A Bugatti Journey

Desecration in The Making
Last summer I was privileged to visit Peter Mullin's private California automobile museum. It celebrates the glorious period from 1919 to 1939, when Paris was the epicenter of world car design and French, American, Italian, Russian, and Spanish designers living there created some of the most beautiful cars of all time. Mullin has a wide-ranging selection of exquisite vehicles, but the centerpiece is one of Jean Bugatti's exotic Atlantic coupes. Indeed, the overall emphasis is on Bugattis. Not just cars created by Ettore and his engineer/stylist elder son, Jean, but also furniture by paterfamilias Carlo and sculpture by Ettore's brother, Rembrandt. It's all of the highest quality and in the best of taste, a magnificent ensemble unequaled even in France. Perfect.

Except for one jarring note: in an alcove stood one of only two extant prototype cast-aluminum chassis for the Bugatti Type 64, the model intended to follow the successful Type 57, introduced in 1934 and made in some 700 examples. That's not the problem; the chassis is fascinating. But it's surrounded by sketches and models of some absolutely horrifying bodies proposed recently by students at the Art Center College of Design, one of which may actually be erected at great cost on that unique, irreplaceable platform. The idea of creating a new body is fine, but I am distressed that unformed and uninformed youngsters have been entrusted with a task for which-on the evidence presented-they are incapable of executing.

They've done a series of Kalifornia Kustom adaptations of Jean Bugatti's 1935 riveted-magnesium AĆ©rolithe ("meteor" in Greek) design that led to the Atlantics, as though Jean had had to rummage through discarded sketches to come up with a slight variation on older designs. I don't think that's realistic. Jean was killed in 1939, driving that year's Le Mans-winning car with an envelope body he designed in 1935-36. If Jean did aerodynamic, full-envelope bodies that early, and if worldwide design tendency was then in the direction of pontoon bodies -- and it was -- why would he go back? And why should twenty-first-century students imagine that one of the most creative designers then practicing would only want to do baroque George Barris-style modifications of his own superseded models?

To properly honor Jean Bugatti's heritage with a new Type 64 body, designers need strong historical awareness, and they must know what precursors in form existed in 1940 along with the techniques and materials in use at the time. Using that knowledge-and absolutely nothing that arose in the subsequent seventy years-those students might have created a reasonable proposition. I believe it required an experienced, mature, retired designer working closely with a qualified historian to guide them. Strother MacMinn could have done it, or Dave Holls, but they're gone now. Frenchman Paul Bracq comes to mind, or Hungarian-born Steve Pasteiner, or any of half a dozen other elder statesmen of design. What the students have done is anathema to me. Wouldn't it be better just to leave the bare chassis on exhibition?

- Robert Cumberford

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