Simanaitis Says

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THE MURPHY-BODIED, R&T-FEATURED, KATHARINE HEPBURN-DRIVEN BUGATTI TYPE 38

INTERESTING CARS OFTEN have fascinating histories. I was inspired to write about the Murphy-bodied Bugatti Type 38 when I rediscovered its Salon article in the March 1956 issue of R&T. In itself, this is a compelling story, involving a pair of Miller race cars swapped in France by American race driver Leon Duray for several of Ettore Bugatti’s cars, including Type 38 chassis no. 38435. It turns out there’s even more to the tale.

This and other images from R&T, March 1956.

The Leon Duray/Ettore Bugatti swap gets complicated, at least in part because of a completely different race driver named Leon Duray, this guy a Frenchman living in Paris. The American Duray was born in Cleveland, Ohio; his real name, George Stewart.

Further custodianship of Type 38 chassis no. 38435 gets a bit tangled as well. R&T cited among its owners a “high school lad named Phil Hill” and another fellow named Jim Hum. There’s another source that doesn’t mention Phil, but does cite a Jim Hill among the car’s owners.

Quite apart from a complicated provenance, there’s more than enough historical, technical, and even Hollywood interest to merit a close look.

Murphy Coachwork. When the chassis arrived in the U.S. in 1927, the Murphy Body Co. in Pasadena, California, fabricated its roadster body. Indeed, the Murphy Type 38 is the only Bugatti sent to the U.S. to receive custom coachwork.

No top was ever fitted; among distinctive features of the Murphy coachwork were its windscreen tapering at the scuttle and a commodious trunk. In fact, the trunk enters into the car’s Hollywood career in two films, Christopher Strong, 1933; and Remember Last Night?, 1935.

Katharine Hepburn at the wheel of the Murphy Bugatti in Christopher Strong, 1933. Its Hispano-Suiza hood ornament is a Hollywood touch. Image from The Bugatti Revue. Below, Ms. Hepburn ready for her closeup. Image from IMDb.com.


The Murphy Bugatti on the Silver Screen. R&T reported that a movie studio had “rented the car, and all the wood flooring had been removed and lost. The same studio has also reversed the lid hinges to provide a rumble seat and added a rear windshield.”

The Murphy Bugatti Type 38 in Remember Last Night?, 1935. Image from imcdb.com.

The car had almost a speaking role in Remember Last Night?, as shown in an excerpt for this 1935 murder mystery. Check out its whirring Dynastart starter/generator. Note also that the elegant steering wheel gripped by Hepburn two years before had been replaced. The dashboard was far from stock as well, though the detective’s sidekick quips, “I had to talk in seven languages to get this far…”

It’s looks like a pretty good flick. A complete version is available.

The Murphy Bugatti’s cockpit, as restored to its original elegance. Its steering is an ultra-quick 1 1/4 turns from lock to lock. Image from The Bugatti Revue, the car at the 2002 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.

The car has its original Type 38 1990-cc inline-eight with single overhead camshaft, and three valves per cylinder (two intake, one exhaust). R&T noted, “Incidentally, the tappets are set at .020 in. and since this operation requires removal of the entire camshaft assembly, the job takes about 3 weeks to complete—in spare time!”

The Type 38’s 2.0-liter straight-engine produced 70 hp, giving the Murphy Bugatti what R&T termed a 60-mph cruising speed with its owner having “once reached 75 mph.” This and lead image from supercars.net.

Current owner Jay Leno has shown the Murphy Bugatti at Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. He was quoted in Popular Mechanics, February 2001, as having found the car “deteriorating in a lockup in Orange County…. Though I’m game for most any car, what I try to avoid are celebrity cars. Those have no interest to me. A guy will say, ‘Look at this. It was owned by Dean Martin’s cousin.’ ”

On the other hand, the only American-bodied Bugatti ever made—and driven by no less than Katharine Hepburn—certainly plucks my twanger. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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