by Andy Rheault (1982)
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 never got beyond the stage of naval (sic) contemplation, and the Bugatti came to its penultimate resting place on a side street in the aforementioned city of Bien Hoa.
David brought the car to a garage in Saigon which is where I first saw it. Picture, if you will, in a dank corner of a fairly run-down establishment, this veritable carcass of a Bugatti. The unmistakeable radiator was flanked by the empty sockets of what once had been the headlights. The cycle fenders were dented, sagging, and badly rusted. The body shell was so porous in places that a finger could be put through by poking; of course, there were neither seats nor floorboards. Still, I loved every rusting inch of it. She was the best car I’d ever seen! On the mechanical side, the engine, drive train, frame, axles, springs, and brakes were all genuine Bugatti, not grafted-on Peugeot or Simca bits. Therefore, even if the body was a little the worse for wear, this could be fixed in due course. It looked like it would be fun to try on the road, so one Sunday morning we got up early, went down and wired the remains of the body onto the chassis frame, found an old jeep seat for the driver and some makeshift floorboards, and away to the countryside we went. It was one of the most hilarious vintage car events of our lives. Great good fun, but it also made us even more aware of some of 40793’s more serious problems. Of them, more anon.
Dave soon found himself transferred to another post, and as the T-57 Bugatti was a going concern, which the T-40 most definitely was not, he decided to sell it to me. We had learned that the Etablissements Jean Comte, which was then the main Peugeot agency in town, had once been the Bugatti concessionnaire for all of Indochina. And so it was that I drove the T-40 there in its derelict state with the confidence that the management might have at least some sentimental interest in working on a Bugatti once again.
The manager, Robert Juve, and his chief mechanic, Gaston Garideau, were admittedly skeptical, but their resources were many and they were willing to take on the building of a new replica body so long as I wasn’t in any hurry. I wasn’t, but I did want the job done right. As mentioned, the body had rotted considerably, but its shape was still good enough to take patterns from. This was done by the garage carpenter, much as one would take the lines of the hull of a boat. With these patterns at hand, the carpenter set to work building a new wooden frame while the sheet metal boys began cutting and shaping the body panels and cycle fenders. Imagine these Chinese lads, dressed in an old pair of shorts and rubber sandals, bending over an anvil on the floor, and, from a sheet of raw steel, gradually bringing that metal to the proper curve and shape. It was really something. The progress was slow, but the workmanship –not to mention the price– was well worth the patience. And, it was coming together. Some of the smaller body pieces were salvaged, the aluminum hood, the tail cone side valences, and the single door. But
the main body, consisting of the cowl, and left and right-hand sides, were new; when at last they were shaped, they were lovingly fitted to the wooden sub-frame, welded, and primed ready for final finishing.
While the Jean Comte crew were working away on the body proper, I busied myself trying to learn what a correct T-40 Bugatti really looked like, what sort of instruments were needed, and a million other essential…
Tomorrow the next part of this incredibly exiting story!