During the early '30s, in the heady atmosphere of a world emerging from the privations of the Great Depression, the ambassador of Uruguay, then the financial center of South America, conceived an automobile project for the world market. His intention was to build a unique luxury car for the affluent few that included kings, princes, maharajahs, and the like. The ambitious ambassador hit upon the idea of wedding the American Studebaker company with one of the most prestigious companies to ever build a car-the French Bugatti Automobile firm. A distant and relatively safe location was sought. The South American country of Uruguay offered unexploited labor markets, proximity to abundant natural resources, and a highly prized degree of privacy.
The delightful issue of this marriage of the creme de la creme of the industrial world was the Stugatti, an elegant and very rare car. No one knows how many of these finely crafted tourings were actually produced, but apparently only one has survived. The extant Stugatti has been traced in this country from Oklahoma to Michigan to a lengthy hibernation under a tarp in far Temecula, California. It is suspected, although not proven, that this car is actually the one owned by the ambassador himself.
If you buy that story, there are a number of perfectly good bridges for sale that you will probably be interested in. The truth is that there never was a Stugatti at all and if there was an international ambassador in Uruguay in the '30s, he probably didn't know a cow from a car.
The Stugatti that debuted at the 2006 Grand National Roadster Show is entirely the product of the combined, very fertile, imaginations of owners Rick and Valerie Strain and the talented and diligent team headed up by John Nissen at Nissen's Hot Rod Garage in not-so-exotic Williams, California. The elegant dual-cowl convertible sedan gives the appearance of a restored vintage vehicle. It is not that in any way. This big beauty is pure hot rod.
The original car was a 1934 Studebaker four-door sedan. The top was removed completely, the chassis has been completely redone with independent suspension and the motive force is a Ford Triton V-10. Yes, it is very fast. The car was constructed almost in its entirety by John Nissen and his main man, Tom Stephens. The inspiration for the car came from owner Rick's wife, Valerie, who has always been intrigued by the elegant Bugattis that populate Concours d'Elegance shows and the most prestigious automotive museums. The Strains had already completed a vintage-style hot rod project, a Viper powered '40 Packard that had belonged to Rick's great grandmother, with the Nissen gang and were ready to try another. Thus, the Stugatti was conceived and in a relatively short two years, the project was complete. Really, two guys built this car from virtually scratch in two years! That is some kind of a record in somebody's book somewhere!
The fully functional power convertible top retreats to vertical storage between the back of the rear seat and the front wall of the trunk. The identical dash panels are both fully functional. Front and rear air, music and capacious leather seating would make any maharajah feel right at home. The detailing of the dashes and the graphic work on the car are the handiwork of Don Tippet, a crafty guy from Grants Pass, Oregon, and the magnificent quilted maple dash crowns were executed by woodie master of the great Northwest, Rick Mack. Both the interior upholstery and the top were produced by Ed Sanford of Sanford's Custom Upholstery in Anderson, California. The final bodywork after Nissen's fabricating efforts fell to Lonnie Tulley, proprietor of Lonnie's Auto Body and Paint in Medford, Oregon. The unusual wicker caning effect on the sides of the Stugatti have elicited a variety of comments ranging from praise to utter condemnation. The story is that back in the late '20s and early '30s era of luxurious cars, caning was indeed popular on cars whose limited use would allow such a fragile surface. Wood and wicker were indeed often-seen components back in the proverbial day. The caned surface here is actually very high-resolution photo imaging executed on vinyl. It looks so authentic that only touching proves it is anything less than what it pretends to be. That is, if you would dare to touch a car like this.
The engineering, design, and fabrication of all of the chassis and body components on the car are the result of the laborious efforts of John and Tom and are probably only as successful as they are because they all took place under the astute and watchful eye of John's wife, Dawn. Dawn is a car guy's dream; she is a former sports car road racer, pulls a mean wrench when necessary, and has the ability to keep a monstrous project like this one organized and on track. You go, girl!
It is, of course, very unlikely that another Stugatti will ever see the light of day. Automotive-minded travelers to South America, however, would do well to keep their eyes peeled. Ya just never know what's still out there, and remember: The line between truth and fiction is often extremely faint. By the way, in Italy, the word "Stugatti," translates almost directly as our American term used to describe things that are more fabrication than fact. Politely put, it means "BS." Strain, Nissen, and crew did not know this until after the car had gone public. Funny how things work out isn't it?