1935 Bugatti Type 57 Aérolithe

Driving the Magnesium Meteor

The pale green coupe shimmers in the afternoon sunlight. Its curved silhouette causes traffic to pause. I’ve known about this car since its creation, and I have had it on display in three fine art museums. Other than helping to guide it into position in an exhibition, I’ve never driven it. Only a lucky few people have, and that’s about to change.

Let’s learn a bit about one of Bugatti’s most intriguing creations. The Bugatti Type 57 Aérolithe arguably was the most sensational automobile of the mid-1930s, and the fact that it was a Bugatti should be no surprise. Ettore Bugatti, a trained engineer with an artistic soul, was born into a remarkable Italian family of artists. His father, Carlo Bugatti, created intricate Art Nouveau furniture. Ettore Bugatti’s elder brother, Rembrandt Bugatti, was a renowned sculptor of animals. Ettore and his family — including his son Jean, who later became a highly imaginative automobile designer in his own right — lived regally on a lavish estate in Alsace-Lorraine, near their automobile factory in Mulhouse, in Eastern France.

From 1911 to 1939, Automobiles Ettore Bugatti only produced about 12,000 vehicles, ranging from fast sports and touring cars to successful racing models and even regal limousines. Bugatti’s cars were technically complex, often temperamental, expensive and hauntingly beautiful. Ettore experimented with aerodynamics and the use of exotic lightweight metals, such as magnesium. Ettore was known as “Le Patron” (the boss). He favored technology such as overhead camshaft, multi-valve engines and self-adjusting de Ram shock absorbers. But he could also be conservative with his design. Ettore avoided supercharging at first, which is a method that increases the pressure of air supplied to an internal combustion engine and increases the power of the engine. Stubbornly, he clung to cable-operated brakes long after hydraulics had proved superior.

Due to France’s high tariffs and restricted trade policy, the Great Depression was slow to impact the country, but by the early 1930s, the luxury automobile market had dwindled. Ettore and Jean knew that a unique new model was needed to help their company survive. The Type 57, introduced in 1934, was that car. Its styling was contemporary, and custom coachwork was available for those with means. To maximize the Type 57’s impact, Ettore introduced a streamlined sports model at the back-to-back 1935 Paris and London motor shows. Initially called the Type 57S Coupé Spécial but popularly known as the Aérolithe (French for meteor), the avant-garde speedster was beautifully curved from every angle. Its flowing architecture was a marked contrast to the ubiquitous square-rigged cars of the era. The Aérolithe used a standard early Type 57 chassis with a normally-aspirated 3.3-liter, dual overhead camshafts (DOHC) straight-eight engine.

Bugatti’s competitors also experimented with low-volume aerodynamic models, like the sinister-looking Mercedes-Benz 500K/540K Autobahn-Kurier and Talbot-Lago’s voluptuous teardrop coupes, but nothing on European roads in that era was quite as outrageous as the Aérolithe. It was an overnight design sensation, but orders didn’t materialize. Perhaps Bugatti’s sleek coupe was considered too radical?

This show car was fabricated from magnesium and aluminum alloy. Readily flammable, the metal proved nearly impossible to weld, so Jean, assisted by head draftsman Joseph Walter, united the major sections using rivets. A spine-like center rib divided the svelte body, a theme repeated in its teardrop-shaped fenders. The doors cut into the roof, opened forward, “suicide-style,” and stopped at the midpoint of the body — a sensuous design, but one that made entry access a challenge. Marque experts believe Bugatti built two Aéro prototypes, but it’s reliably thought they did not exist at the same time.

After the Continental show circuit, the cars were dismantled, and some parts were used to build an updated, more refined version of the Aérolithe called the Atlantic. According to Simon Bernhard and Julius Kruta, production Type 57 Atlantic bodies were hand-fabricated in aluminum. The rivets were no longer needed, but they looked exotic, so the illusion of a riveted spine was retained. Close-coupled, cramped, poorly ventilated, and somewhat impractical, the lithe, lightweight coupe was an enthusiast’s delight. According to L. G. Matthews Jr., only four Atlantics were built, of which three survived.

As an avid horseman, Ettore was convinced automobile competition improved the breed, as it did with thoroughbred racing. For this purpose, a Type 57 on an ultra-low S chassis was fitted with uniquely streamlined open coachwork. The factory proudly advertised its successes, which included averaging 135.45 mph for one hour, 123.8 mph for 2,000 miles, and 124.6 mph for 2,485 miles. A streamlined Type 57 roadster won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1937.

Using the lines of the Aérolithe-inspired Atlantic, Jean Bugatti later designed the Atalante, a slightly larger, more comfortable production grand tourer on the Type 57 chassis. Substantially more successful than the Aérolithe or the Atlantic, about 40 Atalantes were built on the standard Type 57 and the sporting Type 57S (surbaisse, meaning low-slung) chassis before World War II halted all production.

This Bugatti Aérolithe re-creation was built for Chris Ohrstrom, of The Plains, Virginia, by David Grainger and his team at the Guild of Automotive Restorers in Bradford, Ontario. Starting with the earliest known surviving Type 57 frame, the number 57104 — Grainger and his team obtained sheets of magnesium alloy, and then developed a technique to form the body panels and weld them together using a process that would have been used in 1935. The crème de menthe finish was taken from a painting of the original Aérolithe done by a Bugatti engineer named Reister. Every detail was meticulously duplicated, including the double whitewall Dunlop tires. The result has been welcomed in Bugatti circles and was featured in Bugantics, the Bugatti Owners’ Club quarterly publication.

I had the opportunity to take a brief drive at Tyler Perry Studios before the Atlanta Concours d’Elegance. The Aérolithe’s tiny doors make access a challenge for a gymnast. There’s no ventilation, the windows don’t open, and the cockpit is cramped. A large diameter steering wheel, mounted on a spear-like shaft, is imperative, as there’s no power assist. I’ve driven several Type 57 Bugattis, including a supercharged Atalante coupe, so there’s an immediate familiarity once I’m inside.

The 3.3-liter I-8 cranks slowly then fires with an authoritative rumble. The audible whine from twin gear-driven camshafts is very Bugatti-like. A long, spindly shifter engages into first gear, and we’re off. The clutch depresses only about two inches, and the hard brake pedal is like stepping on a rock, but the eager 160-brake-horsepower engine is ready to rev, and away we go. Conscious of this car’s stratospheric value, I’m cautious at first, but it’s obvious the Bugatti wants to leap ahead with abandon. Once we’re underway, the initially heavy steering lightens up and feels very precise.

Much lighter than a standard Type 57 Bug, the sporty Aérolithe responds to a bit of throttle the way a thoroughbred horse reacts to a deft touch of the spur. Shifting to second gear brings an even more urgent feel to our progress. I have to suppress the wish to hammer the roller throttle all the way. Unfortunately, we run out of road on the Tyler Perry Studios backlot, and I have to J-turn around for another go. This time we only get into third gear. The ultra-rare coupe isn’t legally registered, and it’s here from Canada on an import carnet, so we are reluctant to take it onto the highway.

That said, there has been enough time spent behind the wheel to sense that this car has performance that would have been thrilling in 1935, and it’s still exhilarating. Ettore and Jean Bugatti went on to create some fabulous cars on the Type 57 chassis. Ralph Lauren’s and Peter Mullin’s sleek Type 57SC Atlantic coupes, the spiritual successors to the Aérolithe, are among the world’s most valuable automobiles. We’re delighted to have had a few fast minutes in this incredible car. Our thanks go to owner Chris Ohrstrom, David Grainger and Brad Velma from the Guild of Automotive Restorers, for sharing it.