A virtual magazine for a true passion!

Editor: Jaap Horst

Volume 26, Issue 2

Bugatti Type 57S Atlantic design analysis

By Dick Ruzzin, GM Design Staff, Retired


Do I dare to attempt a design analysis of the Bugatti Atlantic, one of the most iconic sports cars of all time? It is a risk to my reputation, an awesome challenge as the Bugatti Atlantic is an awesome car....
I will.

To start off on the right foot, it is my stated opinion that the Bugatti Atlantic, built on a Type 57S chassis as designed and executed by Jean Bugatti, is a race car for the street. The light weight aircraft style doors, sliding side windows and basic amenities all attest to the creation of a unique high performance sports car.


To evaluate the total aesthetic effort under the direction and by Jean Bugatti in the designing of the Bugatti Atlantic we will apply the technical aesthetic terms used by professional car designers around the world. Even today some designers use these key elements intuitively and others very strategically. Jean Bugatti at this point in his career was very experienced and had already designed many Bugattis. This is important to understand as we can see that he was developing and evolving his skills as an artist, as a car designer and as a director of design. Car design is very complex and the Bugatti Atlantic shows that he was to be considered, even at that time, one of the best in the world. With each design project he was continuously developing his artistic talent and adding to his design experience. Jean Bugatti managed the aesthetic side of the design as well as the engineering or technical side of automobile manufacturing in the creation of the Atlantic. As both were being done under the direction of one person this was a rare coordinated effort with the appearance of the car being at the forefront of his attention. This circumstance is a huge advantage for a designer.

Below are terms used by designers and their definitions followed by my review of Jean Bugatti’s response to each of these design challenges. They are all visible in the resultant artistic expression of the Bugatti Atlantic.

This term describes the complete assembly of the essential and basic functional elements that form the platform of a vehicle, it’s interior spaces, exterior size and volume distribution.

> The Atlantic platform is derived from the Bugatti Type 57S that was developed for the manufacture of larger cars. Creating a small, shorter two passenger version of the platform with the power train of the larger car results in a lightweight vehicle that can be tuned to be sporty in handling with high performance driving characteristics. Essentially the Atlantic is a closed coupe variation of the Bugatti Type 57 Grand Prix car. It is important to understand that some of the key elements of the platform were also adjusted to give the designer the best opportunity to create a dramatic and beautiful shape, as he understood it. The credited designer was Jean Bugatti.

The length, width and height of all the related volumes in total that the designer must deal with when creating a car design.

> The combination of two passenger seating placed as close as possible to the rear axle combined with a long wheelbase would characterize the Atlantic. The long hood proportion was already being used in Europe and America. However, as a two passenger body the passenger compartment is very small resulting in a much more dramatic profile.

The two and three dimensional shapes of the various elements that are added or are part of the basic design form, providing the vehicle with all the necessary road going requirements.

> There are five graphic key elements of note that define the Atlantic:
1. The highly identifiable Bugatti radiator shell is unique in itself but it has been adjusted to have a “V” shape in plan view and in front view a curving shape that comes to a point at it’s bottom.
2. The rear of the car is defined by the placement of the spare wheel. The body and fender surfaces curve and taper toward the center of the car and are organized around this graphic shape.
3. The passenger side window is shaped to pull the observers eye down toward the center of the rear wheel making the car appear lower than it really is.
4. The separation of the front wheels from the engine compartment and the height of the front fenders.
5. The spine is a very unique design element that adds a special character to the car that is not seen on any other.

The overt and subtle surface development and the overall sculptural character of the exterior sheet metal and interior surfaces as created by the designer. This is the designers aesthetic signature.

> The surfaces of the Bugatti Atlantic are very sophisticated and evolutionary. As sculpture, the surfaces present consistent and skillfully developed highlights that visually stretch the body and fender shapes horizontally making the car look lower and longer than it really is. The position of the front wheels as separated from the engine compartment cover adds drama with a consistent curving section that is shared by the front and rear fenders. And, on the black Atlantic the front fenders have been adjusted to be higher than the center line of the hood, possibly the first car to achieve that arrangement.

The integration of the flat windshield and side glass into the rounded curving body shape also shows that the body shape had aesthetic priority over the functional flat glass surfaces. The body shape was first defined and then the flat glass was ‘set’ into it, preserving the original curving shape of the body. It would be years before designers would have curved glass to match the body shapes that they were designing.

The aesthetic personality of the design is the message that it sends the viewer. Success of a car’s artistic character is confirmed by the compatibility of the aesthetic design and the car’s functional mission and how well they work together.

>As an art object the Atlantic has the aesthetic character that Jean Bugatti as an artist applied to it. As an artist it was the way that he did things. He used his personal consistent and developing aesthetic character in designing Bugatti’s. The compound curves and resultant highlights describe a form that is clearly elegant. The Atlantic looks like it was meant for high performance and the character of the car is presented as a crouching sculptural form that is ready to leap forward at any moment.

How well the design elements go together, the blending or contrasting of all the key aesthetic design elements for design effect.

> The Bugatti Atlantic as a total shape is very harmonic in spite of several architectural challenges that effect the design solution. The most difficult is the shape of the engine hood which has been handled very well by Jean Bugatti. Starting at the top of the radiator shell that is almost circular in front view the hood surfaces go back toward the windshield base which is horizontal and slightly curved. For the two shapes to meet gracefully Jean Bugatti employed a coning radius which started in a very round fashion at the radiator and as it traveled rearward it diminishes until terminating at the windshield pillar. Another cone is used to join the curving sections of the upper passenger compartment with the body side curve. Continuing at the top of the windshield pillar going to the back of the car the cone grows rapidly and then also diminishes in size as it curves down and around the spare wheel compartment.

As applied to an automobile, an aesthetic endeavor where art is bound by physics and science in the form of vehicle engineering and manufacturing. How well the design solution is accepted and stays relevant through time is a very important quality in the design evaluation of the Bugatti Atlantic.

> Originally called Aerolithe the intention for the design of the Antlantic is clearly described in the name and the small series of cars demonstrate Jean Bugatti’s design intentions very well. The unusual operation of the driver and passenger door could be, along with the name Aerolithe, a clue that Jean Bugatti when designing the car was influenced by aircraft of the era. The name was changed to Atlantic, the car is a visual automotive delight that has beautiful smooth rounded surfaces and dramatic proportions. The unusually shaped side window is an accent that completes a picture that is entertaining and unique.

I have never actually seen an Atlantic, only some good pictures and a very small scale model that I have in French Blue. For me the first charm of the car would be the size, that is, having a two passenger platform allows it to be extreme in proportion yet small. It is beautiful in spite of the fact that the front of the car is very different than the rear from the A-pillar back, this to Jean Bugatti’s skillful blending of the shapes and volumes. The Atlantic maintains the Bugatti identity very clearly and that it does very well. It is aesthetically very elegant and graceful.

With good proportion and scale, the designer Jean Bugatti, son of the founder Ettore Bugatti, made a very good choice for the overall design theme. The next outstanding Antlantic design asset is the overall execution by the designer which is refined, elegant and sculptural. The independent front wheel shapes are attached to the front portion of the car, in contrast the rear wheels are partly included in the body. The piano hinge in the center of the hood, probably the only straight line on the car in every view is present on almost all Bugattis. It is true to the Bugatti design philosophy which would not allow any design tricks to be used. It had to stand on it's functional merit. The rear that wraps around the spare wheel is like no other car and is quite elegant, simply conceived and beautifully executed.

The Atlantic is small and has that "Hug-able" quality that makes you want to hold it closely . It is aesthetically very beautiful especially if you consider what else was on the road at the time. An expression of art, actually seeing it I believe would bring forward more clearly the artistic character that it has. The forms are consistent and harmonic and the graphic of the side window has a special mission and it is the one part of the sculpture that can be discussed and explained by fine art aficionados.

The basic design concepts for the steering wheel, the interior, the instrument panel and the engine compartment are all highlighted with detail that is absolutely outstanding in design quality as compared to most other cars of the time. In many ways the detail design is equated to fine jewelry and horology. The Atlantic is recognized in the historic automobile world as a standout. It is in total a work of art.

Designer Jean Bugatti was evolving the Type 57S to a high level of art achieved by few other car designers of that era. I question whether restorers could recreate or duplicate the aesthetic design content and the consistent artistic quality that was present in the original cars as it is original artwork. Probably that is one of the reasons why they are all slightly different, each being improved as they where created. As done by an artist creating a series of paintings all of the same subject.

Jean Bugatti improved and adjusted each Type 57S two passenger variant that he created until he arrived at the last one..... The best one. His father Ettore used the same method in the creation of many Bugattis, the iconic 1924 Type 35 sports racer being the best example of his design efforts.

Originally the spine that runs the length of the car, across the center of the roof and all four fenders was a necessary fabrication requirement that would be used to join large panels that could not be pressed or welded. They were to be made from an ultralight Magnesium alloy called Electron. Rather than being a negative detail the aesthetic solution to this problem was turned into a positive design attribute by Jean Bugatti that added an element of uniqueness to the car. The fabrication problem was eventually solved before the first cars were built but the spine had become a unique design element that added such special interest to the car that it was kept.

The harshest and most critical view of the Bugatti Atlantic's aesthetic design quality and value is to view it in today’s historic time frame, long after it was created. Against all automotive contenders through history, the Atlantic, due to it’s design and artistic character is included in a very small group at the top of any ‘best automotive designs ever’ list. The Bugatti Atlantic stands and is recognized as one of the most iconic automotive designs ever created.

If we go back in time to 1936 when the Atlantic was first shown and compare it to the cars of the era it stands out certainly as one of the most iconic Bugattis to that date. Created by Jean Bugatti it follows many outstanding cars created by Ettore Bugatti, his father. This is a very important point as there is no doubt that Jean was mentored by his father as well as other artists from the family. With a reputation to live up to Jean’s designs demonstrate exceptional design talent that was enhanced by his upbringing as part of a very accomplished artistic family. With great proportion and outstanding engineering and functional credentials the Atlantic also has an aesthetic character that makes it an admirable work of art. Very few cars, maybe no car, achieved that level of design and engineering quality in those times. It is one of the most, if not 'the' most beautiful cars created to that date.

Today the global world of automobile design is high tech art and science. This has happened through the development of advanced and evolving digital technologies that Jean Bugatti, the designer of the Bugatti Atlantic, did not have. His intellectual design tools were very sophisticated and polished as those of designers today but the early design process that he had to use was very crude in comparison. This he made up for through his exceptional artistic talent, design judgement and skill. However, to maintain the subtlety and aesthetic design character throughout the design and manufacturing process to the end would have been very difficult as it always is even today. It would be much harder in those times. He produced a piece of artwork that is clearly recognizable as we compare the Bugatti Atlantic to all cars ever created. It is clearly recognized as special and outstanding, more so since it was created in 1936.

The term ‘Supercar’ followed the ‘Haute Coutoure’ term of ‘Supermodel’. The required attributes are clear: Dynamic aesthetic design, engineering and performance on a two passenger platform that results in ‘Haute Drama’ in all dimensions.

Due to the balance of it's included design emotion, engineering sophistication and high performance the Bugatti Atlantic certainly has the attributes that when combined qualify it for supercar status of the time.

If we ask: Why have a car like that and who would want it? We may find that the concept was not one to be so appreciated when introduced. The third of the four Atlantics is purported to be the personal car of Jean Bugatti, if so it demonstrates his taste in sculptural automobile design as well as Bugatti engineering excellence. As an artist and designer he would have surrounded himself with high quality artwork and fashion. Why not have a personal car to match the rest of his possessions? To create a car with the aesthetic qualities of the Atlantic in 1936 was a bold and futuristic move that required a great deal of confidence by the designer. A car of the Atlantic’s design quality could have only been done by very few people in the world.

Jean Bugatti’s personal Atlantic was black. If so, he chose black to make the car look small and to visually simplify it’s beautiful sculptural surface highlights.


Sit back....
Close your eyes and then go back in time.

A spring evening in Paris.
It would be a thrill and high drama to see the gleaming black Bugatti Type 57353 Atlantic flash by in the low warm sun swiftly curving around the Arc Du Triomphe and then turning off to the Champs-Elysees and the streets of Paris.

Without a doubt a superstar designer would be at the wheel.......
Jean Bugatti.

This article is the property of the author and can only be used with permission.

Dick Ruzzin has spent much of his life designing cars for General Motors Design. During his career he worked on over 140 car design programs as Creative Designer, Studio Head, and Director of Design for GM Europe in Germany, and Chevrolet, in the United States. He worked on every GM brand except GMC, including Opel, Vauxhall, Holden, Saab, Isuzu, Suzuki, Toyota, Lotus and Bitter. He was working in Germany at Opel Design in 1971 when they set the theme for the Bitter CD from his sketches and scale model. He was responsible for over 40 cars while working in Germany including the concept of the Opel MAXX. In the USA many Chevrolets including the Lumina APV and the 1992 Cadillac Eldorado and Seville. While in Europe Opel Design created a car under his responsibility for Isuzu that was sold to Honda.

His informative writing about automobile design and creativity can be found in many places on the internet. His design book, BELLA MANGUSTA, The Italian Art and Design of the De Tomaso Mangusta focuses on an automotive design icon.

He has three cars, a 2020 C8 Corvette, a 1979 Bitter CD and a 1969 De Tomaso Mangusta, he lives in the USA near Detroit Michigan.


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