I suspect many, perhaps even most of you reading this are familiar with what I’m about to talk about, but it’s one of those things I haven’t considered in a while. Recently, though, it did pop back into my head, and for some reason I thought about it with a fresh, dewy brain, and I appreciated it all over again, I think in a way I haven’t in years. It’s something that Ettore Bugatti once said about the Bentley 3-Litre racing cars of the 1920s, and it’s such a damn good example of shade-throwing.
First, a little background: Bentley and Bugatti were rivals at Le Mans, and Bentley’s simple and stout approach was working remarkably well. Where Bugatti’s cars were more sophisticated, lean and fragile, Bentley specialized in building massive, fast brutes with big, understressed four-banger engines.
Le Mans is an endurance race, so Bentley’s overbuilt and simple approach worked well, giving them five victories between 1924 and 1930. That’s not to say the big, two-ton brutes were crude—those long-stroke four-cylinder engines employed such modern-sounding advances as four valves per cylinder and twin spark plugs.
Okay, so the takeaway here is that Bugatti was likely frustrated about how these big-ass Bentleys kept on winning. Bugatti was building some of the most advanced cars of the era, and to get repeatedly see these British Racing Green monsters win time after time had to take it’s toll.
That’s why, when he was famously asked about what he thought of Bentleys, he replied that he felt they were
...which translates to “the fastest truck in the world.”
It’s not exactly a burn, as such, because it’s just a bit too subtle. It’s a backhanded compliment, and as such it’s a fantastic example of throwing shade.
He’s acknowledging, yeah, Bentleys are fast, they keep winning, but suggesting that, come on, these things are trucks. Not real race cars—they’re freaking trucks. And that was definitely meant to embarrass them.
It’s subtle and funny and a little bitchy and petulant all at the same time. That’s why it’s great.
It’s an old story, sure, but I think one that’s good to revisit every now and then.
CORRECTIONS: As commenters have pointed out, and they’re right, Bugatti wasn’t really competing in many of the earlier Le Mans races yet, and this bit of shade-tossing may not have directly been related to that particular sort of rivalry. Sorry.