weeks of this the famous Bugatti crankshaft came out. Unlike most crankshafts,
which are cast, this remarkable object was machined out of a solid billet of
steel—journals, counterweights and all. "It's beautiful," I said.
"A work of art," commented Charlie grudgingly. "Didn't nobody make
that in a day. Well, no use just standing here looking at it." Somehow
that's what happened, though, for almost two years.
In an effort to
keep things going I fiddled around with trivial matters like scraping 25 years
of gook off the chassis with a putty knife, getting small parts rebuilt and
taking the eight-day stop clock to the watchmaker. From time to time Charlie
would look at the parts scattered about his old, dingy shop and remark:
"Yes, sir. We gotta be sober when we put that back together."
got around to me. I found him with my pistons lined up on a workbench.
"Watcha doin'?" I asked with as much casualness as I could muster.
"Knurling up your pistons. Makes 'em a little larger." This, Charlie
had reasoned, would compensate for the fact that pistons and cylinder walls had
undoubtedly become somewhat worn through use. I pointed out to Charlie that I
had backtracked on the history of the car and discovered it already had
oversized pistons in it. A previous owner had demanded that it run quieter.
"When you leave here you're gonna have a nice tight engine, son" was
Charlie's only response.
gradually resumed its original shape. And then came the problem of getting it
back into the car. Charlie devoted a whole day to squeezing the engine back
in—pulling, pushing, turning, wiggling and kicking at it in the process. Every
now and then his pressure valve let go: "A lot of other people made
automobiles that stood up, didn't they? Him and his crazy ideas." Later, in
a muffled singsong from beneath the car: "La misère. La misère de
Bugatti" (imparting to the name the full flavor of its proper
pronunciation—Boo-ghatee). Finally he succeeded, crawled out from under the car
and kicked it viciously. "Any man ever made a crazy automobile, this is it!
Mr. Bugatti, I hate you!"
the car. It ran, in a somewhat ragged fashion. Charlie fiddled around, and the
engine sounded smoother. His assistant suggested that maybe now the fenders and
hood could go back on. "No sir," snapped Charlie, "not until the
engine is running perfectly."
The car was run in
the shop periodically for several days, and then the old man took it out and
drove it around the block. Hood and fenders went back on. After that the
Bugatti refused to run at all. Charlie stared at the car in disbelief.
"Heartbreaking automobile," he said. He fiddled some more. "It's
some damn little thing about this big," he said, holding up two fingers
about two inches apart.
I called a Bugatti
expert in Connecticut to ask if he would take a look. He couldn't but said he
would send someone. The next day a little man arrived with a little Bugatti
emblem in the lapel of his coat, which somehow infuriated me. The little man
removed a sparkplug and took a compression check. There was a slight whistling
sound but no compression. The same was true in other cylinders. "The valves
are all bent," the little man said. Then he went home.
believe it. Summer came and went and he still couldn't believe it. Apparently
there are things about a Bugatti that elude a good Rolls-Royce man. But in the
fall he went at it again, took the engine out, dismantled it, straightened the
valves and reassembled the car once more. In the latter operation he followed a
suggestion made by the Connecticut consultant to make assembly easier. He glued
the piston rings to the cylinders to make inserting them easier. Then he poured
solvent through the sparkplug holes to dissolve the cement and release the
rings, draining the resulting gunk out of the bottom of the engine. Then came
the day for the Great Road Test.
I had a business
date at a research lab in New Jersey, and Charlie agreed that a run out there
would be a good first trip. Early the next morning I arrived at the shop. The
car was poised and ready to go, all warmed up and with a blanket over the
classic, horseshoe-shaped radiator. Charlie was ready to go, too. No coveralls
for a classy test like this. Instead a tweed suit and golf cap. We made the
35-mile trip without incident, and I waved goodby to Charlie as he headed back
to the city. By midafternoon, unable to bear the suspense any longer, I called