National Post March 16, 2007
By David Grainger
Aerolithe Part Five
(The Aerolithe Project, the Next Installment)
The Bugatti Type 57 Aerolithe project is forging ahead now with body panels being fabricated, major research pretty much concluded and very hard to find parts located or being reproduced.
Parts are always a challenge for cars that are not only classics but were exotic in their day. Imagine sourcing parts for an Enzo Ferrari in seventy years and you start to get the picture.
The first thing that we had to do was to estimate and then order the hardware that would be required to assemble the car. These are the nuts and bolts and special fasteners that transform the car from a pile of random parts to an operating piece of machinery. You would think that would not be too much of a challenge, but in all things this car is a Bugatti. Ettore Bugatti was not only a brilliant designer; he was a little eccentric. His fasteners were of a design, size and thread pitch that was shared by no other manufacturers to this day. This ensured two things. One was that in his day the only people who could work on a Bugatti were those that Ettore approved of and would sell hardware to and secondly, restoring a Bugatti often means either restoring the hardware, an almost impossible task and often foolhardy, or going to the one or two reliable sources in the world who still manufacture it or have stock. These sources, both in England , have been in the business for a long time. One is a privately owned firm that replicates the hardware which is of very good quality and the other it the Bugatti Clubs spares department. In both cases the hardware is very expensive.
In order to make our first hardware order we had the luxury of examining a Type 57 Bugatti Stelvio Cabriolet which was manufactured near the same time as our chassis. We put the car on a hoist and literally examined it from front to back, doing a hardware count, making note of the types of nuts and bolts used and even finding some discrepancies in that car.
Next we phoned in the order. This constituted two thousand nine hundred and twenty two nuts and bolts of varying sizes ranging from tiny eight millimeter fasteners to huge chassis bolts. An order like this one at a local supplier would likely cost two or three hundred dollars. The Bugatti hardware cost in excess of five thousand dollars and there will be additions to the order as other odds and ends are required.
Could we make any substitutions you ask? No, not and have the car a credible entity. Bugatti hardware is so distinctive with built in washers on the nuts, square heads on the bolts and other singular features that its substitution with non Bugatti parts even if appropriate sizes could be found, would be glaring.
There is another list composed of parts that are missing, other than of course the body which we are creating. While the project is hugely original and has a large percentage of original parts there were some missing and others may be too damaged to be viable. We needed a front axle, wheels, a radiator and shroud, various bearings, new piston rings etc. and these would require an international search.
In some cases these parts can be bought as reproduced rough castings which can then be finished. In other cases you need to find the original parts. The front axle was a concern. While a front axle can be found as a rough casting, the main parts of the car are original and I did not want to use a reproduction. There are five cardinal points that determine a cars veracity, the chassis, engine, transmission, front and rear axles. If you have the original chassis and two of any other combination of the four remaining, the car is considered original for purposes of judging. With our chassis, 57104, we had four. The only one lacking was the front axle and while permissible to use a reproduction, I just didn't feel it appropriate. A company in England finally found me a very early all original front axle, and for a mere eight thousand pounds or so it was secured. The list of other missing odds and ends is now getting shorter as well, although as you can imagine, the lists elimination has not been an inexpensive pursuit.
Once the parts start arriving then the build of the chassis to running condition can commence. One of the few items that we are going to have produced rather than secure the originals is the wheels. While we have seen several sets of Rudge spoked wheels that would fit, their rebuild would far outstrip the cost of recreating them and they would never be as safe. There are times to know when to hold out for scrupulously original parts, and then there are times to be sensible.