For an outrageous pre-war Olympian car whose sheer beauty, power, rarity and mass screamed limitless excess, this would surely be the last place one would think to look. But, then, nobody would have the slightest reason to look because, like Beethoven’s 10th Symphony, DaVinci’s 2nd Mona Lisa or Moses 11th tablet, this Bugatti never existed. At least no such belief resided in the minds of the living. However, while it is said that the dead can tell no tales, no one has said the dead can leave no clues.
In Search of the 7th Royale (Part 1)
Once a month for decades the old man would enter the weathered barn and pass a lifeless Lanz Bulldog tractor and a dusty array of long dormant metal working tools. Reaching the dimly lit back wall behind the stacked hay bales he would lift a rack of horse tack to the side and pry back a loose wall panel. Entering a hidden back room illuminated solely by his handheld kerosene lamp he would move to the front of an imposing vehicle that lurked in the dark shadows and filled the room. As he had done hundreds of times before, he would lift the great hood to gain access to a massive locomotive engine. Removing the dual sets of spark plugs, he would squirt oil into each of the eight cavernous cylinders. Moving to the front of the engine, his gnarled hands would place a great wrench behind the fan to gain purchase. He would give the engine a few turns and, as he had done for decades before, keep its cylinder walls protected. Sadly, he understood that the time fast approached when he could no longer protect this great secret beast. Beneath a crystal clear summer sky he shuffled back to the quiet of the neat but rustic farm house that had been the only home he had ever known since his birth in 1901. Farmer and machinist Jaak Oja knew his 56-acre farm outside of Tallinn, Estonia, like he, faced an uncertain future as did his beautiful beast. He had to do something.
1930s Romanian playboy Archimedes (Archie) Antonescu luxuriated in the vast family wealth accrued from its association with the famous Ploesti oil fields of Romania. Related to Romanian dictator Ion Antonescu, Archie’s well documented Nazi sympathies evidenced themselves in various Ploesti oil arrangements and associations. Archie had bragged that he had one time shared a pleasant dinner with “the Fuhrer” at his family’s vacation home near Berchtesgaden in the German Alps. Backed by incredible wealth he dedicated his life to leisure and personal gratification. In Archie’s mind nothing was too good for Archie and he had the money to pursue those ends. While fit and a capable athlete he was a far more capable carouser. Archie’s romances enjoyed constant tabloid coverage. His passion for motorsports was exceeded only by his desire for notoriety. The two blended seamlessly with his fascination for the annual Monte Carlo Rally to the French Riviera.
As a young boy before WWI the adventure of racing to faraway Monte Carlo captured Archie’s imagination. In the ensuing years, however, the meteoric advancement of automobile reliability and performance, rendered the original distance from Paris or Berlin to Monte Carlo as less than inspiring. Race organizers responded by increasing the distance. In the 1930s race entrants could select their starting point with a premium being placed on the total distance driven. Scouring maps of Europe for rally route starting points offering the longest distances to Monte Carlo revealed the best to be Athens, Greece, Stavanger, Norway and Tallinn, Estonia. Famous drivers who raced in the Monte Carlo Rally of the 1930s included Donald Healey, Luigi Chinetti and Rudolf Caracciola. Healey won in 1931 and picked Tallinn as his starting point in 1933.
Archie loved being part of the Monte Carlo Rally excitement. The parties, the famous people and the wonderful cars all marinating in a stew of race fueled adventure. In the festive frenzy of the 1938 rally Archie realized he no longer wanted to simply be a cheering fan, he wanted the status of the one being cheered. By mid-winter of 1938 he had devised a plan that would ensure his notoriety with a heart stopping blend of performance and comfort.
In 1938 the Monte Carlo Rally witnessed more than race winner trophies. Prizes included the Grand Prix de Comfort and the Closed Car Prize. With the winning of trophies for both speed and beauty in mind Archie planned to dominate the rally with a car both spectacularly fast and breathtakingly beautiful. Backed by his unlimited credit line, his first call went to Molshiem, France and the office of pre-eminent automobile designer and manufacturer Ettore Bugatti.
Renowned for his dominant and victorious race cars, beautiful designs, and their associated breathtaking prices in the 1920s and 1930s, Bugatti like many premium automobile manufacturers suffered a serious reversal of fortunes at the hands of the Great Depression. This call from one of Europe’s wealthiest men in 1938 could not have been a more welcome turn of events for “Le Patron.” That the caller’s request made it clear money would be no object indeed gave substance to the phrase “Manna from Heaven,” though, clearly, notorious Archie had no angel’s wings.
Archie knew what he wanted and above all he wanted brilliance, exclusivity and secrecy. He envisioned surprising everyone at the 1938 Monte Carlo Rally by entering the most beautiful and powerful car in the world. He would have Mr. Bugatti create a Bugatti Royale to Archie’s personal specifications. From 1926 to 1933, Bugatti, the master, had built six Bugatti Royales, beautiful leviathans that many still consider the greatest motor car the world had ever seen.
Bugatti’s prototype Royale with a length of over twenty-feet rested its 7,000 pound weight on 36-inch tires as tall as a kitchen counter. Powered by an elephantine 12.7-liter 8-cylinder locomotive engine, the Royale boasted an unheard-of 300 horsepower. Inconceivably powerful for its day, Bugatti’s Royale, starting in high gear, could easily and smoothly accelerate from a standstill to over 100 mph.
Since Bugatti only provided the chassis, engine and grill for the Royale, Archie needed the right company to design and build the body. In Archie’s mind no doubt existed. It had to be J. Gurney Nutting & Co. Limited of England that in 1931 had been appointed as the Motor Body Builders to His Royal Highness England’s Prince of Wales. A pre-WWII bespoke coach builder considered “At the top of the tree” as the British say of something recognized as the best, Gurney Nutting enjoyed a well deserved reputation for excellence. They built a fan-base of rich and royal Olympian car owners by creating visually compelling designs noted for their masculine beauty and naturally balanced proportions.
Bugatti did his best to facilitate a working relationship of the highest order in connecting Archie with the good people at Gurney Nutting. Needless to say the folks at Gurney Nutting could not have been happier or more accommodating.
For Archie, Gurney Nutting in addition to its professional brilliance and execution checked four very important boxes. One, a decade earlier they had partners with, then, famous but now defunct famed coach builder Weymann who created the bodies for Bugatti’s Royales. Second, Many of the same Weymann craftsman who had produced the Royale bodies remained in Gurney Nutting’s employ. Third, and to Archie of supreme importance, they assured him that they could keep a secret. Fourth and of paramount importance, Gurney Nutting had designed and built the iconic Bentley Blue Train which Archie had embraced to be the inspiration for his Royale.
Built on the storytelling pillars of courage, obstacles overcome and victory, the Bentley Blue Train legend celebrated a true story of man and automobile at their best. Responding to a challenge, famed “Bentley Boy,” Wolf Barnato, at the wheel of his Bentley Speed Six, raced the famed Blue Train Passenger Express that ran between the French cities of Cannes and Calais. Despite heavy rains and dense fog encountered over rough roads for the 786 miles from Cannes on the French Cote d’Azur to Calais, Barnato and the Bentley won and became legendary.
The Bentley Blue Train heroics gave shape to Archie’s dreams for his Monte Carlo Rally winning machine. However, compared to the Bentley Blue Train, Archie’s Royale would boast 66% more horsepower, be 4 ½ feet longer and cosset its occupants in sumptuous luxury.
Archie knew what he wanted and he would build it, now, no matter the cost.