Coachbuilders of the 30’s series: 1938 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic

“Whether they like it or not, those who create new forms succumb to the influence of modern art….Comparison between an automobile and the sculpture of its time will show how close the relationship is between works of art and the forms of useful objects.”

Swiss sculptor, Max Bill.

In the 1920s,  automotive design took a leap forward into the modern age, taking many cues from the Futurist and Art Deco movements. Until then, the unmistakable influence of the automobile’s horse-drawn progenitors was seen in the upright, slab-sided vehicles rumbling over the roads of the world. Mass production made the car more accessible to the hoi polloi, which then spurred coachbuilders on to produce  exclusive, bespoke bodies for the wealthy, based on existing chassis platforms.  By the 1930’s, automotive coachbuilding was arguably at it’s zenith, and some of the most beautiful art-inspired designs ever seen graced the polished floors of the Salon de l’Auto.

I can’t possibly do justice to all of them in one entry, so I’m going to start a small series, beginning with a smattering of type dedicated to Jean Bugatti’s masterpiece, the 1938 Type 57SC Atlantic.

Try to imagine the impact this low-slung, curvaceous beauty would have on you, a visitor to the Paris Motor Show in 1938. Chances are, you would never have witnessed the likes of it. Breathtaking, 123 mph (200 kph) sculpture.  The aerodynamic embodiment of a bold new age. Stylish, avant-garde, the 57S Coupe left all in awe of Bugatti’s creative abilities.

The spine you see running from radiator to tail, and along the wings, is where body panels were riveted together, providing the car with a distinctive profile. This design feature owed it’s origins to the use of Elektron, a highly flammable alloy of magnesium and aluminium, which prohibited welding in construction. The remaining examples in existence today are crafted from aluminium only, but Jean Bugatti persisted with the riveted flanges, and I’m pleased he did.


It should come as no surprise that such a rare and stunning piece of rolling art would attract the attentions of those in the fashion world. Ralph Lauren certainly has the means and the good taste to have one in his Leno rivalling car collection.  If I  somehow end up with large quantities of money, I’d part with a significant chunk for the honour of owning it, but I fear I’d be dead before the two(?) known examples went on the market.

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