Recreating a lost masterpiece.
It’s a dilemma that faces many car restorers. Does one strive for total originality throughout, or carry out a few subtle modifications. Many fudge the issue, adding a set of disc brakes here, or an alternator there – nothing that cannot be reversed or sneered at too loudly by the faithful. Others choose to embellish, adding additional chrome plating, or an engine-turned finish – not to specification, but it looks better under artificial lighting – this being the Pebble Beach way.
However, for historic car collector, museum owner and curator, not to mention Bugatti aficionado, Peter Mullin, the acquisition of a unique Type 64 rolling chassis presented a dilemma like no other. The Type 64 was to have been the lineal replacement to the better known and highly sought-after Type 57 model from the legendary Franco-Italian carmaker. The chassis had never been bodied, and was widely regarded a work of art in itself. However, being such a rare and within Bugatti circles, mythical automobile, it was his conviction that it ought to be given one.
But first, a little background. Ettore Arco Isidoro Bugatti was born in 1881 in Milan. Born to a family of artists, his father Carlo Bugatti was famous for his jewellery and furniture designs, while his brother, Rembrandt was, like his grandfather, a renowned sculptor. Ettore however chose engineering as his career, building his first motor vehicle in 1900. The following year he became technical director for De Dietrich, but the Italian had more ambitious goals – to become a carmaker in his own right. In 1909, his dream was made flesh when he purchased a former dyeworks in Molsheim, Alsace, setting up an eponymous carmaking business.
By the late 1920s, Bugatti had become synonymous with exclusive, powerful and exquisitely engineered road and race cars. By 1925 the cars from Molshiem had amassed over 400 race victories, including innumerable Grands Prix and the 24 hours of Le Mans. In 1927, Bugatti announced the ambitious Type 41, a gargantuan chassis powered by a 12.763 cc in-line eight cylinder engine. Bodied by the usual array of carrossiers, Ettore loftily decreed that it must only be purchased by titled nobility. His hubris however got the better of him, with only three of the seven chassis’ built finding customers.
By the early 1930s, Ettore’s firstborn son, Jean was taking more of an active role in the business and possibly the most illustrious of all Bugatti road cars was largely his creation – the Type 57 of 1934, whose chassis design was largely Jean’s work, as were a number of the sinuous bodystyles it received; some of which would be amongst the most striking of the pre-war streamliner era.
A highly talented engineer, with a strong aesthetic bent, it was Jean who spearheaded the direction the carmaker took during this period, taking over the running of the factory entirely following the strike and factory lockdown of 1936, when the patrician, dogmatic and somewhat elitist Ettore was essentially barred from entering the facility.
It was around this period that the Type 64 was conceived. Like the Type 57, the chassis was to Jean Bugatti’s specification, powered by a state of the art supercharged 3.3 litre DOHC straight eight engine. Three Type 64 chassis were built in 1939, to be clothed in enveloping coupé bodywork. Two were completed, but the third, (chassis 64002) with its duraluminium chassis rails, cast scuttle and suspension arms was never completed. The chassis was believed to be a broader version of the Type 57 design, retaining its 130-in length but strengthened and lightened accordingly.
These were to be the hypercars of their era, with the highest performance, most sophisticated chassis construction and most streamlined bodyshapes. But their development was to be abruptly terminated.
One bright August night in 1939, while out road-testing a modified Type 57C Le Mans racer on Molsheim’s laneways in 1939, an inebriated cyclist entered his path, the 30 year old Jean Bugatti swerved in avoidance, hit a tree and was killed instantly. Popular at the factory and considered something of a visionary, he bucked the received logic of sons proving pale shadows of their more illustrious fathers. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the business never recovered from his loss.
The company was reinstated post-war, but with members of the Bugatti family (it’s been alleged) effectively draining the business to sustain their lavish lifestyles, and a succession of undercooked products, the company folded. Ettore also tried to revive his business, but his health was failing and he passed away in 1947.
In part two we examine various attempts to reanimate the Bugatti carmaking business.