Saratoga Springs, New York is a town with racing in its blood. Every summer people come from all over to visit the track and see the races. Carly Simon even mentioned it in a song, and just like the protagonist in her hit “You’re so vain” rich folk in Learjets do regularly stop here before jetting off to other parts of the world and doing whatever else rich folks do.
Last week in Saratoga a number of well off folks got together for a race. Why is this news? Because this time rather then oats their steeds were fed gasoline, and instead of a dirt oval they were racing on public streets.
Last week I noticed something odd on my commute into work - a vintage open wheel racecar thrumming along in the opposite direction. “Very cool!” I thought to myself as I continued along. Five minutes later it happened again... and then again. With my curiosity piqued I pulled over at a gas station where 3 more cars were filling up and asked one of the drivers what was going on. He looked at me and grinned, clearly reading my excitement before informing me that the American Bugatti Club was holding its annual distance rally in Saratoga. Nearly 100 vintage Buggattis had been flown in from all over the world and would be hanging around town for the next week.
The rest of that commute was spent with the windows down, as Bugatti after Bugatti passed me making all manner of wonderful and unique exhaust sounds. Despite being a life long gearhead I’ll admit I knew very little about Bugattis in general, and I was pretty taken aback by the variety of body styles and broad range in size of the cars. All I knew is that these were rare and expensive cars, and they were being driven on public roads in between Honda Civics and Ford F150s and the like. I wanted to find out more.
Sadly, I am paid to work as a software developer and not as a reporter or Motorsports photographer (although if someone’s offering, let me know). The rally schedule kept most of the driving during the hours I was at work for the rest of the week, so I wasn’t able to catch the whole group on the road again after that morning. I did however find the hotel they were staying at, and the parking lot where they kept the cars - And oh what a parking lot it was!
Not wanting to be totally ignorant before poking around the lot I did some quick research online. Ettore Bugatti was an Italian born man who in 1909 started a French car company in the then German city of Molsheim, Alsace. His company was known for its engineering detail and the artistic beauty of its cars. A race car he built won the first ever Grand Prix. I was quickly beginning to see why “Bugatti” and “high end” were synonymous in my mind despite not being able to name a single vintage car they made: These truly were the original supercars.
Seeing a modern supercar on the road is exciting enough. Seeing an 80 year old car driving is pretty rare too. Seeing an 80 year old supercar that raced the Mille Miglia driving through your small town along with 90 others like it? Probably very unlikely. Walking into the parking lot felt like stumbling out your front door only to find yourself in the Amber Room of the Cathrine Palace. It just doesn’t happen!
If the cars themselves were royalty, there was no pomp and circumstance when it came to the event or most of the drivers and owners I talked to. A simple wooden barrier separated the back half of the lot from the rest of the hotel guest’s rental cars. There was no guard, and nobody asked me if I had a reason to be there as I wandered slowly around the cars. It had rained that afternoon - quite hard - and threatened to hail. Many of the cars had fitted covers on, but some just had tarps and bungee cords. A few were left completely exposed. It was a juxtaposition that only seemed more stark when I realized what some of these cars are worth.
The first guy I ran into was standing over an open hood. He told me he was one of the close ones as he “only” had to drive from Virginia. He was busy replacing a fan switch that died earlier that day. He told me his ride was a 1927 Type 38. “There aren’t too many of them, but comparatively this isn’t one of the expensive ones”. I pointed out the roots type supercharger on the overhead valve straight 8 engine and he smiled. “Got to make them fast!”
He took a sip of beer and set it down on the back fender. A quick google search told me this car had won Pebble Beach in 1993.
It was then that I realized it didn’t matter how much these cars were worth. The owners came here to drive them, to run their legs, to experience them doing what they were designed to do. Vintage Bugattis might be investments on paper, but for this week they were cars again - and cars being pushed to their limit at that.
A smaller parking lot behind the hotel revealed even more cars, mostly of the race car variety. I walked up to another guy bending over an open hood. He straightened slowly, wrench and oily rag in hand. Tools were strewn all over the ground. He smiled as he said “I got the valves lashed in 40 minutes. Not bad for an afternoon in a parking lot!”. There were no pit crews, no spotless F1 style garages, not even pop up tents for shade. These might be pieces of racing history, but the scene looked more like when I wrench on my ratty motorcycle in the driveway.
He told me the cars in that lot were the “cheap” cars - mostly Type 35 race cars. The big type 57s and such were the expensive ones. How expensive? Nobody would really give me a straight answer, but browsing auction results points the upper end towards the $7+ million range for some of the cars there.
I asked how many miles they drove that day. “I’m not sure, but probably somewhere around 200" was his answer. The whole rally exceeds 1000 miles in a week, and cars definitely do break and drop out. I suppose one could say that if you have the money to own one of these you probably have the money to fix one too. While that may be true, I’m still glad somebody is willing to take the risk!
Back in the upper parking lot a car rolls up on a trailer as the owner laments “I’m out. Oil everywhere. I’m just glad it didn’t catch on fire. If it does, I always say I want to be in it. I don’t think I would ever be forgiven.” He was a younger guy, and apparently borrowing the car. Further down the lot a type 57 with a flooded motor sat as the owner cranked it over and over hoping for it to catch.
One of the type 57s in attendance was a striking shade of 2 tone green. Spotting a tall guy decked head to foot in matching green I walked over and asked if that was his car. “Yes it is. How did you guess?”
I asked where he was from and he told me California. A distant synapse in my brain gave me the feeling that I’d seen photos of his car at Pebble the week before, and this article from a few days ago on Jalopnik confirmed that he was indeed there. As he was walking away he stopped to admire the “Boogatti” license plate on a blue Type 57 from New York. “That’s great!” He chuckled. “I’ll have to see if that’s available in California.”
Judging by the voices around there were quite a few people who shipped in their cars from England and other parts of Europe. One car had stickers from Australia. Given that this rally moves around the U.S. every year, it’s extremely likely I will never see most of these cars again. It truly was a once in a lifetime event.
At the edge of the parking lot sat a new Bugatti Chiron. It was truly stunning, with the carbon fiber weave peaking out from under a translucent blue paint. It’s no doubt quite the automobile, but after seeing so many prewar cars actually designed by Ettore himself it almost fell a bit flat in comparison. The engineering is there, the quality is there, and the price is certainly there - but how many Veyrons and Chirons are winning races today? And how many will be driving around on public roads 80 or 90 years from now? I can only hope that’s what all the climate controlled garages are saving them for!
The cars in the rally were not sitting in a garage, and that’s what made them so great.
Not only did the owners get to experience their cars as they were meant to, but it let people like me brush up against them as well. For a week the people in upstate NY got to hear, see, smell, and experience cars that would otherwise have no place in some of our lives. I had no idea this event was happening (it really wasn’t advertised, probably for reasons) but having seen it I’m very glad it exists. If you find out the American Bugatti Club is hosting a rally near you in the future, it’s worth checking out. As it turns out, the cost of a car or the depth of its owner’s pockets is pretty meaningless. At the end of the day a car is a car and a gearhead is a gearhead.
Bonus shots: other cool cars in the parking lot