The 1936 Type 57S Atlantic Coupe driven by Jean Bugatti was one of only four cars ever produced. Numbered 57453, the car had distinctive and unique characteristics that set it aside from the other three coupes.
Building what we believe to be the first-ever faithful recreation of this exotic Bugatti would arguably be one of the most difficult and complex projects we could undertake…..in 2018 we took on the challenge.
The Defining Concept Car
To detail the history surrounding the Type 57S Atlantic Coupe no. 57453, we first need to touch on the influential design that preceded that car – the Type 57S Aerolithe Coupe, chassis no. 57331.
A year before the production of the Atlantic Coupes began, Jean Bugatti designed and constructed a streamlined and rather unorthodox concept car. Wanting to use a lightweight but strong material for the body, Bugatti chose the aviation-suited Elektron alloy. There were implications for choosing this material as Elektron alloy at that time was a mix of 90 per cent magnesium and 10 per cent aluminium. This made the alloy more difficult to work with, highly flammable and unable to be welded. Jean Bugatti specified that the panels were therefore to be riveted together and hence, the iconic Bugatti dorsal seam was born.
The Aerolithe debuted at the Paris Auto Show in October 1935 and was photographed later that month at the London Motor Show at Olympia, London.
Photographer: Edward George Malindine
Photographed for the Daily Herald on 17th October 1935
Copyright: National Science and Media Museum
From our research, we believe three orders may have been taken from the Paris Motor Show but the Aerolithe prototype in its original state never progressed to a production stage. It was photographed the following year in the spring of 1936 in London and then, it seems, was never seen again.
“London, Spring 1936. ‘Coupé special’. Outside the premises of Godfrey Giles & Co.,
2 Queen Street, Mayfair, W1. Bugatti driver Grover Williams demonstrated the car
to Colonel Giles at speeds of up to 115mph.”
The abrupt end to recorded details, and the disappearance of the Aerolithe coupe following that 1936 demonstration, remains a mystery. But the puzzle pales in comparison to another disappearance a few years later that would become one of the greatest automotive mysteries of all time.
The Production Phase
Inspired by the conceptual design of the Aerolithe Coupe, Jean Bugatti began developing a production model. He modified the build plan to incorporate standard aluminium for the skin but elected to retain the aesthetics created by the pronounced, riveted seams.
The production of the new model began in 1936 but was short-lived. Only four would ever be built (all by hand) and each would have unique characteristics.
Two of these deco-style vehicles were completed in 1936 and named the ‘Aero Coupe’. But in December of that year, Jean Bugatti suffered a personal loss that would lead him to rename the streamlined coupes.
Jean Mermoz, an aviator and close friend, had been the chief pilot on the first non-stop postal flight over the South Atlantic Ocean in May 1930. Mermoz tragically disappeared on 7th December 1936 during a flight from Dakar to Natal, Brazil. Neither his body nor the bodies of his crew were ever recovered. To honour Mermoz’s memory, Jean Bugatti renamed the aluminium Type 57S production model the ‘Atlantic Coupe’.
The Bugatti Type 57S Atlantic Coupes
The four handcrafted Bugatti Atlantic Coupes were built on a Type 57S chassis, with the “S” being an abbreviation for “surbaissé” meaning lowered.
We have listed below some basic details of the four cars in the order they were built. Our thanks and appreciation to the Bugatti Trust for sharing most of the following images to illustrate the individual styling and unique characteristics of each of the iconic Atlantic Coupes.
Type 57S Atlantic Coupe No 1
Chassis No: 57374
Original Owner: Victor Rothschild
Original Model: Aero Coupe
Delivered: September 1936
Original Colour: Light Blue
Current Location: Owned by (the late) Peter Mullin and Rob Walton – frequently displayed at the Mullin Automotive Museum
The first and second Atlantic (formerly Aero) Coupes were originally very similar with only a handful of variations to distinguish between the two. The easiest identifiable differences were the window design, the chrome-plated stone guards on the rear spats of the second Aero Coupe, 57453, and the small marker lights fitted to the front guards of the first Aero Coupe, 57374.
After owning the car for several years, Rothschild sold the Atlantic and it eventually ended up in the US where it underwent significant modifications. The following images show the changes made to the car after World War II by Bob Oliver. Some of the modifications included moulding the headlights into the front guards, removing the louvres from the top of the doors, cutting and shaping the spats to expose the wheels, enlarging the rear windows and fitting chrome front and rear bumpers.
Dr. Peter Williamson purchased the Atlantic Coupe in 1971 and during his ownership, the car was restored and reinstated back to its original factory appearance. The car was kept in the family until 2010 at which time it was sold to the current owners, (the late) Peter Mullin and Rob Walton.
Type 57S Atlantic Coupe No 2
Chassis No: 57453
Original Owner: Demonstration model / Jean Bugatti
Original Model: Aero Coupe
Delivered: October 1936
Original Colour: Black
Current Location: Whereabouts unknown
The second Aero Coupe was constructed with a small opening window vent that was unique to this specific car. It was used as a demonstration model and was personally driven by Jean Bugatti.
Painted black at the factory, the car became affectionately known as “La Voiture Noire” (the black car).
The Atlantic Coupe 57453 was displayed at the 1937 Nice and Lyon Motor Shows and was driven at times by several racing drivers who were close friends of Jean Bugatti.
Type 57S Atlantic Coupe No 3
Chassis No: 57473
Original Owner: Jacques Holzschuh
Original Model: Atlantic Coupe
Delivered: December 1936
Original Colour: Black
Current Location: In private ownership in Spain.
The third car built (and the first sold as an Atlantic after the Aero name change) was bought new by Jacques Holzchuh.
Holzchuh died towards the end of WWII, and the car went through several owners until Rene Chatard purchased it in 1952. At some point prior to Chatard’s ownership, this car had also been restyled.
On 22nd August 1955, Chatard was driving the Atlantic in Gien, France with a friend, Janine Vacheron. The car was struck by a train at a railway crossing and both occupants were tragically killed. The Bugatti was destroyed.
In 1965, a Bugatti enthusiast, Paul-Andre Berson, discovered and purchased the wreckage of the Atlantic Coupe 57473 in a scrap yard in Gien. He salvaged the original chassis, engine, gearbox and remnants of the twisted body to recreate the car. It is our understanding that the engine and box, and the left side of the body were definitely not used in the rebuild, and many parts were either made or sourced from other Bugattis to recreate the Atlantic Coupe.
The rebuilt car was last sold in 2016 and is now part of a private collection.
Type 57S Atlantic Coupe No 4
Chassis No: 57591
Original Owner: Richard B. Pope
Original Model: Atlantic Coupe
Delivered: May 1938
Original Colour: Sapphire Blue
Current Location: Ralph Lauren Collection
The fourth and final Atlantic Coupe built was sold to British barrister and tennis star Richard Pope.
Unlike the first and third cars, Atlantic Coupe No 57591 was never modified. It passed through various private collections until its most famous owner, Ralph Lauren, purchased it in 1988.
A short time after buying the car, Ralph Lauren commissioned a complete restoration with Paul Russell and Co with an instruction to change the paint and interior to black.
The Bugatti Family Tragedy
Jean Bugatti was an exceptionally gifted and talented young man who came from an artistic family. His passion and primary involvement in the family business was in body design but he also had a good understanding of engineering.
When Jean Bugatti designed the Type 57 Atlantic Coupes in 1936, he was only 27 years old. That same year he was made head of the company. His father, Ettore, was no doubt immensely proud and relieved that the future of his beloved company was to continue within the family.
Three years later, on 11th August 1939, Jean Bugatti was test-driving the ‘tank-line’ Type 57C that had won Le Mans in June of that year. Driving not far from the Molsheim factory, 30 year old Jean swerved to avoid a cyclist, lost control and was killed on impact when the car hit a tree.
In an instant, the Bugatti dream was shattered and the family was left absolutely devastated.
The ‘La Voiture Noire’ Mystery
The same year that Jean Bugatti died, the iconic black Atlantic Coupe 57453 went missing. The disappearance of this car went on to become one of the greatest automotive mysteries of all time.
Some quote 1938 as the last time the Atlantic was sighted but we have found reference to the car in 1939.
There are numerous theories as to what happened to “La Voiture Noire”. One was that Ettore loaded the Atlantic on a train heading to Bordeaux (where the company had a second factory in Bordelais) to escape the Nazis. Another is that Ettore told those around him that the Atlantic was headed for Bordeaux when in fact he had hidden it somewhere and kept the location secret.
A different set of theories points to Jean lending or gifting the car to Robert Benoist, who along with Jean-Pierre Wimille, gave Bugatti its first win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1937. Some suggest Benoist may have passed the car on to fellow Bugatti racer William Grover-Williams.
Then there are the theories surrounding the war. The Molsheim factory was taken over by the Nazis and if the car had been left there, it could possibly have been stolen by soldiers or taken back to Germany. The Nazis also took over Bugatti’s Bordelais factory which was eventually bombed by the British RAF. Had the car actually arrived at Bordelais, there are suggestions it could have been destroyed during the bombing campaign. Documented testimonies, however, indicate the damage to the factory was minimal.
There are just so many possibilities. One thing is agreed by all those trying to uncover the great mystery of the Atlantic Coupe 57453. If it is ever found, it is estimated it will be worth well over USD100 million.
And when one considers that Jean Lanez’s Type 57 No. 57579 sat in a barn in France for 50 years before it was discovered, it is not inconceivable that one day Jean Bugatti’s ‘La Voiture Noire’ will be found under a pile of dirt and dust. What a barn find that will be!