Bugatti’s Futuristic Air Racer Set For First Flight
The 1930s were special years for aeronautics, as a worldwide fascination with flying machines and their pilots reached a historical peak. With the advent of powered, heavier-than-air flight barely three decades before, the magic and romanticism of human flight was still a relative novelty. During this unprecedented period of technological advancement in the design and construction of airplanes, their ever-increasing sleekness, speed, and range served to deepen and broaden the public’s interest.
Glamorous, steel-bodied, swept-wing machines replaced fragile-looking wood and canvas designs, and for the first time ever style was introduced as companion to function, with Art Deco influence visible in many of the period’s most striking designs. Record-breaking daredevil pilots like Amelia Earhart tested these advanced new machines’ capabilities to the edge and beyond, further tightening air travel’s grip on the collective imagination. As distance, speed, and endurance records fell with ever increasing regularity, air shows and air races became more common, the drama and danger of racing in particular feeding the popular obsession.
Ettore Bugatti wasn’t exempt to the allure of fast planes, and in 1938 he redirected a large slice of his empire’s engineering might towards the design of a ground-breaking air racer. Conceived as a competitor for the following year’s Coupe Deutsch de la Meurthe closed-circuit race, one of the biggest air races in Europe of the time, its considerable cost was justified by the potential marketing gains to be had, as well as a planned mass-produced fighter variant for use by the French Air Force. Additionally, the French Air Ministry offered Bugatti substantial prize money if his plane broke the existing air-speed record of 440.6 MPH, held by an Italian Seaplane racer.
True to Bugatti style, the 100 was as much a piece of art as it was a functional device. Featuring a Y-shaped fuselage with a split stabilizer, forward-swept main wings, and two contra-rotating propellers mounted on a single shaft forward of the cockpit at the tip of its futuristic, avant-garde nose, the 100 was an absolute stunner in the traditional French blue Bugatti’s GP cars were already well known for. Aft of the pilot sat two Type 50P engines of 450 horsepower each. Displacing just under five liters, the 50P was a twincam, supercharged straight eight broadly based on the existing Type 50 car motor.
Ultimately, due to a near never-ending list of setbacks and delays, Bugatti missed the September 1939 entry deadline (not that it would have mattered, the race was never held), and the Model 100, as it came to be known, was mothballed, incomplete, prior to the impending German invasion of France. Having survived the war hidden away at the family chateau at Ermenonville, it changed hands several times before ending up at the National Museum of the USAF sometime in the late 60s or early 70s. By this point it was in a pretty sad state, with decades of continuous storage taking its toll—additionally, both motors had long been salvaged for automotive restorations. After a static restoration, the 100 now rests among the spectacular collection at the EAA Airventure Museum in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.
Happily, the story doesn’t end there. Several years ago, the massive undertaking of building a faithful, full-scale replica of the Model 100 started in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and is now nearing completion with its maiden flight planned for this year. You can follow the project at bugatti100p.com, and on their near-daily updated Facebook fan page.
I can’t wait to see it take to the skies in what will be an achievement 75 years in the making. Will it break 440 MPH, or will it prove to be a dangerous, un-flyable pig? My money says not only will it beat 1938’s airspeed record, but that it will also do so with incredible grace and style—it is a Bugatti, after all.