by Andy Rheault (1982)
Stopping my Bugatti in a public place these days frequently brings forth the awful probe, “what’s it worth?” I never know quite how to reply, and usually try to duck the question. It’s not because I’m particularly shy; rather, I am ever appalled by what the traders and general inflation have done to vintage car values. You see, it gives me no real pleasure to know that my car is supposed to be too valuable to use on public roads, run in competitive events, or be parked in front of the IGA–all of which I very much like to do. I prefer to remember that I got the Bugatti for $150, and this is the story of how that came to pass.
In 1956 I was assigned to the American Embassy in Saigon, which, during my tour of duty there, was a pleasant and peaceful city. Soon after my arrival, I met David Mize. David had preceded me by about a year, during which he had managed to find not one but two Bugattis–a Type 40 Grand Sport, and a Type 57 Ventoux.
The T-40 was found in a semi-abandoned state on a side street in nearby Bien Hoa, a small city then known mostly for its exquisite pottery, but which later became the site of a significant U.S. air base. From the numbers (chassis 40793; engine 700) we determined that this was one of the last of the series, and probably crafted around 1929. It was imported by a rubber planter named Chambone, but he must have tired of it for it was sold in a year or so to a lawyer, one Albert Rochon, in April 1931. It was registered in that year as CD-601, the first of the two letters standing for the “Cochin” of Cochin China, and the D and succeeding numerals having been assigned in series fashion.
Dave and I met Rochon during one of our first outings in the Bugatti, and he was able to provide a number of interesting details of the car’s history. Rochon had used it for high-speed transport between the city and the cooler mountain air of Dalat, some 300 kilometers away–a distance he once covered in three hours and fifteen minutes. If the road were anything like it was in 1957, this was a truly remarkable accomplishment.
During the war years, the story of 40793 gets a little hazy. Some sources said it had been squirreled away on a coffee plantation, while others thought it had been claimed by the Japanese Army. Whatever the truth, the Bugatti was luckily left more or less intact and when the war was over it was returned to Albert Rochon. He sold it to one Le vinh Xuan, the owner of a small rice mill in the delta, and there it deteriorated slowly during the next four years. In the summer of 1950, Xuan sold the car to his sister-in-law, a Mrs. Do thi Tru. A copy of the Bill of Sale covering this transaction (which I still have) records that “Mille piastres” were exchanged for “une carcasse d’automobile Bugatti avec moteur.” Although the French word “carcasse” can be used to describe an automobile frame, “chassis” is far more common and one can only suspect that “carcasse” meant what it said –namely, a carcass. After 1950, the T-40 passed through several more hands before ending up with Cao van Tung who apparently had some notion of using its engine in a small ferryboat somewhere in the delta. Fortunately, this project…
We continue this great story tomorrow!