When the former newspaper proprietor Conrad Black needed someone to fix up his 1956 Silver Cloud Rolls Royce a few years ago, he sent it to a surprising location an hour north of Toronto. Here, on the outskirts of the farming town of Bradford, a former wildlife artist has turned into one of North America's most sought-after restorers of classic automobiles. David Grainger has fixed up everything from '57 Chevys to antique Rolls Royces worth hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. His clients have included the late Allan Manford, co-founder of the American Growth Fund, a few wildly rich Americans, an NHL hockey player, and action movie star Nicholas Cage, who once called in because the engine of his vintage Bugatti seized on the road.
Now, after working his way from restoring muscle cars to the original horseless carriages, Mr. Grainger is on the verge of accomplishing a decade-old mission - to reproduce one of the greatest and most elusive icons of automobile history. Richard Day, the curator of the Bugatti Trust, based in Gloucestershire, England, calls the car an artistic achievement, the 20th-century answer to a Gothic cathedral or a Greek temple: It's "an important part of western civilization wrapped up in engineering design."
The Aerolithe was the prototype of one of the rarest and most beautiful sports cars ever made by the fabled French car maker, Bugatti. Introduced in the middle of the Great Depression, its curvy sexy lines and low stance captivated the enthusiasts who strolled through the 1935 Paris Auto Show. It was named after a meteor - aptly, as it turned out, because after a brief test drive in the United Kingdom, it disappeared.
Since then, no one has convincingly reproduced the Aerolithe, although some have tried. The stakes are high: An accurate reproduction of the Aerolithe could be worth millions of dollars and could earn the restorer a moment in the spotlight at the most exclusive of auto shows, the Concours d'Elegance, in Pebble Beach, Calif. "It's a very, very significant piece of Bugatti history," says Mr. Day.
Mr. Grainger, a blunt and often scrappy man who sits in an office stuffed with automobile memorabilia, agrees: The Aerolithe is "a stunning piece of art," he says. When his Aerolithe makes its debut at the auto shows, probably next summer, it will be the first to accurately reproduce one of the most beautiful cars ever made. "It's pretty devout," he said.
Yet Mr. Grainger's renegade Aerolithe project has provoked withering critiques from the elite international group of U.K. and European Bugattists, as they call themselves. They're charging that Mr. Grainger hasn't been true to the original. "They're a little club," Mr. Grainger retorts. "I've offended them by being over here."
One thing they do agree on is this: Bugatti is the most exclusive of antique sports cars. Ettore Bugatti, an immigrant from Italy, built beautiful sports cars that competed successfully in many European races. Ettore's son, Jean, designed the Aerolithe, but then, a month before France declared war on Germany, he died at age 30 while testing a racing car. The Bugatti factory was taken over by the invading Germans, and Ettore spent the war drawing car designs in a Paris apartment, while some of the Bugatti racing car drivers joined the French Resistance. Two years after the war ended, Ettore died.
More than 60 years later, the romance of the Bugatti story is nurtured by the Bugattists in owners' clubs around the world. The British club, which enjoyed the patronage of the fifth Baron Raglan, the descendent of the British commander in Crimea, until his death earlier this year, conducts antique car races and publishes a magazine, Bugantics. The Bugatti Trust keeps the archives from the Bugatti factory and says its mission is to "preserve and make available for study the works of Ettore Bugatti."
For Bugattists, as for other owners of classic cars, the place to be seen is the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance. Some of the biggest spenders on the planet parade their polished antique cars there, even in the darkest moments of the economic collapse. The two surviving sports cars that were based on the Aerolithe have both won the top prize at Pebble Beach: One belongs to the American designer Ralph Lauren; the other, owned by an American neurologist, sold this spring for over $30-million.
Mr. Grainger set out to make his mark in this international world a decade ago from his base, the Guild of Automotive Restorers. It's a modest building with wooden windmill on the roof. In one corner is a 1985 electric commuter vehicle designed by the British genius Sir Clive Sinclair that turned into a commercial disaster. In another, you can see the 1970s SuperVan, complete with a spinning circular red fuzzy bed.
He found a backer - an enormously rich client from the U.S. who restores cars, castles and chateaus as well as period buildings in Jamaica and the U.S. As work began, Mr. Grainger relied on 11 photographs of the Aerolithe at the Paris auto show, plus a blueprint of an accelerator panel. To understand Bugatti design methods, they brought into the shop a restored Bugatti Stelvio, which was made in the Bugatti factory in the mid-1930s.
As news of the Aerolithe project spread through the international Bugatti community, Mr. Grainger found himself the target of attacks. Mr. Grainger's decision to build the car of a Bugatti Type 57 chassis was dismissed by Bugatti Trust curator Richard Day: "I feel a bit sorry for Mr. Grainger. He's built his replica on the wrong frame."
The original chassis was essential because this would qualify Mr. Grainger's Aerolithe for one of the classes in the Pebble Beach Concours.
"It's absolutely unquestionable that the original car was built on a unique frame that was lower and lighter than the standard 57 chassis," maintains Mr. Day. "It's difficult for Mr. Grainger to swallow."
That would be putting it mildly. "He's a pompous jackass," Mr. Grainger retorts. "Richard Day would love to discredit the car, and I had to fight back."
The chassis that Mr. Day suggests is "silly," Mr. Grainger says, since it doesn't fit the car's body. "It shot him right down."
Another criticism came from Danish Bugattist Eric Koux, who has created a dozen Atlantic replicas. He criticizes many details of Mr. Grainger's Aerolithe project, including the green colour, which he deems to be "pure imagination."
Yet Mr. Grainger says he's basing the colour on two sources - a painting of the Aerolithe that was done for Ettore Bugatti, plus an interview he conducted through a translator with an elderly French gentleman who once worked at the Bugatti factory.
As Mr. Grainger prepares to test-drive the Aerolithe in the next few months, one might wonder why he would spend so much time and money recreating a 1930s prototype of a sports car. Some people spend a lot of money restoring old cars to feel like a teenager again, but for Grainger, who owned 24 cars before he turned 25, it's something different. "When I first saw the rusty chassis, I saw the car as a rolling piece of art."
Now that it's almost finished, Mr. Grainger is eager to show the automotive world the Aerolithe. His American client won't turn up; he typically shuns that kind of parade, says Mr. Grainger, but "he would be just fine with me taking it. People are really watching this car."
Special to The Globe and Mail