If the story wasn’t so great, the remains of this 1925 Bugatti Type 22 Brescia Roadster might as well have stayed at the bottom of the lake where it had been for 75 years.
The car today is on display at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, Calif., where my son Brian discovered it while filming an episode of the “Road to Provenance” television series.
Since, like most everyone else, I’ve been out of public circulation and unable to bring readers the usual classic car feature in this space, I got his permission to share this car’s story in this month’s issue.
Peter Mullin established the museum as a tribute to French automotive styling and the decorative arts that influenced the genre. It is considered to house the world’s finest collection of French automobiles from the pre-war Art Deco period.
Featuring more than 100 vehicles, art and artifacts, the museum collection is centered around true masterpieces of French curve coachwork and ingenious craftsmanship as envisioned by manufactures such as Bugatti, Delage, Delahaye, Hispano-Suiza, Talbot-Lago and Voisin.
Several of the automobiles in the collection have won prestigious awards at concours events around the world, while many have won historic races such as Grand Prix de Pau and the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
So, why, you may ask, does his collection include only the preserved remains of what was, in its day, a vehicle that was worth keeping?
Well … like I began, it’s all about the story. Here’s how the museum tells it to the fascination of visitors who often conclude their visit talking about this car more than any of the other amazing vehicles on display:
The Roadster once belonged to famed Grand Prix driver Rene Dreyfus. The legend was told and retold how, in 1934 in Paris, Dreyfus was playing poker with Swiss playboy Adalbert Bode.
They both had consumed enough alcohol to be drunk, and Dreyfus lost but didn’t have enough cash to cover his marker, so he gave the Bugatti to Bode to settle his bet.
Bode headed home via Italy but didn’t have the cash to pay the import duties when he got to the Swiss border. Traditionally, if such a registration tax could not be paid for a vehicle entering the country, it would be confiscated and held for a period of time until the owner could come up with the cash needed to retrieve it.
While the car would have today been highly collectible, in the mid 1930’s a 10-year-old Bugatti was just another old car, and Bode never returned for it.
Swiss law at the time provided for the car to be destroyed if duties went unpaid. But, local customs officials decided to hide the car, suspended by a heavy chain, in nearby Lake Maggiore on the border and retrieve it later for themselves.
Unfortunately for the conspirators, their chain was badly rusted, a link broke, and the car dropped 173 feet to the lake floor – far from reach by any diving technology of the time.
It wasn’t until a scuba diver who dove to the lake’s bottom in 1967 that the legend about the car was verified. The car was half buried, lying on its left side in silt. That side of the car was somewhat preserved even to the extent that the tires were still inflated.
The right side suffered extensive corrosion and decay particularly affecting components made of iron or steel while the wood, aluminum and brass were in much better condition.
The local diving club, after using the car as a diving attraction for many years, decided to salvage the Bugatti and auction it off to fund a charity addressing the issues of juvenile violence.
The car was raised in 2009 with thousands looking on.
The auction house predicted it would sell for $130,000. Determined not to be outbid, Mullin won the contest paying $289,050 and it was on the way to his museum where it was preserved and now displayed as The Bugatti of the Lake.
Every collectible classic has a story. This one’s value may be the greatest of them all.