A Bugatti Journey

Meanwhile, from the driver's seat, the most vivid visual is a thin, polished steering column aimed directly at your chest. You worry that, in the smallest of crashes, the column will harpoon your thorax, killing you long before the precious car's owner arrives on the scene to do the job himself. Either way, it's a scary thought -- especially once you hit the gas and find that the supercharged Type 51 is modern-car fast.

The straight-eight starts quickly, idles perfectly, and responds instantly to throttle inputs. It's blatty and crude, with nothing of the sweetness we've become used to from eights arranged in a vee. It sounds more like two four-cylinders mounted together (which, in fact, it is); unmuffled (which, in fact, it is); and punctuated with the enormous clatter of a Scintilla magneto, which is sticking through the firewall and mounted in the dashboard. The pedals are laid out in the correct-modern-arrangement, but even the skinniest driving shoes are too wide to depress only the gas pedal. You learn to twist your ankle and use the side of your foot to actuate it.

To the right, outside the cockpit, is the long metal shifter. The four forward gears are arranged in the usual H-pattern, but with first and third toward the rear of the car. With no plastic bits or cables between your hand and the gears -- and Bugatti's zero-tolerance policy for machined parts -- the shifter's action is perfectly precise. So, too, is the clutch pedal, which is easy to use despite having what feels like less than an inch of travel.

The suspension seems to go on break when bumps arrive -- especially midcorner ones -- and the cable-actuated brakes are horrifying, to say the least, but the Type 51's effortless torque and shocking grip means it'll easily keep up with cars seventy years its junior.

After a few hours exposed to the elements, you're dirty, stinky, deaf, wind-blown, sunburned, and covered in a carcinogenic film of discarded motor oil. The experience is such a sweet assault on your senses that all of your reference points are null and void. You have no idea even how fast you're going. When I pulled out a GPS on an open section of Highway 1 along the Pacific coast, I was certain the device would mock me, showing a speed attainable by bicycle. Instead, we were heading due south at 72 mph, and the Type 51 felt like it had more than 50 mph left in it. Which it did.

Although the Bugatti car had plenty of reserve, Bugatti the company, it would transpire, did not.

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