National Post December 31, 2012
By David Grainger
Aerolithe Part Nine
The Bugatti Aerolithe project is finally finished (well almost).
I think I posted my first column about the building of Bugatti T 57104 chassis with Aerolithe style magnesium coachwork in 2006 and the project has been blasting along ever since.
A little background is in order for those who have not been following the saga in past columns:
The project itself was to recreate the famous Bugatti coachwork created for the Paris Auto Show in 1935 and place it on an original Type 57 Bugatti chassis with matching engine, transmission and rear axle.
The original car called the Aerolithe (literally-sky stone or meteorite) disappeared not long after is appearance in London in 1936. What happened to it is a great mystery and one likely never to be solved. It was likely broken up by the factory in the pursuit of spare parts or maybe it was sent to scrap during the war by the Germans who held the Bugatti factories but not a trace of it has ever been found.
There were plenty of rumors, like a GI brought it back to New Jersey after the war, but there have never been any records to back up this or any other mythical fate.
My fascination for the car began in the late 1990s when I purchased a huge amount of original Bugatti parts for a client, most of them Grand Prix car bits and pieces but along with those were the original and virtually complete chassis and parts for a standard Type 57.
I tinkered with the idea of building several different styles of car on this chassis but the one that kept coming back to mind was the fabulous Jean Bugatti designed streamliner, the Aerolithe. It was very similar to and in fact the prototypical car for the three Bugatti Atlantics that followed and influenced coach builders around the world.
One of the Atlantics recently sold for thirty five million dollars and is on view at the Mullins Museum in California. Another is owned by Ralph Lauren and a third, the car destroyed in a train crash many years ago has been rebuilt using what are said to be original parts from the train wrecked car. Its originality and claim to be the third Atlantic is controversial but I saw the car at Pebble Beach and controversy aside it is a wonderful automobile. I do wonder at its restorer's colour choice however as it was painted a dull battleship grey.
I had several people want to sponsor the build of the Aerolithe, among them Nic Cage who approached me about it a couple of times. To tell you the truth I would love to have built it with him as he is a real dyed in the wool car nut and I will bet you he would have been a regular on Sunset driving this thing. Mind you as it turned out I doubt he could have afforded it.
One gentleman did step up and I am certainly glad he did because he was a chap who really understood the importance of recreating the car exactly as it would have been built in 1935 and the using of the skills of the period. I cannot name him here but he has remained steadfast throughout the whole exhausting and troublesome process and never advocated cutting corners even when asked if it meant compromising the historical accuracy of the completed car.
Now the original challenge was this. Only eleven useful photographs of the car existed although we have come across two more during the course of the build. None show the interior in any detail and none show the car with an open hood although you can see parts of the engine through the cooling screens in the hood sides. We had to build the car to be absolutely accurate to the methods and material that would have been used on the original which meant exhaustive research into every kind of fastener, clip, nut bolt and screw that were going into the car.
We borrowed information from the Bugatti Atlantiques but had to constantly remember that the Aerolithe came first and was not as a sophisticated car so we also had to study very closely cars made in the two year period before the 1935 Paris Auto Show.
The handful of photographs we enhanced with computers and ferreted out a lot of information that was previously unpublished.
Of course when I mentioned in the Bugatti Club publication in England what we were discovering it started a storm of controversy, much of it amusing some a bit annoying.
Over the years of the build we have amassed a huge amount of engineering detail and we are pretty sure we know exactly how the original car was built and on what kind of chassis.
For the last year the car has been the definition of two steps forwards and one step back. Sometimes it was even one forward and one back. Small problems niggled almost constantly and the magnesium we used to create its wonderful contours was always willing to give us a hard time and in fact still does even though the car is complete.
A real irritation throughout the process was with parts that we sent out of for nickel plating. These were often ruined by the Canadian plating company we contracted who would then sand bag and make stupid excuses. In the end we had to send all the parts to the US to have them redone properly. That was a shame because I really like to keep my projects local and all Canadian. To that point the Type 59 Bugatti Grand Prix car I built a few years ago which has travelled the word has "Made in Canada" stamped into a very secret spot, a proof of manufacture in case a greedy owner every tries to pass it off as a completely original factory built car. Proper due diligence will no doubt reveal the stamp. To give you an idea of why that is important, an original T 59 is worth between 6 to 10 million while the one I built properly has traded for a bit over a million.
As the original Aerolithe was claimed by Bugatti to be built from Electron, a magnesium alloy and the press of the day christened it the Electron Coupe it was decided early on to build the body for that material. While it was not a mistake it certainly was a challenge. Magnesium is a temperamental and unforgiving material to use and it challenged us and often frustrated us from the beginning. Over the years however we have almost tamed it and the car's coachwork is almost completely hand crafted from Electron so can truly be called the Electron Coupe.
A week ago we finally called the project finished and a professional photographer photographed it for us. At one point he turned to me and said "You made this". Until that moment I guess that hadn't really sunk in, but, yes, I guess I did. Mind you it was with an incredible team of craftsmen who I have the honor to have work for me and with the unwavering dedication to the project of its patron.
There are a few small details that the crew are covering still, mainly tiny paint flaws and adjustments but now the list of tasks covers less than a half page in one column.
It was supposed to make its International debut as the feature car at the Concours d'Elegance in Kuwait City Kuwait but tensions in the area have seen the concours postponed until 2014. That is too bad however there is no end to the prestigious shows that would like to see the car on their display. Mind you there is still a good chance that the car will travel to the Middle East for a special museum showcase. For the present we will have to see where the Aerolithe's official coming out is actually going to be staged. For now it lives with me.