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He talked about his college days in Cincinnati, at a time when, referring to two comic strips, he was “just beginning to see that there was more to the world than ‘Flash Gordon,’ there was more to drawing than, say, ‘Prince Valiant,’ and I was beginning to suspect things.” As he was, in the best sense, about to learn a lesson—in an extracurricular class one Saturday morning—it was appropriately a teacher who took him and a couple of other students to a garage in order to expose them to an extraordinary work of art.
We were looking at one of the great automobiles. I mean one of the great automobiles. By ‘great’—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. Ettore Bugatti. Did you ever hear of the name? Ettore Bugatti. The maestro. A man who created automobiles the way Michelangelo created altar cloths. He created them as works of art.
And there, resting on the floor under that flickering neon light was a dark, rich, plum-colored 57SC, one of the great moments in the career of Ettore Bugatti. An automobile that had been created for a French duke late in the 1930s—around 1937. A car built specifically for mountain driving. An alive, magnificent, evil, sensual-looking machine that lay low. It didn’t’ really squat on the floor, it just sort of lounged, stretching out low and flat—sensual. And looking at that car you felt flight in every inch of it. Not only flight but movement and statement. And a curious kind of truth. It was so honest.
What had captivated Shepherd about this low-slung Bugatti 57SC sports car back in his college days? Through newly encountered information, I’ve come to understand that Shepherd had, over the decades, obviously conflated two similar but distinct Bugatti 57SC models. The one he spoke of during the broadcast with such enthusiasm, the one famed as a great masterwork of widespread renown, is not the plum-colored convertible he had originally seen, but the more rare and bizarre, hard-backed 57SC Atlantic. Only three originals of it exist, including a blue one that sold for over twenty million dollars in 2010, and a black one owned by fashion designer Ralph Lauren. From a race car historian: “The Bugatti Atlantic is one of those very rare, very great, very charismatic masterpieces of automotive art. Every line of it is thought-provoking.” From the director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which had featured the Lauren one in an exhibit of elegant cars, “It speaks a little of evil, I think it’s so wickedly designed. This black beauty, though, it’s extraordinary.” Evil? Wicked? You have to see photos and videos of this beast!
Evil and wicked are responses to a design that creates jarring mental and emotional contradictions, going against ordinary expectations regarding this otherwise aerodynamic car. What had Bugatti done to accomplish this feat of seeming inconsistency, of wicked design? Reportedly some manufacturing problem had inspired Ettore Bugatti’s son, designer Jean Bugatti, with an artist-alchemist’s wicked caprice, leading to the birth of what appears to be some antediluvian oddity. One source suggests that the sheet metal surface of the body was to be a special alloy that would burn in the usual welding process. This circumstance, or a design decision growing out of an earlier such situation, led to a brutish-yet-elegant oddity in the erotically rounded, voluptuous, crouching beast—down the centerline of this otherwise fluid and carnal body—like a stark reptilian spine, lies a rigid, riveted flange pure and unadorned in its severity. Evil? Wicked? How can such a thing exist? How can such a being be described? Confounding ordinary assumptions with bold wit, Jean Bugatti created a technically ingenious aberration seemingly out of some lost-world fantasy—a sleek dolphin with spine crossbred from a small dinosaur, a wondrous creature about to vault from some primitive sea. He brought forth a piece of sublime art.
Enthralled by the 57SC and other masterpieces of automotive design, Shepherd extolled the art of Bugatti until the end of the program. His usual style in radio art was a jazzman’s manipulation of words into improvised compositions, but only rarely had he crafted a program with such thoughtful and seemingly preconceived precision as he devoted to the elegance of line and form in Ettore Bugatti’s sensuous art. Despite having a variety of unusual cars over the years, Shepherd never held title to a Bugatti, but he did retain that lesson in art taught by the sublime Bugatti 57SC, and some years later he held a Bugatti Royale limo long enough in his mind’s eye to own it by sketching it. And now I, Shepherd-cuckoo and new-born admirer of Bugatti, possess that sketch. Thus, in my eternal quest through Shepherdland, I’ve learned a bit more about Jean Shepherd’s eye, and he’s given me an introduction to Bugatti and to the esthetics of the automobile—to the car as art.
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[My comment that appeared in the following Bugatti Club publication follows]
Although Jean Shepherd had an extensive memory, he occasionally conflated some details, as he seemed to do in his broadcast description of his view of the 57SC. The Gangloff [Bugatti 57SC] was the right color and in the right place at the right time for him to have seen it; however, the passing of a quarter of a century between his view and his remembrance, and the front-end similarity and body type designation of T57SC for both the Gangloff and the Atlantic, seemed to cause him a problem. The even more eccentric Atlantic and far more words and images subsequently devoted to it argue persuasively for it being the 57SC that Shepherd came to describe as “An alive, magnificent, evil, sensual-looking machine that lay low.”
My foregoing article—parts 1 and 2 here— appeared in the American Bugatti Club’s quarterly publication, Pur Sang Spring, 2010. At the club’s invitation, I attended their annual New York City luncheon at midtown Manhattan’s Sardi’s Restaurant. Parked out front were three Bugattis, one of which was one of the five reproductions of the 57SC Atlantic, so I got to see and photograph an exact replica. Jay Leno owns one of the other replicas. The photos in this article are of one of the originals, owned by fashion designer Ralph Lauren. (Many photos of two of the original ones can be found among Google’s images by searching for “57SC Atlantic.” However, a similar Bugatti is also shown there, as well as photos of scale models of the “evil, wicked” beast.)
Regarding my collection of Sherperdiana, the paper towel sketch of the Bugatti limo had been just half of the sheet, the other half consisting of a totally separate, rather elegant still life of table items. The combined length of the paper towel roll sheet was 57” by 12” high, a rather difficult size to frame in one piece. Through a tough rationalization on my part, based on the two subjects being totally disconnected in subject as well as style and separation on the sheet, I cut the them apart (having done so hurts me still) and framed them each, mounting them on the wall of my Shep Shrine side by side, almost visually connected.
AN EXTRACURRICULAR LESSON IN ART
Jean Shepherd was a connoisseur of many arts, including the design and driving of cars, motorcycles and the like. His interest in them extended to his role as emcee of the Greenwich Village sports and antique car rallies from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s, to the scores of columns he wrote for Car and Driver magazine in the 1970s and, not least, to his penchant for racing perilously through the streets of New York City and environs on his motorcycle or scooter, in his Morgan or Porsche, or in some other exotic species of automobile, such as a funky little Goggomobil, whenever he could. He was, indeed, a motor-cuckoo—a car-cuckoo.
And I quest tirelessly for every immortal relic of his artistry, whether for the holy grail of his lost broadcasts or for just some lines on a scrap of paper. Through that obsession, which includes a daily scanning of ebay, I encountered and bought one of his creations, done sometime in the early 1960s, a large pen-and-ink drawing of an antique car. Shepherd’s drawing is in a loose style, done quickly, maybe because the impressive vehicle was about to move, or because he didn’t want to attempt a too-smooth rendition that would fail utterly in comparison with the elegant object in front of him. In short, my treasure is a lowly paper towel with a rough sketch of a fine car on it.
I wanted to know all about that car. My quest led me through innumerable glossy tomes filled with glorious photos of old cars until I encountered a possible match—had Shepherd portrayed a stately Bugatti? With a query and a photo of the drawing from me, the folks at the American Bugatti Club checked their meticulously detailed files and narrowed it down, not just to the species–Bugatti Royale–but to the exact specimen of that grand limousine itself, the Park Ward. Ah, to encounter such admirably precise authorities as these—what comfort for a cuckoo on a quest! My pursuit has a glorious culmination. As Shepherd talked about virtually anything and everything that interested him over the years, it’s no surprise to me that, in hot pursuit through my own meticulously detailed files, I encountered a 1976 tape of him discussing his love of antique cars and his special admiration for those designed and built by Bugatti.
I discovered that, although Shepherd usually dealt with many subjects during a show, this entire broadcast was devoted to the virtues of Ettore Bugatti and his cars, concentrating not on the Royale limo in my ink drawing, but on a low-slung, sporty model. He began this particular show by commenting that the world had created a new artistic form in the first quarter of the twentieth century: “It existed briefly for ten or twelve years in its really flowering form and then began to decline as all art forms do—they ultimately decline.” After this general introduction, he began his story about a Bugatti.
STAY TUNED FOR PART 2