National Post Article December 29, 2006
By David Grainger
Aerolithe Part Two
What will within two years be a significant recreation of the mythical Bugatti Aerolithe is presently a pile of scruffy parts, mostly mechanical but very importantly all original. In the world of the Bugatti there have been counterfeiters for many years and one of the most lucrative things to counterfeit is Bugatti parts.
Unlike most cars where a newly manufactured part may be far more desirable than a used factory piece, original Bugatti parts are far more desirable than newly recreated ones. As a result many unscrupulous dealers have over the years made parts and then tried to pass them of as original and one has to be constantly on guard for this. Counterfeiting doesn't stop at parts with Bugattis; entire cars have been counterfeited, being stamped with numbers that match lost race cars and missing cars with great provenance.
Why you might ask? Well Bugattis sell for hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. A quick example comes to mind using a Type 59 Grand Prix car I built several years ago. It was constructed using about fifty percent original parts and was a meticulous recreation of a car built in October 1933. Its value today in a market that has recently come to appreciate exceptional recreations hovers at around a million dollars, a princely sum, but if it was one of the six original cars built its value would eclipse five million dollars or more.
The pile of Bugatti parts from which the Aerolithe will rise is significant all by themselves. They constitute about ninety percent of 57104, a chassis which is the fourth Type 57 built and which was probably a factory showpiece having never been listed with a private owner by the factory. What ever body was on it, if indeed it ever had one is lost in the haze of history but that it is a matching chassis and driveline is uncontestable. By themselves these parts are worth one hundred and fifty thousand dollars US and that is before they are restored.
So why would one recreate the Aerolithe on 57104? Well there are several reasons. The chassis itself is dramatically important and no matter what coachwork is placed on it the car will it be eligible for any Concours D"Elegance and most importantly Pebble Beach. If the Aerolithe were constructed on reproduction parts it would not be eligible and would remain forever an expensive curiosity no matter how accurate.
The rebuilding of the chassis is actually a rather simple process as it is so complete that little research needs doing. Mind you, as a yardstick I am fortunate to have a Bugatti T-57 Stelvio Cabriolet on the hoist right next to it. One of my clients kindly lent me the car to use as a text should we run into any concerns. As it is itself an early car this has come in handy several times already as we scale the original Aerolithe.
Now that is the challenge. There are only ten or so original photographs in existence of the car, taken over a two year period before it disappeared. Several were taken at both the Paris and London Auto shows and two were taken later in front of the Bugatti Club headquarters in London , probably in 1936. Those two photos show the car fitted with windshield wipers which it lacked in the auto show pictures. This has caused all kinds of controversy amongst arm chair experts including the wipers being absolute proof of the existence of two Aerolithe. Yup, no doubt, after all if you needed wipers to drive it on the road it is much easier to build a whole new car.
One announcement about the Aerolithe which caused a huge stir in 1935 was made by Ettore Bugatti himself. When the car premiered he told the press that the car's body was created from elektron, a futuristic alloy of magnesium which had seen little use aside from in the aircraft industry. elektron has some incredible characteristics. On the positive side it is incredibly light. An eight by four foot sheet can be picked up with two fingers. It is also strong, so a natural for car bodies one would think. Well yes, until you realize that on exposure to an open flame it bursts into flame itself which can only be doused with total immersion in water and which of course makes welding very difficult. magnesium.
It is also incredibly brittle and will only bend about fifteen degrees before it snaps like thin plywood.
So, with all that in mind, I have been tasked with recreating the Aerolithe in magnesium alloy, at long last an elektron bodied Bugatti. Two weeks after receiving the first sheet of elektron we have a good idea of what lies ahead, or do we? Stay tuned.