Clone or classic? In one Bugatti’s case, it’s complicated
This Bugatti isn’t easy to classify. It’s not a restoration – the body is newly fabricated – yet it has so many authentic Bugatti parts that you can’t call it a replica. It’s probably best to call it a re-creation.
What it re-imagines is the Bugatti Aérolithe, a Type 57 design study that the automaker produced in 1934. Most of what’s visible is the work of the Guild of Automotive Restorers, the Bradford, Ont., auto restoration business owned by David Grainger.
Restoring a unique classic is difficult enough, but creating the Aérolithe anew – a one-of-one concept car built more than 80 years ago and missing for almost that long – was a far greater challenge.
For a restoration, missing parts may need to be fabricated; body panels that have rotted may leave little to guide the sheet metal sculptors. But recreating a car that no longer exists is another level of difficulty altogether, made all the more daunting by the need to form body panels from a magnesium alloy known as elektron that’s notoriously difficult to work with. That was the task facing the Guild’s craftsmen in resurrecting Aérolithe.
“When I’m long gone, this car is still going to be around,” Grainger, the car’s owner, said.
The project would also be expensive, but Grainger found a financial partner in Christopher Ohrstrom, chairman of the World Monuments Fund. Ohrstrom, Grainger said, “has a fanatical need to restore old things.”
Grainger had the underpinnings to build an Aérolithe: a Bugatti Type 57 chassis bearing serial number 57104, the oldest of the series known to exist. The chassis’ history is largely unknown; Grainger said there was no confirmation that it ever had a body on it. He had originally intended to simply restore the chassis and drivetrain, but photos of the lost Aérolithe intrigued him. And since 57104 was built in 1934, it was quite possibly identical to the Aérolithe chassis. As a bonus, its 3.3-liter eight-cylinder DOHC engine had never been opened.
The Aérolithe was both a dramatic example of Art Deco styling and inspiration for the Bugatti Atlantic. But it also marked a turning point for the brand. Jean Bugatti, the oldest son of the company’s founder, Ettore, had an eye for design that complemented his father’s engineering prowess. With Ettore focusing on railroad projects, Jean moved into a leadership position and championed the bold styling that led to Aérolithe. Unveiled at the 1935 Paris Motor Show, it carved a niche for Bugatti that would influence automakers for years.
But by the end of the millennium, the Aérolithe was only a memory, with a handful of photos the only record of its existence.
The Guild’s team analyzed the Aérolithe photos and arrived at a rendering of the car’s form, pinpointing the location of the rivets that both joined the magnesium panels and served as unique design elements. The rivets were very necessary: Welding the magnesium body panels, difficult even today, was impossible in the 1930s.
At the Guild’s shop, hours of shaping and riveting panels turned into months and years, and the project inched forward. The chassis and drivetrain were restored in meticulous detail, right down to pouring babbitt engine bearings. Tires had to be manufactured and rights to the Dunlop trademark secured. Because there were no photos of the interior, its design was based on the Bugatti Atalante, which preceded Aérolithe, and the Atlantic, which followed.
Today, the Aérolithe occupies a place of honor at the shop when it’s not being exhibited. It has been to the Amelia Island concours in Florida, The Quail Motorsports Gathering in California, the Kuwait Museum and several art galleries. This summer it will be displayed alongside the Bugatti 100P racing airplane at the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wis.
“It is often displayed as art rather than as a classic automobile. I think that’s a good thing,” Grainger said. Perhaps that matters more than how we categorize it.