Is a Pur Sang a Bugatti? How do we determine if replicas “count”?

As my colleague Jay Leno wrote in his column of the latest Hagerty magazine, replica cars are a way for regular Jills and Joes to experience the noise and vibration of certain types of classics that would otherwise be several tax brackets out of their league. I have some personal experience with this, as my 1933 Austin Seven wears a 10-year-old aluminum body that is, through squinted eyes, a replica of Austin’s original factory Ulster racers. The little boattail Austin looks the part and gives me a taste of the sporting life in the 1930s for a fraction of the cost of the real thing.

[This article originally ran in Hagerty magazine, the exclusive publication of the Hagerty Drivers Club. For the full, in-the-flesh experience of our world-class magazine—as well other great benefits like roadside assistance and automotive discounts—join HDC today.]

Perhaps it’s not a surprise that the members of the American Bugatti Club, probably not what you’d call a collection of regular Jills and Joes, have higher standards of authenticity than I do. Interested in the other side of the story of the Pur Sang replica rumpus, I called Jim Stanberg, a Colorado car restorer and Bugatti club member who started working on the French art deco classics in the 1970s, long before he owned one himself. He’s a tradesman who works for a living, so his opinions can’t be dismissed as just typical rich-guy elitism, and they’ll be familiar to anyone who believes in the sanctity of factory originality.

Pur Sang Bugatti Type 35 replica
Pur Sang Bugatti Type 35 Drew Phillips

“The reason I don’t agree with [letting Pur Sangs into the club] is that they are not Bugattis. They don’t have anything in them that comes from Molsheim. If Pur Sang wants to start a club, more power to them,” Stanberg argues. Although Pur Sangs are not shipped with Bugatti badges on them, many if not most owners put them on. Stanberg believes that’s disingenuous. “The fact that they put the Bugatti badge on it really bothers me. I’ve been at a couple shows back east where somebody was showing their Pur Sang and calling it a Type 35 Bugatti.”

Of course, when you’re talking about cars that are nearly a century old, what is original anyway? It might have nonoriginal parts that are only 70 years old. The Bugatti club uses what it calls a “3/5 rule,” meaning that if three of the five major components—front axle, engine, transmission, differential, and body—have original serial numbers, the car is considered a true Bugatti, eligible to participate in the club’s rallies and races. Then there are “toolroom” cars, or whole cars built of spare parts that, although from the Bugatti factory originally, were not originally in the same car together. Those cars are excluded from club races.

At this point you’re probably wondering why the picayune rules of a small club devoted to million-dollar French antiques should matter to you. Personally, I think it’s emblematic of an impulse that resides deep in our brains to build fences and create pyramids of priority around everything. The front-engine Ferrari V-12 guys look down on the guys with mid-engine flat-12s, who look down on the guys with mid-engine V-8s, who look down on Lamborghini drivers. The Shelby GT350 guys look down on the guys with Highland Green ’68s, who look down on the guys with regular 289s, who look down on the SVO guys, who look down on—I dunno, the Mustang II guys?

Pur Sang Bugatti Type 35 badge
Pur Sang Bugatti Type 35 Drew Phillips
Pur Sang Bugatti Type 35 front 3/4
Pur Sang Bugatti Type 35 Drew Phillips

All car passions should be equal and welcomed, we know that. It’s important for the hobby to survive. But people are tribal by nature, and we can’t help wanting to be with folks of our own flock. Compared to most car clubs, the Bugatti club’s hierarchy is relatively flat: You have a real one as the club defines it, or you don’t (and it’s worth noting that anyone can join the American Bugatti Club, even if all you own is a bus ticket). Every car club has to consider how to manage the fissures within its own ranks. Exclusivity is generally the province of the rich, but somebody who has sunk tons of time and money into the restoration of, say, a ’64 Pontiac GTO has probably earned the right to feel a little special. Making him or her share the grass with all the fakes—er, “tribute cars”—while doing it with a smile is perhaps asking a bit too much of human nature.

Even so, before you put up the ropes, it’s worth considering something Stanberg said that stuck with me, although I’m taking his quote a little out of context: “I can go out and drive by myself, but it’s a lot more fun to go out and drive with other guys.”

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    While the nouveau rich are entitled to their sense of exclusivity (otherwise why spend it?), there are also wealthy who are truly passionate and appreciative of the original Bugatti vehicles and preserve the heritage and legacy of Maestro Ettore. Even in their days these cars were rare and special and rightfully more so today.
    What fascinates me about Pur Sang is the ingenuity and tenacity with which one individual against all odds has managed to create a team of highly skilled craftsmen who literally build up these cars by hand as it used to be done nearly 100 years ago. And as stated in the article, they don’t market their cars as Bugattis and prefix the serial numbers on chassis and engine parts to avoid confusion. It is the owners who refer to their cars as Bugattis not the makers.

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