Bugatti Type 57 Aerolite Coachwork

When new, these cars made everything around them seem obsolete. Today, they evoke the glamour and modernity of the art deco period — and they regularly go for stratospheric prices at auction. There was, however, one unique and mysterious car that showed up in 1935, made a single auto show appearance and was gone, never to be seen again. It was called the Aerolithe, and while it was one of the most beautiful of all Bugattis, it was also one of the shortest lived. Even by Bugatti standards, the Aerolithe was no ordinary car. Built a few years before the infamous type 57SC Atlantics, the Aerolithe clearly inspired their shapes — yet it shared no dimensions with the well-known trio of coupes.

Constructed on a non-supercharged type 57 chassis, the Aerolithe’s body was built of magnesium, a brittle, inflammable material that offered one great advantage: It was extremely lightweight. The Aerolithe made a sensational debut at the 1935 Earl’s Court Motor Show in the U.K. and had one road test in 1936. It was never sold by the factory. That’s where the Aerolithe story comes to a dead end. The car was never seen again; it was most likely destroyed for materials during the war.

When the Guild of Automotive Restorers in Bradford, Ontario was commissioned to re-create the missing car, all that existed was a handful of black-and-white photographs and a few of rough blueprints. But accumulating those resources was just the beginning. A research team digitized the photographs, and every line and shadow was blown up, analyzed and argued over by the historians. After months of work and much trial and error, the team was able to re-establish the precise dimensions of the original car.

To construct it, the restoration team had to learn to handle dangerous magnesium. The team had spent a long time determining which period-correct alloy to use; in the end, the appropriate metal turned out to be much more difficult to shape than more modern mixes. Because of the material’s brittleness, narrow strips of the flammable material had to be welded together to make the complex curves of the art deco body.

Color was a key question for the team as all existing photos were black-and-white. However, a painting of the car existed, and by comparing this with other Bugatti colors, the original paint shade was identified.

With its curved haunches and long nose, the finished car has the look of a leaping cat. It has a taut sinuousness to it, seeming to be in motion even when still. The prominent center spine, which later appeared on the Atlantics, was both aesthetic and functional; it helped stiffen the car’s magnesium-alloy body panels. The interior is classic Bugatti with its center-aligned Jaeger instrumentation and simple green leather seats.

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