I would like to introduce my blog with a great story written by my father, a year after I was born. The English version of the story was first published in Bugantics (1992), the magazine of the Bugatti Owner ‘s Club.
It was some time the mid-seventies when I met a Mr Wartelle in northern France who told me, among lots of other interesting things, about a Bugatti in the cellar of a house belonging to an old lady.
At the time he refused to give me any further details, so I decided a few years later to try again.
This time I got the full story. The car was a ‘Petite Royale’ drophead coupe of a well proportioned design. The Bugatti was sitting in the basement of a building which had once been a clinic for the wealthy mentally deranged. What was left of the clinic was no more than a ruin in the middle of a forest, but in it lived the old lady.
According to Mr Wartelle she was a French lady who had married a Russian prince, known as Prince Tartarinoff. After the clinic activities had been suspended and her husband had died she had stayed behind in isolation in the buildings, affected herself also by mental disorder. The place was known by the local people as ‘La Clinique des Chocs’ (i.e. shocks), which makes one wonder what reputation the clinic had in its heyday.
Mr Wartelle did not recall exactly where the place was, but it had to be somewhere near Orchies. In the area I had to look for an Agfa-Gevaert works and from there the village would be only a couple of miles away. He advised me to ask for ‘La Princesse Russe’ and I would certainly find someone who could give me directions to where she lived.
A few months later, when living in Brussels for a while, I decided to go and visit the princess, hoping that I would succeed in extracting the Bugatti from its hidden place. It was raining heavily when I drove down to Orchies. With some difficulty I managed to locate the Agfa-Gevaert works somewhere way out in the countryside, and from there I ended up in Pont-a-Marcq. I wasn’t sure whether this was the village in question, but decided nevertheless to ask a lady who had just fetched her baguettes from the local bakery. “Could you please tell me if you know La princesse Russe?” I asked her. Without any further hesitation she replied “Are you coming for the car?” How silly of me, how could I think that this Bugatti was not being sought by many others? Apparently someone else had come to see the car with her husband, who ran a local garage, several months earlier. She kindly gave me directions, which led me out of the village where I would find a forest on my left. There was a track leading into the forest and somewhere along this track I would find an old gate, which gave me acces to the estate of the princess. The last thing she said to me was “…and watch out for the dogs!”, which made me feel quite uneasy, having had some bad experiences with dogs in the past.
Anyway, I proceeded as directed by her and after ending up in a field on the way back along the track I found a gate. It was hard to distinguish in all the undergrowth and behind it was anything but a paved driveway. Instead there was about half a meter high grass winding down into the wet and gloomy forest. I decided to drive my Alfa right through the grass, hoping that I would not get stuck anywhere.
By this time my adrenalin had already reached an unusually high level. Here I was, all on my own, far from civilization, my car pushing its way through the wilderness, some wild dogs probably already on the alert for me, on my way to a deranged princess, living in the ruins of a clinic where they used to welcome visitors with an injection and a strait jacket! Then, suddenly, there it was. In front of me loomed the ruins of several buildings; walls missing here and there; the entire place totally overgrown by nature. On my right were the remains of an early fifties Renault 4, with a tree having made its way right through the sliding roof. On the left, in one of the wings of the ruin, was the wreck of a mid-fifties Studebaker Hawk.
How could anybody possibly still live here, I wondered. There was no sign of any life whatsoever, other than nature which seemed to have taken control of the place long ago. Although… on the first floor in front of me, behind lots of overgrowth, it seemed as though there were still some unbroken panes in the doors giving access to a balcony. Underneath in the ground floor spaces one could see right into all parts of the buildings, several walls having already collapsed. An inspection of those spaces revealed nothing more than the afore-mentioned Studebaker. Feeling decidedly ill-at-ease in this place, to which the pouring rain contributed somewhat, I decided to call a halt to my expedition and try to get back to civilization as soon as possible.
I turned the Alfa, but as I took off to go down the slippery track again… there was a loud scream from behind me, echoing through the deserted forest! My heartbeat shot up, I scrambled out of my car, and found myself staring up at the balcony, where she stood: La Princesse Russe! This can’t be true, I thought, this is almost Hitchcock-like, but this time I am part of the scene. Long grey hair fell over her shoulders and she was dressed in a long, somewhat filthy off-white gown which had seen better days. Despite this, one could see that she had been good looking in her younger days, but now all that was bygone glory.
“What are you doing here?” she asked, and I explained that I had come to see the Bugatti. She said she didn’t have any time for me since she was busy with a doctor and anyway the Bugatti had passed into other ownership. Apparently the reason she had decided to emerge from her isolation was that she had noticed my Dutch license plate. She said she had a daughter who lived in Paris with a Dutch boyfriend. We talked some more, obviously there was no doctor around, until she returned to the obscurity of her ruins and I decided to proceed with my journey.
And thus ended yet another of those memorable expeditions on the never-ending search for those hidden Bugattis.
Later I learned from someone else in Brussels, who had visited the place several years before me, that the Bugatti was indeed a Type 46, chassis number 46195.
As far as La Clinique des Chocs is concerned, my same Brussels contact told me many years later that the forest has now been cleared and converted to a holiday resort, erasing all visible traces of this once so extraordinary and haunted place.
Written by Hans Veenenbos