I don’t know if it still is, but attending the Christmas Spectacular at Radio City Music Hall in New York City as a kid used to be a rite of passage. It was also an event. Seeing the Rockettes explode onto the stage in a flurry of choreographed kicks for the very first time was enough to put Santa on notice. The exact seat number where I sat next to my family has been lost to memory, but the vantage point has been seared into my skull: front right, close enough to take in the theatrics but also the architecture. Radio City, with its gorgeous concentric golden circles, blood-red seats and walls, is like staring into the angry iris of a god. But then, that’s Art Deco for you. When you stare at Art Deco, it seems to stare back, assessing your sophistication and worth (like Saturday Night Live characters Wayne and Garth, whose answer is usually an emphatic, We’re. Not. Worthy).
It wouldn’t be until a while after my wintertime pilgrimage that I would be able to put a style to a name. Longer still, before I grasped that Art Deco—a style influenced by a hodgepodge of decorative arts united by modernity—didn’t just influence the designs of buildings, but furniture, jewelry, fashion and, yes, cars, too. Unfortunately, I was 80 years late to the party: The style effectively died with the onset of World War II. But before it dissolved, it inspired some, including Jean Bugatti, to create some of the most stunning designs, Art Deco or otherwise, in the world. That is, roadsters more artwork than automobile, highly prized today by car collectors everywhere: The Type 57 Bugatti Atlantics.
First appearing on the Bugatti Aérolithe in 1935, the design scheme called for a lightweight but flammable magnesium alloy. As such, the body panels had to be riveted externally—giving it the prominent dorsal seam that produces the complex, exquisite shape. Though the Aérolithe was never recovered—some believe it was scrapped for parts during the war effort—lucky for us, the design survives today in a few Atlantic models. These cars continue to make everything around them seem obsolete. Only a few of the originals have survived to present day, one is on display at the Mullin Automotive Museum in California. Another belongs to Ralph Lauren, who reportedly paid upwards of $40 million for it at auction. A 1937 Type 57S Atalante was found covered in dust in a garage in England. The engine hadn’t been fired up in more than 50 years, and the odometer read under 27,000 miles. These are cars in the same way that the Mona Lisa is a mere painting.
Bringing the past to life this fall is the 2018 International Bugatti Tour and Grand Prix. Hosted by the American Bugatti Club, the exclusive, weeklong rally draws Bugatti enthusiasts from around the world—this year, the tour will be visiting the US for the first time in more than a decade. While the last few Atlantics will probably not be on display, owners in vintage and modern models will nonetheless be taking a winding tour along Adirondack roadways. The rally will descend on the Lake George Club just in time to kick off the Saratoga Wine & Food Festival, a three-day epicurean showcase at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, and pop up at Saratoga Spa State Park’s reflecting pool for a “Bugatti Ballet” auto display.
What is it about the Bugatti brand that elicits such patronage? History has something to do with it, though I would be flat-out lying if I said that other Italian carmakers such as Ferrari and Lamborghini don’t have their own storied legacies. What then? Since the very beginning, when Ettore Bugatti left the German auto industry to create the brand bearing his name, the marque has been about melding high speed performance and exquisite styling into road-bound creations. Famously, Ettore was said to have told a customer complaining about the brakes in his Bugatti, “I make my cars to go, not stop!” Seldom seen in recent years, many of these cars have taken on an almost mythical status. Designed by Jean Bugatti, Ettore’s son, the Bugatti Royale Type 41 became one of the most sought-after luxury cars of all time—in its day competing with the leading Rolls Royce cars of the era. In the world of auto racing, the Bugatti Type 35 dominated the scene for years while facing tough competition from Fiat, Mercedes and Bentley. Even the modern cars are unicorns. More recently, when the Bugatti Veyron was being built, its design brief was simple: The car had to have more than 1000 horsepower; it had to be able to accelerate to 60 mph in less than three seconds; it had to have a top speed of 250 mph; and it had to be stylish enough to be a car you’d want to take to the opera. The design brief for its successor, the Chiron, was even simpler: be better than the Veyron in every way.
Today, the Chiron is the fastest, most powerful and exclusive production super sports car in Bugatti’s history. Each one is a masterpiece of art and performance: a nod to the Art Deco styling of Jean Bugatti, and the engineering of Ettore. To have so many Bugattis descend on Saratoga at once is like having your home decorated by the contents of the Louvre. It’s nothing less than a head-exploding event of fabulosity. A chance to look back at multiple design generations of the past, and look ahead at the blazing-fast future. Just don’t blink. (I still kind of miss the Rockettes, though).