Friday, 24 October 2014
Advanced search

In the wings: recreating the Bugatti 100P

More than 70 years after Bugatti’s only aircraft was hidden from the Nazis a painstaking reproduction of this never-flown plane is poised to take to the skies. Jon Excell reports

Paris. 1940. And with German forces advancing on the French capital, an advanced new aircraft is smuggled quietly out of the city before it can fall into enemy hands.

A vivid shade of blue and startlingly futuristic, the aircraft in question was the Bugatti 100P, the only plane built by legendary car manufacturer Ettore Bugatti.

Boasting a highly streamlined forward-swept wing design and using two cleverly placed engines to drive contra-rotating propellers, the 100P featured a host of innovations that made it one of the most technologically advanced aircraft of its time.

/s/u/v/bugatti1.jpg

War broke out before the plane could be flown, but Bugatti’s chief engineer on the project,  Louis De Monge, projected a top speed of 500mph.

Had the Germans got hold of it — and there’s anecdotal evidence that Albert Speer, Hitler’s minister for production, was aware of the plane — it could have wiped out the aerial advantage of the spitfire and had a profound influence on the outcome of the war.

Fortunately this never happened. The aircraft remained hidden and what remains of the original resides at the AirVenture museum in Oskosh, Wisconsin. It’s too fragile and missing too many components to fly.

The original aircraft is on display at the Oshkosh AirVenture museum

The original aircraft is on display at the Oshkosh AirVenture museum

But over the years the plane has continued to exert a spell over engineers, who, beguiled by its Art Deco beauty and the mystery of its untested prowess, have long wondered how it would have performed.

Later this summer, a team led by retired US fighter pilot Scotty Wilson hopes to find the answer to this question when its reproduction version of Bugatti’s landmark plane takes to the sky for the first time.

This aeroplane was designed by a guy with a slide rule and pencil in 1937 and some of the stuff he did in that day was absolutely revolutionary.

John Lawson

The project has generated plenty of excitement, not least among the enthusiasts who’ve contributed $65,000 of funding via the Kickstarter crowd-funding site. Some of the more prominent supporters include McLaren design chief Frank Stephenson and US chat show host Jay Leno, who is rumoured to be interested in buying the finished aircraft. But perhaps its biggest champions are the engineers behind the project: a team drawn together by a shared fascination with the aircraft and a deep respect for De Monge.

/d/d/s/bugattii3.jpg

‘This aeroplane was designed by a guy with a slide rule and pencil in 1937,’ said John Lawson, the project’s engineering director, ‘and some of the stuff he did in that day was absolutely revolutionary.’

Detailing some of the innovations made by De Monge, Lawson — who is the MD of UK firm Lawson Modelmakers — explained that one of the keys to the aircraft’s projected performance was a novel cooling system based on observations made by English engineer Frederick Meredith.

‘Meredith discovered that if you pull cooling air in through a high-pressure area on the aircraft and duct it through the radiator, if the channelling is the right size as it exits the radiator it expands and you get negative drag — and at certain speeds you get positive thrust,’ he explained.

It’s long been thought the P51 Mustang was the first aircraft to make use of the “Meredith effect” and the discovery that De Monge was a few years ahead of US engineers has, said Lawson, prompted a rewriting of the aviation history books. ‘We had a long argument with the P51 Mustang society, he said. ‘They were adamant that this had been created for the Mustang until we showed them the patents from 1937.’

It had poplar on the inside, hardwood on the outside and balsa in the middle. That made it very light and very strong.

John Lawson

Another innovation that was ahead of its time was De Monge’s use of simple analogue sensors to detect the aircraft’s flight phase and automatically adjust the flap and undercarriage system. ‘It knew from what these sensors were telling it what phase of flight it was in,’ said Lawson. ‘For instance, if you were sat on the ground with no airspeed and you opened up the throttle it knew you were trying to take off so would automatically set the flaps in the take-off position. Likewise when you come in to land and start to throttle back and slow down it realised you wanted to land so it would put the flaps and the wheels down.’

Lawson added that the aircraft’s balsa sandwich construction made it one of the first composite planes. ‘It had poplar on the inside, hardwood on the outside and balsa in the middle. That made it very light and very strong.’

But with many of the original blueprints destroyed as the Germans advanced on Paris, recreating the aircraft has been an exercise in engineering detective work and the team has relied on a handful of remaining drawings and careful measurements of the surviving plane in order to determine exactly how de Monge and his team designed and built the original.

Lawson's team reverse-engineered the gearbox from photos of the original

Lawson’s team reverse-engineered the gearbox from photos of the original

The gearbox, Lawson’s biggest contribution to the project, is a case in point. ‘So little information exists on this,’ he said. ‘There are no drawings apart from an installation drawing, which basically gives you a side profile.’

‘We started by reverse engineering the original box from the photos we had. Luckily someone had taken a load of photographs of one of the spares and he’d put a rule into the picture.’

The team frequently had to improvise however. ‘On the original gearbox the last set of bearings are on the nose of the gearbox itself so the forward propshaft comes out through the rear propshaft unsupported,’ he said.‘That’s fine if you’re going straight and level, but the minute you start pulling any g that little thin propshaft is just going to just bend. So I put a pair of ceramic bearings right up in the nose of the rear propshaft.’

Lawson is keen not to take all the credit for the finished gearbox — which is now being installed in the plane along with the  engines, drive lines and flight-control systems —  and pointed to valuable help from Vocis, the UK transmission specialist behind the gearbox for the McLaren MP412C and the Lamborghini Aventador.

The team faced a similar challenge when designing the wings and travelled to Oskosh to digitally measure the wing on the surviving aircraft. Models based on these measurements have since been run through a simulator in order to determine how the plane will fly, a luxury that wouldn’t have been available to De Monge. ‘The initial indications we’re getting out are that it will fly very well: it’s got a pretty neutral centre of gravity…because the rear engine can move backwards and forwards we can put the centre of gravity wherever we want.’

/h/c/w/bugatti4.jpg

With a limited amount of original design detail to go on, the new aircraft does differ from the original in a number of areas. For instance, it uses Suzuki motorcycle engines rather then Bugatti engines, the oil-cooler duct is in a different position and the contra-rotating propellers were designed from scratch by UK firm Hercules. ‘No one can ever build a replica because not enough information on the original exists,’ said Lawson. ‘What we’re building is a reproduction that is accurate in all the key areas and only changes where we’ve had no choice but to change it.’

/n/w/s/bugatti2.jpg

The group is gearing up to fly the aircraft for the first time later this summer in the US and a European tour will hopefully follow. ‘We want to bring it to Europe. We want to fly in Europe,’ said Lawson. ‘We want to let people in Europe see it — we want to inspire engineers.’

After that, it’s likely that the aircraft will be sold. Although if it flies well, Lawson doesn’t rule out the possibility of making another aircraft. ‘We would consider making another one,’ he said, ‘but we’d probably make it entirely in modern materials so that we could make it quickly.’


Readers' comments (14)

  • Be interesting to see it fly and nice looking!

    Not sure if it would have made much difference to the war though. Top speed is not the only parameter for a fighter, its also manoeuvrability, weapons platform, payload etc. Technologically it was still in the same era as the spitfire - piston engine etc., not revolutionary like a jet engine.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I'm glad we never found out how good it was. However the design changes described suggest that any teething problems might have delayed production until after the battle of Britain if it was viable at all.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I'm not sure that the statement that it could have 'wiped out the aerial advantage of the spitfire' would be agreed by many pilots, particularly those test pilots that had the advantage of having flown both Allied and Axis fighters. From my reading it would appear that the Spit wasn't a match for it's German rivals until at least the MkIX, after the BoB.

    Regardless of this, what an excellent project and I wish the Engineers and others involved in the project the best of luck with their flight testing programme.

    Hopefully this aircraft will make into a collection where it will be displayed to the public.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • What an incredible piece of work from some truly dedicated engineers, an inspiration. It's great to see this type of project happening, history brought to life, love it!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Interesting project. Clearly not designed as a combat aircraft so comments regarding "wipe out" of any advantage are pushing it a little.

    Before anyone gets a bit too excited regarding flying characteristics, most De Monge designs were a little sub-optimal regarding stability and control. I would think long and hard before trying to spin this one for example.

    Jon

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Please someone, give them some time on a good computer -- and in a wind tunnel. One of a kind is NO time for surprises. Especially when it's so good looking.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Forward swept wing would have made it very unstable when turning. The airflow going across the wing at an angle would be more of an issue on this aircraft. This would lead to a greater risk of stalling it. The only real benefit is speed, but at the expense of manoeuvrability.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • When using forward-sweep you have to use a lot of dihedral in order to preserve stability, like the Schleicher AsK13. You also have to be very careful about the torsional axis of the wing spar, since a high angle of attack can reverse the washout and produce a savage spin. It looks to be a little bit short of rudder to me, even if it has differential mixing of the butterfly tail: not a good thing for spin recovery. A spin-recovery chute would be a good idea, at least while testing.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • What a beautiful plane! But I agree with other comemnts, it can hardly be compared with purpose designed fighter aircraft.
    The MOD tested a British designed and built racing aircraft the Percival Mew Gull, prior to WW11. This was very quick for its power. But an aircraft designed for pure speed is unlikely to be a sucessful military aircraft. Needless to say they did not take up the design for military purposes.
    Incidentally Alex Henshaw set a record by flying the Mew Gull to South Africa in about 4 days, a record for this type of aircraft which stood until relatively recently.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I have just returned a book about Bugatti to the library, it contained most of his patents and many of his drawings, this plane was among them. There is a very rough drawing by Bugatti of a fighter plane, based on this design, with what it might look like as an end product, draw by somebody else. I personally think this racer would have been a death trap, and as far as I know this aircraft never flew. But we have an example of a mid-engined fighter in the Bell P39 Aircobra, and the less said about that plane the better; it was so bad that the Americans gave most of the production to the Russians - including the updated P63 Kingcobra.

    But do take a look at the medical instrument Bugatti designed, surgeons actually say "Hand me the Bugatti", when they are operating.

    His railbus is also interesting, even though they were not in service for a long period. Who but Bugatti would think of positioning the driver in a conning tower, halfway along the train?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • The comments re the higher stalling speed of forward swept wings are incorrect. Forward swept wings have a more benign stall behaviour than straight wings.
    They do present structural problems due to torsional divergence and also need more dihedral for the same roll stability as a straight wing.

    The size of the wing spar and its configuration indicates that Demonge and his design team were aware of the problems.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I've built and flown a 1/12 semi-scale electric Bugatti with a single rotation prop. No dihedral in the wing. The forward swept wing is extremely resistant to stalling. Square loops are sharp enough to shave with. The airplane is quite sensitive in pitch and the wing really digs in once pitch is initiated, either wings level or banking and yanking. I had to reduce the size of the elevators three times to settle down the pitch sensitivity. It is just a model, but the forward swept wing flies just fine.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • Ooops, my error, I meant to say "no washout", not "no dihedral" in the post above. The Bugatti I built has 9 degrees of dihedral and no washout since the forward swept wing wing stalls at the the root before the tip.

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • A bit late to the feast.
    Was there a follow up or is the first flight still pending?

    The Spitfire (and the Messerschmitt ) were poor fighter planes because of vortex shedding or the lack thereof as far as I can gather from (was it Jeffery Quill's) biography of the Spit.

    He also said it was a poor gun platform -as this would have been too. Where were the wing spars though?

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

Have your say

Mandatory
Mandatory
Mandatory
Mandatory

Related images

My saved stories (Empty)

You have no saved stories

Save this article