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The $114 million barn find (that has yet to be found)

Published in blog.hemmings.com

This 1936 Bugatti Aero/Atlantic Coupe, chassis 57453, has been missing since 1938. Photos courtesy Bugatti.

French automaker Bugatti built roughly 800 Type 57s from 1934 to 1940, making the model its most popular. Ironically, one variant — the Type 57 Atlantic Coupe — is among the rarest and most valuable automobiles in the world. Just four were ever constructed, and three are accounted for today, making chassis 57453 a potential “barn find” that Bugatti estimates could be worth as much as $114 million.

Jean Bugatti was the eldest son of company founder Ettore Bugatti, and by the early 1930s was penning most of the company’s body designs. To modernize the boutique automaker, Jean created the Type 57, which would be built in standard and lowered chassis, and would serve as the basis for everything from luxury touring cars to racing cars and show cars, like the stunning 1935 Bugatti Aerolithe concept.

Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic Coupes

The four Type 57 Aero/Atlantic Coupes, as they looked at delivery.

The Aerolithe Coupe debuted at the 1935 Paris Auto Salon, and featured a body crafted from a magnesium alloy known as Elektron. Typically used in the construction of aircraft, Elektron consisted of 90-percent magnesium and 10-percent aluminum, which made it both light and strong. It also made the material extremely difficult to work with, since it couldn’t be welded. To join panels, Jean specified an external vertical seam, which would be riveted to join left and right body halves. This spine ran the length of the car, and the design was mirrored on front and rear fenders as well.

When the Aerolithe Coupe concept was translated into the limited-production Aero Coupe, the Elektron skin was replaced by aluminum. Despite this, the riveted dorsal spine construction method carried over, becoming one of the car’s most distinctive traits. Two were completed by the fall of 1936, but in December of 1936 Jean received tragic news — close friend and pioneering aviator Jean Mermoz, the first to fly across the South Atlantic, had perished in a plane crash at sea. From this point forward, the cars were renamed from Aero Coupe to Atlantic Coupe, in honor of Mermoz’s memory and record-setting achievement.

Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic Coupe

The first Aero (later Atlantic) Coupe built, chassis 57374 was completed in September 1936 and delivered to Victor Rothschild, 3rd Baron Rothschild. As with the other three coupes, the car was constructed on the Type 57S (for “surbaissé,” or lowered) chassis, equipped with cable-activated drum brakes, a semi-independent front suspension, and a live rear axle. Power came from Bugatti’s double overhead-camshaft 3.3-liter inline-eight, which produced 175 horsepower in naturally aspirated form.

Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic Coupe

Chassis 57374, the “Rothschild Atlantic,” in an undated photo.

Rothschild drove the car in this tune until 1939, when it was returned to Molsheim for the addition of a supercharger, raising output to 200 horsepower and top speed to 200 km/h (123 mph). Two years later, Rothschild blew the engine, abandoning the car in a field before selling it to a London mechanic, who rebuilt the engine without the potentially problematic supercharger. After passing through a series of owners (most notably an America doctor, Robert Oliver, who purchased the car in 1945 and exported it to the U.S. in 1946), the car sold at auction in 1971 for a jaw-dropping $59,000, making it (at the time) the most expensive automobile in the world. Today, it’s owned by Peter Mullin and Rob Walton, and is frequently displayed at the Mullin Museum in Oxnard, California.

Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic Coupe

The first car built as an Atlantic Coupe was chassis 57473, known as the “Holzschuh Atlantic” after the car’s first owner, Jacques Holzschuh. Under his care, the car took the “Grand Prix d’Honneur” at the 1937 Juan-Les-Pins Concours d’Elegance, and was later restyled under the guidance of Guiseppe Figoni. Tragically, both Holzschuh and his wife died during World War II, and in the postwar years the Bugatti Atlantic Coupe had several owners before landing with Bugatti collector René Chatard in 1952.

On August 22, 1955, Chatard and a female companion, Janine Vacheron, were driving the Bugatti on the outskirts of Gien, France, when the car was struck by a train at a grade crossing. Both occupants were killed and the Bugatti destroyed in the accident. In the aftermath, the wreckage was sold to a local scrap dealer.  In 1963, a French collector purchased the remains of the car, then spent the next 14 years recreating it, fabricating parts when the originals were damaged beyond repair. The car sold to its current owner in 2006, who commissioned a restoration that returned the car to its appearance during Chatard’s ownership. Displayed at Pebble Beach in 2010, the car resides today in a private Spanish collection.

Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic Coupe

The final Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic Coupe, chassis 57591, was built for British barrister and tennis star Richard Pope and delivered in May 1938. Though no two models were identical, this example is recognizable by its unique front-end styling and absence of rear fender covers. A year after taking delivery, Pope returned the car to the factory for the fitment of a supercharger, and retained possession until 1967, when the Atlantic Coupe sold to marque expert Barrie Price. The Bugatti passed through a few more collections before landing with Ralph Lauren in 1988, and under his stewardship the coupe was restored to its factory-delivered appearance (the sole exception being black paint, substituted for the original blue). The quality of the work was demonstrated at Pebble Beach in 1990, when the Atlantic Coupe took Best in Show, and again at Villa d’Este in 2013, where the Bugatti again earned top honors.

Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic Coupe

Which leaves one Atlantic Coupe — perhaps the most valuable barn find in history — unaccounted for. Chassis 57453 was the second car completed (officially making it an Aero Coupe), and was delivered to Jean Bugatti in October 1936. Known as “La voiture noire,” or “the black car,” this was the sole coupe built with a supercharged engine at the factory. Used as a model for the company’s brochures and displayed at the 1937 Nice and Lyon Motor Shows, the Aero/Atlantic Coupe was driven personally by Jean Bugatti, but may have been gifted to Robert Benoist, who delivered Bugatti a win at the 1937 24 Hours of Le Mans.

From here, a hazy history gets even more obscure. Officially, Bugatti states that no trace of the car exists after 1938, yet some believe the car was given by Benoist to fellow Bugatti racer William Grover-Williams, who returned the car to Molsheim when he departed France for England in 1939. Some believe the car was shipped from Molsheim to Bordeaux along with several other Bugatti models, possibly under a different chassis number, for safe keeping as war loomed on the horizon.

Two factors make this car difficult to trace. As a factory demonstrator, chassis 57453 never had a registered owner, making its history impossible to track through existing motor vehicle records. The August 1939 death of Jean Bugatti in a testing crash (behind the wheel of a Bugatti Type 57C “Tank”) had a massive impact on the automaker, left nearly rudderless at a time when the company’s future hinged on every decision. In light of this, it’s easy to understand why factory records of the period are less than precise.

There are only two outcomes: Either chassis 57453 was scrapped or destroyed in the war, or it wasn’t. If the latter is true, it may well reside in a dusty barn somewhere in Europe, awaiting the day when a lucky — or meticulous — collector unearths what may be the most valuable automobile in the world.