London

8 September 2014

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Lot 108

1920 Bugatti Type 23

  • Chassis no. 981
  • Engine no. 538

£285,000 - £330,000


50 bhp, 1,453 cc SOHC 16-valve inline four-cylinder engine with a single Zenith updraft carburettor, four-speed manual transmission, solid front axle with semi-elliptic leaf-spring suspension, solid rear axle with quarter-elliptic leaf-spring suspension, and rear-wheel mechanical drum brakes. Wheelbase: 2,000 mm

  • A fascinating and exciting early Bugatti
  • Well-documented provenance
  • Original matching-numbers drivetrain
  • Mechanical restoration by Phil Reilly & Company
  • Veteran tour and rally participant


Ettore Bugatti’s first production pur sang, or “little thoroughbred”, was the lucky Type 13, which was a development of his original Type 10 prototype. Between 1910 and 1920, 435 of the original model and its derivatives were produced, and it was one of the first automobiles to be equipped with a four-valve cylinder head, which evolved on later models into an eight-valve and a racing 16-valve design. The latter was installed in five factory racing cars, which were built out of Type 13s that had survived World War I by being buried near Molsheim.

The Type 13 was light, quick, and a true sportsman’s automobile, in the fashion that would come to define such later Bugattis as the Type 37 and 35B. It marked the evolution of Bugatti’s ideas from voiturette to true sports car, and as such, survivors are treasured by collectors of Molsheim’s finest. Particularly desirable are the well-sorted and often driven examples owned by enthusiasts, of which the car offered here is one, and it has been owned and enjoyed by some of the best-known modern “Bugattistes”.

CHASSIS NUMBER 981

The history of Bugatti chassis number 981 has been well tracked by respected Bugatti historian David Sewell. Sewell notes that factory records show this chassis and engine number 538 as having been completed as a Type 23/27 with a 2,550-millimetre wheelbase chassis and a 16-valve racing engine on 2 August 1920. It was then invoiced on 14 August and shipped on 5 September 1920 to Louis Pabanel, of Paris. Per a contractual agreement between Pabanel and Bugatti, this was one of about fifty chassis marketed by the Parisian as Diatto-Bugattis, as they featured rectangular Diatto radiators and firewalls.

By June 1922, the Diatto-Bugatti was registered in Marseilles, France, as 2775 M 2, a number which it retained after relocating to Draguignan in September 1926. On 16 October 1928, it was sold to Edmond Autran, of Toulon, France, who registered it as 291 YU. The last known French owner was named Pesnin.

In the early 1960s, the Bugatti appeared stateside in the ownership of Weerte Ley, of Cleveland, Ohio. A decade later, it was acquired by renowned “ferreter” of old cars Ben Paul Moser, who listed it in the 1978 American Bugatti Register as a Type 22/23 with a two-passenger roadster body and wings, but no registration number was recorded.

By 1989, the car had made its way to Japan, where it was owned by renowned collector of vintage sports cars Yoshiyuki Hayashi, who listed it in the Japanese Bugatti Register in 1995. Later that year, the car returned to the U.S.A., where it was owned by Rick Rawlins and Leo Keoshian, the American Bugatti Club archivist.

By the time of the car’s arrival back in the United States, the Bugatti had its chassis frame shortened to Type 13 specifications. Sewell nonetheless noted in a letter to the current owner in April 2013 that the car “has an original Bugatti chassis frame which is unquestionably that of chassis number 981 produced in 1920. Its engine is equally unquestionably engine number 538, which is the original fitment to chassis number 981, as confirmed by the factory records. Furthermore, it is fitted with gearbox number 488, which the same records confirm was the original to chassis number 981”.

The engine was rebuilt for Mr Keoshian by David Wallace, of Phil Reilly & Company, the renowned Bugatti facility in California, and during this process, he used the original block with improved internal components. A new racing body was crafted by John Buddenbaum, which was upholstered in genuine elk hide and decorated with period motoring badges and a large hand-painted “13”, recalling the Type 13 that secured an important victory at Brescia.

It is in this form, modified but unquestionably highly authentic, that the car is offered today. This is also the form in which Mr Keoshian drove the Type 13 extensively, participating in Bugatti rallies throughout Europe and in the United States and even racing at the Monterey Historics on six different occasions! Continuing that tradition, the current owner has received its FIVA Identity Card and has taken advantage of it to participate in the Mille Miglia Retrospective in May 2013. It would undoubtedly be an absolute thrill to drive on any number of other vintage motoring events all over the world, with its bare-bones, open-air carriage providing wind-in-your face, elemental thrills.

Alexander Weaver

aweaver@rmsothebys.com

+1 864 313 6844
California, United States

Alexander Weaver joined RM Sotheby’s in 2011 as a Car Specialist after graduating from Furman University in South Carolina. Born... read more

Augustin Sabatié-Garat

asabatie-garat@rmsothebys.com

+44 (0) 74 1511 4179
United Kingdom

Augustin Sabatié-Garat joined RM Europe in 2012 as a Car Specialist after more than a decade in the collector car hobby. Gradua... read more

Barney Ruprecht

bruprecht@rmsothebys.com

+1 203 912 7168
Ontario, Canada

Barney’s interest in classic cars began at an early age after being introduced to his father’s all-original 1965 Porsche 911. Barney l... read more

David Swig

dswig@rmsothebys.com

+1 415 302 2247
California, United States

David Swig joined RM Sotheby’s West Coast division as a Car Specialist in May 2015. David is a life-long automobile enthusi... read more

Don Rose

drose@rmsothebys.com

+1 617 513 0388
United States

Don joined RM in 2006 after several years of professionally trading sports and classic cars, and after earning a reputation as a noted... read more

Donnie Gould

dgould@rmsothebys.com

+1 954 566 2209
Florida, United States

Donnie Gould joined the RM team in 2002 as a partner and Car Specialist after more than two decades in the vintage automobile auction ... read more

Gord Duff

gduff@rmsothebys.com

+1 519 352 4575
Ontario, Canada

Gord Duff began his journey with RM Sotheby’s in 1998. Since then, he has gained an intimate knowledge of a variety of marques a... read more

Jake Auerbach

jauerbach@rmsothebys.com

+1 310 559 4575
California, United States

Jake Auerbach got his start in the automotive industry at an early age, spending his summers during high school working at a classic c... read more

Kurt Forry

kforry@rmsothebys.com

+1 717 623 1638
California, United States

Having worked for Bonhams’ Automobilia department for over 10 years, Kurt Forry joined RM Sotheby’s with more than a decad... read more

Matt Malamut

mmalamut@rmsothebys.com

+1 805 231 6410
California, United States

A long-time car enthusiast and Southern California native, Matt studied Automotive Technology at San Diego Miramar College and complet... read more

Michael Squire

msquire@rmsothebys.com

+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Michael Squire joined RM Sotheby’s European Division in the summer of 2016. He comes to RM with a prestigious racing background ... read more

Mike Fairbairn

mfairbairn@rmsothebys.com

+1 519 352 4575
Ontario, Canada

As one of the three founding partners of RM Sotheby’s, Mike has a long-standing interest in the classic car industry. Graduating... read more

Oliver Camelin

ocamelin@rmsothebys.com

+44 (0) 75 0110 7447
United Kingdom

With an extensive background in exotic sports car history and sales, a particular passion for American curves, and fluency in three la... read more

Paul Darvill

pdarvill@rmsothebys.com

+44 (0) 20 7851 7070
United Kingdom

Paul Darvill joined the RM Sotheby’s European team at the beginning of 2015. Paul holds a degree in French and Politics from the... read more

Pete Fisher

pfisher@rmsothebys.com

+1 519 784 9300
Ontario, Canada

Pete Fisher was first introduced to antique cars in high school, working for Classic Coachworks in his hometown of Blenheim, Ontario. ... read more

Shelby Myers

smyers@rmsothebys.com

+1 310 559 4575
California, United States

Shelby Myers grew up with the classic car industry infused into every aspect of his life. He had the unique opportunity to watch the R... read more

Tonnie Van der Velden

tvandervelden@rmsothebys.com

+31 653 84 19 60
United Kingdom

Tonnie Van der Velden joined RM Sotheby’s European division in September 2015 as a Car Specialist. A lifelong enthusiast, Tonnie... read more