Bugatti’S Legacy

Bugatti’s Legacy

The Story Behind One Of The World’S Most Expensive Cars

Bugatti’s legacy would be assured, even if the dormant nameplate hadn’t been revived for awesome supercars circa 1991.

That’s because, before World War II, the company, under founder Ettore Bugatti, produced a series of exquisite and winning racers, plus elegant and mechanically advanced road cars bodied by the world’s premier coachbuilders. Restorers who dismantle Bugattis discover that every part, down to the smallest nut and bolt, is beautifully designed.

Virtually every car to wear the badge, through to today, is highly prized and commands extraordinarily high prices in the showroom or at auction. In 2019, the one-of-a-kind Bugatti “La Voiture Noire,” built for the company’s 110th anniversary, sold for €16.7 million, making it the most expensive new car ever.

“It is an amazing legacy that Ettore has left to the world,” says Matt Baran, editor of the American Bugatti Club magazine Pur Sang and the current custodian of his grandfather’s 1938 Bugatti Type 57 Ventoux Coupe.

Ettore Bugatti was Italian, a mechanical genius from a family of craftsmen and designers. He built his first car at age 18, a commission for a count. It won a prize and led to steady work. When it was launched by Ettore in 1909, the Molsheim Bugatti factory was in Germany. But after World War I, the entire Alsace region was ceded to France, and Bugatti chose to stay on there—initially producing mostly race cars. The lightweight Type 10 of 1910 was the first of Bugatti’s “Pur Sang” (thoroughbred) cars.

A Bugatti Royale, only six of which were produced
A Bugatti Royale, only six of which were produced.

Like Enzo Ferrari, Ettore considered his road cars as necessary to fund his passion—racing. With the five-liter, 100-horsepower Type 18 (1912 to 1914), he got both a road and race car, capable of a heady 100 miles per hour. Only seven were built, but as probably the fastest street cars in the world at that time, they got noticed. Ettore himself raced the first in the series, nicknamed “Black Bess.” That car has a vivid history, having been owned by French flying ace Roland Garros and campaigned extensively in England. It was sold at auction in 2009 for €2.4 million.

The very successful Type 13 “Brescia” came in second at the French Grand Prix at Le Mans in 1911. After an interruption for World War I, Ettore dug up some Type 13s that had been dismantled and, with continuous refinements, went racing again—finishing first, second, third, and fourth at the Brescia Grand Prix in 1921.

The company’s first production touring car, the rakish Type 30, had an inline eight-cylinder engine and was an early user of front brakes. It appeared in 1922 and 600 were sold by 1926. But greater things were to come. The gorgeous and deceptively delicate-looking Type 35 (introduced in 1924) was Bugatti’s most successful race car, winning an astonishing 1,000 races, including the Grand Prix World Championship in 1926.

Standard practice was for Bugatti to develop a model, then subject it to a process of continual refinement—adding supercharging, for instance. “When they had a better idea, it went into the car,” says Tom Clifford, the Bugatti club’s archivist and the owner of a Type 37A he has raced enthusiastically. “Ettore was a genius at mechanical innovations.”

The company was riding high in 1927, and that allowed Ettore to think big. Really big. The majestic Type 41 Royale, which debuted that year, was competition for Rolls-Royce and Duesenberg as the ultimate luxury car. Sold as a $30,000 bare chassis, the coachbuilder’s art ensured that no two are alike. It was intended as a car for crowned heads, but not all of them—Ettore refused to sell a Royale to King Zog of Albania, claiming “the man’s table manners are beyond belief!” Only six production models were built (and four were sold). All of them survive and are among the world’s most valuable and collectible cars.

The Bugatti Chiron Pur Sport at the Hockenheimring track in Germany.
The Bugatti Chiron Pur Sport at the Hockenheimring track in Germany

More affordable but no less elegant and desirable was the Type 57, which Bugatti debuted in Paris in 1934. The popular car (950 were sold in various configurations) is one of the crowning achievements of Ettore’s very talented son, Jean, who was killed in a testing accident involving a Type 57 race car in 1939. Jean’s death was a huge blow, reinforced by the suspension of the auto industry with World War II.

The Type 251 racer was produced eight years after Ettore’s death in 1947, and it retired early at the French Grand Prix in 1956. A small sports car, the Type 252, using a four-cylinder version of the 251’s engine, was sketched but came to nothing. The full panoply of prewar Bugattis is celebrated at the Cité de l’Automobile museum in Mulhouse, France. It’s the world’s biggest Bugatti collection, including three Royales (one built up from a wreck).

The brand went into a long slumber, but made a spectacular comeback in the 1990s, initially under entrepreneur Romano Artioli. The new Bugatti Automobili, based at Campogalliano in Italy’s “motor valley” near Modena, came up with the ebullient two-seater EB110 GT. In 603-horsepower Super Sport form, it was capable of zero to 60 in 3.2 seconds, and 221 miles per hour. In 1991, it was one of the first modern supercars.

But the enterprise, featuring a gorgeous designer factory, was short-lived amid a recession, and liquidators were called in by 1995. That could have been the end, but Volkswagen Group bought Bugatti in 1998 and—using the EB110 as a solid base—produced the Veyron (2005 to 2015) and the current Chiron (since 2016). The car has moved steadily upscale, and a 2020 Chiron starts at $2.99 million. Opt for the Chiron Super Sport 300+ and you’re buying a car with 1,578 horsepower, quite similar to the car that hit 304.773 miles per hour at a race track in Germany.

If Volkswagen sells Bugatti to Croatia-based supercar company Rimac, as reported, then it could become an all-electric hypercar brand. Somehow, that’s fitting. Ettore, who built an electric Bugatti for his son to drive in 1927, would probably approve.

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