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Jay Leno's Column: The Collector

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Replica has become a bad word. To my way of thinking replica should be an exact copy of the original; enough to fool the trained eye

There’s an hilarious ad here in the States for a kit car. It says ‘Build a Mercedes SSK replica’ and it uses a Volkswagen engine and a fiberglass body. In the ad, Dad has all the pieces laid out – fenders, transmission, engine – and Mom and the kids are handing him wrenches and helping him build it. They call that an SSK replica. This is how replicas get a bad name.

Recently someone was busted in Italy for selling Pontiac Fieros with fiberglass 308 Ferrari bodies. It’s a bit like a transvestite: it looks good from 20 feet, and then you get closer and realize there’s something horribly wrong. But to see a company like Pur Sang in Argentina build a copy of the Type 35, exactly as Bugatti would have done, would seem to me to be the ultimate compliment. Pur Sang copies the original Bugatti drawings and blueprints.

If you pull out the rear seat and look under the gas tank, the axle and differential are exactly the same. It’s fantastic. These Pur Sangs would show up at Pebble Beach, and I never gave it much thought until a friend bought what he thought was an original Type 35 Bugatti. It turned out to be a Pur Sang replica. Any true Bugatti expert would not be fooled, because the modern oil filter and the distributor instead of magneto would be dead giveaways. But to the untrained eye, or even the sophisticated eye, it’s a dead ringer.

Let’s face it, the idea of finding Grand Prix Bugattis in barns is pretty much over. Even if there are a few still out there, they are so crazily expensive that nobody would dare drive one on the street. Here’s a chance to replicate history, to drive a brand new version of a car most of us have only read about, or dreamed about.

I have got a number of Bugattis and I am hard-pressed to tell the difference between the copy and the original. I have driven the Argentinean one, and it handles, drives and performs just like an original Type 35. One difference is that the engine on the original used a roller-bearing crank and in a concession to modern times the replica has a plain-bearing crank. The firing order in the cylinders is different so the exhaust note is a little bit out, but not much. It still has three valves per cylinder – two intake, one exhaust – so it’s very close. Replicas have got a bad name because people haven’t replicated the heart and soul of the automobile, they’ve replicated only the look of it; usually in fiberglass with Ford or Chevrolet running gear. I have seen so many Auburn Speedsters made of fiberglass that I actually lost my attraction to the real car, because the fiberglass ones were off by just a hair. To me it’s just as important to recreate the driving experience as it is to possess the vehicle. With the replica Bugatti you get the smell of the oil, the feel of the non-synchro gearbox; you learn how quickly you have to shift to engage the gears. It’s a whole visceral experience.

So really it is a chance to drive a brand new Bugatti. With an original, because of its value and metal fatigue and things of that nature, you’re not going to flog it as hard as you might. The Bentley Drivers Club seems to be the exception to that rule. However, most Bentleys could be called replicas. They have new engines, new blocks. They also contain many original pieces, but for the sake of argument they could be considered replicas, too.

I have a 1925 Model T. You can build a brand new T right out of the catalogue. You can get a frame, springs, engine, body – you can build the whole car. Every piece of it is an exact copy of what came out of the factory. To me that’s a Model T. Okay, an original with matching numbers and all that stuff might be worth a little bit more, but not to me.

I think we just get a bit caught up in all of this. The essence should be experiencing the car as it was meant to be used. That’s the fun of it. I daresay I’d rather have a perfect replica that I could drive and use, than a real one that is nothing but a static display.

A Type 35 Grand Prix Bugatti is worth about two million dollars. For just about 200,000 dollars you can get an exact replica that does everything the real one does, and if you rode in it you would not be able to tell the difference. What’s wrong with that? If you crash it you’re not destroying history.

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