by Simon Haldy
Charles Chayne was one of the most famous early Bugatti collectors. He was a former chief engineer and VP at GM in the 50’s and 60’s, and was a true car afficionado. His first classic car was a Bugatti, and his last was the famous ex Dr Fuchs Royale by Weinberger.
But among Chayne’s Bugatti collection (Type 23, 41 and 57S) there was a very special one, a 1937 Type 57S (57482) a Vanvooren bodied DHC that he bought in the late 50’s, originally built for a certain Mr Halphen. This 57S had been owned at some point by a Frenchman (the car was registered in the late 40s with Parisian plates), and then was purchased by the legendary Jean de DeDobbeleer from Brussels, who sold it to US car collector Edward Gilmour, from whom Chayne bought it.
A Type 57S is a very rare car, I am sure you will agree with that, but a 57S bodied by Vanvooren as a drophead coupé is even more rare. What happened to this particular car is really unique.
Since Chayne was at that time GM vice president in charge of engineering (in the 30s, 40s, and early 50s Chayne was Buick engineer in chief), he decided to use his wonderful 57S as a test bed for his future Buick engines. No sooner said than done, our US engineer replaced the marvellous Bugatti 13S 8 cylinder engine by a brand new Buick V8 all alloy prototype power unit. This particular all alloy V8 was destined to enter full-scale production as a Buick. But the American car manufacturer decided to abandon the project, and the engine was subsequently licensed to Rover who, over thirty years later, used it as their most sophisticated motor fitting it in their most prestigious products.
GM engineer CAC began in the 30s with his Type 23, which had its original 16 valve Molsheim power unit. Later on it was replaced by a typical US V8, which was done by someone else then Charles.
Many other changes were made to Chayne’s 57S, including the fitment of power steering, novel single-leaf front springs and hydraulic brakes. All these modifications were carried out to the highest engineering standards since Chayne, and his team were true perfectionists. The result was a very fast 120 mph car, that would have put more modern US sports cars to shame.
The late Bugatti pope Hugh Conway described the Chayne 57S as: ” A beautiful, almost perfectly done job, if not exactly a Bugatti, but interesting in its own right; the performance is to match, well over 120mph, and startling acceleration. Very appropriate for California!”
The story of this amazing 57S, may I call it the “Buickatti”?, could have ended as bad as the Chayne Type 43, but luckily in 1975 Bunny Phillips, co-founder and first President of the American Bugatti Club, became the new owner of the car. In fact Bunny Phillips was looking for a special Christmas present for his wife Lucille, and the Vanvooren 57S was undoubtedly the ultimate Christmas gift for any Bugattist. Sadly Lucille Phillips didn’t have so much time to enjoy her gift, since she passed away in 1979, so the car was little used.
What remains a mystery to me is why Bunny Phillips didn’t convert this magnificent jewel back to its original specification. I think that for such a Bugatti fanatic (Phillips even dared to enter his 35B, fitted with type 38 wire wheels, for the 1936 Vanderbilt Cup race) this would not have been so difficult to do, especially since the man also owned one of the very rare Bugatti specialized workshops in the USA. In any case the car remained as such in Bunny Phillips hands until 1999 when his estate was taken to auction. The car was sold for USD 1,250,000.
From 1999, the car has been owned by that very fine connoisseur Samuel Mann. This collector, who had won Best of Show at Pebble Beach more than once, returned the Vanvooren 57S back to its former glory by buying back its original engine (T57C with crank case 32 SC from 57561 on internet!), and finally reuniting it with its frame after 40 years of separation.