It seems as though any time I take on a special project, it generates controversy. This has proven especially true of any Bugatti project I have been involved with, although none has created as big a fur-ball as the Aerolithe.
A little background is in order for those who have not been following the saga in past columns:
The Aerolithe was lost some time before or during the Second World War. Nobody really knows exactly how or when it disappeared. There have been sightings of the car ranging from the Caucasus to New Jersey. The sad fact is that, in all probability, the car will never be found.
Now, as all myths are wont to do, a certain amount of speculation has arisen not only regarding the Aerolithe's disappearance but its actual fabric, the parts from which it was built.
The Aerolithe closely resembles the later Atlantiques -- which are arguably the most famous Bugattis -- and which put in appearances at prestigious concours the world over. There were three Atlantiques produced, although this number has been disputed as well.
Atlantiques were built on a very low chassis and were powered by supercharged engines. Earlier speculation about the Aerolithe surmised that it, too, was supercharged and had a special frame under it -- a frame the Bugatti factory designated as the S or SC chassis. (As few records survived Bugatti's demise, this was fairly well accepted.)
Later, the premise that the car was supercharged was laid to rest. In a couple of photographs of the Aerolithe, one can see the intake manifolds of a non-supercharged engine through a cooling screen in the hood.
That left the myth that the car was built on a special S chassis, which was also called a gondola chassis as it was curved at the back end to be used in the Torpedo roadster that mimicked the Bugatti Grand Prix cars.
It turns out there are few supposed Bugatti experts who hold dear the belief that the Aerolithe had a gondola chassis. This is despite the fact that it would be silly to build a bloody great coupe on a skinny little chassis that curved under the car at the back and which would have left the rear wheels dangling feet away from the chassis rails.
When I first started the project, I really didn't care. I had made it quite clear we were using another significant standard early chassis on which we would recreate the Aerolithe coachwork.
Imagine my surprise when, as the project developed, we discovered that the standard shortened chassis fit all the cardinal points of the Aerolithe's body.
When I stupidly made these observations in the Bugatti club newsletter, it caused a furor that still continues a couple of years later.
While I thought it amusing at first -- and had clearly stated our intentions and relative apathy -- the flames of controversy grew, fanned by armchair experts. The attacks on my own credibility and that of the car we were building escalated.
I am reasonably patient and I really don't care what people think of me. Neither am I scared of controversy. But there were charges that needed to be answered.
It is most satisfying that, as we build the car, the process itself supplies us with irrefutable engineering proofs and answers to questions and suppositions that have existed for years. In answer to these, those with a differing point of view have actually dragged out plans and engineering drawings that for the most part are completely unrelated to the Aerolithe, hoisting them as proof. They have pointed out that the plans come from the same time period as the Aerolithe, therefore, they must be the Aerolithe. Of course, that patently ignores the fact the Bugatti factory was likely building more than just one automobile that summer -- but why let facts stand in the way of fervent belief?
Finally, we actually dedicated ourselves to a serious amount of research, which we backed up with sound engineering proofs and common sense. This has all been bundled up and sent to the club newsletter. Now, it remains to be seen whether we have spread oil on troubled waters, sunk somebody's battleship or escalated the argument.
What amazes me is that I have support from learned enthusiasts all over the world. I recently received an e-mail from someone in South Africa who, after hearing of the controversy, set to doing his own research. He has not only backed many of the same conclusions we stumbled on but has actually added other fairly weighty conclusions of his own.
The controversy is not just confined to the club paper; it has spread across the Internet and is now found almost anywhere things Bugatti can be found.
I suppose this is not a bad thing. It certainly means there are a lot of people waiting to see the finished car.
I had better get it right.