The problem with history’s greatest automobiles is that there simply aren’t many of them around. Some are one-off, coach-built wonders like the Mercedes SSK Count Trossi, combining sublime beauty with simple rarity, and leading to a priceless work of both engineering and art. Others were produced en some kind of masse, but driven into dust and discarded before a car was considered any kind of investment. Silly those people. I’ve heard more stories from people who sold original Cobras or 1970s Ferrari’s for $10,000 in the early 80s than I could fit in this article.
Those smart enough to keep their “worthless old cars” through the 80s and 90s are laughing their way to the bank, as the world’s most iconic racing and homologation cars command seven or even eight figures at fancy-pants auctions. The first Shelby Cobra just sold for $13.75 million dollars. No one’s driving that. Even the guy rich enough to buy Carroll Shelby’s CSX2000 isn’t dumb enough to risk his investment by actually driving it around people texting, eating In-N-Out, or playing Pokemon Go (is that still a thing people do? I hope not).
“But you, sir, can drive this replica Cobra and have the exact same experience for $39,995!”
“Exactly the same, you say? Tell me more.”
“Well, we’ve modernized it a bit, you know, real brakes from Wilwood, Koni Coilover Suspension; we run the 17-inch Hallibrand repro wheels, so we can run Trofeo R tires, and so we widen the fenders an extra inch. We put in power windows and a stereo, because nothing compliments sidepipes like Journey, AMRITE? And, you know those original Cobras only made like, 350 horsepower at the wheels, so we dropped in a 427 Dart motor with a dry sump, so ours makes like, 550 to the wheel on pump. This baby’ll smoke anything out of Maranello in the quarter.”
This is what most people will identify as a “replica.” It looks pretty close to the real thing—the basic vibe and attitude of it all will be the same. And that’s about it. We use the term “replica” casually, or at least I do, when referring to any approximation of a rare vintage car. The problem here is that I’m wrong.
What I should be saying is “representation,” because while a modern day version of a childhood icon with more power, modern suspension, and six-piston brakes is a perfectly fine toy, it’s simply not a replica. By the literal definition, a replica needs to be exact. Not faster, not more modern, not with a body made of something lighter or cheaper. It has to be the same, for better or worse.
Which brings me to the Bugatti Type 35 by Pur Sang Argentina. Pur Sang, as far as I know, is the only company on the planet building pure replicas. Their cars are 100 percent accurate recreations of pre-war (that’s pre-World War II, to you young’ns) sports cars and race cars.
For most of what Pur Sang builds, fewer than ten original cars exist, and while extraordinarily valuable in an investment context, they are exponentially more valuable in a historical context—the word “priceless” is thrown around a lot when it comes to those cars. The point being, they barely get driven now, and they probably won’t be driven more than a few miles until the end of time.
At a factory outside Buenos Aires, Argentina, a hundred craftsmen and -women work from the original factory plans from Bugatti, Alfa Romeo, Mercedes, and more, using the original methods and materials to build perfect copies of the race and sports cars on which dynasties were built. All the parts are interchangeable with the original cars—in fact, for many of those original cars, Pur Sang is the only parts supplier. Think VW-owned Bugatti will supply you with a magneto for a Type 35? Or an engine? Think again. Every known, functional Type 35 on the planet runs at least a few Pur Sang parts, and even better, each owner of those original cars has at least one Pur Sang replica to drive and enjoy without worrying about potentially ruining a valuable part of automotive history. (This includes Jay Leno, who has two.)
I meet John Bothwell at Pur Sang’s North American headquarters in Costa Mesa, CA. The walls are covered in vintage photographs of Ettore Bugatti, Enzo Ferrari, and Juan Manuel Fangio. There’s an Indian board-track racer, an Alfa Romeo 2300 8C Monza, and the Type 35—all by Pur Sang—on display.
Interspersed is John’s rapidly growing collection of personal Ford Model Ts, which includes a restored 1915 five-seat tourer, a bare 1915 race car, his great uncle’s period-modified and unrestored ’23 sedan, and the “Super T,” John’s ultimate 1920s off-road toy.
John couldn’t be a better representative for Pur Sang; he lives and breathes these old cars. His daily driver, a 1958 AC Aceca, of which only 25 were built, is part of his collection because “it’s the only post-war sports car made with a pre-war engine.”
He’s just returned from a 4,700-mile trip across the U.S. in the Type 35 “to show it can totally be done,” and had brought along our mutual friend Jessi Combs to share the driving. He tells stories for the duration of two espressos and a cigar, then we go downstairs to take the Type 35 out for a spin.
Even though it’s been sitting for a full day, the Supercharged 2.3L straight-eight fires on the first crank. It settles into a cammy, explosion-y idle and rumbles loudly in the background while we drink our third espresso, admiring the leather belts that drive the supercharger and magneto.
“It’s got eight quarts of oil in the sump, and it really needs to warm that oil up before you drive anywhere,” John says apologetically. I don’t know what he’s on about; I can’t think of a better background noise.
These cars were built for two people, technically, as a “riding mechanic” rode with early racing drivers to monitor gauges, prime the manual oil pump, and and act as simple ballast during early Grand Prix. But neither John nor I is Fangio-sized, and it’s a tight squeeze in the dimunitive race car. The driver is on the right, with an outboard right-side shift—as in, the lever is outside the body of the car. My left leg is resting on the transmission. Not a tunnel, mind you, but the transmission itself, with the shifter linkage running directly beneath my knees.
Today’s cars have standards we all take for granted, but with old cars, part of the fun is the challenge of doing something different. The absence of standards makes driving hard, and that’s what’s missing from even the fastest, most exclusive supercars of today, or even yesterday. For instance: pedals. In both a Craigslist Kia or a Ferrari TheFerrari, the accelerator is on the right and the brake is on the left. But I’ve now driven three different cars from the 1920s; in each of those cars there were three pedals, and in none of those cars did those three pedals do the same thing. It's by sheer luck the Bugatti Type 35 uses today’s pedal standards, although the footwell is so small I can’t actually drive it wearing anything but full-on racing shoes, which I haven’t brought, so I go barefoot.
That outboard shifter, on the other hand? It’s a four-speed, gated, non-synchro gearbox with a locked-out reverse gate to the left. No problem, right? Well, it’s upside-down. In every manual transmission car of today (except the Aston Martin V12 Vantage S) the “odd” ratios are forward, and the “even” ratios are backwards. The Type 35 has it the other way. Thankfully, although each gear engages with a satisfying “thunk,” double-clutching is not required.
The Type 35 featured some world-beating technologies for its time, leading to an undefeated racing record in the 1920s. It rolled on the world’s first alloy wheels, which integrated drum brakes at all four corners. The wheels themselves acted as cooling ducts. There is a complex cable-and-pulley system to ensure each brake drum receives equal pressure from the pedal, which, while on the heavy side, offers great feedback and a reasonable amount of confidence. It even has a proper drift handbrake, like a rally car.
Remember, at the same time this car was winning races, the Ford Model T—by far the most popular car of the era—had no brakes at all, just a metal-and-cotton band that constrained the transmission to stop. It’s wheels were made of wood.
The view out the elongated, tapering bonnet is simply legendary. Rolling into the throttle, completely exposed to the elements and assaulted by the open exhaust, gearset whine, and camshaft tapping on the valves, you’re instantly transported to a time when driving fast meant more than the ability to combine subprime credit, 20 percent down, and a willingness to go 144 months on that Hurácan.
It’s torque-y, with a linear power band that feels decidedly modern. The power builds towards the 5,000 RPM redline, the straight pipe popping and barking underneath my co-driver’s ass. I clank the pedal on the floorboard as the boost gauge climbs towards its 5 PSI max and the 1,400 pounds rockets off at the speed of a Subaru Outback. I felt like I was at the start of the Monaco Grand Prix.
Second gear, forward; third gear, down-right; fourth gear, straight up.
For the first ten minutes I repeat my mantra so I don’t money shift, and I backhand the shifter to go for third. Then John starts talking to me about something besides the mechanics of driving, and I realize I don’t have to think about it anymore. Maybe driving isn’t so hard after all?
I hit sixty in about ten seconds, and seventy-five another six seconds later. Though I don’t have the room (or the balls, yet), I’ve personally witnessed John drive one of these things at over 120 mph. I’ve also seen him drift one, on an offramp, in Dubai.
You muscle the Type 35 around through a tiller of a wheel, every millimeter of steering input translating to a change in direction. It’s literally like go-kart steering, with what feels like less than a full turn lock-to-lock. This is good, since I’m told, in order to drive one quickly, countersteer is the norm—not the exception. Load up the brakes too hard, even in a straight line, and it darts about a bit as the positively-cambered front tires catch ruts in the road.
“Steering box is a bit loose from the cross-country drive, we’re gonna tighten that up this week,” John yells through the wind to tell me.
Approaching a red light, John turns a hidden switch under the dashboard, which activates an electric fan. The fan, along with the tires, are the only modern components on the car. Without the fan, the Bugatti really couldn’t be street driven in any kind of hot climate. With the fan, it never overheats, according to John. As for the tires, they are a modern rubber compound molded by Coker Tire, using the original period molds so the shape is correct. But they are much safer for performance driving. There is an optional different firing order, used from a later-year Bugatti straight-eight and good for a few extra horsepower, and an optional standard crank bearing set, more reliable for high-mileage use than the standard Bugatti Roller Bearing set. The car I’m driving has neither.
Driving the Type 35 is just normal enough that anyone who can drive stick can learn it. But that doesn’t mean, by any measure, that it’s normal—not by a long shot. For $250,000 or thereabouts, roughly 10 percent of what it would cost to buy an original, you can have an experience that is as authentic as it gets: a car that looks and that drives absolutely identical to an original. The sounds and smells, the heat of the engine, the stink of oil vapor, and the connection to heroes of an era that will never be again, all swirl in your mind long after you’ve left the drivers seat.
Anyone besides the people at Pur Sang wouldn’t go the extra mile. “Replicas” are value propositions. They are the cheap way, the optimized way, the way to have a filtered, rose-tinted view of what performance cars were like in period. But to see the difference, just take one look at the $13.75 million CSX2000. See any Cobras running around today that look like that? With its 260-cubic-inch V8, narrow fenders, and skinny tires? Nope. They all run big blocks, side pipes, and 355’s in the rear, underneath exaggerated haunches.
Those cars, of which you see a half a dozen at every Cars and Coffee, are fun to drive, but we have to stop calling them replicas. They are representations, nothing more. They give the impression of an original car for a brief second, but then vanish into normalcy. They don’t do the word "replica" justice, because they aren’t replicating anything. They are simply not good enough when this is the benchmark for accuracy.
Long live Pur Sang, makers of the only real replica.