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The 500 MPH Superplane That Bugatti Had to Hide From the Nazis

Illustration for article titled The 500 MPH Superplane That Bugatti Had to Hide From the Nazis

This is the Bugatti Model 100P: A 900 HP, 500 MPH, race plane imagined by none other than legendary automotive designer Ettore Bugatti, so technologically advanced that it could have single-handedly dominated the skies of WWII for Germany, had the Nazis ever gotten their hands on it. But after more than seven decades of obscurity in a French barn, the "Veyron of the Skies" is ready to finally take flight for the first time.

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In 1938, Ettore Bugatti enlisted the help of his chief engineer, Louis de Monge, to do something the pair had never attempted before: build an airplane. And not just any airplane, a screamingly fast racer capable of beating his counterparts in Deutchland's most prestigious air race: the Coupe Deutsch. And they almost did too.

Illustration for article titled The 500 MPH Superplane That Bugatti Had to Hide From the Nazis
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The Model 100P that Bugatti devised was the SR-71 of its day—an aircraft packed with technology ludicrously advanced beyond the existing state of the art. Measuring a stout 25 feet long with a 27-foot wingspan, the 100P Its fueselage and forward-swept wings were formed from multi-layer wood laminate—sandwiching balsa and hardwoods—a manufacturing technique still widely used today but practically unheard of in the 1940's.

Illustration for article titled The 500 MPH Superplane That Bugatti Had to Hide From the Nazis

The 100P was exceptionally streamlined thanks to its revolutionary inline engine design—wherein the 100P's pair of 4.9L, 450HP, 8-cylinder racecar engines were positioned behind the cockpit—that drove a pair of counter-rotating props. It also included a 102 degree V-tail, a zero-drag cooling system that ejected air from the trailing edges of the wings, and computer-directed flight controls that automatically changed the wing profile to produce extra lift or reduce drag and acting as an airbrake when pulling out of dives. Even the automatic landing gear took orders from the plane's computer system.

The airspeed record in 1939 stood at 469 mph, set by a German Messerschmitt. Had the 100P flown in 1940 at the Coupe Deutsch, the math suggests it would have topped 500 mph. However, the 100P never did fly in 1940, having just missed the entry deadline in September 1939 due to manufacturing delays.

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Illustration for article titled The 500 MPH Superplane That Bugatti Had to Hide From the Nazis

While this was a disappointment to Bugatti, this delay may well have changed the outcome of World War II. During development, the French government learned of the project and approached Bugatti with an offer to use the technology for a new generation of highly-maneuverable, light-weight fighter planes. He turned them down but as the second World War broke out. When Germany invaded France in 1940, there became a very real chance that the Germans could learn of and seize the 100P, using the technology as their own war machine to decimate the Allied air fleet, Spitfires and all.

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But Bugatti, who became a French citizen after WWI and who rarely hide his distaste for the Germans, wasn't having any of that mess. Rather than let the plane fall into Nazi hands, he decided to hide the nearly-completed aircraft in a barn somewhere in the French countryside. And that's where it stayed throughout the war.

After its rediscovery at the end of the War, the 100P was sold and auctioned numerous times before finally coming to rest in the EAA Airventure Museum, where it has been restored and is currently on display. However, this septuagenarian aircraft is far too old and delicate to fly anymore, which is why a dedicated team of classic plane enthusiasts have spent the better half of a decade building an exact, full-scale replica capable of flight.

"The vision, the courage, the entrepreneurial spirit, those things. That's where the focus is," Scotty Wilson, a former Air Force pilot and historical plane enthusiast from Tulsa, Oklahoma involved in the replica project, dubbed Le Reve Bleu, told KFOR. "It's an airplane at the end of the day. But it happens to be a very cool airplane with an interesting story."

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"The Bugatti 100P was 85 percent complete when the Germans invaded," ex-RAF engineer John Lawson, who built the replica's gearbox, told Metro UK. "If it had flown in 1940 then it would have been a revolution. It was an incredible aeroplane and Louis de Monge, who worked on it with Ettore Bugatti, was a brilliant engineer."

"The plane was designed to fly very fast but the gearbox wouldn't have much longevity,"Lawson continued. "I reverse-engineered it from plans and pictures and designed one which runs perfectly." The Le Reve Bleu team hopes to have the replica finished by this fall and will be making appearances in the skies above the Farnborough Air Show and Goodwood Revival for years to come. [Bugatti 100P- Daily Mail - IB Times - Wikipedia - KFOR - Metro UK - Top Gear]

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Images: Bugatti Aircraft Association

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DISCUSSION

mattmcdougall
Matt McDougall

Er, no. The 100P is a marvelous design, but even if it had fallen into Nazi hands it wouldn't have changed the course of the war. Because reasons.

First, timing. The only time a totally dominant fighter design could have potentially turned the tide was in the autumn of 1940 during the Battle of Britain. Considering that France fell in May 1940, we're talking only about six months to go from capturing plans to refining them for a combat fighter, entering production, and getting them to the front. Yeah no. The earliest a 100P-inspired design might have shown up would have been 1943, around the time the Fw 190 showed up. By then the tide had already turned in Europe by way of Stalingrad and El Alamein.

Second, the 100P was designed as a racer, not a fighter. The conversion to combat readiness would have robbed it of a not insignificant chunk of that speed. Maybe the Luftwaffe would have had a few more months of the superiority they enjoyed before the Brits could roll out the Spitfire Mk.IX, but that's about it.

Third, the name of the game in bomber-killing wasn't just speed. It was firepower and the fine balance between hitting power, speed, and armor to withstand the bombers' kill boxes. The Luftwaffe tried over and over to figure out a way to knock out the B-17s and B-24s, including upgunning Fw 190s and Bf 109s, packing four 30mm cannons into the nose of the Me 262, even using unguided rockets. Nothing could down enough bombers to make up for the loss rate.

Fourth, just look at the 100P. It's a marvel of engineering. But it's far from simple and the article even says that the gearbox didn't have much in the way of longevity. In combat, especially WWII air combat, toughness mattered a lot. Operating conditions were often less than ideal, and hanger queens couldn't make much of a difference if they were always down for repairs. A similar problem bugged the Tiger and King Tiger.

Fifth, and related to the fourth reason - production complexity. World War II was a numbers game, and by even the end of 1942 it was a game the Germans were losing. And that was with the Bf 109 and Fw 190 both being relatively easy and quick to produce. A 100P-informed fighter would have taken at least an entire other engine, a complicated gearbox, a contra-rotating propeller setup and far more complicated greenhouse, over and above the 109 and 190. How much would that have dinged production output?

Ultimately, Germany's air war was probably doomed as of January 1, 1942. The only thing I can think would have preserved it longer would have been a system of pilot rotation similar to what the United States set up, where veteran pilots went back to train cadets. The Luftwaffe just kept them out there until they died...which by 1945 meant most of the talent was splattered in fields across Europe and Eurasia.