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Bob's Bugatti

Bob's Bugatti
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At a long-ago Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, the featured cars were the seven gigantic Bugatti Royales. My friend Richie Clyne (who is best known for building Las Vegas Motor Speedway) was the curator of the Imperial Palace Auto Collection back then. He was hot to buy a Royale. I told him I'd rather have one of the even rarer Type 57SC Atlantic Coupes that Ettore Bugatti made.

I first saw one of these way back in 1972, when I was just getting into hot rods and old cars. I lived in New York City at the timea and The Village Voice (of all places) carried an annoucement for the New Hope Auto Show in Bucks County, Pa. It was the second "antique car show" I had ever been to at that time.

I remember a few of the rare cars that caught my eye at the show - a Chevrolet El Morocco, a '53 Buick Skylark and a sliding-door Kaiser-Darrin were the real standouts. The French Blue Type 57SC Bugatti Atlantic was in the parking lot - not in the show. With its long, long hood, teardrop body shape and aircraft-style riveted rib up the center of the car, it looked absolutely amazing.

As I said, the car was in the parking area, which was grassy. It was fall. Yellow and orange leaves from surrounding trees had been dropping on the car for a while. They looked gorgeous against the blue finish. I had actually wanted to be a car designer, not a writer and the juxtaposition of colors floored me. This car I was looking at had to be a pinnacle of automobile design.

Later, I discovered one possible reason that particular car was parked outside the show. Several people said that it had to be a replica. They said only three of the real cars were ever built (actually four were made). They told me that the histories of all the cars were known. But, who built replicas of Bugattis back in 1972? I always had a problem believing that car was not the Real McCoy.

In the mid-'80s, I went to a car show in Cologne, Germany. It was my first trip to Europe and I had an "open" ticket. I don't know if they still offer them, but an open ticket allowed you to hop off the plane in different cities that it stopped in and, later, catch another flight home on the same ticket. I had met a French writer named Philippe at the show. He said I should stop in Paris, so I did.

I had less than a hundred bucks in my pocket, but I got a cheap hotel and I walked across Paris to the address Philippe had given me. It was an old garage that housed a car collection owned by the Sidot (I think I got the spelling right) family. One of the cars was a black Type 57SC Bugatti. As far as I was concerned (at that time), I had seen two of the three cars ever made.

Later, I learned that the car I saw in Paris was controversial. Apparently, it had been hit by a train back in the 1950s, wrecked and rebuilt. Some folks did not consider it to be a "true" Type 57SC Atlantic. Well, I don't know about that, but it looked just like a real one and that was all that mattered to me.

During my Pebble Beach trip I got to see a third car. This was the fully restored black one owned by clothing designer Ralph Lauren. There are stories on the Internet putting this car's value at $40 million. At the time I saw the car, I thought there were just three of them made and that I might have seen all three.

Not too many years ato - 2006 I think - I got to see a fourth car when the Elkhart Lake Vintage Festival at Road America featured Bugattis. This one was the silver blue car owned by the late Dr. Williamson. This car is now in the Mullin Collection in California. I believe it last traded hands for around $30 million.

By this time, I was a little confused. I had seen four cars that shared the beautiful styling of the Type 57SC Bugatti Atlantic, but I wasn't quite sure how many were considered "real" ones. Then, a few weeks ago, I saw a fifth car. This one I know wasn't a real Bugatti, but it looks pretty much like one. The car is being built by Bob Booty of Oshkosh, Wis. and he is darned near finished with it.

Bob's not trying to fool anyone, so he calls his tribute to Ettore Bugatti's artistic genius the Rabuggi (a name that almost blew up on my spell-checker). To build the fiberglass body, Bob taught himself how to make molds and lay up the resin. His car rides on a more or less stock Chevy S-10 pickup chassis, but Bob took measurements off photos of real Atlantics. Then, he made elaborate, color-coded mechanical drawings so he could replicate the original classic design.

Bob did most of the work in a small two-car garage behind his house. Like most of us hobbyists, he doesn't have an unlimited budget, but he has the passion and he's learning the skills needed t oturn his dream into a reality. And he picked a great automobile to copy. I cannot think of another car that people might have replicated in the early '70s or rebuilt after a train wreck in the '50s.

And, by the way, I saw a sixth car not too long ago. I was riding my motorcycle near New London, Wis., when a black Type 57SC Bugatti flashed by in the opposite direction. I assume it was another replica - but who really knows?