Found and lost in an ancient barn

A secret hoard on a yankee farm that ended as a blackened ruin

On sale at Beaulieu was a Bugatti 57 Galibier saloon. It was described as a ‘barn find’, which swept me back to visiting the US in the late ’80s, and my chance to buy a Type 57 Bugatti.

“Come and meet Jerry Sherman – he likes good French cars,” said my restorer friend Dave George. We weren’t talking CXs, as I found at Jerry’s 18th-century Pennsylvanian farmhouse. Jerry, a tall, stooped, white-haired figure with a dry sense of humour, led us down to the basement where he was repairing a Bedelia – the mad tandem-seat cyclecar – and a Hispano tourer. Then we went to the barn and my jaw dropped. Inside this huge ancient timber erection sat a supercharged BNC, a Grand Sport Talbot-Lago, V12 Hispano coupé, Willys Jeepster, and a huge wooden ’30s speedboat powered by a Hispano V8 aero-engine. More aero V8s lurked in the gloom, while outside in an open shed (bottom), ivy crawled over a Hotchkiss, H6B Hispano and other Gallic treasures. Not that Jerry was a mere hoarder; he fixed and ran his cars, and raced his Talbot-Lago GP car.

Then it was time to go into town for lunch. “Here,” said Jerry, “you drive,” pointing to his ramshackle runaround – a ply-bodied, short-chassis Type 57 Bugatti (below). It looked like a shed and drove like a Lotus – crisp, light, precise, trailing that addictive rasp in its wake. Parking in town among the Pontiacs I asked Jerry how you locked it. He shrugged. “I don’t. No one knows what it is.” It was still there when we came back.

So I was deeply upset to receive a call some months later saying that someone had set fire to Jerry’s barn and the cars within. Sad photos arrived of the Bugatti chassis, blackened steel gears and crank still in place, alloy casings melted to silver puddles beneath.

“Jerry would take $20,000 for it,” said Dave George, “and I can rebuild it.” Knowing that he specialises in pre-war cars and could source a lot of original parts I swithered (Scots word for being indecisive). I’m a believer in creative coach-building, in appropriate period style of course, rather than simple copying, and here was a rare opportunity. I had a lot of fun sketching out a Corsica-like pontoon-winged body for it, but in the end I was too scared of the rebuild investment, even though I’d easily treble my money – if I could bear to sell it. Instead Dave took it on, and several makeovers later it now races with a 59/50B-style body. Twenty years after the fire both the BNC and the Talbot-Lago are almost restored, too. But it’s nice to feel I nearly owned a Bugatti…