The train journey from Cheltenham to Winchcombe passes to the north through a stretch of beautiful countryside. The area between Gotherington and Gretton, where the Cotswolds meet the plain, with its quiet roads, flourishing gardens, and winsome stone houses, fits the bill of tranquil rural charm rather well. Yet here from time to time, on dozy summer days, the languid air reeks of hot motor oil, and thrills to roars and combustions from a nearby hillside, as magnetos spark ancient engines into spluttering, then rumbling, life. Tucked away out of sight, if not out of earshot, is the Prescott hill-climb circuit, where the great automobiles of the past test their mettle against the clock. More recent models come too – there are classes for all types – but the beautiful old monsters are at its heart, whilst the soul of the place belongs to one of the greatest marques of all, Bugatti. Prescott is the home of the Owners Club of Great Britain and of the Bugatti Trust. It is all rather unexpected. The word ‘motoring’, as used to describe driving a motorised vehicle, suggests an earlier era, when holidays were spent touring the likes of the Cotswolds in open-top roadsters, or in family jalopies, at a gentle, desultory pace along uncongested lanes. British marques like MG and Rover seem more appropriate to the area; how marvelous it is to discover that Bugatti, a name synonymous with panache and flair, has a home here in glorious, but hardly glamorous, Gloucestershire.
Prescott Hillclimb is like a full racecourse in miniature – it is reminiscent of a slot-car kit, which is not to belittle it in any way, but to simply explain its scale. It is also the home of the Bugatti Trust, which also features a permanent exhibition. Heritage is taken very seriously here, to a beautifully obsessive degree. If you want to know about a detail of a bolt from a panel on a particular model – no, not a model, but one single car from that model’s production – then the chances are that you will find it here. The history of every car produced by Bugatti can be found here in the form of documents and photographs bound in albums and on the shelves there are many of them. They will proliferate because the story is never complete – there is always something else to be discovered and to be added to the picture if you are determined enough to go ever more deeply into the detail of each car’s fabric.
Two or three smallish rooms make up the exhibition, within which are three ravishing examples of pristine vehicles on loan from eminent collectors. Each of them is as if they were for sale in a showroom in the year of their manufacture. No plastic – everything is steel aluminum and leather. Everything is simple and direct, in bold but rich painterly colors. These are cars to be stroked and caressed as if they were family pets. To gaze upon these creatures is an undeniably nostalgic experience.
But, looking at the exhibits more closely, and learning of the story behind the great enterprise, what begins to exert a grip on the imagination is the philosophy and ideology behind its creation. Ettore Bugatti was, of course, Italian by birth, and his origins are evident in the design of his cars, even if his cars were manufactured in the French province of Alsace, which in the early years of the twentieth century was now French, now German, according to who was winning the war of the moment. He came from a family of artists and his cars are perhaps marked by a marriage of design and engineering that was very Italian. If the emphasis on design was unique for its time, the result was a car that was remarkable for its time and still looks pretty good today.