Bugatti is one of the most prestigious car brands in history. The French company won races across Europe with cutting-edge Grand Prix cars–until World War Two. The Bugatti badge also graced luxurious art-deco-era grand tourers. Jay Leno famously said, “There aren’t many cars that are as exciting to drive as a Bugatti.” So naturally, Leno owns several Bugattis. But one of Bugatti’s final cars–a futuristic coupe named the Bugatti Atlantic–is so rare, Jay Leno can’t even buy one if he wanted to.
The 1936 Type 57S Bugatti Atlantic
Like many modern cars, the Bugatti Atlantic began life as a prototype. Ettore Bugatti–owner of Bugatti–spent decades experimenting with lightweight materials. In 1924, he pioneered the aluminum wheel for his race cars. And in July 1935, he completed a coupe made entirely of a magnesium alloy he called Elektron.
Bugatti could not find a way to weld his magnesium body panels together. So instead, he designed them to rivet together. As a result, the most recognizable feature of Bugatti’s “Elektron Coupe” is a riveted ridge running the car’s entire length, where its two sides join.
The prototype made the rounds to the British International Motor Show and the Paris Motor Show. In Paris, the car earned the nickname La Aérolithe, meaning “fast as a meteor.”
The following year, Bugatti advertised a car styled after the Aérolithe, called the Type 57S Atlantic. A British tennis star, a Greek race car driver, a Parisian businessman, and a Rothschild Baron from the United Kingdom ordered Bugatti Atlantics. Bugatti disassembled the Aérolithe prototype for parts and built four Atlantics.
Bugatti built one Atlantic with a supercharger, designating it the Type 57SC Atlantic. Two 57S Atlantics would later return to the factory where Bugatti fitted them with superchargers and renamed them Type 57S(+C). While Bugatti probably built hundreds of cars on various Type 57 chassis, he only ever made four Atlantics. This makes the Atlantic rarer even than the Bugatti Royale Kellner. The Atlantic would eventually give way to the slightly more common Bugatti Atalante Coupe.
Two Bugatti Atlantics Crashed Or Were Lost Forever
The Parisian businessman drove his Atlantic–chassis number 57473–until World War Two when he was arrested and killed by the Nazis. After the war, the car’s new owner was touring in France when he was struck by a train. The driver and the woman with him were both killed. The remains of the Bugatti were sold for scrap, but a collector bought the car. In the 1960s, the collector restored what parts he could and remanufactured everything else. The resulting vehicle entered Pebble Beach in 2010, but the judges snubbed the incomplete car, calling it “a replica.”
After the Greek race car driver received his Atlantic, he decided he would prefer a convertible. So he had a custom body built and fitted to his Type 57 chassis. He sent the rare body back to Bugatti, who mounted it on chassis number 57453. At some point, Bugatti renamed the resulting car chassis number 57454. After World War One, pilot and racing driver Robert Benoist won the 1937 24 hours of Le Mans in the Bugatti 57G “Tank,” Ettore gave his friend 57454.
When the Nazis invaded Europe, Benoist had a chance to rescue one car from the doomed factory and made the fateful decision to escape with Ettore’s personal car–a Type 57C with chassis number 57335–which he hid for his friend. Benoist then joined the French resistance and was captured and killed. Meanwhile, 57454 appears to be destroyed or lost forever.
Surviving Bugatti Atlantics Are Rare
Ralph Lauren eventually bought the tennis star’s Atlantic–chassis number 57591. Lauren had the car completely restored to its original condition, changing only the color–to black. Afterward, the car won Best of Show at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in n 1990.
The Rothschild Atlantic–chassis number 57374–made its way to the U.S. in 1945. After a complete restoration, 57374 also won Best of Show at Pebble Beach in 2003. Peter Mullin later bought the car, and today it is on display at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, CA.
The only two fully-intact Bugatti Atlantics known to exist were finally reunited to lead a Bugatti parade in Saratoga, New York.
Jay Leno’s Bugatti Atlantic Replica
With only two entire Bugatti Atlantic’s surviving, and neither Ralph Lauren nor Peter Mullen interested in selling, this is a Bugatti too rare for even Jay Leno to buy. But Leno is an admirer of the beautiful, magnesium-bodied grand tourer. So, with no original Atlantics available, Leno had a replica built.
As cool as original Atlantics are, their $30 million+ pricetag would leave any owner nervous about taking theirs out for a spin. A replica, however, is easy to drive down the road and display at a car show. At the end of the day, Jay Leno’s Atlantic is probably more fun than an original.