The Limits of Genius

There is an old saying that “the fools always win in the end because stupidity has no limits, while genius does.” Occasionally we see this acted out by people who should know better. Recently, while looking over old race car sites on the Internet, I came across the fascinating story of Etorre Bugatti’s Type 32 Gran Prix car, derogatorily nicknamed “The Tank.”

In a time when race cars were transitioning from the massive pre-war beasts to the high-tech steeds of the 1930s, the nickname had nothing to do with the Type 32’s dimensions. It was powered by a cutting-edge straight-eight engine and featured one of the first “transaxle” units. A transmission and rear axle combined into one unit — in 1923!

This innovation was much welcomed because of the length of that in-line motor and the less-than-2-meter wheelbase. The tiny vehicle was wrapped in one of the first aerodynamic bodies, i.e. — a thin aluminum sheet riveted into a wing shape and secured to what can only be described as a very flexible chassis. The entire rig weighed in at 660 kilograms — 1,452 pounds for those of us who still think in customary units.

Bugatti made only four of the T32 racers and the factory only fielded them once. A third-place finish in the Gran Prix was viewed as a failure by the designer and he moved back in a more conventional direction that produced the amazing T35, reportedly the most successful Gran Prix car of all time with a claimed victory total of over 1,100 races in 15 years.

Why did the T32 fail? The wing-shaped body produced lift instead of downforce! At speeds over 100 kph (62 mph) it wanted to take off. A “light” front end in a tiny open cockpit car does not inspire aggressive driving. One of the four cars was wrecked in testing, and only the team leader’s bravery allowed his car to complete the 500 kilometer event.

Mr. Bugatti did not tolerate failure well. He did keep the straight-eight motor and the transaxle concepts going, but it took 14 years before he attempted a second aerodynamic body. That car won the 24 Hours at Le Mans and is a revered example of French automotive art. The poor little tank is forgotten — except by kooks like me.

About Charles D. Schultz 678 Articles
Charles D. Schultz is President of Beyta Gear Service and one of Gear Technology's technical editors.