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With thee, Bug, I plight my troth
Robert Campbell
November 09, 1970
Being an account of one pilgrim's journey toward True Reality with the object of his adoration, a Bugatti car—than which no woman could be more fickle or imperious—and of the terrible price he pays, and pays, for his grand amour
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November 09, 1970

With Thee, Bug, I Plight My Troth

Being an account of one pilgrim's journey toward True Reality with the object of his adoration, a Bugatti car—than which no woman could be more fickle or imperious—and of the terrible price he pays, and pays, for his grand amour

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I tried to start the car but the engine had seized and would not turn over at all. A tow truck hauled us back to Charlie's shop. Charlie broke the engine loose by applying a crowbar to the flywheel and presented his bill—$1,500. My jaw sagged. Charlie was a sport about it, though. He knew I wanted to keep the car in his shop. There were still a million little things to attend to. And he let me pay him in the course of the next month or so.

Good times returned. I ran the car carefully and managed to keep it below boiling. Gradually it loosened up and cooled down, and the joys of the open road returned. We had the car on Nantucket one whole summer, and it enjoyed the cool climate. The Bugatti went to the store and performed other minor errands, just like any family car. But time finally ran out on another trip back from Maryland. The oil pressure dropped, and again came the telltale hammering. This time the engine went back to the factory. Quite a few letters were exchanged. A query as to what had gone wrong evoked the stark reply: "Le passage d'huile des manetons du vilebrequin était complètement bouché." Which is to say that the oil channels of the crankshaft were plugged up. More of that glue-and-solvent gunk, no doubt.

In due time the engine returned from the factory completely rebuilt to original Bugatti specifications. It sounded great—very strong. It ran at a cool 65° centigrade, just like my old manual said it should. I broke it in carefully and began to take it up slowly to the higher rpms. It, in turn, began to run hot. The radiator was flushed out. Still it ran hot. Once on the open road it boiled over quite unaccountably. After that a slight rapping sound could be heard when the engine was cold. The sound disappeared once it was warmed up, which meant that when I took the car to a mechanic to ask about it, it wouldn't make its noise.

Disaster came on a long trip to upstate New York with a friend named Dunbar. We were climbing a long grade near the little town of Herkimer when suddenly smoke began to pour up from beneath the floorboards, accompanied by a death rattle from the engine. Dunbar remarked: "Bubbie, I do believe we're afire." I pulled off the road. The engine stopped with a clunk that had all the finality of a prison gate being slammed shut. I lifted the hood. The No. 1 spark was covered with a whi ish paste that I could only imagine was vaporized aluminum from a piston. We were only a few miles short of our destination and soon managed to get a push to the motel. I put in a call to Bob Schultze, the best mechanic I know, who has a shop in New Jersey near where I now live. "We've come a cropper," I said.

Bob closed his shop at noon the next day and came to fetch us.

Quite unbelievably it turned out that The Works, as the Bugatti factory is sometimes called, had blundered. Someone had installed the No. 1 piston and connecting rod backward, which put a lot of pressure on the weak side of the piston. This, in turn, had made for excessive friction and explained the overheating. Under the strain the piston had finally exploded into two fragments. This discovery restored my confidence in the rightness of the engine. Once more a defect in execution, not in design.

A month later I set out on a business trip to the West Coast. I wrapped up one of the good pistons and rods in a paper bag and put it in my suitcase. "If anything happens to the airplane," I told my wife, "and the FAA finds this piston while they're poking around in the rubble, it'll take them three months and cost the Government $10,000 to figure out where it came from." I had a side destination on the Coast, the shop of O. A. Phillips near Pasadena. Bunny, as he's called, is the honorary chairman of the American Bugatti Club. He had the original Bugatti agency in Hollywood in the 1930s, raced the cars then and has worked on practically nothing but Bugattis since. If anyone in the world knows the Right of it, I figured, it's got to be Bunny.

We talked for three hours about little details and touches I'd never heard of or even imagined, and when I returned home I shipped Bunny my engine.

Later, Bob and I contemplated the body. It, too, clearly needed attention to prevent it from deteriorating. We put it on a truck and carted it off to the obvious mecca for bodies, Earl Lewis' Restoration Shop near Princeton. Ultimately the chassis, too, will be towed to still a third mecca for rewiring and a few other things, a place known as Vintage Auto Restorations, Inc. run by an East Coast Bug expert named Donald Lefferts.

That's about as far as you can scatter an automobile. But I know now that it's the Right Way. Old Charlie was right about one thing at least, asking, "Are you rich?" But I cannot let that nagging question interfere now. For somewhere along the line I took another piece of his advice and married the car, for better or worse (and in sickness and in health). I now stand on the threshold of the Fourth Level where, like Ahab's whale, the Eternal Machine beckons. I know now that there is indeed such a thing as a real Bugatti, a car that will run to the end of the world if need be, with that feeling of joy and response I have had but the faintest glimpse of so far. And I have my hands on one—almost. All that remains is for it to come together. Somewhere in my future there is the Ultimate Automobile. Name: Bugatti. I hope we make it.

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