“X” marks the spot where a lost $100 million prize rests—who’s ready for a treasure hunt? It all starts with a bit of history and a French automaker you may have heard of: Bugatti.
Flash back to 1934. Bugatti has just begun construction of its new Type 57, designed and engineered by founder Ettore Bugatti’s son Jean. The French marquee went on to build about 800 Type 57s between 1934 and 1940, but never one to be satisfied with his work, Jean went about envisioning something more, something that would take his father’s famous line of “Nothing is too beautiful, nothing is too expensive” truly to heart. In 1935, Jean put pen to paper. The end result was the Aerolithe concept, a show car whose curves would spawn four coachbuilt Type 57 SCs—renamed the Atlantic Coupes.
Three of these cars have been accounted for and are currently held in very prominent collector hands. Two have nabbed “Best In Show” at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. The last of the Atlantic Coupes, however, vanished without a trace. And if it still exists, it could be the most valuable car ever, worth at least $100 million.
Interest in the lost Atlantic Coupe was renewed ahead of Bugatti’s debut of an $18.9 million coachbuilt Chiron last month. The new car, reportedly commissioned by Volkswagen’s former Chairman Ferdinand Piech, shares the nom-de-plume of the lost Atlantic: La Voiture Noire or “The Black Car.” Cryptic social media posts from Bugatti in the lead-up to the custom Chiron’s debut had many believing the missing car had finally been tracked down. But no dice—Bugatti’s fabled treasure is still lost.
Bugatti’s original La Voiture Noire exited the company’s Molsheim factory in 1937. It was the second Atlantic Coupe built, destined to become the company’s brochure, display, and test car. As such, La Voiture Noire was never registered to an owner; it was also the only member of the quartet with a supercharged 3.3-liter inline-eight cylinder engine from the factory. The three other Atlantic Coupes had to return to the factory to be fitted with one.
Jean Bugatti reportedly used La Voiture Noire as his personal car. According to Tim Bravo, the current head of Bugatti’s communications team, it was “driven only by Jean Bugatti and select friends.”
Rumors are the main tool in reconstructing the car’s inconsistently documented life. One held that Jean lent La Voiture Noire to Robert Benoist, the Grand Prix racer and French war hero who secured Bugatti’s first outright win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. But his custody of the fabled car cannot be corroborated as it was Jean and Jean alone who ultimately held the keys. What is known is that the Atlantic Coupe headed back to the Molsheim factory just before Jean Bugatti’s death in 1939.
In 1940, at the onset of the German invasion of France in World War II, Ettore Bugatti recognized that the Nazis’ destructive path would likely destroy his creations. The apocryphal tale holds that “Ettore sent all his tools and cars on a train to Bordeaux to escape from the Nazi-occupied part of France. The Atlantic was loaded onto that train.” But according to Bravo, La Voiture Noire “never arrived.” It’s here that all traces of La Voiture Noire disappear—and where our treasure hunt begins.
Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic Coupe
Theories abound on what happened to the car, but none have led to finding the lost Atlantic Coupe. As previously mentioned, there’s a good reason to continue the search. Based on the three cars that survive and are now privately owned—one by designer Ralph Lauren—the missing Atlantic Coupe could be worth up to $100 million. Again, to parrot Le Patron, Ettore’s nickname, “Nothing is too beautiful, nothing is too expensive.”
One of the theories surrounds the idea that while Ettore told everyone the rescue train was bound for the company’s secondary factory in Bordeaux, in reality it whisked away La Voiture Noire to a secret location known only to Ettore. It would make sense. In researching this piece, we came across the May 1941 issue of Motor Sport Magazine where an author spends two full pages attempting and failing to summon any sort of knowledge about the elusive Ettore.
Even though Ettore had been a central figure in motor racing for decades, racking up quite a reputation in the automotive world for his designs, he apparently kept things close to the vest. The author summed up the total knowledge he collected thusly: “M. Ettore, alas, is ‘somewhere in France’ and no one here seems to know where. One or two ‘feelers” along normal lines of research and enquiry revealed that no one seemed to know anything worth mentioning about pre-1914 Bugattis, and with few exceptions, even ‘Bugantics’ failed to produce much technical information. The following somewhat meagre notes are all I have so far succeeded in garnering, and if anyone else can supplement the information I should be most grateful.”
During World War II, Ettore’s Molsheim factory briefly produced the crankshafts for the Hispano Suiza Y45 used by the French Air Force. But Bugatti shuttered the factory and ceased all operations by the time the Axis powers controlled France. The facility was later taken by the Nazis and used as a bargaining chip during the Armistice. Ettore’s Bordelais factory, also taken by the Nazis, was bombed and destroyed by Britain’s RAF. If the La Voiture Noire had been there, it was likely destroyed during the campaign.
In the intervening years, Ettore holed himself up in his Parisian apartment attempting to find a way to revitalize the marque. But by 1947, just two years after WWII ended, Ettore’s mind slipped away and he eventually died. If La Voiture Noire was hidden away elsewhere by Ettore, he took that secret to his grave.
Peter Mullin’s Type 57 SC Atlantic Coupe
During our quest to find the fabled La Voiture Noire, we found ourselves speaking with none other than Peter Mullin—who, like Mr. Lauren, owns one of the three Atlantics and prominently displays the car as the crown jewel of the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California. Mullin’s Atlantic Coupe was originally sold new to Lord Victor Rothschild as the first example delivered. Mullin added a few details that had eluded us, as well as an altogether different theory on what happened to La Voiture Noire.
Mullin’s heard just about every theory we’ve put forward. He does believe in the reporting that the car went to Robert Benoist for a brief period, after which it was returned to the factory. There was also speculation that La Voiture Noire ended up as a parts car for the third Atlantic Coupe after getting struck by a train. Mullin doesn’t believe so. “It’s an interesting story, but that’s probably not true. We have [two of the] cars, so I have a pretty good sense for that.” As for where it ended up, Mullin would love to know. Wouldn’t we all.
There are multiple theories of what happened to La Voiture Noire that all have a thread of credibility. A recent lead came across Bravo’s desk when he was contacted by a party claiming La Voiture Noire was bought by a Belgian in the 1950s. It’s unclear how the car ended up in the country or with that owner. Possibly confirming the car’s provenance, the party stated that the car in question has the exact same chassis number as the original, 57453—though that’s easily obtained information. Bravo says the party who’s chasing the lead—a Polish journalist—most recently updated him that the possible owner’s lawyer hasn’t been returning replies.
More recently, France announced that the government would be assembling a task force to help find Nazi-looted artifacts, art, and treasure. The modern-day Monuments Men comes after a paper published last year found that France hadn’t done enough to return stolen Nazi plunder. Could they be the ones to finally find La Voiture Noire? After all, it’s a part of French history.
If La Voiture Noire is ever found, it will quickly become one of if not the most expensive classic car in existence. But more than La Voiture Noire’s substantial worth, what must its story be? If it survived, La Voiture Noire has spent more than 80 years hidden away somewhere. Was it captured by the Nazis? Smuggled away by French patriots? Was it transported to somewhere else like the United States or possibly Belgium? Did Ettore fake its disappearance, and it’s really been sitting in a wine cellar this whole time? Mr. Mullin summed it up with perfect succinctness: “That’s what makes for a great mystery.”
It’s a given that if La Voiture Noire is ever found, it will be one hell of a story. Heck, it already is. Until then, it’s everyone for themselves. Enjoy the hunt.
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