Pur Sang’s John Bothwell On Building A Modern Bugatti Empire In Argentina
Photography By Drew Phillips
You’ve heard the name, you’ve done a bit of googling, if you’re lucky you may have even seen one at a cars and coffee near you. They’re tough to miss, that unmistakable Type 35 Supercharged sound bombarding your ears, the bright French blue pulsing in front of your eyes. There’s no question that a Bugatti is always a sight to be seen, and what John Bothwell with his company Pur Sang in Argentina have done is to bring it back to life. I recently had the chance to spend some time on the phone with John to learn about where Pur Sang came from, where it’s going, and most of all, why the hell is all this happening in Argentina.
Ted Gushue: How did Pur Sang begin?
John Bothwell: Pur Sang had two major phases throughout it’s history. In the beginning it was the aspirations of one guy that had a car, and then accidentally turned into a small business.
A lot of these little shops are out there in the world. You get up to five or ten employees and that’s where you seem to cap. The reason why I got involved was to correct a pattern where a customer ends up having to wait years on end to take delivery of a product. My direction was also coupled with a desire to see pre-war motorsport revived and see younger people really fall of love with it again. So I felt that if an adequate job was done in terms of getting fresh blood enthusiastic about this stuff, then the demand would make it all the more incumbent upon us to have a serious production capability that’s outside the scope of the status quo of all these little cottage industries.
So we moved from having a dozen guys to over 100 on our shop floor. We invested in a lot of additional square footage on our property, machinery, tooling and all of that. So that a car that took six to nine months to build became a car that took 30 days to build like in the case of the type 35.
TG: How do you find a hundred people in a place like Argentina that wield the level of craftsmanship that we’re seeing on these cars today?
JB: That’s a very good question and I’ll tell you, it’s not by accident and it’s not something that could really done anywhere else. If you think of what Argentina was like back when Bugattis, Alfas, etc, were new back in the ‘20 to ‘30s, the country rivaled almost any country in Europe. It was called the Paris of the South and it is where all the wealthy people in Europe went to get away from war time chaos. You had examples of people going to great lengths to export and re-establish their lifestyle in South America. They were building Europe all over again in Buenos Aires, the architecture attested to that. Even entire palaces were shipped over and rebuilt.
Everything that made Europe special made it to Argentina. Everybody knows about Argentina being a leader in wine making, horse racing, polo and of course motorsport which, during the ‘20’s and ‘30’s no matter where you were in the world, was the ultimate lifestyle statement. To own something like a Bugatti and to be racing it around the world was as good as it got. A lot of these cars, Bugattis, Mercedes, Alfa Romeo, were delivered new in a pretty impressive quantity to Argentina back in that time. What happened as a side effect is that you have these people who are really far away from Europe, and getting parts or anything from there was a painful process. This was before you had any air travel down to South America, so you are talking months on a ship to get a car transported from Italy or France to Buenos Aries. Now, if you blow a supercharger in your Type 35, you have a real problem.
Imagine how frustrating it would be if you had to wait half a year for a new part to arrive from Europe. A phenomena I’ve noticed, not just in Argentina, but other remote European influenced countries like Australia for example, is that you have guys who become very innovative and resourceful because of the geographic isolation that they lived in. Things have changed today obviously. We have DHL that will get something across the world in 72 hours but back then it was really upon them to figure out how to be resourceful and self-sufficient. You had all these Europeans in South America that had to figure out how to be self-sufficient. Pretty serious craftsmanship developed just out of that necessity. What we have today at our disposal is a remnant of that.
TG: Are these the sons and grandsons of guys that worked on these cars in period?
JB: It’s more that you have this incredible Parisian culture in very wealthy Argentina, and then you have Juan Perón who came in with this sort of idea of calling in to suspect all the nice things that all the rich people had, bringing in a certain level of stagnation in progress for decades. Over time he really brought the country to a stand-still. So in the same way that you see Cuba, you have this preserved time capsule. The same thing happened, all be it to a lesser degree of severity, in Argentina. It wasn’t like things progressed.
People had to maintain machines without too much outside assistance. Importation of parts in some cases was illegal. As a result, people in Argentina have always been masters at figuring how to keep things running kind of in perpetuity. That culture makes it possible to maintain cars from the 1920s without having it be socially stigmatic. Very early on in our history I began an apprenticeship program to pass the knowledgeable history of the elder employees down to the next generation. Many shops in the world are forced to stay small because young talent isn’t available to work on these cars.
What our program did was we took guys who were excited about what we were doing straight out of high school before they had the opportunity to learn mistakes from anybody else. Then we had them work alongside these older guys who were pretty skilled, and we found there is almost something in the DNA of the Argenitnian people. They love to build and fix things. That’s one part of it. The other part of it is that if they don’t really have any preconceived prejudices or any kind of notions about what it is they are doing and if nobody tells them its a really hard thing, they seem to just do it. They don’t make a big deal out of it. Whereas in Europe or in the United States, a guy who does panel beating is just always tip-toeing around the car. It’s this big deal and it’s really hard and everything is hard and everything takes a long time and these guys are real prima donnas and a total pain in the ass because they know that they are doing something special.
Our guys don’t really know they are doing anything special. They just know they have a job to do and as a result of this sort of ingrained ingenuity, and resourcefulness and creativity of people in Argentina for all the reasons I mentioned, it just all works. We have a panel beater doing some of the finest work in our company now and he started at Pur Sang as the groundskeeper on the property, essentially as a gardener. Then we put him in to sweep the floor in the panel shop and then we put him in to do some other things and then a guy took off for a while and we needed somebody to fill in and before you know it, we realize this guy isn’t scared to do anything and he’s picking it up really quickly.
I think that’s the key feature to what we have at our disposal in Argentina, granted it’s all refined and polished through having apprenticeship program to teach people. The thing that makes it all work is that these guys aren’t scared of doing anything. You put tasks in front of them and teach them how to do something and they are looking at it very matter of factly. “Well, somebody else did it so I should be able to do it.” That’s all there is to it.
TG: Have you thought of exporting the kind of best practices of your organization to other countries or companies?
JB: I’ve been certainly approached by people who have asked me if we could set up something or them. I’ve had a lot of students from McPherson College contact me and ask if they could do an apprenticeship thing down in Argentina but I’ve yet to really find any sort of model that would be mutually beneficial in the sense of it being worth our while. Because I understand why people would want that but to be totally blunt, I mean, what good does it do me to have a bunch of people somewhere else in the world that know how to do what we do when we make our money being the only people in town that can do what we do.
TG: How many cars a year are you guys doing now?
JB: It fluctuates. Everything we build is to order. We don’t build a car until it’s bought and paid for. We don’t keep any inventory obviously for that reason. Its typically hovering around 20 to 30 a year.
TG: And those are primarily Bugattis?
JB: We have close to 25 different car models that we build, but the most popular is the type 35 Bugatti for sure.
TG: What’s your favorite to drive?
JB: The Bugatti. In all honestly, there is good reason why it’s the most popular car. The Alfa is an incredible car. I mean its addictive, but there is no pre-war super car which is as user friendly and decent and just sort of all around forgiving and easy as the Bugatti. The Bugatti is the kind of the car you can just hop in and drive. I have one in Southern California that I drove across the country this summer. We went with Jesse Combs from California to New York in it. I drive it all the time. I take it to the track and it’s just a great car.
TG: How many miles is on that car?
JB: I’d say its probably got about 6000 miles on it right now. We drove it across the country so that was 4200 and then I’ve done some rallies in it and had it at the track. I drive it kind of every week. I guess probably about 6000.
TG: What updates do you put into that car to make it a bit more, not necessarily modern, but easier to use and maintain?
JB: Nothing that’s really all that intrusive. All the changes that we’ve made, the few of them that we’ve made, are things that are also consistent with norms in the modern Bugatti culture, if that makes sense. I mean adaptations that people who own an original Bugatti are also doing are what we’ve incorporated. For example, the type 35 B originally had a roller bearing crank and Bugatti nerds will expend all kinds of energy arguing about whether or not that’s integral to the car. We don’t get involved in that. We just build it however somebody wants it.
Some guys want a roller bearing crank and that’s how we make it, but we have an option available for a plain bearing crank which simply reduces maintenance, reduces overall weight of the engine. There are other things also like the firing order. You’re talking about a straight 8 motor that was designed pretty early on in the evolution of the straight 8 concept. The Bugatti firing order was, to be blunt, not correct. There again, Bugatti experts will spend all kinds of time telling you why that’s a special thing or not.
Some people have this idea of Ettore Bugatti that’s almost bordering on the religious as far as, don’t mess with anything he did because you know, he was divinely inspired so don’t screw around with it, but if you look at something like the firing order, the later Bugattis had a different straight 8 firing order. Somebody figured out at one point that you can improve upon that. We’re simply using what a few years later became standard and applying that to something made a few years earlier. That’s an option though, a feature you can elect if you so choose.
There are things like the clutch was originally was a wet clutch in an oil bath. There are a lot of people today, most people I know, who don’t run with that because it’s just a pain in the ass. We have better technology now as far as metallic pucks that can be used on clutch plates so we run dry clutches on most of our cars. That’s an option also but you know the nice thing about making each car to order is that means they are all bespoke. That means that when we are building a car, we’re not shoving anything down somebody’s throat. Rather we are telling people what their options are. They can make the choice as far as exactly what they want.
A lot of our clientele own the original of the car that they are wanting to be built. It is counter-intuitive to a lot of people because a lot of time when you think about replicas you think, “Oh that’s for the poor guy who can’t afford the real thing so he’s getting one of these.” Most of the time, especially in the U.S., the people with our cars have the originals or could have the originals and for that reason, because they are familiar with how cantankerous an original Bugatti can be, they are usually the people insisting on the upgrades. The guys who are critical of those upgrades are usually the guys who really don’t own a car at all, if that makes sense.
TG: Interesting, that stands right in line where a lot of the guys you see at cars and coffee who are really kicking the tires on these things have never actually even driven one.
JB: Right, I think that’s just life, to tell you the truth. The guy standing on the sideline who’s wagging his finger at everybody else isn’t actually in the game. It’s easy to run your mouth off when you don’t have a dog in the fight. Once you’ve put down a few million for an original Bugatti and then you’ve used it for a season and have to do a $50,000 engine overhaul, at some point you tell yourself, “I don’t really give a shit what anybody thinks. I just want a motor that’s going to last a long time.”
TG: What cars are you not making now that you wish you were making, or you’re thinking about making?
JB: A car that I’d actually really like to do is an easy question to answer. It’s the Alfa Romeo 2.9 Mille Miglia. That’s just an awesome car. We’ve built 2.3 Mille Miglia cars. We’ve built the 2.9 Tourings, both the A and the B. The 2.9 MM is not one that we’ve done and I love that car. It’s a bitchin’ car and it’s the 2.9 motor but a little higher compression, the super chargers make a little more boost. You’ve got bigger valves. On a motor that’s already so perfect, adding that to it makes it a period correct rocket ship. The body on that thing is probably, in my opinion, the best example of coach work for my taste in the pre war era. That’s one I’d love to do.
TG: What was it like to build the 308 Monoposto with the Fangio Foundation?
JB: That was a terrific project. What happened is that one of the three original 308s in the world is in Argentina. It’s a car that Fangio owned and it’s got all kinds of history. Fangio raced it all over Argentina and we were commissioned and given an honor in so doing to restore the car. During this process the Fangio Foundation really fell in love with our company and they commissioned us to build a one-off tribute of it. It’s terrific. There’s only one 308 that anybody sees with any frequency which is a car that races at Goodwood every year. They’re terrific cars. They’re awesome. It’s basically a 2.9 Alfa with a bigger engine and a race car body. You’ve got a welded chassis, you’ve got independent suspension, you’ve got a trans-axle, you’ve got a motor with a twin cam straight 8 motor with two super chargers, 3.8 litre. The thing is just an absolute beast.
TG: It seems like the sky is the limit in terms of what you’re capable of. Could you theoretically make a Bugatti Atlantic for instance?
JB: Oh yeah, absolutely. I’ve gotten as close as quoting people for that project and we’ve got all kind of R&D work done on it. That’s one that we’ve got in the can, you might say. It’s pending an order. We don’t build until we’ve got a client, but if a client came along and wanted to do that we could definitely make it happen and we’ve laid all the groundwork to make that an eventuality.
TG: Incredible. How new would you ever go? Is there a particular era that you’re locked to, or would you, for instance, make a Jaguar D type?
JB: Jay Leno at one point introduced me to the then managing director of Jaguar. This was something like five years ago because they were considering doing this and Jay got wind of it and he thought it would be a cool project for Pur Sang, and I didn’t pursue it because I felt that it was out of really where we wanted to focus, pre war being our speciality.
Now that I’ve seen these cars I kind of wish that we would have done it because we totally could have. Since then we’ve built post war cars like Maseratis and other coupes. The thing with post war cars that I like the least is all the gingerbread shit that goes into them. First of all they have doors and roofs and things, so you have a whole lot more work and time that gets eaten up in terms of doing the body and then you get into door jam alignment and all that kind of stuff. Now you’ve got windows that have to roll up, and when you’re actually making everything from scratch all of that becomes very significant issue. It’s one thing if you’re putting a car together and you’re buying panels out of a junk yard and you’re building a hot rod or something.
When you’re actually making every single little thing … In the 2.9 Alfa and some of the other cars’ coach work where you make windows that roll up and you’re making the handles and you’re making the hardware that goes inside the door, there’s a lot of stuff that you have to take into consideration. All the finish apart from that, the dash, the seats, all the interior stuff. You get into a lot of things that, to me, don’t strike me as being “car” things. Here you have all these accessory things. We build a car that’s got a body. It’s got an engine. It runs and drives and does what a car should do. When you’re in the pre war mindset, that’s where you stop. They weren’t designed to encompass anything else. You get into this post war stuff and you’ve got to deal with all of this stuff to finish the car that doesn’t feel like it’s very car specific, if you get my drift.
TG: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.
JB: I don’t know. Anything is an option, but where we are really dialed in is being able to do a quick turn around on big projects, serious projects for pre war cars. I would also add to that that I think that we want to continue to double down on building a legacy of getting young people into pre war cars instead of trying to chase the trends. We want to create the trends. Forget about old guys that remember these, because even those guys are in large part dead by now. We want to get young guys who don’t know what the hell they are, and then you give them the chance to experience it and now you’ve just created more followers.