Automotive Archaeology & the Bugatti-MG Special

Updated with additional images on 15 February 2024

At the 1950 Lim Chu Kang Sprint with Paul Gibbs Pancheri at the wheel of the MG LA-Bugatti.

One of my favourite books as a kid was Gods, Graves, and Scholars, a book on the history of archaeology written by C.W. Ceram (a.k.a. Kurt Wilhelm Marek). Originally published in German as Götter, Gräber und Gelehrte, this wonderful book (which I still have, albeit sinfully dog-eared) contained brief biographies of archaeologists like Howard Carter, Heinrich Schliemann and Jean-Francois Champillion, amongst several other well known names. None have anything remotely to do with the automotive space but the books and their stories must have left an indelible impression on me…which brings me to the photo above.

Lim Peng Han in the Bugatti-MG, Sports Cars support race, 1949 Johore Grand Prix support race for 1500cc cars and 1100 Supercharged cars.

Originally though to be Lim Peng Han in his Bugatti-MG (race number 32), it’s now been established that this image comes from the 1950 Johore Grand Prix – either the 15 lap Event No.1 for 1500cc and under cars, 1100cc and under Supercharged cars; or the Grand Prix itself. It is probably Event No.1 as this is how they finished – with C.O. Mick Jennings in his Black Draught MG TC ahead of Chia Eng Quee (who was Peng Han’s apprentice pre-war and later became a builder of specials post war) in what is listed as an L.A. Special (1250cc). Finishing third was #22, P.D. Rooth in an MG TC as well. FTD was set by Yip Peng Yin in a 1493cc Fiat Special.

At first glance it looks like a Bugatti. Wire wheels? A Type 37, unsupercharged perhaps? And the driver? Well, if you are into Malayan/Singapore motor sports history and know that this photo came from that part of the world, the granularity of the image starts to clear up. So let’s start with the location, shall we?

A sprint…in Singapore, probably early 1950s, in fact very early 1950s. There weren’t many locations for just an event in the early 1950s as most were hill climbs (Bukit Batok and the Gap, for example). The Lim Chu Kang Sprint fits the bill – which would have meant a two-event sprint (Half mile Sprint and flying quarter mile). Probably 9 April 1950. There’s a copy of that program, together with race times (printed separately post event) in the Rewind Archive so at least we’ve got #52 entered with two well-known names in Malayan racing history – Peter Laws and Paul Gibbs Pancheri. Two drivers, but who’s in the car? This one’s easy. It’s Pancheri driving. Unusual because all our racing shots of him are in his 4.5-litre Bentley (another very well-known car that was in Singapore and Malaysia from the 1940s to the early 1960s). Pancheri in a Bugatti… But wait a second, Pancheri drove Lim’s Type 37 at the 1940 Gap Hill Climb (when it was still a complete Bug). Which brings us to the next question…the car in the photo.

The 1950 Lim Chu Kang Sprint program.

Results with timings given, showing Gibbs Pancheri and Peter Laws shared #52.

When is a Bugatti not a Bugatti? The chassis shows Andre Hartford front friction dampers on what is clearly an MG chassis, consistent with pre-T-type MGs (meaning pre-war). 8in drum brakes, hydraulic (no doubt modified from the older Bowden cables) matched to a Bugatti Type 35/37 grille sounds like a cocktail from a alchemy lab. The wheels have centre laced spokes. The MG J2-P-TAs had outer laced spokes but the earlier M Type had center laced spokes. We’ll get to that in a moment. A good fabricator would have been able to shoehorn a shoehorn grille into a pre-war MG chassis with ease. Which brings us to ownership of the car. We know that Lim Peng Han, doyen of Malayan motor sports, had a Type 37 Bugatti (acquired pre-war), and was churning out Specials to both expat and local enthusiasts from 1939 until the late 1950s. Much has been written by Lim and his cars by the local gurus so there’s very little to add here, except to say that Lim did indeed race an MG-Bugatti on a number of occasions, as well as a Type 37 GP (chassis 37254, first seen in Malaya circa 1928, early reg PK3573, later S537 when it was raced in 1940). Clearly it had been rebuilt with all its Bugatti bits by 1961-62 (raced at the Gap in 1962, Johore Grand Prix in 1963). I digress. So here we have a pre-war MG chassis, Bugatti front grille, wheels from an MG M Type…it’s starting to look complicated. The race program for 1950s lists it with a 1250cc motor. And here’s where my amateur status will get penalised by the local racing gurus. Could Lim have fitted an XPAG to an M Type chassis? Looking at my J Type and TA Special, I suspect it could be done without too much butchering of the chassis rails. Ok, now for some background on Lim’s M Type.

Lim was sent to the UK for his higher education (arriving 1930). As a gift from his parents, he received an MG M Type, which he picked up at Abingdon in 1930. It soon had a 4-speed transmission and other go-faster bits for speed events. I don’t think his relatively high-profile parents were too keen on his new found hobby. The car was originally registered GJ406. His racing exploits at Brooklands and elsewhere have been well documented by the local gurus, suffice it to say that he returned to Singapore with GJ406 and had it road registered S5685. Following a most unfortunate accident after a late evening drive down the Gap (on 4 July 1935), the car was re-registered S8718. By then it looked nothing like an M Type, and more of a chain gang Frazer Nash from the rear with “Ulster” rear end, larger fuel tank, and cycle wings. There were lowered headlamps at the front. In fact, Lim described the body as being “very, very narrow”. It had been rebuilt at 348 River Valley Road, home of his parents Dr Lim Boon Keng and Grace Pek-Ha Yin. I am of course presuming that the M Type chassis was retained post war and utilised as the basis of this MG-Bugatti Special. I assume the local racing gurus will know if this true of not. I’ll be clear – I am speculating that the M Type chassis was surplus requirements and came in handy for one or two of his post war Specials projects.

One of the earliest images of Lim Peng Han’s garage with his M Type alongside No.1, the fist L.A. Special. Lim’s first garage was at Veerasamy Road, followed by one at Hamilton Road and then 9 & 11 Penhas Road, where this photo was taken.

From another angle, showing the M Type and S749, the first L.A. Special.

Lim Peng Han’s recently restored Type 37 with 1496cc Bugatti motor and Ah Lim, Peng Han’s mechanic at the 1963 Johore Grand Prix. Fabrication was by Tan Ah Bee. This was only the second time in 22 years that the car had had an outing, last time being at the Gap Hill Climb (in August 1962). 

So we have the location, the driver, the owner, and something amounting to a history of the Bugatti-MG Special (occasionally referred to as the Bugatti-L.A. Special) car. And the XPAG motor? Maybe you’ll be able to spot the exhaust headers on the left side of the earlier images shown in this article.

Endnote: The following image show the Type 37 at the Gap Hill Climb in 1940, in the hands of Lim Peng Han. While none of this content is anything close to Hugh Conway research, it does establish the existence of at least one Type 37 that raced in South East Asia, something that the present owner of the car may well appreciate.

Another of those very rare photos of a car in action in South East Asia. In this instance, Lim Peng Han tackles the 1940 Gap in the Type 37 Bugatti. 1940 was the third successive year he won at the Gap. This Type 37 was apparently GP chassis 37254, first registered PK3573 in Perak, later on S537 when with Lim Peng Han in 1940.

At the 1940 Gap Hill Climb with the Type 37 Bugatti alongside the K3 MG.

You’ll find the story of this Bugatti Type 37 in Rewind Magazine, issue 015, July 2013. The photo comes from part of Lim Peng Han’s collection, which the writer purchased several years ago. Loke Yaik Foo, the then owner, drove this car in the Selangor Automobile Association reliability trial, recording FTD (10th August 1928). The Malayan Saturday Post of 18th  August records Loke Yaik Foo’s win and pictures him in the Type 37 (most likely chassis 37254). The Straits Times noted on 30th  November 1929 that the Bugatti Type 37 was for sale having “done less than 2,000 miles, new tyres. Cost over $5,000. Will accept $3,000 or near offer. Owner buying Bentley.”

Words By Eli Solomon

You can reach the writer at [email protected]

Images part of the Pancheri Collection. With thanks to Michael Pancheri for preserving his father’s valuable collection of photographs and film…And to the folk at Rewind Media Archives for digitizing the images and film.

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