Bugatti’s T57 Represents the Peak of a Golden Age
Before every sixth grader in the world lusted for a 1,000 HP, $1,000,000+ Volkswagen, decades prior to a brilliant and ambitious yet ultimately doomed AWD, V12, Gandini-penned coupe-led nineties resurrection, Bugatti stood for one thing: Le Pur Sang des Automobiles, simply “pure blood automobiles”.
Ettore Bugatti descended from a long, illustrious line of artists and artisans, a tradition he followed, unconventional though his chosen medium was. His artist’s approach, combined with an informal, unstudied, yet deep and innate understanding of engineering produced the most exquisite cars, their incredible beauty emanating from their inner structures and workings—it almost seems shallow to mention they were frequently clothed in stunning bodywork, no doubt inspired by the sublime machinery underneath.
Bugatti named his cars with a typing system, with “type” usually abbreviated to “T”. During his eponymous company’s original glory days, a stretch lasting roughly thirty years from its 1909 founding until the tragic death of his beloved son and business partner, Jean, at the wheel of an experimental Bugatti racer, and the ensuing chaos brought about by continental war, countless groundbreaking and world-beating types rolled out the Molsheim works. Among the most notable are the T35, the single most successful GP racer of all-time, the T41 Royale, a gigantic luxury car designed for royalty, and the subject of this piece, the elegant and advanced T57.
As a culmination of all that Bugatti had learned up to the point of its conception, the T57 was a rolling showcase of his company’s technical prowess and mastery of fine craftsmanship. Introduced in 1934, it featured futuristic design attributes like dual overhead camshafts, yet in true Bugatti fashion retained long-obsolete features like monobloc engine construction, cable-operated brakes, and solid axle front suspensions—Ettore was known for his stubbornness.
By this point Bugattis had long been recognized for their delicate handling and amazing roadholding, as well as their mechanical refinement, and the world of automotive press and enthusiasts expected no less than what the T57 proved to be—the finest road biased Bugatti, perhaps the finest road car, period, ever designed and built to that point, as nicely illustrated by Sir Malcom Campbell in an article from Field, published September 4th, 1937:
“If I was asked to give my opinion as to the best all-around super-sports car which is available on the market today, I should, without any hesitation whatever, say it was the 3.3 Bugatti. I grant that it is not the type of car that would necessarily appeal to the majority of drivers who merely indulge in a burst of speed from time to time, but it cannot fail to attract the connoisseur or those who know how to handle the thoroughbred. It is a car in a class by itself.”
Campbell was referring to a T57S he had just bought, a lower slung, short-chassis sport version of the car, still with a naturally aspirated straight eight of 3.3 liters, but with an increased compression ratio, dry sump, and various chassis detail changes aimed at improving handling even further from the already excellent standard variants. About 18 months later the Type 57SC would be introduced, itself essentially at 57S with the addition of a supercharger, raising power from 135 to 175 HP and taking performance to a level then undreamt of for a road car—top speed was in excess of 125 MPH, with 0-60 MPH in a shade under 10 seconds.
Today, T57s are some of the most valuable cars on earth, with Ralph Lauren’s gobsmackingly gorgeous T57SC Atlantique currently valued somewhere north of $40,000,000, and more “common”, naturally aspirated cars with less attractive bodywork still commanding seven-figure prices on the open market.
The idea of a roughly 80 year old collection of metal, wood, leather, and being more valuable than a Rembrandt might be anathema to some, but to those of us who see machines as high art it feels just about right—it’s unlikely, after all, that the world will ever see another one like it. Golden ages, and the peaks that go with them, come only once.