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Our first outings together were a success, both socially and sonically. Driving along to the supercharged whine of the engine was pure joy. It was also marvelous for the ego. Pedestrians stared. Crowds gathered. Notes with messages and phone numbers were stuck under the windshield wipers: "Call me immediately! Desperate!" "Take $6,000 cash?" A Britisher with a highly pinstriped suit, a spanking-new Rolls-Royce and a complete Arthur Treacher accent pulled alongside one evening:
"Oh, I say! Booghhatti, isn't it?"
"Yes it is."
"Late model, what?"
"Fifty-seven C—late '39."
"Thought so. Mahhhvelus to see one. Simply mahhhhvelus. Luck, old chap!"
There are, one should admit, sexual overtones to such an ego-expanding machine. "Good God!" exclaimed a friend's wife at her first sight of the car. "Thai's the biggest phallic symbol I've ever seen!" A stop at a favorite French restaurant one evening produced similar results. Guy the bartender, the patron and his wife and half the clientele poured out to the sidewalk to admire this particular piece of French pastry. Guy drew me aside and whispered with an air of Gallic savoir faire, "She eeez gude for getteeng zee girls, non?"
I began to venture out on longer trips, explaining to my wife all the instruments, levers and buttons on the dash, the trick of revving up the engine, double-clutching and shifting down just at the right sound (which, if missed, produces a nerve-shattering grind from the gearbox) and other features of the car. I even let her drive it (she's a good driver). She accepted the hangup with a kind of serene confidence that I wasn't totally balmy or worse and even came to enjoy the car to some extent, I think. That's important. For, short of bringing some young thing home to live with you, I can't imagine anything that could break up a marriage quicker than a Bugatti. It is totally impossible to explain the hours over at the shop doing little things like polishing the brake drums or repacking the water pump or searching through store after store for some obscure kind of grease that hasn't been made in 30 years. In all that time who knows what you've been up to?
A notice appeared once in the sports section of the Sunday Times advertising two Bugattis for sale. It concluded with: "Wife says must go." I couldn't help feeling that if that was the way it was with them the fellow would have been better off keeping the cars instead.
On the open road I developed a facile habit of turning small defects into large virtues that, at the least, must have been mildly infuriating. One Christmas we started out for Maryland in a light snowstorm to spend a few days with my mother. We were hardly under way when the windshield-wiper motor quit. "Ha!" I said to my wife. "Now you'll see that Mr. Bugatti thought of everything." I reached for a walnut knob on the walnut dash. This knob connected directly with the wipers and by turning it left right, left right the wipers did the same. For 250 miles I worked the wipers by hand. A pessimist might have said that the car needed that knob because the wiper motor was none too reliable. But I didn't look at it that way. I couldn't afford to, emotionally.