Another Monday morning, like any other Monday morning early in the month. The weekend glut of emails, a workshop to direct and prioritise after a weekend, two days away from the work environment sometimes I think it might as well have been a week! Then finally into my office, where the most important job seems to be clearing the desk and sorting through several period photographs of the French Grand Prix at Montlhery in 1925. Period photographs where cars moving at speed appear distorted, the wheels turn to eggs, the usual lines of a Type 35 pulled at different angles like a rubber toy and then the team photo, young men in racing cars wearing collar and tie, eager and ready, looking forward to practice. Out of place one driver smoothing his hair and checking his reflection in the rear view mirror, just as the photographer chose to operate the shutter.
Once these tasks are completed it’s the opportunity to begin the job which I have now managed to avoid for best part of an hour, invoicing. It should be the best job of the month, an opportunity to communicate the miracles we’ve performed on our customers behalf in the preceding month and hopefully cheer the bank manager up by putting some money into the bank as given the effects of the credit crunch they seem to need it! Maybe it’s the ill judged deal they’re about to do, to shore up the banks finances with very expensive sovereign investment funds. I was just about to get started when the phone rang. The message I got was typical. “There is a woman on the phone wanting to speak to you, I didn’t quite catch the name, she has a heavy accent, but she says she knows you.” Resigned I asked for the call to be put through, resigned because mostly these turn out to be call centres attempting to sell me anything from a better deal on my electric to guaranteed shares in the American stock market. However on this occasion it was different. The accent was thick and I guessed Eastern European. The voice at the other end of the line said “Hello Tim, my name is ______ we have met once. I need to speak to you about a car, but I can’t do it on the phone. All I can tell you is it involves Janine Jenneky.” After a brief conversation we agreed to meet at the Connaught Hotel in London on Thursday. I couldn’t do Tuesday because I was going to take photographs of a Type 44 that a customer wanted to place with me for sale. It is a good car, mechanically in excellent condition, complete and correct, with an open body, a copy of a period body, which was fitted to the car in the early 80s, the car being in the same hands for more than 30 years. The Type 44 is a wonderful touring car and this would be a good place to start a Bugatti ownership. Anyway the phone call gave me the opportunity to avoid invoicing for a little longer as I looked into Janine Jenneky, she raced Bugattis, a contemporary of Elizabeth Junek and Helle Nice, she won at Dijon in 1928.
Tuesday went well, Wednesday dragged and eventually Thursday came. A trip to London involves the train, our local station being Haddenham only some 4 miles from the workshop where you can get a train to Marylebone which, if it’s the fast service, takes about 45 minutes. Early in the morning the station heaves with commuters, but at 10.45 it is a deserted platform, a chance to sit and contemplate my appointment and her cloak and dagger approach. Four minutes until the train is due on the hour, two people join me on the platform, the first a young woman, smartly dressed in comfortable shoes, holding tightly to a document case. In her early 20s, I guess she is on her way to an interview. The other passenger in his 50s, pin stripe suit, shoes that really needed polishing, he looked like somebody who’d had far too many city lunches. On the hour the train arrives and I settle into the carriage for the fast run to Marylebone, stopping at Princes Risborough forever thought of as “Princess Risbry” after meeting a couple of girls coming out of London one night. Dressed for a 70s party, big wigs, platform shoes and drinking Vodka from the bottle, they had come from deepest, darkest Camden and were on their way they explained to me “to Princess Risbry”. They were going to be late, so they thought they ought to catch up with everybody else, hence the drinking. The last stop on the fast train is at High Wycombe, before the final run down into Marylebone, passing close to the new Wembley Stadium. Having been brought up in Greenford it’s very strange passing the site of the stadium and not seeing the familiar white building. Finally into Marylebone and a short cab ride to the Connaught. I hadn’t been there for a couple of years, possibly even more, certainly not since Angela had gone to America. It’s a wonderful old hotel with the kind of relaxed opulence that you see in so many 1950s films. Walking into the restaurant I explained I was meeting ______ for lunch. “Oh yes sir, she’s here already, would you care for an aperitif.” Ordering a vodka I quickly made my way to the table. She stood to greet me. I realised yes, I had met her before, mid 30’s, straight black hair, slim, pretty, bright red lips, too much make up for my taste, however the reason I remembered her; those eyes. She had the most amazing violet eyes, she had been a “niece” to a man in his late 50s who I met at the Monaco Historic in the summer. I sat down, took a long pull on the vodka and felt it warm me, she sipped at champagne and started to tell me about her father, a Type 35B and a lady racing driver.
By the time she emptied the second glass of champagne, the tension in her eyes relaxed a little. We hadn’t got very far into the story but it would appear that her father who had recently died unexpectedly left her a Bugatti a supercharged Type 35. She started off lucidly enough, but obviously the recent trauma of her father was uppermost in her mind. She said “you have to understand he was not a rich man, but he had his car, and he always said it would” she used a foreign word “how you say ah ‘save me’”. Which I must admit seemed a strange phrase to use.
I thought it was time to introduce a little order into the proceedings “so I take it you didn’t ask me to lunch for my charm and good looks, how can I help, oh and speaking of lunch we should make a choice because the waiter is starting to look a little flustered”. Her giggle was almost girlish and she relaxed just a little more, I called the waiter over and we ordered, I was itching to try ‘les chipirons de ligne’ she followed suit. This we agreed to follow with “le poulet jaune” only served for two persons, to go with it a 2006 bottle of blanc Pouilly Fume, obviously ordered because it’s “Pur Sang” but also because it’s brilliant with seafood. The wine duly arrived as we waited for the starters, she continued; “my father was not a rich man but he was passionate about cars, in the early 60’s under communism he could only dream about the wonderful cars that his father told him about racing in France and Italy. My grandfather had come back during the war and met my grandmother, but after the war he could never go back. Most of what was passed down came from dusty photo books and stories, then in the late 60’s my father was in Budapest where he met two women. My mother through some drinking friends and a strange old woman who told stories of racing cars in the 20’s”
“Madame Jenneky” I blurted out.
She smiled at me “we where never sure, she wasn’t called that and when she did talk it was always in the third person, like a lost friend. She told my father about a car which had been put into a barn before the war, the owner had been killed in the war and to her certain knowledge the car was still there. The barn was in a difficult part of our country, but my father persevered and eventually found the village, negotiating with the head man, who I think was more interested in horses than cars, my father then took it away, I was born two years later, but it was not an easy pregnancy, and my father lost my mother as he gained me” the intense eyes welled up again, but luckily the starter arrived. Baby squid, chorizo, tomato and black rice with parmigiano, intense flavours and quite stunning. As we finished the starter the conversation started to turn back towards her fathers Bugatti, and how over the next 30 years he seemed to have two passions, his daughter and the car.
It was just at the point when she said “and then the Berlin wall came down” her face froze and her eyes clouded over with something that looked a little like fear, she whispered “please be careful what you say”. A man walked from my right and stood behind her, “darling” it was a soft cultured voice and it came from the man I had seen in Monaco immaculately dressed and with polished, almost manicured, nails. “You should have said you where having lunch here, Jean-Paul called me to tell me you had arrived, and I was somewhat surprised, and I’m sorry this is?”
“ah Tim Dutton”. The words stumbled out of her “Mr Tim Dutton, The Bugatti man, no doubt you have heard stories of our” as the words left his lips there was almost a stifled cry from the women, the look he gave her was one that was no doubt reserved for school children who had the temerity to argue with their elders and betters, he continued, “OUR Bugatti. We discussed having someone take a look and authenticate the car and see if it was possible to put it back into useable condition, but darling why didn’t you ask me to come” the silence was awkward and broken by the arrival of main course “ah I see I’m disturbing your lunch, please Mr Dutton continue, unfortunately ________ will have to join me, as we need to leave”. She spoke “Timothy’s in Brussels next Wednesday darling perhaps we can meet and view the collection, that’s if you can spare a couple of extra days” she fixed me with her eyes. I couldn’t actually think of anything better to be doing, so agreed readily, although I got the feeling that the invitation was not welcome in all quarters, “of course I’ll email you with the details of where you need to be Mr Dutton please finish your lunch I’ll have it charged to my suite”, at that they left, leaving me with more then enough chicken, macaroni and wild mushrooms, half a bottle of wine and far more questions about the strange girl and the Bugatti. How I was going to work Brussels in the following week giving the amount of work in the workshop, another new batch of cylinder blocks, we have now sold 20 this year, to arrange and a 59 rebuild to finish for Christmas!
As I left the Connaught I took the short trip on the underground to Embankment station where I walked to the river to find the reassuring outline of the Tattersall Castle, whenever I go to London I like to stop off and have a drink on the deck, something I’ve done for more then 20 years now, since that first golden summer when my girlfriend got her job at Enterprise Oil, 5 the Strand. I was still studying, so we spent the summer going for lunches and listening to classical music behind the Embankment station in the little garden, I went to my first event that required me to wear a dinner suit parties on river cruises and any number of events for which Brentside high school and Wembley Market hadn’t prepared me. I hate to think how many times I fell through the bar while attempting to “play it cool Trig”. I didn’t realise first love rarely ends well THEN. If I had I would have probably attempted to remember more of that summer when Miami Vice was the hottest show on the telly and we all wore peg trousers, no socks and boat shoes. Sometime on the pilgrimage to the Tattersall Castle sitting on the fore deck as the sun sets over the River Thames with the London Eye on my left and the light glinting off parliament I can remember Moni, Elle and Christine and just for a moment it’s 1983 again.
The next day just as promised amongst the several hundred e-mails offering Viagra there was an e-mail to confirm a meeting on the following Wednesday in Brussels. It was too far a drive to do in a day so I would be spending one night outside the city. That weekend the Model A managed to tie for the win on the Cotswold Trial losing on the tiebreak to Graham White in the “Leaf”. I spent Sunday cleaning the car and sorting out my thoughts regarding the workshop and the work we needed to get done and preparing for a trip to Brussels.
I can’t believe it’s over six months since I started to tell the story of Violet (not her name but it reminds me of her eyes) and the 35B, there were two reasons for this. Firstly work! We built five film replicas (Bugatti, Fiat, Alfa Romeo RL, Mercedes and Sunbeam GP) in eleven weeks which combined with the usual Bugatti work meant increasing the workforce to nineteen and working eighteen and twenty hour days. In itself this would have been ok IF the cars had then been sold to the client but I wound up owning them so the profit is in the cars, any takers? Secondly while the first meeting with “Violet” struck me as being something out of a movie I thought a straightforward valuation and perhaps sale would follow; in fact it just got more convoluted and was really only recently resolved.
To recap I met an overly made up but pretty thirty something eastern European woman with beautiful violet eyes in a London restaurant, she had recently been left a type 35B by her father but her older husband seemed to be working on the principle “what’s yours is mine what’s mine is my own”. I had been invited to Belgium to see the car for authentication and valuation, so after cleaning the Model A following the Cotswold, on Tuesday night I packed for a week in Brussels.
The best thing about going to Brussells is Eurostar, I love train journeys and would relish the opportunity to do some of the long distance routes around Europe (when I retire, if they still exist, I suppose). The magic starts as soon as you approach St Pancras, built to outshine all other London stations by Midland Railways the train shed with its single span roof was, in 1868, the largest enclosed space in the world. Saved from redevelopment in the 60’s with help from Sir John Betjemen it’s a testament to Victorian engineering and now a fully functioning modern international station. After watching the countryside speed past for a couple of hours I arrived at Brussels Midi, which has none of the magic of London! Leaving the station I was once again struck by the similarity of the Midi logo to Bentley’s B.
I walked the short distance to the taxi rank where it had been arranged I should meet “Violet’s” driver, thick set and with a military background he had the knack of appearing ruthlessly efficient despite his tailored suit and Italian shoes. Opening the door of the Flying Spur he motioned me inside at the same time taking my bag and flipping the boot. Cosseted in the back of the Bentley we began a long and at times fractious journey across and out of Brussels. The skills he had been employed for did not include his driving ability or small talk, most attempts being met with a disinterested grunt. Eventually we slowed off of the A3 and headed past Bierset airport to a small village where eventually we pulled up to heavy iron gates which responded to the Bentleys approach slowly swinging open.
Once the car had stopped outside the house the chauffeur retrieved my bag and climbed the entrance steps to speak hurriedly, in a language I couldn’t place, to a late middle aged woman who had come to meet the car. Smartly dressed in a slightly masculine suit it was a look that wasn’t helped by heavy flat shoes and a severe hairstyle. She turned to me “Mr Dutton your room is prepared Marijke will show you the way” she gestured towards a uniformed girl “you will be ready in thirty minutes for dinner. You will dine alone. You should sleep early you leave at six am tomorrow”. I picked up my bag and turned to Marijke and for the first time since arriving in Belgium I got a warm smile which seemed almost friendly. We walked into the house and headed for the staircase; my new friend was young, petite and as I followed her I caught a lingering trace of Estee Lauder, on the first floor she ushered me into a room and as I entered she walked in behind me and shut the door.
“You are Timotei, yes” a French accent this time, a smile a nod and she continued “I have this for you; from “Violet”, please to read and understand, yes” she pressed a tightly wrapped note into my hand and left quickly. By now I was beginning to think that this had to be a joke, but as always the monkey in me couldn’t help but be intrigued. I opened the note. “ Timothy, It is my car chassis number 487#” at last! “ when you see the car tomorrow please say as little as you can. I will have only one chance and you must help, I will explain soon”. Dinner was a quiet affair, served in a room which would suit a party of fifty, Asparagus and Hollandaise followed by roast chicken with apple sauce and french fries, to finish fresh orange slices with vanilla. Altogether as I went to bed it had been yet another unusual day related to this 35B so the sooner I got to see it the better!
With the hour difference six AM is always hard work, even worse when it’s dark, raining and you’re contemplating a long drive with a non-communicative gorilla, still I managed to be early and slid into the Bentley. Surprisingly the journey lasted less than twenty minutes as we drove into Bierset stopping on the apron next to a helicopter. Now much as I like trains I hate helicopters, I come over all Mr T. It was with grim resignation I strapped in. I had come too far to stop now. With the usual hysteria the Agusta 109C took off, at least I had a maximum of 150 minutes of high anxiety to look forward to. It had been two hours and fifteen minutes as the skids softly touched down in the grounds of what appeared to be a large warehousing complex.
As I walked from the helicopter to the warehouse I felt a growing anticipation of finally getting to see the Bugatti that was at the heart of all this fuss. We entered through a small personnel door into the huge space to find it almost full with a collection of boats! Mostly wood hulled offshore racing boats even a Ventnor hydroplane, “do you like my toys Tim” Violet’s husband had come in quietly behind us. I had to say I did, wooden boats could just be my next favourite thing after cars, “you are here to see the car so follow me” we walked the length of the warehouse to the far corner where a rough cover was draped over a familiar shape, quickly lifting the cover there it was; “Violet’s” car.
It was every bit as good as I had been told, completely original and with the patina of a well cared for old friend, some details had been added, a lap counter for instance but not the usual billiard counter, this one was Bugatti radiator shaped with a round dial in the top and a large oblong button at it’s base. The seat bases were re-covered in Leather rather than the Rexine of the seat back, under the bases the drivers seat was supported by the same extended spring base as the Targa Florio cars. I spent two hours photographing and looking at this time warp of a car. When I had finished “Lurch” the chauffeur ushered me quickly along to the golf cart parked outside the warehouse and we drove to the office / administration block.
In the block we climbed two flights of stairs to the impressive office of “Violet’s” husband, “well Tim are you satisfied” he sat in a large leather seat behind a huge empty desk “Violet” sat to his left on a sofa against the wall she looked all business in an immaculate beige suit matching shoes with killer heels. “It’s fabulous, your father looked after it impeccably” I glanced to my left “it seems a shame to sell it” she answered coolly “I need the money”. I could see this was going to turn into a domestic if I wasn’t careful and so I quickly sat and began on the business of securing the car. It was sold in 3 phone calls for the best part of 2 bar! All that was left was to arrange collection and where the money should be sent, at this Violet stood and walked toward me with a piece of paper that had her account details. She turned to her husband “I want to go with the car to meet the new owner” his reply was spoken as if controlling the urge to shout “ that is not possible”
“I’m afraid she must” my voice sounded hollow in a room filled with atmosphere so thick you could cut it with a knife. I went on “it’s customs you see, the owner of the car has to travel with it in case we are stopped, without her it could be impounded” you could almost hear the cogs whirring “ ok but Petrov will take you in the Bentley”.
Back in Bierset I got the chance to speak to Marijke, I had guessed that “Violet” was being controlled by her husband and the conversation confirmed it. Again a similarly lonely and frugal meal to the one I had ‘enjoyed’ when I arrived I went to bed ‘plotting’ my next move, the only problem was I had no idea what it would be. If “Violet” was to get away and I wasn’t going to wind up spiked by an eastern bloc umbrella the plan would have to be good and if I could come up with one I had to find a way to let “Violet” know.
A week later I drove to Belgium in the converted Sprinter, loaded the car and headed for Calais with a Bentley shadowing. We travel P&O normally because I like to eat in Langan’s, although the last couple of times I travelled the restaurant was shut and when I did eat the Casterbridge steak was not great. On the boat we arranged to meet in Langan’s, over the meal I told Petrov “Violet” would have to accompany me in the Sprinter, “Customs” I explained. Now this threw him into total confusion and the first thing he did was try to ring his boss only to get an answerphone. Minutes ticked by and we were called to the car deck “she can rejoin you as soon as we’re out of the port” Petrov a man of few words grunted and nodded.
We got in the Sprinter and she took out her passport and clutched it tightly Marijke must have found the note under the bed sheet “ will we be stopped?”
“I can almost guarantee it”, she smiled. Leaving the boat I peeled off into the lane reserved for freight and headed up to the Customs station, we passed one line of officers and as we approached the second line it looked like we were through when the hand of a stocky man in a hi-vis came up.
I wound down the window “Where have you been sir”
“Belgium, picking up a vintage car”
“ Can you open the back sir” it was all the usual questions until he said “park the van in bay 3 and could you both get out of the vehicle”. They took me to one area of the building “Violet” went to another, the next six hours dragged by while I sat and waited. There was a body search but I blotted that out of my memory! After six hour a young woman officer came into the room “You’ll be pleased to know we have found nothing on your vehicle”
“So I can go”
“Perhaps, first some questions how did you meet your travelling companion and did you know she was travelling on a false passport” Sixteen hours later I left the port alone to find the Bentley parked by the roadside. After I explained the delay Petrov looked like he wanted to tear me limb from limb but a Police car just happened to stop and he hurriedly left. I delivered the car and never heard any more from Violet or her husband.
A few weeks later I was in France, Mont Ventoux. The car was off on one of the 30km laps and I was in a café with a citron presse, a very attractive woman was crossing the road and I was a little surprised when she sat at my table. “I want to buy you a drink” her voice was quiet, she had radiant skin and a little make up. Now I’m no oil painting and this doesn’t happen often but just as I was counting my chickens she took off her sunglasses she had the most beautiful violet eyes. “I was deported” I nodded “But I am wealthy now and in my country it was easy to straighten things out, I can’t be found” she smiled broadly. “How did you know we would be stopped?” With a smile I replied “Crimestoppers”. The cars started to arrive back, she put on her sunglasses, gave me a kiss and melted away.