• Vincent De Rossi

Forget Wally, Where’s Bugatti # 57453?

Considered the ‘Mona Lisa’ of automobiles, the Type 57SC Atlantic is declared amongst the world’s car collectors as the must have of all pre-war European automobiles. Jean Bugatti, the son of Bugatti founder Ettore Bugatti, created the Aerolithe concept, whichdebuted at the 1935 Paris Auto Salon. It featured a body crafted from a magnesium alloy known as Elektron. Typically reserved for the construction of aircrafts because of its excellent vibration damping characteristics, Elektron consists of 90-percent magnesium and 10-percent aluminium, and is up to one third the weight of aluminium which made it both light and strong, but also highly flammable, therefore extremely difficult to work with, since it couldn’t be welded. To join the hand beaten panels, Jean specified an external fin like vertical seam running the entire length of the car, which would be riveted to join the two body halves. This fin like spine was mirrored on both front and rear guards as well.

Photo of missing # 57453 at the 1937 Nice Motor Show. You will note the words: “Nice et le Sud-Est”, (Nice and the South East) on the poster to the right and top of the photo. Photo courtesy Bugatti.

When the Aerolithe Coupe concept was put into limited-production the Elektron bodywork of the Aero Coupe was made of aluminium. Despite this, the riveted fin like spine construction method carried over, Jean remembering his father’s famous line of “nothing is too beautiful, nothing is too expensive” this spine wouldbecome one of the car’s most distinctive features. Two cars were completed by the end of 1936, but in December of 1936 Jean Bugatti received tragic news that his close friend and pioneering French aviator Jean Mermoz, the first to fly across the South Atlantic, had crashed at sea after a supposed engine failure killing him and his crew. To honour his friend and his memory Jean replaced the Aero Coupe moniker to Atlantic Coupe even though two cars had already been built.

1935 Bugatti Type 57S Aerolithe prototype.

1935 Bugatti Type 57S Aerolithe # 57331 prototype.

Chassis # 57331. / Engine # 226S. / Aka; Elektron Coupe.

Original Colour; Creme de menthe. / Interior; Creme de menthe leather with beige cloth. 

Code-named the ‘Elektron Coupe’ or ‘Coupe Special’ at launch, this Bugatti prototype had a very short existence. It was finished in July 1935 and only four months later it made its first public appearance at the 1935 Paris Motor show. The car was a faithful recreation of Jean Bugatti's stunning ‘Super Profile Coupe’ design, but due to its unusual shape, the vehicle found a very limited audience, therefore only four Atlantics were ever built. A few people, however, did drive the car and were all surprised by its performance and stunning looks, so they called it ‘La Aerolithe’ after the phrase "rapide comme une aerolithe" (fast as a meteorite), a name that would later be revived by Bugatti.

The prototype was displayed at the British International Motor Show in Olympia, London, it stayed in London until the spring of 1936, being frequently driven and tested by Bugatti driver William Grover-Williams. Beyond this point historians lose its tracks, but as Bugatti's chief mechanic Robert Aumaitre stated a few decades later, that the car was essentially just a styling exercise with no technical interest, so once back at the Bugatti factory in France it was disassembled for its components.

Over the span of five years, from 2008 to 2013, Canadian car restoration team from The Guild's Classics lead by David Grainger built an exact replica of the Type 57S Aerolithe, having only eleven photographs, two blueprints and a painting at their disposal from which to work from. It was built on Bugatti chassis # 57104 with its body handcrafted entirely out of Elektron alloy, just like the original.

The four Aero/Atlantic Coupes

1936 Bugatti Type 57S(+C) Coupe Aero # 57374.

Chassis # 57374. / Engine # 25S. / Aka; The Rothschild Atlantic.

Original colour; Metallic grey/blue. / Interior; Blue leather.

This car was completed on 2nd of September 1936 and sold to Victor Rothschild, 3rdBaron Rothschild.Painted a grey-metallic blue, # 57374 was built without the "C" specification (supercharger) and it is believed that it had been equipped with various components from the Aerolithe prototype, the most notable being the chromed grilles on either side of the bonnet. The car was constructed on the Type 57S (S for surbaisse meaning lowered) chassis, equipped with cable-activated drum brakes, a semi-independent front suspension, and a live rear axle. Power came from Bugatti’s double overhead-camshaft 3.3-liter inline-eight, which produced 175 horsepower in naturally aspirated form.

In 1939 Lord Rothschild returned the car to Bugatti HQ at Molsheim in order to have the "C" specification fitted, raising the horsepower to 200 and giving the car a top speed of 200 km/h (123 mph).

Up until October 1941 Lord Rothschild used his car frequently before abandoning it in a field after the engine seized due to the malfunctioning supercharger that was fitted two years earlier.

A local mechanic who acquired the car removed the defective supercharger before repairing the engine, then in 1945 he sold it to a wealthy doctor who had just arrived in France. A year later the Doctor shipped the car to the USA and sold it to Bugatti enthusiast Mike Oliver who then had the car painted a dark red. In 1953, Oliver decided that the car should have the "C" specification refitted. As a result, # 57374 was shipped back to the Bugatti workshop in France, once fitted with the supercharger the car returned to the USA.

Mike Oliver died in 1970 at the age of 50. Before his death, he desired that # 57374 be part of theCosta Mesa collection owned by American entrepreneur and motor racing enthusiast Briggs Cunningham. In 1971 Peter Williamson boughtthe car at auction for $59,000 making it (at the time) the most expensive automobile in the world.

The car remained in Williamson’s possession for 32 years, during which time he had it restored it to its original condition, he exhibited the car at the 2003 Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance where it won the ‘Best of Show’ award. Peter Williamson died a year later and # 57374 remained in his family's possession until 2010 when it was sold for $30 million to collector Peter Mullin who today exhibits it in his Mullin Automotive Museum located in Oxnard, California.

The Rothschild 1935 Atlantic

On display at the Mullin Automotive Museum

1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Coupe Aero # 57453.

Chassis # 57453. / Engine # 2SC. / Aka; La Voiture Noire.

Original colour; Black. / Interior; Dark brown leather and beige cloth.

Known as "La Voiture Noire" (The Black Car), this is the second Atlantic that was manufactured. Apart from its first years after production, the car's history remains unknown.

Historians claim that on the 10th of March 1936, Greek racing driver Nico E. Embiricos ordered a Bugatti Type 57S Coupe Aero bearing chassis # 57375 and engine # 3S, which was completed on 24th of August 1936, and then shipped it to his residence in London. For some unclear reason, once received, the car was sent to Corsica Coachworks to have a two-seater convertible racing body built and fitted, this work was completed on the 4th of September 1936. The Coupe Aero bodywork is said to have been shipped back to the Bugatti factory where it was mounted on chassis # 57453 with engine # 2SC.

Being the only Atlantic fitted with the "C" specification from the factory, # 57453 was completed on 3rd of October 1936. During the winter of the same year, the car was mostly driven by Jean Bugatti and his racing driver friend William Grover-Williams and his wife, Yvonne. Subsequently, # 57453 was photographed for the company's 1937 promotional catalogue and was also exhibited at the Nice and Lyon Motor Shows in Spring of 1937. (see photo header)

Brought back to Molsheim, it was regularly driven by Jean Bugatti until the end of July when he offered it as a gift to Bugatti race driver Robert Benoist after he won the 1937 24 Hours of Le Mans race. Being a very close friend with the Grover-Williamses, Benoist shared the car with them. Some sources claim that Benoist even broke a few speed records using the car at the Montlhery Autodrome in 1938. In the Spring of 1940, the Grover-Williamses together with Benoist fled to England before Germany’s occupation of France with the car being returned to the factory. Even though it was frequently driven, # 57453 never had a registered owner. The last mention about it was on a list of cars that were to be sent to Rue Alfred Daney in Bordeaux in February 1941, during the French exodus. Due to its provenance and exclusivity, experts have estimated the value of this car at around $114 million.

Jean Bugatti often considered the Atlantic model, most notably # 57453, as his most innovative and most valuable creation. Therefore, at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show, commemorating the 110-year anniversary of both Jean Bugatti and the brand, Bugatti had introduced the one-off model ‘La Voiture Noire’ sold to an anonymous buyer for $19 million, as well as being declared the most expensive new car ever sold. According to the Bugatti stylistic team, the vehicle identifies itself as a modern representation of # 57453 and a tribute to Jean Bugatti's stylistic genius.

The $19 million La Voiture Noire. The missing Atlantic # 57453.

1936 Bugatti Type 57S Atlantic Coupe # 57473.

Chassis # 57473. / Engine # 10S. / Aka; The Holzschuh Atlantic.

Original colour; Black. / Interior; Black leather and beige cloth.

Succeeding # 57453, this second black Atlantic was finished on 13th of December 1936 and it was delivered to its first owner, Mr. Jacques Holzschuch. It lived a pampered life frequently been driven along the French Riviera, Holzschuh later entered the car in the Juan-Les-Pins Concours d’Elegance event where the vehicle received the Grand Prix d'Honneur award. Subsequently, in 1939, the car received significant styling changes, so # 57473 differs from the other Atlantics. The person who performed the modifications is believed to be Italian designer Giuseppe Figoni (Figoni et Falaschi fame).

Sadly, by the end of World War II, Mr. Holzschuch and his wife had perished and their car was purchased alongside their Monaco mansion by businessman Cannes Robert Verkerke in 1949. He entered the car in the 3rd International Speed Circuit for touring cars series race in Nice, but it didn't finish. In the next couple of years, # 57473 had more than three owners and in 1952 was sold to Bugatti enthusiast Rene Chatard and was later painted pale blue.

On August 22 1955, he and Janine Vacheron were driving the car near Gien, France, when the car was hit by a train at a level crossing. Neither survived the accident and the vehicle was sold to a scrap dealer in Gien. The wreck was purchased in 1963 by a French collector who began a full reconstruction, which was completed in 1977. As a result of the severe damage, most of the original components and coachwork were replaced with new ones, therefore the value of the car decreased substantially.

Subsequently, in November 2006, # 57473 was bought by an anonymous collector who decided that the vehicle should be thoroughly restored by American specialist Paul Russell and brought back to Holzschuch's specification. In 2010, the finished car was exhibited at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance event, where, unfortunately, because it was considered a replica, it didn't win any awards. Today, # 57473 is part of the Torrota collection in Spain.

The Holzschuh Atlantic

1938 Bugatti Type 57S(+C) Atlantic Coupe # 57591.

Chassis # 57591. / Engine # 39S. / Aka; The Pope Atlantic.

Original colour; Sapphire Blue. / Interior; Beige leather.

This final production Atlantic led a charmed life that continues to this day. Its first owner was British tennis player Richard Pope and it was delivered to him on 2nd of May 1938 before being registered "EXK6", as it's commonly referred to. Painted a rich Sapphire Blue, # 57591 distinguishes itself from the other Atlantics mostly by the face-lift at the front end and the absence of the rear Spats (wheel) covers.

In 1939, Richard Pope sent the car back to the Bugatti factory to have the "C" specification fitted. He kept the car for nearly thirty years, sometimes loaning it to Bugatti specialist Barrie Price. Eventually, Price bought the car in 1967 and had it in his possession for ten-years. In the meantime, # 57591 suffered very light damage during a commemoration rally which led to it getting stuck in a ditch. The car was then owned by businessman Anthony Bamfordbefore being sold to another collector.

In 1988 renowned fashion designer and classic car tragic Ralph Lauren buys the car, then commissions a complete restoration with Paul Russell and Co. They were able to cut through the past restoration work and revive the car back to its 1938 glory. Even though it was painted black at Mr. Lauren's request. The car was given the "Best of Show" award at Pebble Beach in 1990 and later won "Best of Show" at Villa d'Este in 2013.

The Pope Atlantic

Ralph Lauren's Atlantic

Ralph Lauren with his Atlantic at Villa d'Este 2013

So there you have it. Out of the four Aero/Atlantic Coupes #57453 remains to this day missing. Two factors make this car difficult to trace. As a factory demonstrator, # 57453 never had a registered owner, making its history impossible to track through existing European motor vehicle records. Also the August 1939 death of Jean Bugatti in a testing crash (driving a Bugatti Type 57C “Tank”) had a massive impact on Bugatti as an automaker and company, add to this the chaos of the second world war and Germany’s occupation of France, it’s easy to understand why factory records of the period are less than precise.

There can only be two outcomes: Either # 57453 was scrapped or destroyed during WW II, or it wasn’t. If the latter is true, it may well be stashed away in a dusty barn somewhere in Europe or indeed the world, waiting for the day when a lucky collector unearths what may be the most valuable automobile in the world.

Peter Mullin's Type 57 SC Atlantic Coupe at Pebble Beach

  • Black Instagram Icon