The upcoming 1,500 horsepower, $2.5 million Bugatti Chiron is named after one of Bugatti’s greatest racing drivers, a guy who possibly lost his best job racing there by banging his boss’ wife.
I’m talking about Louis Chiron.
Bugatti themselves are happy to cast the guy in a charming light. That makes sense. He was a charming man.
Bugatti’s newest press release calls him handsome, fast, gentlemanly, and befriended by the other drivers of his time. They even discuss how he got the nickname “The Old Fox,” when he beat his rival teams on a test day. It was later discovered he had secretly cheated by cutting the course.
But Bugatti does not talk about how the not-so-wealthy Chiron got his start in racing, or how he lost that job. For that we need to go the best authority on classic racing history on the Internet, the fantastically rigorous 8W.
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8W is a bit more keen to shed some light on how the great Chiron paired his natural driving talent with his natural charm. Chiron was born in 1899 in Monaco and served with the French Army in World War I, the site reports.
He must have shown his natural talent as driver early because at an age of 19 he had already advanced to being chauffeur to Maréchal Ferdinand Foch, commander in chief of the Western Front.
In the early 1920s he was back home “working in the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo”, as you can read in the history books, a prudish way to announce the fact that the young and good-looking Monegasque, the embodiment of Gallic charm and grace, was now earning his living as a “dancing partner” for rich ladies.
“The embodiment of Gallic charm and grace!” That’s a fellow I want my hypercar named after, indeed.
So Chiron was a paid dance partner for wealthy women. An interesting gig if you can get it. Now, it’s not completely certain that Chiron was actually sleeping with these women for money. The guy never had kids, only married women older or younger than him, and reportedly quite liked fitness, which is all sort of 1920s code for him being gay.
Still, he definitely entertained ladies for money, as 8W notes:
The fact is that rich ladies in the old days in several cases were to play the part as “sponsors” for those racing drivers who weren’t fortunate to have been born with blue blood in their veins or have a millionaire as their father.
This sponsorship landed him his first steady seat in racing with the rich pharmaceutical company heir Alfred Hoffman. Hoffman sponsored Chiron, and Chiron bought the very first Bugatti Type 35B (later deemed the most successful race car of all time). Chiron’s success with his T35B got him an additional racing seat with Bugatti’s factory team, but after a while his Bugatti days were numbered.
8W explains how one woman was at the heart of the matter: Hoffman’s wife, the lovely Alice Hoffman-Trobeck.
Alfred Hoffman had a beautiful wife named Alice Hoffman-Trobeck but known to all just as “Baby.” Born in America with a Swedish father and German mother and living in central Europe she was bright-minded, urbane and fluent in several languages and proved later to be a great access to the Mercedes-Benz team as an interpreter and timekeeper.
As a racing enthusiast herself she began to travel to all the races as a timekeeper for Chiron and soon it became an open secret to all but her husband that her interest in that driver wasn’t just restricted to time keeping.
This relationship spanned perhaps Chiron’s most successful years: from 1929 to 1932. It was during this period that Chiron was able to help establish the very first Monaco Grand Prix, as well as rack up a number of wins across Europe. He even won the 1931 Monaco GP, becoming the only person from Monaco to win their home Grand Prix.
But an alleged affair with your boss’ wife can only go on for so long, as 8W notes:
Finally the Chiron-Alice bubble burst and an angry Hoffman sacked Chiron and replaced him with René Dreyfus. Alice’s marriage to Alfred Hoffman had been a joke for a considerable time so she decided to divorce her husband and instead join Chiron on his trips across Europe.
For those who think this kind of driver/team boss’ wife intrigue is restricted to the pre-war era: please wake up to the rumours that a similar situation was one of the reasons that a French driver even more famous than Chiron got sacked from a major F1 team more than 50 years later.
For those of you curious as to what that last line was about, 8W was referring to the abrupt firing four-time Formula 1 champion Alain Prost from Renault in 1983, but that’s a story for another day.
Chiron’s job with Bugatti’s factory team also ended in ‘32, but that was because Bugatti’s team manager was fed up with Chiron disobeying his strategy orders.
Stealing his boss’ wife was not the end to Chiron’s drama with women. In 1949, a few short years after the end of World War II, Chiron walked up to one of the greatest woman drivers of all time, Hellé Nice, and ruined her life forever.
Nice, pictured above in her own Bugatti Type 35, also had a sex-and-glamor start to her racing career. She had been a nude model, dancer, and acrobat (also working at casinos in Paris, just as Chiron had worked in Monaco) until a downhill skiing accident stopped her from dancing. That turned her and her love of fast cars into a surprisingly successful racing career, which ran well through the ‘30s and ‘40s.
It was at the Monte Carlo Rally of 1949 when Chiron met her and destroyed her. Before the rally started, the rally held a party for the women drivers in the event in Monaco, as Jacquo wrote in their profile of the nicknamed Bugatti Queen.
At this party, Louis Chiron walked up to Nice and loudly proclaimed to the crowd that she had worked for the Gestapo during the War, that her presence was a disgrace, and that she should be barred from competition.
Chiron provided no proof, and Nice attempted to contact the rally’s organizer to refute the accusation, but the rally organizer was a friend of Chiron’s and provided no help. He claimed to be out of the country and unavailable.
This accusation killed Nice’s sponsorships (she had been the face of such companies as Lucky Strike) and her career. She tried and failed to run the Monte Carlo Rally again in 1951, and some years later her longtime lover and racing mechanic ran off with the last of her money. She died in poverty.
Chiron’s motives for accusing Nice are unclear. There was a different woman race car driver who did indeed work for the Gestapo, but there’s no evidence saying that Nice was involved with the Nazis.
So when the 2017 Bugatti Chiron supercar shows up on the roads, driven by the usual destructive playboys that always seem to sit behind the wheel of multimillion dollar vehicles, know where the name for the car came from. It might all make sense.
The “Old Fox,” indeed.
Photo Credits: Bugatti (Louis Chiron), Bibliothèque nationale de France (Hellé Nice)
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