Wilson has an extensive network of local team members, including sheet metal artist T.J. Balentine and painter Daniel Davis. We get in a pickup truck with 180,000 miles on the odometer, and Wilson takes me around to meet some of the other team members. A lot of metal work is done at the oilfield compressor company owned by Vince Thomas, who has several vintage airplanes. Brooks Thompson, a 79-year-old race car builder, helped solve some of the problems posed by the extra-long driveshafts. Jeff Lewis, a bearded machinist whom Wilson calls “the single most important person on the project in the United States,” works out of an incredibly crowded garage with a 1977 Bridgeport mill that’s still running DOS. Most machinists prefer to have CAD (computer-aided design) drawings that can be plugged into milling software. Not Lewis. “I tell Jeff what I need,” Wilson says. And Lewis says, “And I give him the drawing.”
The one-of-one gearbox, though, required a different approach. This was the most complicated—and costly—piece of the puzzle, and Wilson knew that it was a potential showstopper. Fortunately, he found John Lawson, an ex-Royal Air Force mechanic. Or, to be more accurate, Lawson found Wilson. The Brit had become fascinated by the airplane; “When I Googled the Bugatti,” he recalls, “I discovered a lunatic in Tulsa who was endeavoring to build it. So I emailed him.”
An industrial modeler by trade, Lawson agreed to take a whack at the gearbox. “Originally,” he says, “I thought I could do it in a week or two.” The process ended up taking him 3,000 hours.
It’s now March, and Lawson and I are chatting at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, California. Owner Peter Mullin has been fascinated by the 100P ever since he drove his Bugatti Type 57 to Oshkosh and saw the original airplane. When he started putting together an “Art of Bugatti” exhibit, he wanted to include Wilson’s replica. Wilson agreed, though it pushed back the first flight until late this year.
Wilson says that after the Bugatti leaves the museum, it will take 60 to 90 days to install the engines and get the racer off the ground. He has no intention of setting any records; all he wants to do is fly the 100P long enough to prove the concept. Because de Monge designed the airplane solely to go fast in a straight line, Wilson expects it to be pitch-sensitive and just marginally stable in yaw. Says Paulo Iscold, a Brazilian aerospace engineering professor who had his students analyze the 100P: “Flying it should be no big deal, but I don’t think it will be easy to fly near the ground.”
At the moment, Wilson is here in Oxnard for the media preview of the museum exhibit. He gazes at the 100P as it sits in the exalted company of automobiles collectively worth more than $100 million. “I can’t believe that we’re here in this museum,” he says. His excitement is palpable.
And that is how a lot of people will feel when—if all goes according to plan—Wilson eases back on the control stick and the Bugatti rises from the runway. Somewhere, Louis de Monge and Ettore Bugatti will be beaming.