We hear about them in Ralph Lauren and Jay Leno’s garages, we see them selling for expensive prices in Barrett-Jackson and other auctions and even see them featured in museums. Why is there all of this commotion about the Bugatti? Is it because they run so smoothly or because they are the perfect combination of automobile and art? Let’s go back through the history of the Bugatti to illustrate why these cars are so admired.
The Bugatti automobile company was founded by Italian-born Ettore Bugatti in Molsheim, France (then Germany) in 1909. Bugatti started off building bicycles and moved to designing cars for other companies before opening his own company. Ettore Bugatti was known for being both a brilliant and detailed engineer and an artistic designer; artistic ability ran in the family with Ettore’s father Carlo being an important Art Nouveau furniture and jewelry designer. Ettore was also described as incredibly stubborn, refusing to mass produce cars or super-charge them, instead building rare, hand-made cars.
The first vehicle built by the Bugatti company was the Type 13. It had a 1.3L, 4-cylinder engine that produced 20bhp and maxed out at 60mph. This would change, however, with Bugatti building winning race cars; Bugatti was most notorious for winning the first ever Monaco Grand Prix, among many other Grand Prix motor racing wins, and winning the 24 hours of Le Mans twice (’37 and ’39).
Some of Bugatti’s most famous models were the Type 35 Grand Prix, the “Royale”, the Type 57 “Atlantic” and the Type 55. Type referred to the chassis and drive train. These vehicles were known for their rarity and sleekness, with Bugatti saying “weight was the enemy.” His engine blocks were hand-scraped to ensure a flat surface so no gaskets were required for sealing. The vehicles features Guilloche (engine turned) finishes on the engine compartment and all of the safety wires were intricately laced for better appearance. Bugatti also chose not to bolt his axles like most manufacturers, but instead forged a spring to pass through a small opening in the axle for more elegance and less parts. His vehicles were truly unique.
Sadly, as World War II occurred, the company, like most expensive products, began to fail. After producing only 7900 vehicles (2000 are still in existence), and after Ettore’s son Jean was killed while testing one of their race car models, the company went under. Ettore died in August of 1947 after trying to resurrect the company through the building of Autorail railcars, which was semi-successful, and airplanes, which was not successful. His son Roland tried again to revive the company with the release of a model in the 50’s, but to no avail. The company was sold off in the 1960’s and exchanged hands many times (most notably merging with Messier in the 70’s and again being sold in the 80’s to the concept race car company Bugatti Automobili SpA). In 1998, following the purchase of Lamborghini, the Rolls Royce factory in England, and the Bentley marque, Volkswagen purchased the Bugatti name. Volkswagen followed this up with the purchase of the 1865 Chateau Saint Jean, which was Ettore Bugatti’s guest house in Dorlisheim (near Molsheim) and refurbished it to make it their headquarters. Volkswagen also tried to purchase the original factory in Molsheim, but the owners were not willing to part with it. So, it was decided that Volkswagen would build a new factory near their new headquarters, which opened in 2005.
Since the purchase of the Bugatti company, Volkswagen has made concept cars in its name. The EB118 – 2 door coupe was featured at the helloMotor Show in 1998; the EB218 sedan was highlighted at Geneva in 1999; the 18/3 Chiron was introduced at the IAA in Frankfurt in 1999; and finally, the EB 18/4 GT was presented at the 1999 Tokyo Motor Show. In January of 2009, an original, hand-made 37 Type 57S Atlante was found in the garage of a deceased surgeon; only 17 of these were ever made. Also, in July of 2009, a 2S Brescia Type 22 was pulled from the bottom of Lake Maggiore, which is on the border of Switzerland and France, where it sat for 75 years. Mullins Museum bought it for $351,343 at an auction in 2010.