What makes a car worth $35 million? Well, I suppose first that someone is willing to pay that price for it. Which certainly means that there are others behind them who would come close to matching it, otherwise it would not sell for such an elevated number. And secondly it must be so rare that the term 'priceless' has some meaning. Last Saturday night I was standing on the floor of the amazing Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, Ca. (about an hour from L.A.) with Peter and Merle Mullin, and we were gazing at the 1936 Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic which is on loan there for a limited time at the museum. Peter, who lovingly calls it the 'Mona Lisa,' told me that an anonymous buyer had recently purchased the car from the estate of Dr. Peter Williamson, a prominent Lyme, New Hampshire neurologist, who had bought the car at a Sotheby's auction here in Los Angeles on June 12th, 1971 for the unheard of price of $59,000 and proudly held it for almost four decades. (I couldn't help thinking that, if I had had that kind of money in '71, would I - admittedly a rare car nut - have done the same. Probably not, although I did subsequently buy a used Rolls Royce Silver Cloud 3...for $6,500, a princely sum for me. Had it custom painted light blue with a faint touch of silver, much like the Bugatti we were viewing.)
The occasion was a dinner that the Mullins were hosting for the owners of some 80 Bugattis who had participated in the 50th Anniversary of the American Bugatti Club at the Bugatti Rally last week, about which I have written of on Huffington recently. After the Pebble Beach Concours d'Elegance, some 60 cars, ranging from a 1920 Brescia to a 2010 Silver Veyron 16.4 Grand Sport Bugatti (the world's fastest production car, with a top speed reportedly of 268 miles an hour and a price tag in the $1.6 million range), left Monterey driving single file north across the Golden Gate Bridge, then south through the Santa Cruz Mountains, slowly winding their way through coastal towns to the Mullins home on the cliffs of Big Sur overlooking the Pacific, where they parked in a meadowland of wild flowers for a festive lunch, then proceeded south through wine country to a tour of San Simeon's Hearst Castle and on to the Mullin Museum for this dinner.
Along the way they visited a steam railroad, shopped in the quaint Danish town of Solvang, sipped at a Santa Ynez winery, and toured the Santa Barbara Mission. Sitting across from me at dinner was a jovial woman named Evelyn from Paso Robles whose husband was wearing the kilt, and they told me that they had experienced the only accident of the rally, when a Bugatti made an abrupt right turn into their Bugatti. "It's on its way to the restoration garage now," she said. "But we have others." This night, I met many of the owners from all about the country and abroad - Italy, France, Germany, Holland....many shipping their cars here for the rally and ride. "Bugatti owners drive their cars, they are not just for show," one told me.
At the museum, Merle Mullin showed me the famous "Lake Bugatti," a 1925 Bugatti type 22 Roadster chassis which was brought to the surface after 75 years of submersion in Switzerland's Lake Maggiore. The owner had deliberately sunk it to hide it from a tax collector, attaching a chain to it with the idea he would raise it after the taxman left. The chain corroded, it lay on the bottom of the lake until the Swiss Bugatti car club lifted it, and then sold it to Peter Mullin, who calls it 'The Beauty from the Deep," for $375,000, promising to preserve it. The proceeds of the sale went to the Damiano Tamagini Foundation, named for the young son of the diving team's captain who was senselessly murdered by a gang of youths at a carnival last year. The Mullins brought his parents over for the opening of the museum, and when Merle told the gathering the story of the 'Beauty' in both Italian and English, there wasn't a dry eye in the house.
A 1927 Bugatti Type 52 "Baby Bugatti," built by Ettore for his youngest son, Roland. Peter Mullin found this child-size Bugatti in Argentina, being used as a playground carnival display. He had it restored and it is now in the museum. It has 4 wheel brakes and is driven by a 12-volt electric motor; it is one-fourth the scale model of the Type 35 Grand Prix Bugatti.
There, in the new museum, it is on display along with some 50 cars paying homage to the Art Deco era and the legendary Bugatti family's marriage of design and technology. The museum's curator, Andrew Reilly, told me, "This was the golden age of the auto, from 1920 to the 1940s. There are a lot of people who think the single most important development of the 20th century was the car."
Another view of the precious car! Only three were built; the other restored one is in Ralph Lauren's car collection.
Which makes this extraordinarily beautiful and precious car we are gazing at even more impressive. Considered by many to be the ultimate expression of the motor car as art form, the auction house which negotiated the sale says the price was 'between $30 and $40 million,' but a charming older woman sitting next to me at cocktails (where Lanson Champagne celebrated its 250th anniversary with a fine pouring) said, "I know the seller's family very well, and the final price was exactly $35 million." The car was one of only three built by Jean Bugatti, son and heir of the legendary Ettore. The prototype 'Aerolithe Electron Coupe' was in the1935 Paris Auto Show; it was then developed further and - radical in design and engineering - used riveted aluminum panels which he mounted on Bugatti's most sophisticated, powerful and revolutionary Type 57S chassis. This one (chassis #57374) was sold to Lord Victor Rothschild of London, who ordered it in light blue with a dark blue interior. In 1939 he sent it back to the factory to have a supercharger installed. The only other example remaining is in the collection of designer Raph Lauren.
My personal favorite car at the museum, a late 30s Delahaye built for the Shah of Iran, then Persia. To me, it is the personification of the Art Deco car concept.
Peter Mullin told me, "When I saw my first custom-built French car about 30 years ago, a Delahaye, and for the first time realized that engineering masterpieces could also be 'sculptural rolling art,' I was hooked from then on, and I have passionately pursued these Art-Deco creations." A visit to the Mullin Automotive Museum is mandatory for anyone who appreciates fine cars, fine art, the better and more sophisticated things in life. Which, I am certain, includes all of my readers!
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