The Bugatti Aerolithe Story
The Bugatti Aerolithe was designed by Jeanne Bugatti in 1934/35 and appeared at the Paris Salon in 1936.
It was built on the comparatively new Type 57 chassis that was much larger than most Bugatti chassis with the exception of the immense Royales.
When it appeared at the Paris Salon it was radically different from other cars in its teardrop shape and magnesium body shell.
Magnesium was a very advanced material of the time, but like most exotic materials had both advantages and disadvantages. It was much lighter than aluminum and steel, and was harder than steel, but it was prone to cracking, difficult to shape and of course very flammable.
The car was not a success at the Paris show. The media panned it and made fun of the riveted ridges on the center of the body and fenders.
Ettore Bugatti informed the press that those were required, as Magnesium could not be secured in the usual ways by welding and had to be riveted together instead.
This resulted in the press dubbing the car “The Electron Coupe”, although Bugatti’s official designation for the car was “Coupe Aerodynamic”.
At some point it was dubbed the Aerolithe which literally means sky rock and refers to meteorites, and it is by this name that its myth has come down to us.
After the Paris show, it made a brief foray to Britain where it was road-tested and appeared during the Earlscourt Automotive Exposition later that same year.
After that the car disappeared, never to be seen again, and the mystery of its short public life and disappearance has resulted in decades of speculation and treasure-hunting.
Today it is widely believed that if discovered it would be worth in excess of a hundred million dollars. Treasure indeed.
In the 1990s, David Grainger was building a T 59 Bugatti 3.3-litre racecar and in his quest for parts he came a across a huge cache of original parts in South Carolina.
A deal was struck and two million dollars’ worth of parts was acquired for the project. Amongst them was a chassis, engine and transmission and a host of original parts making up a complete rolling chassis with even the dashboard and seats for a Type 57 Bugatti serial number 57104.
While Grainger realized that it was an important artifact, it was put on the back burner as a viable project for almost ten years.
In that ten-year period, Grainger mused on what to do with the chassis. Restoring it as just a bare chassis had some appeal, but after completion, there was not a lot that could be done with it.
Grainger toyed with the idea of designing and building an original body for it, as well, but that had little appeal from a collector’s standpoint. Similarly, quite a few of the opulent Bugattis that Grainger considered still existed, so made that thought moot.
One design Grainger kept coming back to was the Aerolithe. It was perfect. It was beautiful and groundbreaking in its design -- and it was long gone. It was also intimidating. Grainger researched building it from aluminum that would be relatively easy but would have little value from a historical perspective.
The idea of building a body from magnesium was daunting but Grainger started researching whether it was feasible, and if so, how to do it.
During this planning phase, several well-placed collectors who were interested in building the car contacted Grainger. Most were put off by the complexity, difficulty and expense involved in the project and Grainger was adamant that if it were to be built it had to be an absolutely perfect rebirth of the car with no shortcuts, or it would risk losing its relevance.
At this point, Nicholas Cage, the noted actor and car enthusiast, stepped up and seriously contemplated the project. It was virtually green-lit when his ability to carry it forward was compromised and the project halted.
About a year later Cage again started negotiating the project, but again the planning foundered.
Almost immediately afterwards, Grainger was contacted unexpectedly by a gentleman by the name of Chris Ohrstrom.
Ohrstrom had been chatting with Ralph Lauren and said he might be interested in working on an exciting automotive project.
Ohrstrom was already a noted restorer of important architectural buildings worldwide and chairman of the World Monuments Fund, so restoring things properly was in his blood, and he understood the necessity of unwavering attention to accuracy and detail.
Lauren suggested he contact Grainger regarding the Aerolithe project.
After a luncheon meeting, Grainger and Ohrstrom decided to move forwards, and over the next seven years the project took shape.
It was completed in 2013, and gathered worldwide attention when His Highness Sheik Nasser Al-Mohammad Al-Ahmad Al-Jabar Al-Saba of Kuwait requested that the international unveiling of the car be done at his museum in Kuwait City.
The car was flown to Kuwait and its formal introduction to the world press and enthusiasts went flawlessly.
Since that time, it was awarded International Historical Car of the Year in 2013 among a host of other commendations.
While it has starred at many events, it is its appearance on display at several public fine art museums across the US that pleased Chris Ohrstrom and David Grainger the most.
These important exhibits gave the car validation not only as a masterpiece of automotive design but also as a truly great representation of Industrial Art Deco design from the first half of the twentieth century.
The Bugatti Aerolithe: Specs
Chassis 57104- Engine 46
This is the fourth Type 57 chassis built and was delivered to coachbuilder Lamperjack in Paris in 1934. There is no real record of a body built for it by Lamperjack and it may have been a display chassis to show clients the newest Bugatti design. It must be remembered that this chassis and its powerful eight-cylinder twin cam engine were a huge new advance for the Bugatti brand.
There was conjecture that a Stelvio styled cabriolet body was fitted to it before the war but no real proof of that has been forthcoming. Since the end of the Second World War, it survived as just an amazingly complete rolling chassis and driveline.
Interestingly the only original parts that were missing when Grainger received it were the two front axle trumpets, other than that it was amazingly complete right down to important nuts and bolts and a little used engine that had never been dismantled since its assembly at the factory.
Not long after the acquisition, Grainger ran into a previous owner at the Barrett-Jackson auction. This chap had owned the chassis in the early 1960s and he had purchased it from a fellow who had had it since the 1940s. He said that there was no sign of a body being on it when he owned it and in fact noted that nothing had changed with it over the decades aside from the disappearance of the axle trumpets.
He had passed it on to Tom Barrett, a founder of the Barrett-Jackson auction, renowned by car collectors. Tom wanted to use it to build an Atlantic replica, but found it was unsuitable as the Atlantics were much smaller and had a markedly different chassis.
He then made a trade for an appropriate chassis to the restorer from whom Grainger obtained it, many years later.
It was fortunate that this chassis and driveline survived for so long without being separated and sold off as spares. It is the oldest T 57 chassis in existence and as such is very important in its own right.
Its blending with the recreated coachwork of the lost Aerolithe has created one of the world’s most famous cars and one that has seen the legacy of the great French coachbuilders and Jeanne Bugatti as a designer preserved and carried forwards.
It still receives dozens of automotive show requests every year and is much sought after for display by museums and art galleries around the world.
It is also one of the very few cars to have been featured on Jay Leno’s Garage not just once, but twice.
Jay declared it one of the most beautiful and important Bugattis in existence -- no small praise from a world renowned expert.