alta, all broke the existing record for the hill.

On the Saturday night more rain fell with a terrific storm over Prescott. We, who had the running of the event, became more and more depressed. To have achieved such an outstanding entry, to have worked for weeks and weeks for the success of the show, and then see everything ruined by the weather was too cruel to be believed.’ (The staff in the Club Office will be able to relate to this. However at least we do not have to clean up the ‘Start’, with mud transferred from the Paddock, as then not surfaced, by pouring petrol and setting it on fire – it was concrete in 1939- in order to dry it out!)

The Sunday morning practice session stopped at 1 o’clock. The weather had cleared up and even turned hot, the course dried and the record for the Hill was broken again four times!

Then just before 2 o’clock the Clerk of the Course ran Earl Howe, the R.A.C. Steward, up the Hill in Colonel Giles’ recently acquired Type 57S (GU 7). The crowd was rewarded with an afternoon of exciting climbs with further Hill records culminating with Raymond Mays in Class 7 achieving 46.16 secs! ‘Finally, with Class 8, the big cars came up to the line. The Works’ Bugatti, built under the 1937 G.P. formula but with a supercharger fitted, was brought up to the line, an electrical starting device was inserted in the offside just forward of the cockpit and at once the engine started. Wimille, as immaculate as ever, handled every control with finger-tip lightness. 

A consultation took place between him and Jean Bugatti and with a deep roar he was away up the Hill. His first climb in 47.50 secs. was marvellous considering how unsuitable the car really was for the Hill and then on his second run he got down to 46.69, a matter of .55 secs. slower than Raymond Mays. Wimille was naturally disappointed that he had not done better, but Jean Bugatti was philosophical, “I am sorry,” he said, “I have brought a car that is unsuitable for your hill. Next year we will bring over a 1 ½ litre car – one of our new ones – and I hope that we shall do better.” 

Sadly circumstances would not allow this to happen. Only some five weeks later this Country was at war with Germany.

Also in this Class, Shakspeare with the Club car achieved 51.34 secs. on his second run. A.H. Beadle in his second season of racing and making a first visit to Prescott came third overall with a time of 47.37 secs. in his supercharged Alta. Wimille, despite the disadvantages of not having detailed knowledge of the Hill and the long wheelbase of his car, had achieved a new Class record, coming first in Class 8 and second fastest time of the day. He won £30 and a silver cup. 

Wimille’s car was a one-off built by the Bugatti factory. Using twin rear wheels, to aid traction and to cope with the power from the big straight-eight supercharged engine. It was not possible for the car to use the rough return road from the top of the hill. The width of the car has been stated as the problem here but it may also have been linked with the wheelbase and condition of the return road. However it has been stated that proceedings had to be held up after each run for the Works’ Bugatti to return to the paddock by way of the Hill itself. Thus the spectators were able to get a second look at the car on its descent.

After the war the factory produced the car for the first race meeting in Europe, the Coupe des Prisonniers, held in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris on September 9th 1945. Driven by Wimille it won the main event. This was the last race to be won by a car entered by Bugatti. Wimille had served in l’Armee de l’Air until the fall of France and then in the Resistance and finally in North Africa during the war. The racing career of this great driver came to an end when he was sadly killed in an accident during practice for the 1949 Buenos Aires Grand Prix.

With the closing down of the Molsheim factory the car was acquired by the Schlumpf brothers, and today it resides in the museum at Mulhouse.

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