Someone Claimed They Found a Mythical Lost Bugatti. Then They Disappeared
Worth over $100 million, "La Voiture Noire" has been missing for 80 years... until alleged photos of it popped up on Reddit this week. Here's what happened.
Earlier this week, it seemed like something incredible was happening in the automotive world. In a handful of Reddit posts, a user using two separate accounts shared what appeared to be the remains of a car that's been missing since WWII and the subject of an international hunt ever since: a Bugatti Type 57 Atlantic, one of just four built in the mid-1930s. According to the original poster, it was "La Voiture Noire"—the only Atlantic built that is unaccounted for today, the barn find to end all barn finds, the most valuable Bugatti ever, estimated to be worth north of $100 million if it indeed still exists today.
However, in digging through the evidence and speaking with sources with firsthand knowledge, we've been able to determine that the car referenced in the since-deleted comments and photos almost certainly isn't La Voiture Noire. It could, however, be something very interesting in its own right, possibly what's left of the original 1935 Bugatti Type 57 "Aérolithe" prototype that was reportedly parted out to help build other Bugattis. Here's what we've learned so far.
There's been a lot of speculation since the original Reddit posts from Nov. 29, and it's easy to see why imaginations ran wild with the possibility of finding La Voiture Noire, or "The Black Car" in French. If it's still around, it's a lost treasure that would rewrite Bugatti's history if it was unearthed. The dark-painted, supercharged Atlantic was a favorite of the company's leading light Jean Bugatti, having a short storied history before it was lost in 1941. Allegedly, the vehicle was being shipped on a train to Bordeaux in order to escape the coming German advance, however, it never arrived at its destination. It disappeared without a trace, and it's been missing for 80 years.
We know this find is very likely not the car for a few key reasons. The first is that our research shows the engine is wrong. The straight-eight powerplant in the supercharged Atlantics received a different intake manifold as compared to the regular Type 57s, and thanks to an anonymous source you'll hear more from later, we have photo evidence clearly showing this is not a supercharged car.
Just the same, the chassis is wrong for the vehicle to be an Atlantic. Speaking to Jason Torchinsky at Jalopnik, Sandy Leith, an expert on vintage Bugattis and a member of the Bugatti Trust, told the outlet that "a standard T57 chassis frame [is not] correct for the untraced Black Atlantic. It should be a T57S chassis frame, which is substantially different than a standard T57 chassis frame." The "S" in T57S stands for Surbaissé, or lowered. What Leith is referring to is that lowering the car from a standard T57's ride height meant reworking the rear axle to run straight through the rear subframe, instead of sitting underneath it. The chassis isn't right, so the La Voiture Noire claims just don't stick, no matter what the Reddit user wrote in their comments. It's a Type 57 chassis, one of the hundreds built. Still valuable, but not worth anything close to $100 million.
That's not the whole story, though. Before the production Type 57 Atlantics arrived in 1936, a single prototype, bodied in a magnesium alloy called "Elektron" and based on what is said to be a standard, non-lowered Type 57 chassis, was built in 1935. This vehicle, known as the Aérolithe, is arguably just as much of a mystery as La Voiture Noire.
Its recorded history is brief, bursting onto the scene at the Paris Auto Salon in 1935 and disappearing just as quickly a few months later. It was very likely disassembled when it was returned to the factory and cannibalized so that the then-struggling Bugatti could push more Type 57s out the door. Its body is reportedly long gone—some claim it was modified for use on the missing black Atlantic. However, it's possible that the remaining parts of the Aérolithe could be underneath the body of the car in the Reddit photos. Further, The Drive has spoken to multiple sources who claim to know the car's location: Redline Restorations, a high-end restoration shop located in Bridgeport, Connecticut, that specializes in concourse-grade work.
"It was actually a chassis that sat rolling around in the building," a source who requested anonymity but claims they've seen the Bugatti in person at Redline told The Drive. "It was relatively under the radar as to what [it] belonged to." According to the source, the chassis (number 57331, supposedly) has allegedly been dated by some manner of metallurgical analysis. It, along with the car's engine, radiator, firewall, and a few other odds and ends, are all still intact. The body, however, is not legit. "That body is a total reproduction," the source said. "The original body is gone."
And how did such an important piece of French automotive history allegedly wind up at a restoration shop in Connecticut?
"One of the main mechanics at Redline who's been in the industry longer than most... was in France visiting a client," the source said. The mechanic had allegedly come to the country in either the 1980s or the 1990s—our source couldn't recall when exactly—to purchase a different car from this client and was on their way home when they received a call about the chassis. "The way he told me, it belonged to a French movie producer, and he had a warehouse... filled with tractor-trailers for the movie sets."
Supposedly, after climbing around various cinema-related debris and fighting off some restless bees, the mechanic came across the hidden treasure, slowly decaying in a corner of the warehouse. "At that point, no one had known that car existed, so it was kept under wraps by the previous owner as well," the source said. The mechanic then reportedly bought the chassis and the rest of the car that was left with it and eventually shipped it back to the United States. Ostensibly since then, the car and its chassis have been sitting stateside, idle and unrestored.
It's a serious long shot, but the source claimed that Redline's owners believe the surviving original parts are legitimately from the long-missing Aérolithe prototype. This contradicts the original Reddit posts that said the car's owner thought they were in possession of La Voiture Noire—but since that person deleted their entire Reddit account along with their posts, we have no way of cross-checking that.
It's certainly a good story, however, it's not the first time somebody has claimed to have found the Aérolithe's remains. To learn more, we spoke with David Grainger of The Guild of Automotive Restorers, a Bugatti expert and builder of the only legit and functional Aérolithe concept replica on the planet. Complete with a hand-beaten magnesium body as well as a legitimate Type 57 chassis and engine, it's as close to the real thing as you can get. To create this vehicle, Grainger had to become more intimately familiar with the long-lost masterpiece than anybody else. His replica is accurate down to the number of rivets on the body's unwelded exterior, and as such, he had a few choice comments on the situation after hearing some details.
"My experience has been that when someone makes the claim that they have the Aérolithe, any info they have is quickly deleted—as in this case," Grainger told us. "This is the ninth or 10th discovery I have heard about."
The value of the vehicles is so immense and the stakes are so high that things are typically not straightforward at all, the master automotive restorer explained. "About 10 years ago, I vetted an Aérolithe discovery that an American gentleman put a large deposit on and was having a great time telling people that he had found," Grainger recalled. "He hadn’t [found it] and lost all his money, as the shop that discovered it for him mysteriously disappeared."
Grainger has been a part of the Bugatti community for a long time and is obviously wary of these discoveries. On top of being doubtful that this particular vehicle is legitimate, he said that what is left to be found of the car may not be much anyway. "The Aérolithe body was converted into the Atlantic that went missing in 1939... and the lion’s share of the mechanicals [were] salvaged for parts at the factory," he said. "I would love to say it was still in existence," but without further evidence, he's not confident. "Our research indicates it was dismantled and parts incorporated into other cars. If you can determine the chassis number and also determine it has not been forged, that would be a good start."
Grainger's comments speak to how hard it can be to verify these sorts of finds. On the surface at least, proving evidence the car is legit seems to be a relatively straightforward task—match up the numbers from the engine and chassis and you're golden. Of course, it's not that simple. If Redline has indeed gotten the chassis metallurgically dated, it at least indicates that the shop has looked into the car's veracity and isn't taking anything at face value.
And that leads us to the last piece of this puzzle, which is Redline itself. I've reached out across multiple channels multiple times—emailed, called, and sent direct messages—yet despite my best attempts, I've received no response beyond a simple "we'll get back to you." Representatives from the shop did not issue any formal comment after the Reddit post, but the original poster, allegedly an employee of the business, indicated he was forced to take it down by a superior. That means Redline is at least aware the photos were posted online, and probably conscious of the buzz it's causing on social media.
Is this car the legitimate Aérolithe? Well, at this point it seems unlikely, as much as I would love to be wrong. If more pictures came forward and Redline showed a few more of its cards, I might be able to make a better judgment. However, with a find like this, I have to be very skeptical. Everybody wants to say they found all that remains of Bugatti's long-missing masterpiece.
Got a tip about any missing Bugattis worth millions of dollars? You can reach the author here: firstname.lastname@example.org.