He didn’t want to pay the customs bill so he drove it over the Italian border to nearby Lake Maggiore — the customs officers pushed into the deep waters of the lake. The value of the car was less than the money owed and the customs officer was compelled to destroy it.
Hemmings.com writes: For the locals around Lake Maggiore on the Italian-Swiss border, the mythology surrounding the Bugatti in the Lake was well known. This particular 1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster used to belong to Golden Age of Grand Prix driver René Dreyfus, who lost it in a drunken poker game to Swiss playboy Adalbert Bodé in Paris in 1934; Bodé soon left for home with his new machine, but with no cash in pocket, he was unable to pay its import duties when he was stopped at the Swiss border. Bodé walked away, leaving Swiss officials to dispose of his prize however they saw fit. In those days, a ten-year-old Bugatti wasn’t of significant value, so officials chose to roll it into the lake; its eventual resting spot was 173 feet below the surface of the water.
The story entered local folklore and in the 1960s a diver called Ugo Pillon decided to try and find it, and in 1967 he located it on its side about 50 metres down. The 1925 touring Type 22 Bugatti was built in Brescia in Italy and was first registered in Nancy, France. A small brass plate found on the car bears the name ‘George Nielly, 48 Rue Nollet, Paris’. It was registered in his name in 1930. The car had four cylinders, a 1.5 litre engine and could reach almost 100 miles an hour.
Later versions of the car were made in France, but this was known as a Brescia Bugatti, after the Italian town where it was manufactured. As to who owned it in Ascona, Switzerland, it has not been determined, however, auctioneers Bonhams believe the most likely candidate is Marco (Max) Schmuklerski, a Zurich-born architect of Polish descent.
He is known to have worked there for three years, designing a number of buildings, before returning to Zurich. It is possible he acquired the car while studying architecture at the famous Beaux Arts school in Paris where he may have met George Nielly. But Mr Schmuklerski brought it back to Switzerland without paying import duties. Another theory is that he bought the car from a French tourist or client in Ascona. Whatever the case, the car always kept its French plates and import duties were never paid.
Mr Schmuklerski is believed to have left the car behind when he left Ascona and it then remained stored in a builder’s yard. But customs officials became aware of the car’s existence and insisted on the import duties being paid. By this time the duties could well have amounted to more than the value of the well-used car which was 11 years old.
In the case of non-payment, the car had to be destroyed and the easiest way to do so was to tip it into the nearby lake. But should it ever be needed to be recovered a heavy chain was attached. However this finally corroded away and the car fell to the lake bed at a depth of 160ft.
It would seem that the Bugatti would forever remain there until a tragedy changed its fate. A young local man, Damiano Tamagni was brutally beaten and killed, and the diving club decided that they would try and retrieve the car and sell it to benefit the foundation created in his name to combat youth violence. It took more than thirty volunteers and nine months, but the Bugatti was finally lifted from the lake on July 12, 2009.
From there the Bugatti was put up for auction for the highest bidder. At Bonham’s Retromobile sale in Paris in 2010, the Type 22 Brescia brought a top bid of £228,000 – around $350,000 USD – much higher than the pre-auction estimate. The winning bidder? None other than the Mullin Museum in Oxnard, CA. The museum has decided to not restore the Bugatti and display it in its current condition. The Bugatti is displayed in its own room, walled off from the rest of the collection; the space is designed to invoke intimacy, and to roughly replicate the (minimal) light levels available at the bottom of the lake. All the better to help a viewer concentrate on the endless details that make the Brescia a must-see work of art.