Roaring across California's San Fernando Valley at about 100 mph on a 100-degree day, bereft of any kind of windshield or deflector, was intensely exciting. The hot wind in my face might have been harsh, but it didn't erase my smile nor in any way diminish the pleasure of being driven very fast in an eighty-two-year-old car whose unshrouded flywheel-to-gearbox driveshaft was chewing up my right shoe. We were heading east in Jay Leno's supercharged 1928 Type 37A Bugatti, two gray-haired old car guys having a great time in a machine far older than either of us.
I have had an unreasoning passion for Bugattis since I was a teenager, when I was exposed to Ken Purdy's encomium in the True magazine that Bob Finch smuggled into Analy Union High School in Sebastopol, California. The idea of a Bowler-hatted little Italian genius lording over a manor in France that encompassed a château, a car factory, a racing team, and a stable of thoroughbred horses was unforgettable. That Ettore Bugatti promenaded about his estate on horseback-or on an electric buggy or a bicycle, self-designed, of course-impressed me mightily. And the more I learned about the man and his cars over the years, the more I was entranced.
At the time, I was an "airplane guy" and didn't particularly care about cars, which were all-at least as far as I then knew-heavy and clumsy, nothing like machines that could fly. And here was a man who had made cars smaller and lighter and faster than anyone else. Even though it would be decades before I discovered that Ettore Bugatti had built an airplane intended to be the fastest in the world, I could see that his whole design philosophy was something I could embrace wholeheartedly. It was, in fact, the basis of California hot-rodding: reduce weight, go faster. But Bugatti added an element unknown to hot-rodders, an elegance that appeals to the aesthete, a description of anyone who appreciates beauty in all things. In Bugatti's hands, something as mundane as an engine block became an iconic sculpture representing the machine age, and even a kid could understand and appreciate his work.