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Ralph Lauren's $30-million Bugatti a work of art

1938 Bugatti 57SC Atlantic Coupe owned by Ralph Lauren at 2013 Villa d’Est Concorso d’Eleganza.


You must scroll down to number five on the list of top "trofeos" awarded at this year's Villa d'Est Concorso d'Eleganza before coming across a car other than the rare and remarkable Bugatti 57SC Atlantic Coupe.

Fashion icon Ralph Lauren's Atlantic Coupe – one of only three built, and worth more than $30-million – was awarded the Best in Show Trofeo BMW Group by the judging panel, at the event held recently at the upper-crust caravansary on the shores of Italy's Lake Como. It was also the attendees' choice for best in show Coppa d'Oro Ville d'Este, Trofeo BMW Group Itala and Trofeo BMW Group Ragazzi.

The Villa d'Est Concorso d'Eleganza was first staged in 1929 and re-emerged after the Second World War, only to fade away in 1949. It was revived briefly in the mid-1990s, faltered again, and was saved by BMW in 1999, accelerating over the following 14 years to become one of the world's premier concours events, and attract some of the finest classic cars, from collections such as Lauren's.

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Lauren, who was born in New York in 1939 to a Polish immigrant family named Lifschitz (which he changed at 15), began his fashion career making neckties, and opened his first store in 1967, selling ties under the Polo label. From there, it was a fast and furious drive to a Polo boutique on Rodeo Drive in the early 1970s. And then a rapid cruise to the creation of an empire that, in recent years, has recorded annual sales of $5-billion.

Keen on cars since he was a little Lifschitz, Lauren told a Vanity Fair writer visiting his "D.A.D. Garage" cum private museum in Westchester County, N.Y., that he doesn't collect art, "because you can't drive art. I drive these cars, they don't just sit here." His collection of 70 or so ranges from classics, such as the Bugatti Atlantic, to its modern supercar incarnation, the Veyron. All are kept in concours-winning and perfect mechanical condition.

Which must make taking the Atlantic out for a quick squirt on Westchester County's twisties as thrilling for Lauren today as it was for the exclusive handful of people who experienced the car in its period prime.

American auto writer Ken Purdy quotes an English "Bugattiste," in his 1949 book, The Kings of the Road: "I had a trial run up the Barnet bypass with Williams, the Bugatti works demonstrator, who had brought over a Type 57 elektron coupe 'Atlantic.' It was simply terrific: 112 mph still accelerating over the crossroads past the Barn – and the roads cluttered up with the usual Friday evening traffic. Along the next stretch we did 122 mph, and I thought, under the circumstances, that was enough, and said so in no uncertain terms."

Those were astonishing speeds, even on a race track, never mind busy British public roads, in the 1930s. But the Atlantic was an astonishing car, even by Bugatti standards.

Italian-born Ettore Bugatti began his career designing engines and vehicles in the late 1890s for a number of companies, before establishing Automobiles E. Bugatti in Molsheim, in France's Alsace area in 1909. And between then and the outbreak of war in 1939, "Le Patron" built about 7,800 racers, sports and touring cars, and one of the most extravagant luxury cars the world has ever seen, the Royale.

Each was "utterly individualistic, and thoroughbred to the core," according to Purdy. And that's a good description of Lauren's Type 57SC Atlantic.

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The Type 57 was conceived by Bugatti's son Jean, by then running the company, and announced in 1934. It was to prove the last series-produced model built prior to the Second World War. The all-new design would go on to serve as a luxury tourer and sports car, the ultimate expression of which was the Atlantic Coupe, and its engine would power the Type 59 Grand Prix racer.

Jean Bugatti may have been signing the paycheques, but dad was still influencing his decisions, which led to the Type 57 being a mix of increasingly dated Bugatti-traditional engineering, and in the Atlantic's case early-days aero-styling.

The former was evident in its increasingly out-of-fashion inline-eight – a 3.3-litre, twin-cam that gave 135 hp and a top speed of 95 mph – mechanically operated brakes and increasingly archaic beam-type front axle.

The Type 57 was originally available with two- and four-door bodywork designed by Jean Bugatti, joined in 1935 by the more avant garde Atalanta coupe – named for a fleet-footed Greek goddess. Within a couple of years, the supercharged, 170-hp, 57C model was added, and the 57S sports model, the prototype/inspiration for the Atlantic, delightfully named the Aerolithe, debuted in 1935, clad in super-swoopy bodywork made of elektron (a magnesium alloy). This highly flammable metal had to be held together with rivets, accounting for its unusual rad-cap-to-tapered-tail dorsal seam.

The Aerolithe disappeared – it was likely broken up – but has reappeared as a recreation, conjured up by David Grainger and his team at The Guild of Automotive Restorers in Bradford, Ont.

The aluminum-bodied production version Atlantic Coupe was shown at the Paris show a year later, but only three would subsequently be built.

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The first went to London-based, 26-year-old Lord Rothschild, who would have paid about £1,100 for it. It was sold at auction recently, for a reported $36-million, to the Mullin Museum in California.

The second was hit by a train, killing its occupants, and subsequently recreated using surviving parts.

The third was purchased in 1938 by British colliery boss Richard Pope, and eventually found its way into Lauren's hands in 1988. After restoration, it won best in show honours at the Pebble Beach concours in 2000.

Perhaps he'll give it an airing in another decade and cop another Coppa d'Oro.

Back in 1938
Peter Seeger ditches college for a career as a folk singer, Roy Acuff and the Crazy Tennesseans sign with the Grand Ole Opry, and Jelly Roll Morton puts down eight hours of tracks for the Library of Congress.
Action Comics No. 1 is published featuring Superman, and aviator Howard Hughes performs a Superman-like stunt by flying around the world in 91 hours.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt launches the March of Dimes, and the first toothbrush with bristles made from newly named nylon yarn is introduced.
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