Editor: Jaap Horst
By Martin Buckley
Chassis 57432 prepares to take part in the 1938 Rallye des Alpes, from which Olivero and his Type 57 Atalante were forced to retire. © Archives Pierre-Yves Laugier|
In July 1938, Olivero took part in the Rallye des Alpes, but had to retire on the stage from Chamonix to Nice.
The jeweller was married, yet usually took his brother or a girl called Daisy with him to navigate rather than his wife, who had no interest in rallying.
Mme Olivero said she was not worried by the arrangement because the lady had “no female attributes”.
The following year Charles ordered a T57C Gangloff Roadster, driving the Atalante from Marseille to Colmar every Friday evening to monitor progress.
When his new car was ready, the Atalante is thought to have been sold to a mechanic from Nîmes, Émile Reveiller, but was quickly moved on to WW1 fighter ace and pioneer commercial aviator Léon Givon, who was the chief pilot for Air France at the time and later received the Légion d’Honneur for his service in the French Resistance.
He re-registered the Bugatti 7262 CB 1 at his villa near Marseille on 25 August 1939, just a week before the start of WW2, and used it as his everyday car.
Trace of the Atalante was lost during the war, but it re-emerged in Luxembourg in 1948 with industrialist Rudi Cloos.
It still had its original engine, but Cloos decided on a full rebuild that included replacing the motor with one from an ‘orphan’ T57 rolling chassis that had been sold out of Molsheim just before hostilities began.
A new, unnumbered transmission was fitted, and gearbox 315 was left on the new chassis – without engine 547 – which was then clothed with a Ventoux body.
The Atalante was used on the road by Cloos, who appears to have played pretty fast and loose with vehicle identities.
Wearing the registration L 5289, and with its documents showing the number of its new engine (547), the former chassis 57432 became, erroneously, 57547.
This, of course, was for historians to uncover: 70 years ago, nobody much cared.
Cloos sold the Atalante in November 1950 to Belgian architect Albert Jean de Lay, who took it with him to a job in the Belgian Congo.
It was maintained locally in Elisabethville, but a starting problem proved difficult to trace.
Luckily, however, as angry locals began advancing on the expat’s home, the usually sulky Bugatti started first time, allowing the de Lays to flee for their lives to Zambia at 90mph.
The architect and his wife returned penniless to Belgium, where Cloos agreed to take back the Atalante.
He was issued the local number L 4005 and owned the car for a decade, until another colourful character entered the T57’s life.
Gaston Greven owned the Royal Bugatti nightclub, which was regularly patronised by Cloos.
Greven had just taken delivery of a new Jaguar XK120, for which there was a year-long waiting list, and Cloos was impressed enough to offer a swap with the Atalante plus a cash adjustment in Greven’s favour.
After repainting the car yellow and dark blue, Greven took part in the 1974 Rallye Monte-Carlo des Voitures Anciennes, keeping the registration L 4005.
On another event Greven met Lucien Mette, who asked what figure would part him from the Type 57.
Greven came up with a number that should have put him off; it didn’t, and he felt compelled to sell the Atalante when Mette turned up at his hotel the following day with a suitcase full of cash and two large associates.
By that stage the Atalante needed a major mechanical overhaul, including repairs to a bent front axle.
Colin Crabbe’s UK-based Antique Automobiles did the work, modifying the roof back to something approximating the original style and repainting it black and red.
Teisserenc used the Atalante in ’78 for the Bugatti 100 in Deauville, plus various other rallies, and kept it for another decade.
With the help of Bugatti historian Pierre-Yves Laugier, the car’s true identity was uncovered: luckily the rear axle still had ‘315’ engraved on it, and Laugier was able to link this information back to the original chassis number.
He even spoke to Olivero, who recounted the story of the car’s early years and handed over photos that enabled Jean-Claude Tisserand to restore the bodywork and create an exact copy of the sunroof.
Once completed, in 1992, the Atalante was reunited with Olivero’s widow and daughters, then put on display at the Musée National de l’Automobile.
It was also shown at Rétromobile in 1995 before being sold at an auction at the Nürburgring in 2001.
The new keeper, Dutch entrepreneur Victor Muller, took it to Pebble Beach, Goodwood and Villa d’Este before current owner Kees Jansen bought the Atalante at the Concours d’Élégance Palais Het Loo sale in 2003.
He has enjoyed the many and varied high-end events that T57 ownership makes possible, and a local specialist finally got to the bottom of the starting problems (suppressors on the plug leads, fitted in the 1950s) and added the not strictly correct T57SC six-pipe exhaust in the name of gas flow and clearance.
Weirdly, my Bugatti education began – and ended – with a hugely compromised drive in the ex-Briggs Cunningham Royale 20 years ago, so my encounter with the far more manageable Type 57 was keenly anticipated.
On a cold Paris evening its aura attracts passers-by, most of whom seem to know what they are looking at.
Those who don’t still recognise the authority of the big, nickel-plated Marchal Aerolux lamps and the elegance of the rounded tail.
Even the exposed, nickel-plated front axle is a visual delight, and you could hardly mistake that symmetrical sculpture of an engine, with every part finished like a piece of mechanical jewellery, for anything other than a Bugatti.
It’s so tidy that even the carburettor is hidden from view under the polished inlet manifold.
The exposed door hinges grate slightly and the boot, which should be huge, is mostly full of spare wheel, but there is a separate locker for the tools and a small hatch behind the driver’s door to give access to the covered space behind the seats, plus giant Art Deco-style map pockets in the doors.
The cosy cabin has a nautical feel somehow, with finely calibrated cream-faced instruments that are beautifully backlit.
To the right of the large four-spoke wheel, on its long, slender shaft, are two chrome fingers to control the fast idle and the ignition advance/retard.
The tubular-framed seats look inviting but are fixed and not much fun for our 6ft-plus host, Pierre Novikoff from auctioneer Artcurial, whose head almost sticks out above the line of the roof as he struggles to work the clutch with his knees jammed under the dashboard.
Luckily, I do. Once I’ve disentangled my feet from the A-pillar on climbing aboard, I’m comfortable.
On a night such as this I could live without the joys of the ‘Bureau’ roof, but it does give good rear vision for avoiding the cyclists who dart out of nowhere on dark Paris streets.
To start from cold you fully advance the ignition, apply some choke, and turn the key. With a good battery (it lives under the driver’s seat), the straight-eight should fire immediately.
After a few minutes’ warming you can retard the timing and start taking off the choke.
Acceleration considered sparkling 80 years ago is still usefully lively, with a smooth and swift build-up of revs that must have fascinated anybody used to a sidevalve saloon: most ’30s family cars could hardly manage in top what the Type 57 does in second.
On 3.3 litres and 140bhp at 4800rpm, this 2010lb two-seater would crack 52mph in second, 77mph in third and 95mph flat-out.
First gear is noisy, the rest quiet; the clutch is as light as a modern car’s, and you only need to double-declutch coming down from third to second (in which you can happily pull away).
This Atalante was one of the first to have hydraulic brakes, but they won’t stand the car on its nose or pull it up in a particularly straight line.
Generally, though, the Bugatti is refined, with few rattles from the body and confident, direct steering that only becomes heavy in tight-radius turns tackled faster than it really wants to go.
A general air of superiority pervades as it traverses the thoroughfares of wintry Paris, sublime front wings quivering gently over the cobbles, headlights emitting little more than a yellow glow. The exquisite tension between art and engineering Ettore fostered in his creations is probably still unique.
Obviously far more than just means of transport, it might be true to say that the Bugattis – father and son – built the first truly ‘exotic’ automobiles, in a technical language that was theirs alone.
These were complex but always beautifully wrought objects, built for very wealthy people who took their motoring very seriously and, like Mr Bugatti, viewed a motor car not as an inanimate object, but a product of careful breeding into which a highly strung facility for speed and responsiveness was baked into the very bones.
The colourful history of this T57 bears testimony to the way these cars have always attracted ‘interesting’ owners who have collected, coveted and written in scholarly terms about this marque, long before it was fashionable.
Transcending the generation gap that today threatens the relevance of so many less exalted pre-war vehicles, Bugattis have been forged and faked like old masters and are still making headline-grabbing figures at auction.
Images: Olgun Kordal, Archives Pierre-Yves Laugier