Aviation’s Sexiest Racer

Ettore Bugatti built fast cars—and just one airplane.

The Bugatti went on display at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California, last March. Scotty Wilson hopes to get it airborne by the end of the year. (Chad Slattery)
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Attached to the wall of the hangar is a black-and-white photo of a man wearing the clothes of a bygone era. This, I assume, is Ettore Bugatti, founder of the Bugatti automobile empire. But when I get closer, I don’t recognize the face. “That’s Louis de Monge,” Wilson says. “No disrespect to Ettore Bugatti. But Louis de Monge is really the hero of this project. One of our goals is to resurrect him from obscurity. He deserves to be remembered for what he did with this airplane.”

De Monge was the aeronautical engineer who was primarily responsible for the Bugatti’s design. He isn’t so much a forgotten figure as one who never got his due. Born in Belgium in 1890, Vicomte Pierre Benoit Paul Marie Louis de Monge de Franeau began flying gliders from the family castle in his teens and built his first successful powered airplanes in his 20s. In 1921, a biplane racer he designed reportedly went 198 mph during testing—faster than the world record. But when the lower wings were removed, the sleek monoplane suffered from high-speed flutter and crashed, killing the pilot. Still, de Monge continued to explore avenues far from the mainstream, filing patents for automatic flight control systems and experimenting with flying wings. One of them, coincidentally, was fitted with Bugatti engines.

Ettore Bugatti was an Italian native who spent most of his adult life in France, and his company built cars that were elegant as well as fast. During the 1920s and ’30s, Bugattis won countless races, from the Monaco Grand Prix to the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and his luxury cars were among the most opulent of the day. Bugatti also had a long association with aviation, starting with the aero engines he built during World War I. In 1936, he began exploring the possibility of chasing the flying speed record. He asked de Monge if he could take a pair of Bugatti engines rated at 450 to 500 horsepower apiece and design a record-setting airplane around them. After eight days of thought, de Monge told Bugatti that he could. Work on the 100P commenced the following year.

De Monge left no written record of the thinking that went into the airplane (though he made some intriguing remarks during an interview conducted late in his life, while he was working as an automotive engineer in the United States). But Wilson is convinced that de Monge adhered to the design philosophy espoused by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the beloved French author and World War II P-38 pilot: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Some Bugatti design mysteries will never be solved. “There have been times when I looked at photos of the original airplane and said to myself, ‘Louis, what were you thinking?’ ” Wilson says. “But whenever I had a question, I did it the way de Monge did, and I’ve always been rewarded, because a couple of months later, I understood his reasoning. This airplane is a perfect engineering solution to the challenge of flying fast.”

Compared to other air racers, the Bugatti was vastly underpowered, so de Monge had to make the fuselage as small and aerodynamically slick as possible. Burying the engines in the fuselage, one behind the other, enabled him to fashion a needle-nose semi-monocoque barely large enough to accommodate the pilot. Because they spun in opposite directions, the propellers canceled out each other’s torque and mitigated other control complications a single prop would cause. This allowed de Monge to design an aerodynamically clean V-shaped tail with a smaller-than-usual vertical stabilizer pointing down instead of up to support the tail skid. Air channeled into openings cut in the empennage was routed by ingeniously shaped ducting through internal radiators and out the trailing edge of the wing in such a way that it generated enough thrust to compensate for the drag produced by the cooling system—a phenomenon known as the Meredith Effect, later used famously in the P-51. Most startling of all was a system that tracked airspeed, manifold pressure, and throttle position, then automatically deployed the flaps and landing gear according to what flight regime (takeoff, landing, etc.) the airplane was operating in.

Bugatti got substantial funding from the French government in 1938, and construction continued even after the Germans invaded France. But in June 1940, with Paris about to fall, the airplane was disassembled and hidden on Bugatti’s estate. Bugatti died in 1947, having not resumed work on the 100P. The dismantled airplane passed through several hands before an American bought it in 1970 simply to get the rare Bugatti engines. The airframe was sold to Bugatti collector Peter Williamson, who started restoring it with the help of de Monge himself. But the project was never finished, and the Bugatti was donated first to the Air Force Museum Foundation and then, in 1996, to the EAA museum, which placed it on static display.

Once in the United States, no one made any plans to fly the Bugatti. Over the years, several enthusiasts talked about creating an airworthy replica, but all were stymied by a lack of money, knowledge, and drive. Then Wilson, freshly retired and looking for a challenge, charged in. “I knew that I didn’t know enough to finish the project,” he says. “But all I needed was enough to start.”

After four visits to Oshkosh, Wilson realized it would be impossible to copy the original airplane precisely. Still, he was determined to reverse-engineer it and produce a replica faithful to de Monge’s vision. This entailed incorporating the elements that grew out of five patents: for the composite-wood construction, the V tail with ruddervators, the drivetrain running through a bespoke gearbox, the first-of-its-kind cooling drag system, and the automated flight controls. Naturally, Wilson had to make some allowances for cost and safety. He opted for a composite wood called DuraKore (typically used in boats) rather than the original tulipwood faced in balsa, and he glued it with modern epoxy. Fiberglass replaced doped fabric, and magnesium—used liberally by Bugatti to save weight—was rejected because it is so expensive and flammable. Most notably, the engine bay will house a pair of Suzuki Hayabusa motorcycle motors rather than the glorious, but essentially unobtainable, blown Bugatti straight eights.

But within reason, accuracy was paramount. Early on, Wilson enlisted the aid of Jaap Horst of the Netherlands, founder of the Bugatti Aircraft Association and author of the book The Bugatti 100P Record Plane, and Frenchman Frederic Gasson, who built a remote-controlled version of the racer and a scale model that was tested in a French wind tunnel. Jean François Sibille, who’d apprenticed in the Bugatti design studio, vetted some of Wilson’s creations. Even de Monge’s grand-nephew, Ladislas, spent several months in Tulsa working on the project.

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