Photographer: Drew Phillips

The $250,000 Bugatti That Drives Like $2.5 Million

The original Bugatti Type 35 was the fastest, most powerful car of its day. Fewer than 100 were made, and they're exceedingly rare and expensive to buy today. But there is a way to get your hands on one that's just like the originals. It's not a modern remake. It's not a close imitation. It's an exact replica, down to the very last bolt.

Pur Sang, which originated as the French term for pure blood, is an old horse racing term to describe a genuine thoroughbred.

The phrase also refers to the Argentina-based company that hand-builds Type 35 Bugattis as exact replicas of the originals. Pur Sang Argentina produces more than 20 Bugatti Type 35s a year, among other models, that contain the same components—no more, no less—as their now multimillion-dollar predecessors.

The $250,000 Pur Sang Bugattis are a bargain compared to their predecessors, which are generally considered to be the world’s first supercars. At a time when the bumbling Model T Ford was the most prevalent car on the road, Ettore Bugatti’s sculptural Type 35 could hit 120 miles per hour on a racetrack and reach 60mph in less than 10 seconds. The fact that it came in a chic French blue, with revolutionary alloy wheels and an undefeated racing record from 1925 to 1929 only added to the allure—not to mention that fewer than 100 were ever made.

I recently visited Pur Sang’s North American headquarters in Costa Mesa, Calif. If you can’t get all the way to the factory in Paraná, Entre Rios, Argentina, it’s the next best thing. Sales Manager John Bothwell met me there to drive one of the open-top Type 35s up and down Highway 1 near a sun-drenched Newport Beach.

The drive was incredible: The four-speed manual gearbox is exactly the same as the ones from the 1920s, though a fan was added as a modern allowance in order to prevent overheating. When you push through turns, you feel the whole car gather itself under you; the complete lack of windows, seat belts, and even hinged doors makes the car a singular thrill. But it’s the details that make the Type 35 among the most attention-getting (and respect-earning) cars you can buy. If you want to stand out in Monaco or at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, forget the Ferraris, Bentleys, and Lamborghinis. Drive this instead.

  1. Signature Looks
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    Signature Looks

    The honeycomb-shaped front radiator Ettore Bugatti refined for his beloved Type 35 became an integral part of Bugatti styling. Following the Type 35, Type 37 and Type 39 continued the distinct front look, with dual round headlights and tires set out, far apart from the main engine cavity.

    On the Pur Sang Bugattis, the wheels are modern, rather than period, so they can run reliably on today's city streets. Along with the aforementioned fan to prevent overheating, the wheels are the only current-era components on most of the Type 35 cars. 

    Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

  2. If You Know, You Know
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    If You Know, You Know

    “Most of the time, the people who buy these are the people who can also afford the original,” Bothwell said. "It’s the kind of guy who already has a supercar, and this is the gateway drug to him realizing he also likes older cars. It doesn’t take a lot to push a guy like that over the edge.” 

    Indeed, the Type 35 is a supercar, with the winningest racing record of any Bugatti model in history and the kind of handling that, for the time—and for most drivers now—is considered challenging. It's loud, thick, rough, and smelly inside the cabin of the Type 35. It doesn't come with power steering or power brakes. But it is rewarding: Cruising speeds hover easily around 80mph, and, thanks to a then-advanced handbrake system, Bothwell has even drifted it in the sands of Dubai. 

    Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

  3. Distinct Lineage
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    Distinct Lineage

    The Type 35 Bugatti sits nestled between the bare-bones, much-smaller Type 13 Bugatti and the grand coach Type 41 Royale Bugatti that was a handsome touring car. (Others, such as the Type 30 and Type 32, also figured in the mid-1920s and early 1930s as key Bugatti models.) But the Type 35 is the most notable and most collectable.

    Gooding & Co. is offering a 1925 Type 35 Grand Prix for $2.6 million at its Scottsdale auction in January. RM Sotheby's sold a 1930 Type 35B (the final iteration of the Type 35) for far less—$638,000—in 2014; the Telegraph reported a 1928 Type 35B that sold for £2.5 million $3.08 million) in a private sale several years earlier. 

    Photographer: Drew Phillips

  4. Pure Engineering
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    Pure Engineering

    “The first supercar ever conceived was the Type 35 Bugatti," Bothwell said. "Ettore Bugatti was Elon Musk times 10." 

    Bothwell means that the famous Italian-born designer earned many patents in his life, from those for torpedo boats to lightweight airplanes. For the Type 35, Bugatti used a supercharged 2.0-liter straight-eight cylinder engine. Early examples had 90 horsepower, but later ones reached 130hp and more. Bothwell declined to say how fast his Pur Sang Bugattis go, but a quick test on the road says they'll hit 60mph in 10 seconds or so. 

    Photographer: Drew Phillips

  5. Born in France
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    Born in France

    Ettore Bugatti, whose father was a well-known jewelry and furniture designer, founded his company in Molsheim, Alsace (then part of Germany) in 1909. The company made elite cars in the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s, especially the iconic Type 35, Type 41 Royale, Type 55, and Type 57 "Atlantic" models. The company went defunct in the 1960s but was revived as a brand in the 1990s and is now owned by Volkswagen AG.

    Today, its famous models, such as the Bugatti Veyron and the Bugatti Chiron sell for more than $2 million each. 

    Photographer: Drew Phillips

  6. Legendary Is in the Details
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    Legendary Is in the Details

    Founded more than 20 years ago by Jorge Anadon, Pur Sang creates the details of its Type 35 exactly to the specifications of the original car, from the leather straps holding the spare tire to the brushed metal on the interior and the intricate knobs on the dashboard. The brilliant round headlights are custom-made.

    All the parts are handmade, using traditional methods by craftsmen in Argentina. The Pur Sang factory employs 100 workers who can produce a built-to-order car in two months; grounds include a design studio, an engineering shop, a body shop, a spare-part division, and a paint shop. Each year, from 20 cars to 30 cars are completed. 

    Photographer: Drew Phillips

  7. Get It Quickly
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    Get It Quickly

    Once built, a car will be put by Pur Sang on an overnight Lufthansa flight, direct from Buenos Aires to Los Angeles. The cost for the flight is roughly $10,000, Bothwell said. Pur Sang also makes many other models, from a Bugatti Type 55 and Bugatti Type 51 to Alfa Romeo's 8C Monza.

    There is even talk that Pur Sang could make a Type 57SC Atlantic, the car Ralph Lauren long used as the centerpiece of his extensive car collection. Since each car is made to order, an interested buyer would have to commission the build.

    Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

  8. Spare Open-Air Interior
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    Spare Open-Air Interior

    Bugatti's Type 35 has a right-hand-side drive with a four-speed manual transmission and rear-wheel drive. The interior is minimal, with very thin metal walls, and three foot pedals to shift, brake, and accelerate the car. You'll want goggles when you drive the Type 35; there's no windscreen, let alone doors and windows. The car is extremely fast on straightaways, and goggles will help protect your eyes from wind, sun glare, and the occasional stray bug.

    The seats are flat, with little cushioning, but they're firm and resilient. The beds on which you place your feet are narrow; driving shoes (or small feet) are a must. And the shifter at the center of the car sits close to both driver and passenger, so any driver of a Pur Sang Type 35 Bugatti must be prepared to get close and comfortable with the co-pilot.

    Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

  9. Built to Drive
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    Built to Drive

    Bothwell drives his personal Bugatti Type 35 often; last summer he completed a 4,200-mile cross-country drive from California to New York. He even drives it on the track.

    "They are really drivable, really reliable," he said. "The Type 35 Bugatti is capable of being driven just like any other car. You just need an oil change every 6,000 miles or so."

    That's the difference between a Pur Sang Bugatti  Type 35 and the original—many of which are owned by people who drive Pur Sang Bugattis, Bothwell said. The idea is that, since it costs $50,000 to overhaul that type of engine, it's better to drive the less-expensive model and hold onto the original for investment purposes. 

    Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

  10. Custom to You
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    Custom to You

    Pur Sang makes each Bugatti Type 35 to a client's specifications, even if that means adjusting to what that owner believes best follows the original spirit of the machine.

    For instance, the original Type 35 B had a roller bearing crank, but some customers choose to have a plain bearing crank because it reduces maintenance and reduces the overall weight of the engine. It's a minute difference, but to aficionados at this level, it matters. 

    (Many early engines used roller bearing crankshafts in order to better lubricate the bottom end of the engine with both fuel and oil; today, many engines use the less-expensive plain bearing crankshafts. In general, roller bearings are less capable of higher RPMs although they can (PDF) help achieve better gas mileage.)

    Photographer: Hannah Elliott/Bloomberg

  11. Automotive Royalty
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    Automotive Royalty

    If you buy a Pur Sang Bugatti, you'll be in good company. Jay Leno reportedly owns two.

    Photographer: Drew Phillips