Musings on the Past

Bugatti La Voiture Noire pays tribute to the most valuable car yet to be found

What is Bugatti without a bit of excess? And while various tuners and Koenigsegg will eventually come along to lay claim to power and top speed records, the Molsheim-based manufacturer has pulled no stops to lay claim to the title of the most expensive new car ever made with the exquisitely titled and magnificently dressed La Voiture Noire.

Built as a one-off based on the Chiron to commemorate the brand’s 110th anniversary, and named after the “lost” Type 57SC Atlantic that Jean Bugatti made from himself, the present day La Voiture Noire sports a price tag of €16.7million, or nigh on USD19 million with taxes. To put that into perspective, you could buy the previous record holder, the one-off Rolls-Royce Sweptail which reportedly racked up a bill of USD13 million, and still have enough spare change for a €5 million Bugatti Divo. Not a bad racket for what amounts to a rebodied Chiron with the same 1103kW hardware and a helpful serving of styling cues inspired by the gorgeous pre-war Type 57SC Atlantic.

That being said, prices for these one-off pale in comparison to the prices some prized classic cars exchange hands for. Currently the record for the most expensive car ever sold at auction is – no surprises here – a Ferrari 250 GTO of 1962 vintage. With a winning bid of USD48.4 million at last August’s RM Sotheby’s annual collector car sale in Monterey, USA, chassis no.3413GT surpassed the previous record of USD38 million for – seriously, there are no prizes for guessing here – another Ferrari 250 GTO.

As absurd as those figures sound, those are just the prices recorded at auctions. According to reports in June last year, a Tour de France-winning example, known as the “4153GT” exchanged hands privately for a reported USD80 million, with some claiming that prices for 250 GTOs could breach USD100 million in the next five years. In the stratified world of the concours-level connoisseur collectors, it is safe to say that the 250 GTO is pretty much the Holy Grail of cars.

It can be argued that the frequency of high profile auctions involving 250 GTOs has much to do with the car’s unrelenting rise in value. Ferrari built 36 250 GTOs between 1962 and 1964, many surviving examples are still being used in competitive classic car racing by toffs. Thanks to the relative frequency these cars go under the hammer at auctions, the “auction fever” of these events simply perpetuates the incremental price rise at every auction cycle.

Exclusivity is perhaps the main driving force behind the current craze for collector cars. Like dating a supermodel, the more famous the subject of desire, the more one becomes the object of envy, and the 250 GTO’s stellar reputation at auctions has as much to do with its current value as its past glories does.

This caveat, however, does raise an argument that we may never know what truly is the world’s most valuable car as some will never hit the auction floor or be sold off. There are many one-off Rolls-Royces built for royalties that may command significant sums, some even argue that the most valuable car in existence is the Lunar Rovers sitting on the moon, and in terms of historical value, it might truly be – pardon the pun – “out of this world”.

Octane magazine wrote in 2009 that Stirling Moss’ #722 300 SLR that set the Mille Miglia record in 1955, is the most valuable car in existence with an estimated price of USD42 million. This mind you, was in an ere when the going rate for 250 GTOs was just under USD30 million. That being said, the open market is the true determinant of value, and we will never know if Octane’s estimates will transpire simply because Mercedes-Benz has deemed the #722 to be too valuable for even themselves to drive it at promotional demonstrations, presumably relegating it to a padded air-conditioned vault until the heat death of the last W124.

There is one car that bridged Octane’s valuation standings between Moss’ 300SLR and the 250 GTO and that is the Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, and there is a good reason for that.

Enzo Ferrari built 36 examples of the 250 GTO, Jean Bugatti, son of Bugatti’s founder Ettore, built just four Atlantic coupes. Its rarity is the reason why many outside classic car circles have not heard of its astronomical value. The only example that was sold in recent times was the very first Atlantic coupe, otherwise known as chassis no.57374. In 2010, 57374 was bought for an undisclosed amount of between USD30-40 million and is now on display at the Petersen Automotive Museum. The other two known examples are the third Atlantic, which was painstakingly and faithfully rebuilt following a train accident that killed its occupants to which it is shunned by connoisseurs for being a ‘replica’, and the last now lies in the possession of fashion mogul Ralph Lauren, arguably the most recognised of the three.

That leaves out the “second” Atlantic, or Jean Bugatti’s own “La Voiture Noire”, which has been missing for the last 80 years. Not even Bugatti past and present are certain of the original La Voiture Noire’s fate. Built as a factory demonstrator, the La Voiture Noire was never registered to an individual, which made keeping track of it through official motor vehicle records next to impossible.

Some believe that Jean gave the car to Robert Benoist, who brought Bugatti a Le Mans win in 1937, who later gave the car to fellow Bugatti driver William Grover-Williams, who in turn brought the car back to Molsheim in 1939. Others believe that the car was hidden away as World War II loomed over the horizon as many believed Jean would probably do, though with his tragic passing in 1939 at the wheel of the Type 57C Tank, we may never know for sure.

The more optimistic of enthusiasts hold on to the belief that the La Voiture Noire 57SC Atlantic escaped the war and still lies hidden somewhere in Europe, waiting to be found in its pristine state. Bugatti too are optimistic of this narrative and “officially” would like to believe that the car vanished before Germany’s invasion of Alsace. So much so, they even valued the car, should it be found, at more than €100 million. If the 250 GTO is the Holy Grail, then the La Voiture Noire truly is the lost Ark of the Covenant. Its story will continue to fascinate classic car connoisseurs for decades to come, and for now, we can only make do with a “cheaper” facsimile, even one with the title of “the world’s most expensive”, it is rather fitting.

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