In late 1938 wealthy Romanian playboy Archimedes “Archie” Antonescu took delivery of a beautiful, powerful and outrageously expensive race-tuned custom Bugatti Royale. With it he intended to startle an unsuspecting motor sport community by driving it in the 1939 Monte Carlo Rally. The spectacular presence of his Bugatti, especially with him at the wheel, would be his ticket to gaining the adulation of the international auto racing community he coveted.
With the Bugatti transported secretly to Tallinn, Estonia, Archie’s chosen starting point for the rally, Archie, on secluded back roads outside of Tallinn took the wheel of the Royale to practice for the race. A harsh dose of reality left his haughty and unfounded self-confidence as a skilled race driver in tatters. His clearly evident lack of competency behind the wheel resulted in a jarring accident. Losing control in a turn, Archie spun out into a roadside ditch and damaged the Bugatti’s front suspension. Driving the performance-tuned Bugatti much less racing it far exceeded his abilities. And, now, he knew it. The search for a top tier professional driver would soon commence. As well, Archie decided his Bugatti’s existence would remain a secret till the Monte Carlo Rally in 1940.
In seeking to maintain his Royale’s existence a secret, Archie had been forced to entrust its repair to Jaak Oja a local but gifted Estonian mechanic and metal worker. This fateful decision would have a profound and life changing impact on the lives of both men, as well as, Jaak’s son Mihkel.
In Search of the 7th Royale
(Part 6 – Death Changes Everything)
Jaak stood in stunned silence as the big Mercedes truck rumbled away from his farm. So big, it brushed the foliage bordering both sides of the narrow dirt road. Enveloped by a cloud of dust kicked up by the big Benz, Jack coughed reflexively. It jarred him back to the present moment. His mind struggled to find its footing. Over his life he had known harsh men, even mean men. He understood that by living long enough, life introduced you to all kinds. But he could not comprehend this man, “The Owner.” This “Antonescu” radiated a soulless evil. Like being trapped in a frigid room, it bled the warmth from your body.
My son? Jaak thought. He shivered in recognizing that his life and his family had found themselves involved in a strange and, he feared, dangerous world where evil ruled. Jaak knew one thing. He would protect his family. He would use all his skill to resurrect this wounded work of art. As he had agreed, when he completed the repair he would call Archie’s lead mechanic. Not his biggest challenge, but he would have to go to town to find a telephone. The mechanic would, then, return to Jaak’s farm, review the work and, if approved, pay Jaak. Then, within a day of approval, the big Mercedes truck would return to the farm to fetch the Bugatti and Jaak would, as quickly as possible purge this experience from his life.
Peering into his barn Jack reflected on the glorious one-off Bugatti and its malevolent owner. He thought of the Borgias and Medicis who sponsored brilliant artists whose work celebrated the best of human creativity. He also knew of the evil that darkened their histories. Deconstructing this incongruity would best be left for another day he thought. Jaak moved across the farm yard to the house. His wife, Ann, would be curious. He would soon involve her in far more than she would have ever wanted to be true. In sharing this reality with her, he had no doubt as to Ann’s response. She would look down. Sigh deeply. Look up. Stare him straight and reassuringly in the eye while projecting the strength and conviction upon which their love had been founded. She would then set about defining her role in ensuring this wretched curse would be lifted from their lives as quickly as possible.
At the warehouse hidden away deep in Archie’s Estonian forest, his mind raced to construct a new reality built around his 7th Royale. He embraced the story of Enzo Ferrari and his climb to fame managing his eponymous Scuderia Ferrari racing team. Archie felt as one with the great Ferrari. Ferrari, often referred to as Il Commendatore, became his guiding light. He treasured the story of Ferrari sitting as a passenger alongside the great racing driver Tazio Nuvolari. Accompanying Nuvolari during a practice run in preparation for the 1931 running of the challenging Italian race, the Circuito delle Tre Provincie (Circuit of the three provinces), Ferrari realized that he would never be the equal of Nuvolari. At that moment Ferrari turned his focus from driving his own car to managing his own team, Scuderia Ferrari. Archie would follow in the footsteps of the great Il Commendatore. He would hire superior drivers and make his mark with his own racing stable, Scuderia Antonescu. Archie faced much to do in building a team, hiring top notch drivers and preparing for the Monte Carlo Rally of 1940. With the 1939 rally fast approaching he would use the racing festivities in Monte Carlo to line up drivers and set about the business of creating Scuderia Antonescu. He would depart Estonia immediately.
Accompanied by his three mechanics, Archie set out in his big 12-cylinder Maybach Zeppelin Cabriolet that his other two mechanics had driven to the forest warehouse in Estonia. In the 1930s Maybach built cars that competed head-to-head with top-of-the-line Mercedes-Benz models for the affection of emperors, kings and very wealthy individuals. Archie fit the profile. It would be a roughly 4-day journey on the poor roads of the Baltic countries and Poland before crossing into Germany.
After crossing the Polish border into Germany, Archie’s dreams of team ownership and prominence in motorsports elevated his spirits. The big 12-cylinder with its 8-speed manual transmission rekindled his fantasies of racing fame. He ordered the lead mechanic at the wheel to pull over. Archie would take the wheel and show them all “how it was done.” Unfortunately the poor quality gas, being all that was available along the journey, did not agree with the Maybach’s big 8-liter 12-cylinder engine. The Maybach’s extraordinary 200-horsepower and ravenous 8.6 miles per gallon fuel consumption suffered. The engine at times would falter. Archie, though not especially comfortable with the special 8-speed manual transmission pressed on undeterred. With the January temperature reaching an unseasonable 50 F° Archie lowered the cabriolet top. With the wind swirling about driver and passengers alike, the Maybach sped on ever faster. Simultaneously, to the west, a coal black juggernaut belching smoke and pulling a long string of freight cars roared towards the town of Dachau in the east.
With its massive six drive wheels a visual blur, the great steam engine hurtled across the northern fields and pasture lands of Germany. For the German SS in charge, the speeding train’s cargo of interest included gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, panhandlers, Kristalknacht victims, outspoken holy men and members of an expanding population of Germans who opposed the Nazi machine. Visible atop each wooden freight car could be seen an armed Nazi soldier perched high overlooking the closed and sealed doors on each side.
With Archie still at the wheel, the wind had turned cold in the fading sun. When his passengers expressed discomfort, Archie tongue lashed the backseat “frauleins.” For the chastised and chilly mechanics a case of Schnapps in the big open Maybach proved too much a temptation and a fine solution. Archie loved the idea of toasting Scuderia Antonescu. All four did so repeatedly, possibly Archie more so than the others. Archie with fogged awareness saw no reason to moderate his aggressive driving.
In the evening’s fading light the chief mechanic called attention to the speeding train coming from the west. Clearly the train would intersect the path of Archie’s speeding Maybach. Inspired by his admiration for the victorious Bentley Blue Train and a bravado fueled by a bottle of Schnapps, Archie accepted a challenge that had not been offered. He would beat the train to the intersection where it crossed the road. Unfazed by neither the low quality gas nor questionable driving skills diminished by a heavy dose of Schnapps, Archie raced up the incline to the intersection. Like a speeding avalanche of steel and steam, the dusty black shape to the right grew larger and larger. It would be a close call, but it appeared the Maybach would pass ahead of the onrushing behemoth. Then Archie missed a down shift and the great Maybach shuttered like a fighting bull surrendering its life. Archie attempted to stop to no avail. In locking up the brakes he merely succeeded in teeing up the Maybach for a perfect broadside by the thundering train. Two farmers in a wagon waiting at the crossing for the train to pass recounted seeing the impacted Maybach shed parts with explosive force. Its cruelly contorted body, bent like a horse shoe, clung to the massive locomotive’s cowcatcher as if welded in place. The impact launched all the Nazi guards seated atop the prisoner rail cars with deadly results. The mighty freight train departed the rails creating a domino effect of box cars tossed about like a child’s discarded toys. Rail cars, off the tracks and strewn about with wood and steel still creaking and doors popped open, disgorged themselves of scores of prisoners who fled and melted into the countryside. Only years later would some tell of their miraculous salvation. Both farmers reported four bodies ejected from the open cabriolet. Archimedes Antonescu and the three mechanics had died instantly and with them, so too, the location of the 7th Royale.
Outside of Tallinn in rural Estonia, a weary Jaak Oja, unaware of the day’s events, shuffled across his yard to return home after a long day spent healing the beautiful beast.