What you are looking at here is arguably the most valuable car in the world. That sort of thing is very difficult to pin down, with so few of them in existence and no post-recession sales numbers to look at, but it is generally agreed to be the most valuable car in the world. The Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic has, as a result, come to be seen as one of the ultimate symbols of prewar automotive elegance, more rolling statue than car, and for once that isn’t hyperbole.

I myself once saw the Atlantic belonging to Ralph Lauren on display in an actual art museum (the Cleveland Museum of Art had a whole exhibit dedicated to the Bugatti family in 1999), where it was treated the same as the sculptures on display nearby.

Of course, there are a lot of seriously beautiful prewar cars, some even more rare than the Atlantic, that aren’t nearly so valuable. It’s difficult to say just what it is that makes this one so much more valuable than the rest. There is a combination of different factors at work, and some of them defy explanation. Ultimately, it’s so valuable because someone is willing to pay whatever it takes to own it.

Continue reading to learn more about the Bugatti 57sc Atlantic Coupe.

  • 1933 - 1938 Bugatti 57sc Atlantic Coupe
  • Year:
    1933- 1938
  • Make:
  • Model:
  • Transmission:
    4-Speed Manual
  • Horsepower @ RPM:
    210@5500
  • Displacement:
    3257 L
  • 0-60 time:
    10 sec.
  • Top Speed:
    124.3 mph
  • car segment:
  • body style:

Exterior

1933 - 1938 Bugatti 57sc Atlantic Coupe High Resolution Exterior
- image 660253

The Bugatti Type 57 isn’t actually at all rare, at least not in the context of prewar European luxury cars. 710 units were built, but there is quite a bit of variation from one to the next. To start with, the “S” in the name of the Type 57 SC Atlantic stands for “surbaisse,” French for “lowered.” Producing the lowered examples of the T57 wasn’t easy, as they required the front suspension to be almost completely redesigned, and for the rear axle to pass through the frame, whereas before the frame sat on top of the axle. Only 43 examples of the S were made, which includes the Atlantics.

The styling for the Atlantic was penned by Jean Bugatti, Ettore's son, and is based on an earlier concept called the Aerolithe.

The styling for the Atlantic was penned by Jean Bugatti, Ettore’s son, and is based on an earlier concept called the Aerolithe. Parts of the body of the concept were made of Elektron, a branded type of magnesium alloy used in aircraft at the time. Magnesium can’t be welded because it burns (Elektron was even used in incendiary bombs), so the body panels were built with a ridge that ran down the center of the car and its fenders, thus allowing the panels to be riveted together instead of welded. The actual production versions of the Atlantic didn’t end up using the Elektron, but the seam was kept because the team at Bugatti had come to like it. It became a defining styling characteristic of the car. Like a lot of the Type 57s, the Atlantic is a supremely good example of art deco/art moderne styling in the automotive world. The Atlantic probably exemplifies this design style as the best of all of them though — one of those reasons for its extremely high value.

Interior

1933 - 1938 Bugatti 57sc Atlantic Coupe High Resolution
- image 46810

The Atlantic, and other variants of the Type 57 as well, doesn’t have the most spacious of interiors. That’s because, for all of its luxury fittings and deco bodywork, the Type 57 was fundamentally a sports car, so there are only two seats, although luggage space is surprisingly decent. What makes the various Type 57 interior special is the materials and overall fit and finish. The dash, for example, is wood. This is unsurprising, but what is unusual is that a divider runs through the middle and the two halves have book matched veneers, meaning that the grain of the two halves are mirror images of one another.

This sort of thing was normal for high-end furniture during the art deco period, and the wood, leather and chrome interior of the Atlantic was just as much of a reflection of design trends at the time as the bodywork. The car was low and the interior was on the small side, but Bugatti made ingress and egress easier by having the doors cut into the roof so that you didn’t have to stoop so much to avoid hitting your head. After all, for Bugatti’s sophisticated clientele, both stooping and hitting their heads were undignified.

Drivetrain

1933 - 1938 Bugatti 57sc Atlantic Coupe High Resolution
- image 660256
The engine was a 3.2-liter inline-eight that produced 200 horsepower when supercharged.

We have already covered the “S” in the name of the car, and now we must address the “C.” This stood for “compressor,” meaning that the car was supercharged. Certain Type 57 cars were built with a C and not an S, but nearly all of the S cars also had a C. This is interesting because only two cars were built new with superchargers, but a large percentage of owners brought their cars back to the factory to be retrofitted once Bugatti introduced the option. The engine was a 3.2-liter inline-eight that produced 200 horsepower when supercharged. For lowered versions, such as the Atlantic, it was also necessary for Bugatti to develop a dry sump lubrication system in order to reduce the height of the engine and thereby allow it fit under the hood. These systems are still pretty rare today, but in the ’30s it was exceptionally rare and ground breaking.

Even with all of that chrome, the Atlantic only weighed about 2,000 pounds, and it was quite a quick car for the time. This is evidenced by the fact that the Type 57 won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1937 and 1939. Some people therefore see road-going versions during that period as being the supercars of the day, but this is far too subjective a term to use with any real confidence in this situation.

Prices

1933 - 1938 Bugatti 57sc Atlantic Coupe High Resolution Exterior
- image 660250

The record for the most ever paid for a car at auction is held by a Ferrari 250 GTO and stands at $38 million, or $2 million more than has ever been recorded as being paid for an Atlantic. So we’ll have to delve into a bit more history on the car in order to explain how it could still be more valuable. The total number of Atlantics ever built has been disputed. It is officially listed as 3, but there have long been rumors of a fourth car. No chassis number is known for this car, and neither does anybody seem to have any idea what happened to it. Similarly controversial is the total number of remaining cars. There is one Atlantic that was destroyed in a train accident in 1955, killing both its occupants. The car sat and rotted in a dump for the next 10 years. It was fished out and “restored,” but so much of it has had to be changed that serious investors and auction houses don’t count it among the officially surviving Atlantics.

So there are just two examples of the Atlantic in the world now, both of which were sold to British owners when new and both of which currently belong to Americans.

So there are just two examples of the Atlantic in the world now, both of which were sold to British owners when new and both of which currently belong to Americans. One of these recently changed hands for $36 million, and is now on display at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Los Angeles, which is home to an amazing collection of art deco cars. The car had been modified several times by one of its owners, and had to be restored back to its 1936 specifications and bodywork after being bought in 1971. It won the 2003 Pebble Beach Concours Best in Show.

The other car, as I already mention earlier, belongs to fashion mogul Ralph Lauren, who added it to his considerable car collection in 1988. It is more original than the other example of the car, and even still has its original EXK6 UK registration. The paint color has been changed from dark blue to black, the same as Mr. Lauren’s other Type 57SC, a Gangloff convertible. The car has some interesting features, such as the original interior upholstery made of goatskin leather and seats stuffed with horsehair. Because it is more original, this is the more valuable of the two cars. After it won the Concorso d’Eleganze at Villa d’Este in 2013, the world’s experts declared it to be worth “$40+ million,” making it the most valuable car in the world. But, this really only means anything if Lauren is willing to sell, which he definitely doesn’t seem to be, and the Mullin car is probably going to be staying put for a while too.

Competition

Talbot-Lago T150C SS

1938 Bugatti Type 57C Atalante
- image 652359

On the short list with the Atlantic as one of the most significant examples of streamlined art deco design of all time in the automotive world is the Talbot-Lago “Teardrop” T150C SS. The shape stemmed from the idea that a drop of water was the most perfect shape in the world, and it was impossible to improve on nature. The body doesn’t have a single straight line on it, and whether it or the Atlantic is more beautiful could be debated almost endlessly. The T150 was a successful race car as well, meaning it had nearly the motorsport pedigree of the Type 57. It’s not quite as rare though, as there were 11 examples build of the T150C SS.

Delahaye 135 MS

1933 - 1938 Bugatti 57sc Atlantic Coupe High Resolution Exterior
- image 660262

I mentioned earlier that the Type 57 won at Le Mans in 1937 and 1939. If you were wondering what happened in 1938, it was won by the Delahaye 135. Road-going examples of the 135 were the automaker’s flagship chassis. The bodies were all coachbuilt, with those made by Figoni et Falaschi being some of the most elegant shapes to ever grace an automobile. Some were built specifically just to be concourse cars right from the start, and they were rolling statues in a way that even the Atlantic wasn’t. The tradeoff was that 135 road cars couldn’t touch the supercharged Bugatti’s performance.

Conclusion

1933 - 1938 Bugatti 57sc Atlantic Coupe High Resolution Exterior
- image 660257

Prewar luxury cars are a different sort of thing than other cars, it almost seems unfair to compare their value to anything else with wheels. Cars were never so stylish as they were in the ’30s, and they never would be again. But the Atlantic was more than just good looking, it was also the pinnacle of Le Mans-winning automotive technology at the time, yet sophisticated enough not to have to do anything so crass as to look the part. It is a coming together of the very best of the era’s styling, luxury and technology in a way that no other car quite managed. This is the reason for the high value, it is a car that shows everything right and good about France in the ’30s.

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    • * You can’t afford one
    • * Even if you can afford one, you can’t have one
    • * Not a very roomy interior
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