Years ago, the Cleveland Museum of Art hosted a very unique exhibit that featured the artwork of the Bugatti family. To most people, typically the word ‘Bugatti’ associates to the gorgeous cars that wear the badge.
But the exhibition was devoted to much more. It compiled the artwork of three generations of the Bugatti family. The exhibition showcased furniture and silver designed by Carlo Bugatti (1856-1940) and the animal sculpture of his son Rembrandt (1884-1916). But the exhibit of course featured cars - the automobiles designed by another son, Ettore Bugatti (1881-1947) and Ettore's son, Jean (1909-39). This just illustrates that, to the Bugatti family, cars were more than just machinery. They were essentially functional artwork. This insight into the artistic nature of the Bugatti family might help better explain why, of the 6 Bugatti Royales built, no two were the same. Each was it's own piece of art.
The Type 57, perhaps one of the better known Bugatti models, was no different. There were so many variations and custom coach-built versions. The Type 57s were built from 1934 through 1940, with a total of 710 being built over that time. Most utilized a twin cam 3.2 liter inline 8 cylinder engine that was used in the Type 49 that predated it, but heavily modified.
There were two foundational variants of the road going Type 57; The original 57, and the 57S. The S stood for 'surbaisse', or 'lowered'. They were dramatically different chassis. The S model required that the rear axle pass through the frame rather than under it. In order to fit the engine under the hood in the S model, a dry sump lubrication system was required to shorten the engine height.
Initially, only two of the type 57S cars were equipped with superchargers, which made them Type 57SC models in name. The blower increased horsepower from 175 hp to 200 hp. The increase was such a high demand item to Bugatti owners that a majority of existing Type 57S owners returned their car to the factory for supercharger installations.
In 1935, Jean Bugatti debuted the Aerolithe concept car he had designed.The concept car was skinned using a combination of magnesium and aluminum alloy panels. The dissimilar materials required the panels be riveted together. Bugatti turned that joining method into the equivalent of a dorsal seam, running it nose to tail on the concept.
In 1936, the Atlantic bodied Type 57S was introduced. Even though production cars were made fully of aluminum, the external seam was such a popular feature from the concept car that it was carried over into the Atlantic.
There were only four Bugatti Atlantics built. Three of them are known to survive to this day. As was typical for Bugatti, each one is unique in its own way.
The first production Atlantic was actually assembled from pieces of the original concept car.
The second Atlantic initially received several changes to its appearance at the hands of coachbuilder Joseph Figoni. It was raced for a period of time, but while being driven in France, it was hit by a train. Neither occupant survived the crash, but the remnants of the car were resurrected. A full restoration was completed in 1977.
The final production Atlantic is also perhaps one of the best known. It was sold originally to a Bugatti enthusiast, and ultimately purchased by clothing designer Ralph Lauren. He purchased it in unrestored condition, and spared no expense in returning it to original form. His model is often the most recognized because of the unique and arguably most well-executed front and treatment, particularly around the headlights. It is believed that the Ralph Lauren car has received offers of $40 million for his Atlantic.
The Atalante was produced after, and largely inspired by the Atlantic. While it was proportionately similar, it lacked the dorsal detail, and some of the form complexity of the Atlantic.
There are many companies, like Ferrari, Lamborghini, and others, that produce quick, beautiful cars. but decades before either of those companies existed, Bugatti was creating true rolling sculpture.