National Post Oct 28, 2007
By David Grainger
Aerolithe Part Seven
(Aerolithe presents big challenges)
It has been a while since I have written about the continuing saga of the rebuilding of the Type 57 Bugatti aerodynamic coupe, the Aerolithe. This is not because significant progress has not been made but rather that all projects reach certain plateaus where nothing of great importance occurs and visible progress is limited. The Aerolithe has been at such a stage for the last couple of months.
That is not to say that many very important challenges have not had to be met and overcome. Our greatest challenge on this project has been the fact that not only do we have to recreate the entire body of the car from just 11 photographs but it must be made from magnesium if it is to truly replicate the car that was known in the 1930s as the Electron Coupe, electron being the slang name for magnesium alloy.
The magnesium has been problematic as I stated in a previous column covering the fabrication, but we did not truly understand just what a royal pain it could be. It would not form into multiple compound curves, most especially reverse curves that were very common on some sections of the fenders. Even heating the metal to 700C or 800C would often not make it malleable enough for our purposes.
Instead, a patchwork quilt of smaller pieces welded together and relief cuts finally yielded stable curves, which, when heated and cooled properly, resisted cracking, a condition that had frustrated us repeatedly when the parts were stressed. It is not pretty during fabrication, but it works, and once dressed -- meaning the filing and sanding of the welds -- the patchwork disappears. The Aerolithe had a wooden substructure to which the body panels were attached. That seems unusual in this day and age; however, before the Second World War, it was the standard for almost all cars. The wood was most often white ash, which is incredibly strong, light, resists cracking and stress and is resistant to deterioration.
We were going to create the woodwork in our shop, a task that we have performed before for other cars, but we discovered a fellow in Germany who had just completed an almost identical structure for another Bugatti.
As the Aerolithe that we are building is very similar proportionally to the car that the German shop had framed, it was decided it would be cost-effective to draw up blueprints that would incorporate the adjustments we require and have it built in Germany.
That task is about half completed at this point and we expect the framing to arrive some time in early winter.
The engine and driveline are almost ready to be put into the frame and fired up and tested. The biggest mechanical hitch right now is the lack of a front axle. We had actually secured a complete front axle assembly for the car from a shop in England, but, when it arrived, it was stripped to a bare bone and missing all the parts that were supposed to be included, which represented thousands of dollars. As that wrong axle and "lost" parts had cost £8,000 ($15,900), a refund was demanded and eventually realized -- but not without some fuss and bother. Now, a newly fabricated axle is being produced in England at a cost of about $7,500. While it would have been preferable to have had an original, the new axle will suffice and will certainly be very accurate. Its manufacture does not detract from the value of the car as it is the only major mechanical component that is not original to the chassis.
What has been enjoyable over the course of this project so far has been the voyage of discovery on which we are embarked. Many myths that over the past decades have been hypothesized, theorized, argued and even written as fact by some armchair experts have become quite clear to us as we have explored the original car's photographs down to its smallest proportions and actually recreated the build.
Even the chassis, whose type and form have long been a hotbed of contention, has now revealed itself to be, in all likelihood, an absolutely standard chassis. The formula to proving this is that the body and all of its components, when fit exactly to an ordinary frame, need no adjustment. This is important because, for a very long time, it has been assumed that the Aerolithe was built on a special sport frame, while our build demonstrates that it was far more likely to have been sat on a very ordinary early chassis. A sport frame would require several major changes to items such as the steering box height.
These arguments would appear trivial to anyone not immersed in a world where cars can be worth millions of dollars, but to some aficionados, any disagreement with a personal view can mean a slap in the face with a glove and pistols at dawn.
This sure ain't like restoring your parents' Oldsmobile.