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Editor: Jaap Horst

Volume 15, Issue 2

The most expensive car in the world

One of only six made, it's now on sale for about 10 million. Martin Buckley flew to Japan to drive it

Martin Buckley

FLY to Japan to drive a Royale? Seems a long way to go for a spin in a Seventies Vauxhall. But no, this isn't some forgotten badge-engineered luxobarge; this is your actual Bugatti Royale - one of only six and the world's most famous and valuable car or at least the most valuable car you can actually buy.

The example in question is the last-but-one Royale, the Kellner-bodied, ex-Briggs Cunningham car. Today it lives in an underground car park in a Tokyo suburb. We first catch a glimpse of its hulking form in the shadows, tended to by a pair of out-of-scale figures who have woken the 70-year-old giant for the first time in many months so I can take the wheel.

It was this very machine that caused such a sensation when Robert Brooks, then working for Christie's, sold it for 5.5 million at the Royal Albert Hall in 1987. The buyer then was a Swedish property tycoon named Hans Thulin, who had to sell the car when his empire collapsed.

It is still, officially, the most valuable car ever sold at auction (a Ferrari 250 GTO was later hammered down for more, but the full figure was never realised) and should still make more than 10 million, although this time it is to be sold by private treaty.

The grandest of all luxury cars, La Royale was so pompous and arrogant in concept that not even the aristocrats at whom it was aimed in the late Twenties had the front - or perhaps the money - to buy one at twice the price of a Rolls-Royce.

Though the original intention had been to sell the cars only to royalty, it seems likely that Ettore Bugatti's sales pitch, if anything, scared potential customers away and offended protocol. In fact, no royal ever bought a Royale and it would be five years before a single example was sold.

By then, as the depression began to take hold, anybody's money was good enough, blue-blooded or not.

The same is true today, although the auctioneer Bonhams and Brooks is under no illusions that the new owner will be some flighty new-tech millionaire who thinks it might be sexy to have an old car.

Only serious collectors need apply. "The new owner probably won't even be a Bugatti collector," says Simon Kidstone, our chaperone during this audience with the Royale, "but he'll have had his 540K Mercedes and Alfa 2.9s and be looking for the next step up, the ultimate collector's car."

To market the car discreetly, Bonhams and Brooks is producing a hardbound brochure that will, no doubt, be a collectors' item in itself, but it will want to be convinced you are a serious contender before it sends one out.

By the end of the Fifties, at the dawn of the collectors' car hobby, the Royale was already regarded as the biggest prize of all. By then, Briggs Cunningham, the American gentleman racer, sports car builder and Le Mans contender, had already bagged two of them.

On a visit to France in 1950, a friend introduced him to Bugatti's daughter L'Ebe. She had the three unsold Royales bricked up in the family home at Ermenonville. They had been there for the duration of the war, to avoid being commandeered by the Germans. She agreed to sell Cunningham the Berline de Voyage and the Kellner, but felt that the Coupe Napoleon, the most dramatic of all, should stay in France. The cars were exchanged for a small but undisclosed sum of money, plus a couple of new General Electric refrigerators, then unavailable in France. On their arrival in the States, the Berline de Voyage found its way into the Harrah Collection.

The Kellner car has been in Japan for more than a decade now. It seems totally at odds with its modern Blade Runner surroundings, a $10 million dollar legend consigned to a silent life as a showpiece for VIP visitors to the company (we can't say which) that has owned it since 1990.

Nobody from the company has ever driven the car: they leave that to Mr Banno, Japan's premier Bugatti specialist, who recently rebuilt its engine when it was suffering from a broken piston.

Where do you get bits for a Royale? From England, it seems: the relevant components were supplied by South Cerney Engineering, which built a replica Royale for car enthusiast and Donington Park circuit owner Tom Wheatcroft.

The Type 41 is said to have come about because Ettore took exception to the comments of an English lady who compared his cars unfavourably with those of Rolls-Royce. The prototype was a near 15-litre monster. In "production", it was reduced to 12.8 litres - each cylinder still displaces more than a Metro engine - with a claimed output of 275bhp.

This aesthetically beautiful overhead camshaft engine, a 770lb sculpture in turned aluminium, proved to be one of Ettore's greatest successes. To use up the remaining 23 engines after the final Royale was built, Bugatti built a rail car powered by either two or four of the eight-cylinder units.

Seventy-nine were built for the French National Railway, using a further 186 engines, and remained in use until the Sixties. One took a world average speed record of 122mph for 43.9 miles.

The first Royale buyer was a French couturier named Armand Esders, who took delivery in 1932. Ettore's eldest son, Jean, fashioned for the car a dramatic two-seater open body with flamboyant, full-bodied wings and a dickey seat, but no headlamps: Esders didn't plan to drive the car at night, it seemed.

Later, this car was rebodied in the Coupe de Ville style by the coachbuilder Henri Binder and briefly found its way to Britain after the war before taking up permanent residence in the Harrah Collection.

Another car was sold to Dr Joseph Fuchs, who specified Weinberger of Munich to build him a big, open cabriolet. Via a career in the Far East, this car found its way into a scrapyard in New York, where it was discovered by Charles Chayne of General Motors. It is now in the Ford museum in Detroit.

The final customer car was delivered to Captain Cuthbert Foster, the English Bird's Custard tycoon. He had a rather boring limousine body made for the car by Park Ward, created in the style of a Rolls-Royce he had once owned.

When Foster left to live in the US after the war, the car was acquired by Bugatti dealer Jack Lemon Burton and finally found its way into the Schlumpf collection to sit alongside the Coupe Napoleon that the brothers Schlumpf had acquired from the Bugatti estate.

The two last cars, the Berline de Voyage and the Kellner car - which had been displayed but not sold at Olympia in 1932 - stayed with the Bugatti family until Mr Cunningham turned up.

The originality of the Kellner-bodied car is a telling comment on the amount of use it has actually seen during the past 70 years. Even the windscreen's primitive brown tint is turning blotchy with age. Simon Kidstone estimates the mileage to be about 15,000.

There is nothing especially flamboyant about the Kellner body, but the massive, waist-high wheels and narrow, letterbox windows make it seem squat and purposeful, perfectly set off by its huge Scintilla headlamps and elegantly sweeping wing line.

It is so perfectly proportioned that the size of the car only really becomes obvious when you are standing next to it, face to face with its rampant elephant bonnet mascot - rather a scrawny-looking animal for an elephant - designed by Ettore's brother Rembrandt.

Swing back the big, rear-hinged door, climb up and slide on to the big, brown leather driver's seat, which is showing a few holes. Apart from the headlining - which Cunningham had redone at some point during his 37-year ownership - the interior is original and almost austere, not the gilded, kingly boudoir you might expect. Two armrests fold out of the rear back rest, which easily has enough width to take three passengers.

It lacks a speedometer, rev counter and even a fuel gauge, but there are a few minor instruments clustered in the centre of the basic-looking dash. Like all French luxury cars before the Second World War, the Royale is right-hand drive.

What's more, its control layout is totally familiar, with a central, rather than a right-hand, change, something that would have been seen as a bit of an Americanism at the time. The gear lever is topped by a large ivory knob and works three speeds in a crash gearbox.

The steering wheel, with four horn buttons on the back of the wooden rim, is enormous and you feel as if you are looking through it as much as over it as you peer down a bonnet that ends somewhere in the middle distance.

Ignition, contact the engine shudders to life. It is not the remote, silken powerhouse of a Rolls-Royce or a Cadillac, but an urgent device with a slightly fussy if well-bred purr. The clutch is relatively light and has a smooth, progressive action, so the car glides away with majestic decorum.

What's curious about the Royale is that this isn't the kind of big old pre-war car you simply plop into top gear almost immediately and just plod away on the engine's torque from walking pace, as you would in a contemporary Rolls-Royce. Do that and the engine struggles, rattling the whole body and heating the clutch.

Better to take it up to 15 or 20mph in first, then ease the gear lever into the all-purpose second (good for perhaps 60mph), pushing the knob down into neutral, then up. It's a ponderous action that is probably the least pleasant thing about driving the car.

Much nicer is the steering, which is neither heavy nor ponderous. It has a smooth, precise action that makes the Royale feel like a sort of giant sports car, although I was rather more conscious on my short suburban test drive - with its minders desperately running alongside as I accelerated up the street - of the enormous turning circle and the fact that the steering doesn't really self-centre very vigorously.

At low speeds, the ride feels rock hard and taut like a sports car: Bugatti clearly intended that his flagship should have the sinewy feel of his smaller models, rather than be just another luxury barge. Cables pull the brakes on mechanically, yet the big drums stop the car well and in short order.

Dodging Toyotas in this obscure Tokyo suburb, I can't say I got a feel for the Royale's high-speed manners, but I did get a sense of how wonderful it would be to drive the car on the long, straight, tree-lined Napoleonic roads of France, the environment it was born to.

The Royale demands big roads and sumptuous destinations to truly have meaning. Here it could get into its massive stride, winding out to more than 100mph and heading for some sun-kissed southern resort. The big wheels and the car's sheer bulk would simply crush the bumps, nearly 13 litres of urge wafting 7,000lb of decadence arrogantly past lesser mortals in their plodding Citroens and Peugeots.

It would be great to see this car out on rallies and doing tours, simply being enjoyed by its new owner. Sadly, this seems unlikely. The poor old Royale, like its museum-bound sisters (some of which don't even run), seems likely to resume a stationary existence, a prisoner of its own value. What a shame.

From: TELEGRAPH.CO.UK , 2002 - Drawing by Michiel van den Brink

I know that at the time I publish this, the title "Most expensive car in the world" has just been taken by another Bugatti, the Williamson Atlantic. That will probably remain the most expensive, until any of the Royale's will be sold again.

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