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70-year-old Bugatti Type 64 chassis gets a body, the old-fashioned way

Mon, 16 Jan 2012

In a workshop north of Detroit, craftsmen have been at work for months pounding pieces of aluminum into panels. The panels will eventually cover a Bugatti chassis that has been bodyless for more than seven decades.

Three Bugatti Type 64 Coupe chassis were built in 1939 by Jean Bugatti, and two of them got bodies before Bugatti was killed while testing the Le Mans-winning Type 57 C “Tank” in August 1939. The third, chassis No. 64002--with its gleaming riveted duraluminum frame rails, cast duraluminum firewall and suspension pieces--was never bodied.

Until now. Noted Bugatti collector Peter Mullin bought the rolling chassis, with a 3.3-liter DOHC straight-eight engine, in 2003 after the chassis won an award at the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance in 2002. He began a process to create a body for it, with the goal of displaying the finished car at his Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, Calif.

“The thing I thought a lot about was the approach,” he said. “Do I make a modern, avant-garde-shaped design? Do I make an evolution of the Atlantic?

“It's impossible to put yourself in Jean Bugatti's shoes and make the car he would have made. But what we have tried to do here with this design--like using the original sketches for the papillon [French for “butterfly”] doors--is paying respect to Jean Bugatti and his attention to art and engineering.”

Enter Stewart Reed, head of the transportation design department at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and principal of Stewart Reed Design. He has a long history of automotive design, having worked for, among others, Jeep, Chrysler and Toyota.

“Peter has a wonderful idea about preserving and teaching people about art deco design,” he said. “At the outset, I didn't know that much about the Type 64. It's really quite a transition from the Type 57 Atlantic. Peter has exercised some real scholarship and study in terms of what was being done in this era at Bugatti and what Jean Bugatti was doing.”

Eight Art Center students, selected by Reed, were asked to submit ideas for the body. “They came up with quite an interesting range of solutions,” he said. But ultimately, Mullin decided to make the body more evolutionary to the Type 57 Atlantic. Students made their presentations to Mullin and several of his invited friends. He decided to have Reed proceed with the project. As for the cost, Mullin shied away from a total, saying it is, “in the ballpark of a very expensive restoration.”

Reed said special attention was paid to a couple of engineering elements that Bugatti employed. Bugatti was working on a plane in the late 1930s, so the company was expanding its use of aluminum; the chassis and several major components were made of the material. It was decided the Type 64's body would be made of aluminum and, in some places, would have exposed rivets, as on a plane. The windows would be acrylic, also planelike.

Jean Bugatti, company founder Ettore Bugatti's son, designed the doors, which are hinged at the top of the body. They predate Mercedes-Benz gullwing doors by more than a decade, and Reed's design incorporates this feature. Then Mullin began looking for a coachbuilder.

“We visited half a dozen shops before deciding on Mike Kleeves,” said Webb Farrer, director of automobile restorations at the Mullin museum.

Kleeves owns Automobile Metal Shaping and has more than 30 years of experience restoring exotic sports and race cars and bringing Detroit Three concept cars to life. Kleeves has a reputation for being able to fabricate body panels that are no longer manufactured or available. For the Bugatti, Kleeves and his staff are using a 1940s-vintage hammer press that he salvaged from the General Motors Tech Center.

The process began with the chassis being shipped to Kleeves's shop, where it was placed on a surface plate--a large metal base with a computer-controlled measuring device--and the suspension preloaded with the approximate weight of the new body. Reed's drawings were transferred to a water-cut mahogany buck constructed on an adjacent surface plate, so that at any point, precise measurements could be made to make sure that all of the parts fit.

The body panels are moved from the hammer to the buck, back and forth, making sure the fit is correct. “If someone was to design and build a body today, it would be done based on a foam-core structure,” Farrer said. “It was very important for us to tell the story the way it would have been done back in the day.”

The buck will become part of the display at the museum. The body will be able to be removed, in one piece, to display both the chassis and the body.

“We're doing it by the exact same method that coachbuilders have done for years,” Kleeves said.

“The one thing that is really out of the ordinary is that the body is going to be raised off the chassis three feet in the air. Normally, you fit the body to the chassis. But the body has to be raised in order to display the chassis. That's presented some engineering challenges that we're working on now. It has to be very durable.”

If all goes well, Kleeves and crew will complete the body this spring, and the car will debut to the public at Pebble Beach in August.

“Peter's whole goal is to shepherd these cars for this century and to leave them in better shape than when he received them so the next generations can appreciate these cars as much as he has,” Farrer said.

The car is not going to be finished completely. The interior will be left much the way it is now, and the aluminum body will not be painted. “It's like an unfinished symphony,” Reed said. “It will always be a work in progress.”

By Roger Hart