Ettore Bugatti's son, Jean, was the design genius behind one of the brand's all-time greatest creations.
Before the relatively recent unveiling of the Veyron, it was the Type 57 that was the most iconic Bugatti. It is the Type 57SC Atlantic which many consider to be the most beautiful car in the world. The Atlantic would also probably be at the top our list as the most expensive car sold at auction, but the actual price was never disclosed, and assumed prices don't get you a spot on the list. We do, however, know that the closely related Type 57SC Atalante (same chassis, just a slightly different body) did make the list.
The Type 57 was built between 1934 and 1940, and it was the car which got Bugatti both of their victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. It was designed by Ettore's son Jean Bugatti, and it was in the 1939 Type 57 which had just won Le Mans that he would die when he collided with a tree. Jean (born Gianoberto, but known as Jean, as the Italian family was making an effort to assimilate to their new home in France) had a great talent for design, one which combined with his father's engineering talent to give the Bugatti brand the prestige it had before the war, and the legendary status it enjoys today.
Jean had done a good deal of design work on the Type 41 Royale, but the Type 57 was a project all his own. Just 17 Atalante Coupes were built. They came after the Atlantic Coupes, of which only four were built. The two are very similar, with the main differences being the Atalante's one-piece windshield and lack of the riveted "fin" which made the Atlantic so distinct. Jean's design touch is still evident, and the body of the car is exquisite. Though it is usually referred to as a Type 57SC, the Atalante is not a true SC. The S in the name stands for "surbaisse", the French word for "lowered", while the C indicates the presence of a supercharger.
Only two Type 57SC chassis were actually built new by Bugatti, but nearly all (40 out of 43 total) of the cars built on the Type 57S chassis were brought back to the factory to have a supercharger installed. The Type 57S is the best known incarnation of the Type 57, even though only a small percentage of the 710 total produced (not counting the 750 or so Type 57C race cars produced) were the lowered models. All of the Atlantic and Atalante cars were built on this chassis. This lowering was just one of the impressive engineering feats which went into making the cars.
The Type 57 was already quite low, and lowering required much more than the simple swapping of suspension components. The rear axle on S models passes through the frame, rather than under it, and dry-sump lubrication system had to be developed in order to make the engine short enough to fit under the hood. The 3.3-liter inline eight-cylinder engine in the Type 57 is, like most Bugatti engines, a unique design which seems strange today. The block and head were cast as one piece, while the aluminum crankcase was bolted on. It uses a dual overhead cam design, but rather than using chains to drive the camshafts, a gear train at the back of the engine was used.
And yes, if you set it wrong and bent a valve, the pistons would have to come out in order for you to replace it. The engine initially produced 135 horsepower, but this climbed to 175 after a second carburetor was added. Supercharged models would produce 200hp. The record setting Atalante has passed through quite a few hands, but has been well cared for throughout its life. It was first sold to Jean Levy, the owner of grain milling company started by his father which is still in the family today. Levy wisely hid the Atalante for the beginning of the Second World War, and then transferred ownership to a family friend who kept it for the remainder of the war.
It was sold in Paris in 1946, and would then have as many as a dozen more owners before finally making it over to the US in 1959. The car didn't stay with its first American owner for very long either, but its second owner stateside was perhaps the most significant. Casino tycoon and car collector William Harrah of Reno, Nevada would acquire the car in 1961 and commissioned a complete frame-off restoration. The Atalante was actually in reasonably good condition, although there were a few mechanical problems which needed correcting.
Much of the restoration concentrated on undoing modifications to the bodywork done by previous owners, even though much of this was actually performed by the original coachbuilders. Interestingly, although the car does have a factory-original but retrofitted supercharger, just like the other Atalantes, it wasn't installed until this restoration was performed, which is much later than the others. It may be true that the Atalante Coupe has been living in the shadow of the Atlantic Coupe for its entire life, but it's important to remember that the Atalante is a phenomenal car in its own right.