Whether a work of art or music, a sporting event or a stunning landscape, all good things are best experienced in person, engaging the senses. But we can’t always be in the presence of the rarest automobiles. This 1935 Bugatti 57S Competition Coupe Aerolithe pictured here was at Atlanta’s High Museum of Art’s Dream Cars exhibition several years ago.
There was only one Aerolithe ever built – aside from this meticulous re-creation (as opposed to a replica). The original prototype was created by Ettore Bugatti for the London and Paris Automobile Shows of 1935. Bugatti was an engineer who was one of a family of artists from the Alsace-Lorraine area of eastern France. His father created highly regarded Art Nouveau furniture, his brother was a renowned sculptor of animals and his son, Jean became an accomplished automobile designer. Bugatti manufactured his expensive, highly technical (mechanically and aerodynamically) and visually magnificent machines for the road and the racetrack from 1911 to 1939.
The one of-a-kind Aerolithe was perhaps the most daring and beautiful automobiles of the era. Based on one of the company’s 57S chassis, it featured a 3.3 liter double overhead cam, straight-8 non-supercharged engine, and a body created from a magnesium and aluminum alloy called Electron. Long used in the aircraft industry, magnesium is extremely strong and lightweight but does not bend like aluminum or steel. It can be carefully formed at around 800 degrees Fahrenheit and explodes into flame at 1400 degrees. (The term “mag wheel” originally referred to racing wheels made of magnesium). Unfortunately, the car disappeared sometime before the outset of World War II and was never seen again. It was highly experimental for Bugatti in the mid-thirties to attempt the forms of such a sculptural shape as the 1935 car in magnesium, and equally so for David Grainger and the Guild of Automotive Restorers in Bradford, Ontario, who built the car you see here.
Although it is a complete re-creation of the 1935 car, it qualifies as “original” because its’ chassis is an exact duplicate or the original 57S used to build the show car. It is the earliest of these chassis/frame assemblies to be built and it carries the manufacturer’s matching numbers for four out of five components – the frame, engine, transmission and rear end. The “Electron” magnesium bodywork had to be built from scratch, based on the few usable photographs in existence of the 1935 car. According to Grainger in a U-Tube video from Jay Leno’s Garage, he stopped keeping a count on time spent for the body after about 7000 man-hours. Rediscovering shaping and welding techniques used for the body pieces on the original car, Grainger’s crew riveted the roof and fenders together through the “spines” running over the tops of them, rather than opting for an all-aluminum body that could have been completely welded. The visual oddity of the riveted spines of the original Aerolithe took hold as a styling detail and reappeared in the Bugatti Atlantic models of the late ‘30’s based on the same chassis, despite the Atlantics being bodied with aluminum, making the spines unnecessary. The tires were even unique to the original Aerolithe, requiring the creation of tooling to make them for the modern re-creation. All these factors led the vehicle to be accepted by official Bugatti groups worldwide as the only existing 1935 Competition Coupe Aerolithe.
How fortunate that the public could enjoy this automobile and its story, and other history-changing automobiles from the past, in galleries normally reserved for the exploration of more traditional art. This is why I love museums.