When the Bugatti Type 57 first hit the pavement back in 1934, there was simply nothing that could compare to it. Designed by founder Ettore Bugatti’s son, Jean, the Type 57 captured the swanky allure of Art Deco styling with vast curving lines that concluded in sharp, striking angles. Like its predecessors, the Type 57 was the ultimate combination of style and speed. In 1936, more improvements were ushered in including revised engine mounts, redesigned exhaust manifold, a modified crankcase with provision for supercharger mounting as well as De Ram self-adjusting shock absorbers and a new dashboard with larger and striking dual instruments.
Only 710 Bugatti Type 57 automobiles were produced from 1934 through 1940, including a variety of sedans and coaches as well as coupes. The most desirable and rare Type 57, amidst all its variations, was the Atalante coupe. The coachwork on the Atalante was done in the Molsheim Bugatti factory as well as Gangloff Coachworks in nearby Colmar. Jean Bugatti’s long, low and voluptuous design was, and still is, one of the most beautiful cars the marque ever designed.
Fewer than 40 Atalantes were produced between 1937–39, with only a handful featuring “roll-back” roofs like this one. Chassis number 57641 is a Type 57C, Series 2 that carries a history as intriguing as the complex region of Alsace where it was conceived. This stunning car has resided in more than one prominent garage and has been written about by the noted Bugatti historian David Sewell. Bugatti factory records invoiced this car for direct delivery to Monsieur Baptifaut of France. In May of 1951, chassis 57641 then passed into the Joussy family, who showed the car at concours and even participated at the Corsica Trials on multiple occasions. During the Joussy family’s ownership, the car was cited in The Bugatti Book, which was published in 1954 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Bugatti Owners Club.
By 1960, chassis 57641 belonged to serious Parisian Bugatti collector Henri Novo. It was during Novo’s ownership that coachwork modifications are believed to have been undertaken. The 1962 Bugatti Register lists chassis 57641 as a Ventoux drophead coupe, but the current coachwork, and citation in later publications, list the car as an Atalante coupe with the rare “roll-back” roof design. According to Sewell, just eight Atalante bodies were built in 1935; only three of them featured a roll-back roof. In 1936, only one roll-back roof was produced, and it is accounted for. So the original Atalante coachwork had to have been acquired from a 1935 Type 57 Atalante.
Eventually, this Atalante was housed at the famous Schlumberger Art Collection in Paris. It’s virtually impossible to overstate the Schlumberger’s influence on the world of art and design. For instance, São Schlumberger was the first person to ever commission Andy Warhol for a screen print of her portrait — an iconic style the man was known for. Pierre Schlumberger, outside of his patronage of some of the world’s greatest museums, was financially responsible, in part, for the restoration of the Palace of Versailles.
The last leg of chassis 57641’s illustrious journey landed the car on North American shores. In 2012, the current owner of the car purchased it from Michel Seydoux and brought it out to Gainesville, TX, where one of the country’s most-lauded coachwork houses, Bob Smith Coachworks, restored the Atalante with expert precision. The Atalante would leave his studio and go on to be exhibited at both the Amelia Island Concours and the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
|Vehicle:||1938 Bugatti Type 57C Atalante Coupe|
|Number Produced:||About 33|
|Tune Up Cost:||$1,000|
|Chassis Number Location:||Firewall identification plate|
|Engine Number Location:||Stamped on left rear crankcase leg|
|Club Info:||American Bugatti Club|
|Alternatives:||1930–33 Delage D8S, 1935–39 Delahaye 135, 1938–39 Talbot Lago T23|
This car, Lot 69, sold for $1,765,000, including buyer’s premium, at Worldwide Auctioneers’ Auburn Auction on September 4, 2021.
The Type 57 was introduced in 1934 and produced through 1939. It was effectively the company’s swan song. (The handful of Type 101s made after the war were assembled from leftover T57 chassis.)
Upon its introduction it was arguably the best grand-touring car in the world. It came equipped with a 3.3-liter, twin overhead-cam straight 8. The silky-smooth engine could power the car to 100 mph, or a bit more in supercharged configuration. (Although the optional supercharger was rarely specified as, curiously, its effect on performance was not so considerable.) Bugatti also produced a sportier short-chassis “S” model, with a dry-sump version of the engine to accommodate its lowered chassis.
The uncompromised quality of the Type 57, as with preceding models, was highly visible. The first clue comes with the Bugatti trademark horseshoe radiator and elegant front axle. But when you open the hood, you are simply in another world by comparison to any other motorcar manufacturer of the period. The burred-aluminum engine with square cam boxes is a work of art. An owner will never tire of someone asking to “show me the engine.”
A coupe for all time
The Type 57 was available as either a rolling chassis or with factory bodywork, initially with 2- and 4-door saloons. In 1935, the 2-seat coupe known as the “Atalante” was introduced. Excluding cars made on the short chassis, only about 33 Atalantes were produced over the four-year production run.
The in-house design was an Art Deco chef-d’oeuvre, simply one of the finest-looking automobiles of all time. But the wonderful lines came with compromised creature comfort. The cockpit was cramped and could get hot. Taller people could have difficulties fitting, but Bugatti produced a handful of wider and higher-roof bodies for those customers who so desired. Other coachbuilders also made a few cars inspired by the factory design.
By the late 1950s and early ’60s, a considerable number of Type 57s were languishing in French barns and scrapyards. Those beautiful engines were of monobloc design and needed frequent attention. The expertise and parts were either not available or deemed too expensive. English and American enthusiasts saved many cars, but others often went to automotive heaven. Which leads to the story of the car we are talking about today. And yes, it’s a “story” car.
All that glitters is not gold
Chassis 57641 was born as a 2-door saloon in November 1938. It did not have a supercharger. By the early 1960s, it was languishing with Henri Novo, south of Paris. Novo specialized in saving Bugattis from the crusher and was not averse to swapping major components around. It is most likely that it was at this time that the car’s body was changed for the far-more-attractive Atalante style. Novo must have considered it easier to swap bodies onto a good running chassis than rebuild the mechanicals.
Roll-top “découvrables” were only made in 1935 and 1936, and of approximately 11 cars with this feature, few are known to survive with their original chassis intact. Curiously, there are a number of cars with genuine Atalante bodies sitting on non-original chassis. But at the time when Novo was playing mix-and-match, no one cared.
There is some doubt as to whether the engine in 57641 is original to the chassis of our subject car, but this confusion is probably not founded. Its supercharger was likely added at the same time as the Atalante body was installed. The front fenders are almost certainly from the original saloon.
This car was bid to $1.5m on the rostrum, with a deal reached shortly afterwards. In a world where buyers have become very conscious about originality and specification, the price was bound to take a hit. Had it been an original roll-top on its original chassis, and in similar condition, it would probably have made $3m or more at the right sale. A late-spec, standard-chassis Atalante with aluminum body, originally fitted with a supercharger and sporting a perfectly clean history, would be substantially more if one could be found.
Values of standard-chassis Bugattis are substantially less than the rarer short-chassis cars. An Atalante S with a clean history will be worth as much as $10m in today’s market. The S is undoubtedly a better car, but it has the same basic engine and similar looks, which means that standard-chassis cars are hugely undervalued at the moment.
The new owner here can be happy in the knowledge that he has an original Atalante body. He may never aspire to winning his class in a prestigious concours, and the final selling price seems a little high for a car with a story. But sex on wheels never comes cheaply. ♦
(Introductory description courtesy of Worldwide Auctioneers.)