BUGATTI: A Newly Recognized Artsy In Stages
What are my Artsys? A kind of what, how, and why, inevitably leading to researching/investigating in order to satisfy my curiosity. They’re about the curious happenstance, the unexpected confluence of disparate parts that become a coherent adventure.
(So, despite appearances, the main focus below is not Bugatti,
but on an Artsy Fartsy adventure.)
PURCHASE A decade ago, after my winning ebay bid, I received a 60” X 12” paper towel with two distinct ink drawings on it by Jean Shepherd—an elegant table setting, and a sketchy drawing of an antique car. The table setting is really good, the car sketch led to what I’ve only recently recognized as a many-faceted artsy fartsy quest. It’s a mental pursuit, including the collection of lots of collateral stuff. I continue it in outline form below.
RESEARCH Did Shepherd have a particular car in mind that he sketched? I had to know. I perused various large-format books of old cars. With a possible answer in mind (was it a Bugatti?), I sent a copy of the sketch with a query letter to the American Bugatti Club. With a particular vehicle as the answer—yes, the drawing was of a grand touring car, a Bugatti Royale, specifically the unique, individual vehicle, the Park Ward, especially distinguished by the spare tires mounted at the front fenders.
EXTENDED PURSUIT Among Shepherd’s thousands of broadcasts, many found online with titles assigned by original recorders of the shows, would I find one in which he discussed this particular marque of car? The Brass Figlagee website provided the answer: a 1976 audio titled simply “Bugatti.”
Unlike most of his 45-minute shows, in which he free-associated innumerable topics, Shepherd focused most of this broadcast on Ettore Bugatti, producer of scores of models, from early racing cars to sumptuous sedans, and what we refer to as “sports cars.” Shepherd reminisced about his college days and being taken by a professor, with a couple of other students, to see a Bugatti sports model in a dark Cincinnati garage: “We were looking at one of the great automobiles….This car had appeared in probably two or three hundred catalogs of great masterworks—that specific car. Even today that car is almost priceless. It was one of the finest works of one of the great artists of the twentieth century, considered possibly his prime work.” The model he referred to was the 57SC Bugatti. He had an epiphany regarding cars as art. He predicted that in a thousand years, museums would display cars such as this Bugatti as works of art.
UNDERSTANDABLE GLITCH IN THE EPIPHANY Shepherd had been tricked, and his memory confused—two models designated “57SC” had been produced: the purple convertible he had seen, and the renowned 57SC Atlantic, a hardtop with only three copies known to have existed (plus five exact replicas). Ralph Lauren owns an original, Jay Leno owns a replica.
The Atlantic, with its distinctive hardtop is the one that has captured innumerable articles and praise by connoisseurs. This praise had come from Shepherd himself during his 1976 broadcast, in the mistaken belief that he had seen one of the Atlantics. I became obsessed with the Atlantic, finding, as I wrote, that it was a “brutish-yet-elegant oddity,” an “artist-alchemist’s wicked caprice,” some “antediluvian oddity,” and an “erotically rounded, voluptuous, crouching beast.” The Atlantic has bolted-together flanges atop all four fenders and also prominently front to back down its center line like an exterior spine.
It was the editor of the American Bugatti Club who recognized how the mistaken identity happened, because he located references to the other 57SC that, indeed, had been in Cincinnati.
DELIGHTFUL CONTINUATION OF MY QUEST The Bugatti Club editor of their quarterly, Pur Sang, asked me to write an article about my Bugatti experience. They published it in their 50th anniversary issue.
I was invited to the Club’s annual luncheon at New York’s renowned Sardi’s Restaurant. Parked in front was a 57SC Atlantic. It was one of the five exact replicas. I photographed it from every angle, including from Sardi’s second floor. In the middle image, see my reflection in the door panel).
MORE PERMUTATIONS IN THE QUEST In my intrepid search for Bugatti material, I accumulated numerous articles and photos of the Park Ward and of the renowned 57SC Atlantic—enough to fill two thick loose leaf binders. I found that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts had produced a large temporary exhibit of part of Ralph Lauren’s car collection, titled SPEED, STYLE, AND BEAUTY, with its centerpiece, the 57SC Atlantic, about which, the Museum’s director had said, “It speaks a little of evil. I think it’s so wickedly designed. This black beauty, though, is extraordinary.” So Shepherd’s thousand-year prediction of cars in museums had come to pass in under thirty years!
I found that, at the time, the Boston Museum had been criticized regarding the exhibit, because cars are not “art.” I myself have similar philosophical concerns–but that is another matter for another day.
BRIEF EXPLANATORY CHRONOLOGY OF EVENTS
“Antique” Park Ward produced = 1933
57SC convertible and the Atlantic produced = 1937-1938
Shepherd’s Park Ward sketch = circa early 1960s
Shepherd’s Bugatti broadcast = 1976
Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibit = 2005
I bought Park Ward sketch = 20008
Contact with Bugatti Club = 2009
Sardi’s lunch and my views of 57SC Atlantic replica = April 18, 2009
My “Ettori and Jean Bugatti, Artists” published = 2010
• Jean Shepherd may not have been aware that Ettori Bugatti’s son,
who designed the Atlantic, was named Jean.
• My accumulation of Bugatti material includes my own replica
of the 57SC Atlantic, but, alas, I can’t motor around in it
as it’s about seven inches long by two inches high.
MAY MY QUIRKY ARTSY OBSESSIONS NEVER END!