Editor: Jaap Horst
It’s so sensuous and beautiful, yet cloaked in so much mystery, it’s as if it was just part of a brief, fleeting dream. To David Grainger, the logistics of recreating the Bugatti Aerolithe can be a nightmare.
“I know more about this car than anybody else on earth,” says Grainger, who has been researching the Aerolithe for the last decade. “But it’s not egotistical to say I know more because there’s very little to know.”
Almost no other vehicle is shrouded in as much mystique as the Aerolithe. It is the most legendary car from of one of the most famous marques in history, and the only version of it disappeared about 70 years ago. Now, Grainger, owner of The Guild of Automotive Restorers Inc. in Bradford, Canada, has taken up the immense task of recreating the Aerolithe exactly as it appeared at its grand debut at the 1935 Paris Motor Show.
But even for a self-proclaimed expert, it’s anything but easy. Very little original documentation about the Aerolithe exists. Grainger’s team is recreating the entire vehicle based on nine photographs, some rough sketches, a lot of hypothesis, reverse engineering and a painstaking amount of research.
“The Aerolithe was Jean Bugatti’s prototype design for a production car called the Atlantic. There were only three Atlantics ever built,” Grainger explains, noting that fashion designer Ralph Lauren owns one of them. He says Jean Bugatti, son of the company’s founder, Ettore Bugatti, was an extraordinary engineer and designer and was even more accomplished and imaginative than his father.
“The Aerolithe is the famous lost Bugatti. In 1939 or 1940, it just disappeared off the face of the earth,” Grainger said. “There’s all kinds of conjecture about what happened to it.”
Grainger says one theory about its demise is that the prototype was destroyed during the Second World War, but he doesn’t think this is the case. “My personal belief is that the Aerolithe was dismantled and cannibalised for parts for other cars.” He says the company could have resorted to this because, just before the Second World War, when people weren’t buying expensive Bugattis, the company was in dire trouble.
But the debate doesn’t stop there. The most pressing controversy is the chassis on which the Aerolithe is based. Some theorists say if the Aerolithe was the prototype for the supercharged Atlantic, it, too, must have been supercharged. But Grainger says this isn’t the case.
Grainger met an elderly French man who used to work in the Bugatti factory as an apprentice, sweeping the floor around the Aerolithe in his youth. “He watched them build it. He said there was nothing special about that car other than its beautiful body. It was just an ordinary Bugatti.” Grainger discovered later that the supercharged sport chassis didn’t even exist until three months after the Aerolithe was finished.
Grainger is rebuilding the Aerolithe on an original chassis, a 57104, which is the oldest known Type 57 chassis. “The real chassis makes it a real Bugatti,” he said.
For the Aerolithe to be considered a real Bugatti, it must have at least three of five elements. “The car that we’re creating is a real Bugatti because the engine, transmission, chassis and axles combination is basically what makes a Bugatti a Bugatti. And we have four out of five elements.” He is missing just the front axle.
An “Aerolithe” was recently built in Germany, but the owner took many liberties such as adding in modern conveniences and changing the dimensions. The body panels were also made with aluminium, not magnesium. He painted it blue, which is not based on any historic record. This Aerolithe is generally looked down upon by Bugatti clubs and is not considered to be authentic.
Grainger says his Aerolithe (a Greek word meaning “meteor”) will be 95 per cent authentic, right down to the paint colour, another contentious issue. “It’s difficult to tell from black and white photographs, but we’re basing the colour of the Aerolithe on a little-known painting done by an engineer who was working on it at the time.” The painting depicts a pale green Aerolithe flying down a dirt road, framed by pink cherry blossoms and yellow flowers in the grass. It contradicts the common belief that the Aerolithe was silver. The elderly French man who was an apprentice at Bugatti also confirmed the green colour early on, but the team had no hard evidence to prove it until they found the painting.
“Jean Bugatti’s code name for the Aerolithe was Crème de Menthe, a direct reference to the car’s colour,” Grainger said. “Why would a Bugatti employee paint it as green if it wasn’t actually green? And plus, silver was a German colour for race cars and Jean Bugatti hated the Germans.”
Resting on a jig in Grainger’s cluttered shop is a beautifully crafted wooden skeleton made by a coffin maker in, ironically, Germany. The company already had experience building the frame for the German Aerolithe reproduction, and Grainger felt it prudent to “not reinvent the wheel”. Even in the frame’s current stage of production, raw and partially covered in body panels, one can appreciate the complexity of its design. As the original, white ash was chosen because it is strong, lightweight and resistant to cracking and deterioration. But the rich glow it emanates is a bonus and the skeleton looks as though it was sanded with the gentlest, most experienced touch. Grainger says the Aerolithe’s wooden skeleton alone is so beautiful, he may be sad to cover it with sheet metal.
The Aerolithe’s unmistakable beauty is the only thing Bugatti fans can agree on. Everything from design details to how and why it disappeared is a source of much debate.
“When you’re doing a project like this, there’s a lot of buzz about it,” Grainger says, adding that the lack of information is part of what makes the Aerolithe so legendary.
But the lack of information is only a fraction of a much larger problem.
When the Aerolithe was unveiled at the 1935 Paris Motor Show, Ettore Bugatti claimed that it was made of Electron, a magnesium alloy. “Magnesium in the 1930s was like carbon fibre is today. It was high-tech, futuristic and really cutting edge,” Grainger said. “At that time, it was only used in the aeronautical industry. So to say the car was made from magnesium was really pushing the envelope.”
Grainger and his team considered using steel or aluminium, but weight and strength were deciding factors. “I can lift the magnesium front fender pinching it with my thumb and forefinger,” Grainger said. “It’s incredibly light, but you can hit it with a hammer and you won’t dent it. It’s very strong.”
The problem is, it’s also incredibly volatile. When heated to a certain temperature, it will explode. And absorbing the toxic metal into the human body would result in gout-like symptoms. If it’s forced too hard, it snaps, creating a razor-sharp edge. Grainger is convinced that engineers used different methods to weld the magnesium for the original Aerolithe – he already knows they used rivets and flanges extensively to connect the body panels.
“It’s a very challenging thing to work with. It’s really testing my patience in every way, shape and form,” says Jim Howell, who is working on the Aerolithe’s magnesium body. “It’s really difficult to weld.”
Howell has resorted to using an exotic gas that sucks the oxygen from the metal’s atmosphere so it can’t combust. But once the gas runs out, the piece will catch fire and mistakes can easily be made.
And mistakes with the Aerolithe are expensive ones. A 4x8 foot sheet of magnesium costs US$3,000 (Dh11,000). So far, the shop has already used 15 sheets, or US$45,000 (Dh165,000) worth.
The entire project, which is expected to be finished early next year, will cost anywhere from US$700,000 to US$1 million (Dh2.57m to Dh3.6m), but the project engineer, Mathew Radman, says the final product could easily sell for three or four times that amount. There’s already a queue of interested buyers around the world.
Jean Bugatti’s prototype for the Atlantic was avant-garde for its time and its beauty is still appreciated today. It has often been voted the most beautiful car of all time, says Jaap Horst, who established one of the first websites dedicated to Bugattis and is the editor of The Bugatti Review, an online magazine based in the Netherlands.
“The shape of the roofline is exceptionally beautiful,” Horst says. “Jean Bugatti designed it very well. The streamlined design and rounded-off rear bumper was a very sensible, stunning design. It was quite advanced for its time.”
The work is being funded by a world-renowned gentleman whose interest and business is historic restorations, Grainger says, preferring not to name his client. He has done restoration work all over the world with monuments, artefacts and architecture, including in the White House, and the Aerolithe was his first foray into vehicle restoration. He certainly didn’t pick an easy starting point.
But easy doesn’t matter when the automotive world’s long-lost beauty is slowly becoming less of a dream and more of a reality.
originally published in the National Newspaper - UAE.