The Bugatti Aérolithe Was Not Built For The Road

Made of magnesium, and with no ventilation or windshield wipers, the Aérolithe is the stunning recreation of Bugatti's greatest failed concept car. And this time, it even got to its operational temperature.

image
Jay Leno's GarageYouTube

Starting in 1934, Bugatti managed to build around 800 Type 57s in various configurations. The chassis was rather successful by high-end pre-war standards. Yet its most famous evolutions, the Aérolithe prototype and the following Atlantic Coupés just couldn't find customers.

Supposedly made of an aviation-grade alloy of magnesium and aluminum called Elektron, the 1935 Aérolithe was designed by Ettore's son Jean, with a body that had to be riveted due to the difficulty of welding magnesium. After being on tour in England, the show car disappeared, while Bugatti went on to build just four production Type 57 Atlantics, out of plain aluminum.

image
Bugatti
image
Bugatti
image
Bugatti
image
Bugatti

Three of these luxury coupes went to customers, while "La Voiture Noire," the first black Atlantic was created for Jean Bugatti himself. Unfortunately, there has been no trace of this car since 1938.

image
Jean Bugatti’s missing Atlantic.
Bugatti

The second Atlantic, chassis #57374, built in 1936, went to British banker Victor Rothschild. Today, this light blue car is part of the Mullin Automotive Museum's amazing collection. The third Atlantic, also black, chassis #57473 got destroyed when hit by a train in 1955, while the only 1938 Atlantic, the originally blue #57591, is now part of the Ralph Lauren collection.

image
The Rothschild Type 57 Atlantic in period.
Bugatti

The concept for the Atlantic, Jean Bugatti's extravagant "dorsal-seamed" Aérolithe show car was built on chassis #57104, and while records don't reveal its fate, most agree it must have been disassembled for parts, having failed to catch a bigger audience.

But its story just wouldn't end there. Seven decades later, Christopher Ohrstrom, chairman of the World Monuments Fund acquired Bugatti chassis #57104, as well as a straight-eight that hadn't been opened since new. He then commissioned Ontario's Guild of Automotive Restorers to re-create the Aérolithe, who did an unbelievable job over the span of five years. Led by David Grainger, this team had nine usable photographs to go on in 2008, and just two suppliers in North America who could sell them four-inch by eight-inch sheets of magnesium, at $3000 a pop. Some fifteen sheets into the lost Bugatti, the Canadians also became very good at oxy-acetylene welding and vulcanizing custom tires, not to mention fabricating an enlarged grille with thermostatic shutters out of nickel, and designing a complete interior based on the Atlantic's. Lastly, the hand-scraping of the engine bay was done by a man from Estonia, of all places.

Once finished, the Aérolithe went around the globe to prove how far industrial art deco had progressed by 1935, and it hasn't missed a show even after KLM dropped it seven feet off its forklift, bending and cracking the lot. Talk about a phone call David Grainger didn't want to get.

More From Design