1937 Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic
July 7, 2008 7:16 AM
The house of Bugatti is known for producing some of the fastest, most exclusive cars of all time. In his company's early years, Ettore Bugatti earned a reputation for advanced engineering and avant garde design, despite a lack of formal training. Only five cars were built in the company’s first year, but by 1911, Bugatti began its domination of the racetrack, winning the first ever Monaco Grand Prix.
The third of Ettore's four children, Gianberto Maria Carlo Bugatti, aka Jean, spent his childhood reveling in his father's early racetrack victories, and subsequently caught the fever. Forbidden to race by Ettore, Jean turned his hand to designing cars. At the age of 23, Jean introduced his legendary Roadster Royale, and soon began taking over management of Bugatti's automobile production and race team, as Ettore focused on railcars.
In October of 1935, Jean debuted the prototype that would become his masterpiece at the Paris Motor Show: the Type 57 Competition Coupe "Aerolithe," named after the Greek word for "meteor." (When the car went into its brief production cycle in 1936, Jean changed its name to "Atlantic," to commemorate a friend who died while attempting to cross that ocean by air.) The car's aerodynamic teardrop curves were an immediate sensation, inspired by Jean's decision to utilize Electron, a new alloy of magnesium and aluminum. Though strong and light, Electron was highly flammable. Since welding was inadvisable, Jean created a distinctive riveted "spine," which runs the length of the car. To offset the danger, production Atlantics were made out of aluminum, but retained the signature spine. Other design highlights included a heavily raked split windshield, oval doors with wood-rimmed, kidney-shaped windows, and a dashboard to die for. With its low "surbaissé" stance and 200 bhp, straight eight-cylinder 57C engine, capable of top speeds in excess of 120 mph, the Atlantic was the fastest car of its day.
The sad thing about the Atlantic is that only four were made, including the prototype, which no longer exists. Two others were meticulously restored by their current owners, Peter Williamson and Ralph Lauren, each taking Best of Show at Pebble Beach. The story of the third Atlantic is more shadowy and tragic: after a checkered history of ownership, the car was purchased by the married Monsieur Chatard in the name of his mistress. He was just teaching another attractive blond how to drive it when they were both killed in a horrific train crossing accident, which totaled the car. In 1965, its remains were discovered in a French junk yard, and the car was rebuilt around the chassis.
Jay's Atlantic is pretty much an exact supercharged copy built on a genuine 1937 Bugatti chassis, with the small additions of an electric fuel pump and radiator fan. Even though it was very expensive when Jay bought it twenty years ago, this Atlantic's worth isn't so astronomical as to prohibit him from actually driving it!