National Post Article December 21, 2006
By David Grainger
Aerolithe Part One
One of the factors that can make restoring and customizing cars so interesting and challenging is that every project is different and comes with its own individual problems and solutions. Even so you can start to get a little jaded but there are some projects that come along that can arouse the passion again.
The recreation of the Bugatti T 57 Aerolithe is one of those projects and one that I am fortunate to have recently embarked on.
The Aerolithe was a design expressed by Jean Bugatti, Ettore Bugattis son who was a brilliant designer in his own right. Had he not died testing a race car in 1939 there is no doubt that the real Bugatti company might still be with us rather than posers who have grave robbed the name.
The Aerolithe (loosely translated as flying rock or more properly shooting star) was a prototype that Jean used to illustrate a radical aerodynamic coupe body that he wanted to put into production. He had made an earlier attempt at the style on a much smaller car than the T 57 which ended up looking a little stubby in comparison. With a longer wheelbase, although still shorter than standard T-57, he had the makings of a balanced and dramatic automobile, one that drew huge attention at the 1935 Paris Auto Show.
The Aerolithe was wrapped in hype right from its earliest appearance. Ettore Bugatti claimed that it had been formed from Electron, an alloy of Magnesium and a material that is lighter than aluminum, perhaps the first brush stroke in the painting of a mythical automobile.
What has made the Aerolithe the most legendary of all of the legendary Bugattis is its complete disappearance. After Jean Bugattis death in 1939 and the advent of the Second World War the Aerolithe was never heard from again. Mystery surrounds the disappearance and much like Elvis, the Aerolithe has been spotted all over the world. For many years there was a rumour that an American GI had found it after the war and brought it back to New Jersey where he used it as a daily driver. That might not have been as far fetched as you may think.
Several very significant cars were rescued in that fashion. One of the six Bugatti Royales, yet another legendary Bugatti automobile which still holds the record for the world's most valuable car was actually discovered in an American scrap yard.
There is very little known about the Aerolithe although there is no small amount of pontification surrounding it. While rumors and supposed experts a have created any number of myths about its fate, the most likely explanation is that it was just taken back into the factory and stripped for its parts. By 1939 the Aerolithe was old news and was comprised of valuable parts that the factory could use other places.
Most experts have always believed that the car was silver, due in part no doubt to the ten existing black and white photographs that do indeed make it look silver. Interestingly while it was being fabricated the project's code name was Crème d'Menthe before it was christened Aerolithe. I first heard this when I spoke to an elderly French gentleman who as an apprentice used to sweep up around the car. He told me that not only was the car code named Crème d'Menthe but it was actually painted a light green. I found this fascinating but not supported by any other information until I stumbled across a little known painting of the Aerolithe called Crème d'Menthe which portrays the car painted light green. The painting was rendered and presented to Jean Bugatti by one of his designers in 1936 and is strong evidence that the cars actual colour was green.
I first proposed the recreation of the Aerolithe about ten years ago using the earliest Bugatti Type 57 chassis and engine in existence chassis 57104. The project foundered twice. Once with my original client and a dear friend with whom I built a Grand Prix Bugatti and then with Nicholas Cage who was very enthusiastic but was apparently talked out of it at the last moment by his advisors.
In the meantime another recreation of the Aerolithe was created in Germany and premiered last year but it was altered from the original in many ways and was a disappointment to many in the Bugatti fraternity.