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Editor: Jaap Horst

Volume 22, Issue 1

Bugatti History – The making of the marque

Jaap Horst

Bugatti is well-known nowadays as the producer of the world’s fastest, most powerful and most expensive supersportscars, the 8 liter 16 cylinder Veyron and the new successor the Chiron. However, there was a time more than 100 years ago that this was very different. The first Bugatti’s were small cars, with 4-cilinder engines of less than 1.5 liter capacity. This was in an era that huge engines of 10 liter or more were the standard, certainly in racing.

Bugatti type 13, 23 juli 1911, GP de France in Le Mans, Friderich 1st in class

During the French GP of 1911 at Le Mans, this tiny Bugatti, with Friderich at the wheel reached 2nd place after 7 hours of racing. Crowds cheered every time that this small David passed, ahead of most of the Goliath’s! Ettore Bugatti’s secret was a fast-revving engine, with overhead camshaft and overhead valves, an engine layout that all Bugatti’s would share. Added to this was an excellent build quality; other small cars at the time were cheap and cheaply built. Not the Bugatti, which had an excellent uncompromising quality, as would all Bugatti’s afterwards.

The Italian Ettore Bugatti was born in Milan in 1881. According to his artistic father Carlo, famous for very eccentric furniture, he was destined for a career in the arts. However, Ettore himself thought he did not have the same talent as his sculptor brother Rembrandt, who made exquisite sculptures in bronze, mostly of animals of which he was able to capture both movement and spirit. Ettore starts an apprenticeship as a mechanic at Prinetti and Stucchi, where he starts modifying and improving the de Dion single cylinder powered tricycles and quadricycles, which he also races with considerable success. His talent, without formal engineering education, was so impressive that he was chief designer for several car factories, before he starts his own factory in 1910, in Molsheim in the then German Elsass close to Strasbourg. The factory was indeed German, until Molsheim became French at the end of WW1.

After the Great War

1923 Type 32 straight-8 “Tank”

Financed by a factory that ran well during the war, and license fees for the design of straight-8 and U-16 airplane engines, Bugatti could realize many designs after the war. Starting with a 16-valve (with one overhead camshaft) version of his small 4-cylinder, several race cars and touring cars were designed and built, with special attention to streamline and even an all-enveloping body. This was the straight-8, 2 litre Type 32 “Tank” with a wheelbase of just 2 metres, the driver sat alongside the engine.

1924 Type 35, introduced at the GP de Lyon. Streamlined and aluminium wheels!

The most famous and most successful race car of all times, with over 2000 victories, is the Type 35, a very handsome streamlined 8-cylinder racer that was introduced in 1924. The car had a very reliable straight-8 engine with 3 valves per cylinder and a roller-bearing crankshaft and big-ends overcoming the lubrication troubles which haunted most of the competition. The chassis was very well-balanced, with an intricate hollow front axle which would be a hallmark for all Bugattis. This neat technology was packaged in one of the most beautiful racing car designs of all times, an aluminium body that flowed in one line from the small horseshoe shaped radiator to the pointed tail, and covered also the underside of the car. Added to this already beautiful package were cast aluminium wheels, a first in automotive history. The wheels had integral brake drums, which were well-cooled by the aluminium, and every time wheels were changed, the brakes could be checked.

At the start of the 1929 Spain GP, nothing but Bugatti’s at the start!

The secret for the many victories, apart from a well designed car of course, was that Bugatti did in fact sell his racing cars. Other marques made a small series of race cars for their factory racing team, which were often scrapped after the racing season to prevent them from falling into the hands of the competition. Not Bugatti, who sold his newest designs to the many gentleman racers of the era. Every weekend Bugatti’s would compete in one of the many races that were organized all over Europe. From the 2nd half of the 1920’s Bugatti even organized a single-marque Bugatti Grand Prix, where the prize for the winner was a Bugatti! All these victories were used extensively by Bugatti in advertisements. The Type 35 would be made in many different versions, from 1.1 to 2.3 liter, with or without compressor, and from 1931 with double overhead camshafts as the Type 51.

Straight lines of the engine of the 1921 Type 28 prototype.

Soon after establishing his company, Ettore Bugatti starts dreaming of an ultimate luxury automobile. His Type 28 of 1921 would remain a prototype, but was the first Bugatti to have the famous square-cut aluminium engine, a feature which would urge Pablo Picasso to describe the Bugatti engine to be the most beautiful man-made object. A further development of the 3 liter 8-cylinder touring car was the Type 44, and was to be the best sold Bugatti. The car was not just relatively luxurious, but also fast and had excellent road manners. In the early twenties luxury car makers made the rolling chassis only, the owner then took the chassis to a coachbuilder who built a body for it, a custom which would continue until after WWII, though Bugatti started making their own touring car and luxury bodies in the 2nd half of the twenties, many of them designed by Jean Bugatti, Ettore Bugatti’s son who was born in 1909.

Jean Bugatti designed Bugatti Royale town car Coupé Napoleon

In 1927 Bugatti finally comes with his ultimate luxury creation, the giant 12.7 liter straight-8 “Type 41”, or better known as Royale, the largest car ever produced. The rolling chassis alone with separate clutch housing and 3 speed gearbox in the rear axle had a price tag as high as three completely bodied Rolls-Royces. Of the 6 cars built, only three would find a buyer, and none of them royalty. The car had a wheelbase of 4.3 metres, and an overall length of 6.4 metres! Due to the large 24 inch one-piece aluminium wheels the Royale did look quite balanced however. Also balanced was the road holding, at low speeds of course the large size would be noticed, but at speeds of 80 km/h or over the racing pedigree of the chassis showed, making the Royale a real driver’s car, even on narrow winding roads. Nowadays, nobody will check if the 270 – 300 HP engine could really propel the 3 ton car to 180 km/h or more, especially at the value now estimated at at least $30 million.

Jean Bugatti posing with the “Esders Roadster” body he designed, for the Royale chassis designed by his father Ettore.

Ettore Bugatti made the mistake to present the prototype Royale with a body not fit for the demanding customers, though later the most beautiful coachwork would be designed for this exquisite chassis. A few were designed by Jean Bugatti, the Esders Roadster shown being the most extravagant, but later scrapped to be fitted with a Coupé de Ville body. A similar, but more beautifully lined, body was the Jean Bugatti designed “Coupé Napoleon”, which would remain in the Bugatti family, and was Ettore’s favorite transport for years. More useful , and not as extreme as the Royale was a downsized version “petite Royale” with a 5-litre straight 8 Type 46, which was built, and sold, in considerable numbers, with bodywork almost as impressive as the Royale’s. Later versions with twin overhead cams and compressor were amongst the most impressive pre-war GT cars around.

1932 5-litre Bugatti Type 50 with Profilée body designed by Jean Bugatti

More than just cars

The crisis which started in the USA struck hard in France also in the early thirties. The Royale would be a commercial failure, and in general the luxury car market would become increasingly difficult during the thirties. However, Ettore Bugatti had the brilliant idea to use a slightly simplified version of the 12.7 liter Royale engine in a fast record breaking rail vehicle. Two or four of the engines are used in one, two or three car vehicles which ran at an average of 140 km/h, and could top almost 200!. The Bugatti factory would have been bankrupt in the 2nd half of the thirties, if it had not been for the AutoRail, as the railcar is called.

Bugatti AutoRail “Double”. The driver is in a small cabin on the roof, so the passengers could look through the front window!

There are more projects, for example for torpedoboats, speedboats and an extremely advanced twin-engined airplane. Several speedboats are built in Italy with Bugatti engines, however Bugatti designs and builds one speedboat himself, with a powerful 5 liter straight eight and specially designed and patented drive system. This boat called Niniette IV would break a record 136 km/h on the Seine in Paris in 1937 with Maurice Vasseur piloting.

Bugatti Type 57 Stelvio, 1936

In 1934 Bugatti introduces the Type 57, with 3.3 liter straight eight and 3.3 meter wheelbase a relatively large car. It would become available in standard and lowered and shortened Type 57S version, both being available with supercharger also. Thus the power ranges from 135 HP for the standard car, up to 200 HP for the Type 57SC with compressor, bringing the top speed to almost 200 km/h!

Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic, probably the most extravagant of all Bugatti’s! Several magazines elected this car to be the most beautiful automobile of all time, and until now also the most expensive of all Bugatti’s, with a price tag of approx. $ 32 million.

The Type 57 would be equipped with the most beautiful bodywork, both built by Bugatti (designed by Jean Bugatti) as well as many other prestige coachbuilders of the time. Bugatti would develop various race cars from the Type 57, of which the streamlined “tanks”, winning the Le Mans 24 hour race in 1937 and 1939 are the most interesting. The latter half of the 30’s does hardly see any GP victories, the Bugatti private factory is no match for the state-subsidized teams from Italy and Germany.

Bugatti Type 57G “Tank” winner of the 24 hours of Le Mans in 1937.

The end

Though Bugatti continued until 1965 as an independent factory, the real end came already before WWII, when Jean Bugatti was killed in the summer of 1939 while testing a streamlined racer. During WWII Ettore Bugatti had to hand over the factory to the Germans. Because he was still an Italian citizen, he had a really hard time getting the factory back after the war, which succeeded in 1947, only a few months before his death. While Ettore Bugatti had a lot of ideas during WWII and very interesting designs and prototypes were made, including an extremely small 4 cylinder 360cc engine with double overhead camshaft and compressor, none of these was commercialized. In 1951 the Type 101 became available, which was just an upgraded Type 57, and therefore rather outdated, only 6 were built. The last important car was the Type 251 Formula 1 car, designed by the Italian Gioacchino Colombo with a 2.5 litre straight-8 engine, mounted transversely behind the driver. It was entered in the 1956 French Grand Prix at Reims, but was retired after 17 laps and never entered a race again.

Bugatti T32 "Tank" Chassis 4057

1924 french gp, Lyon Bugatti type 35 (2-litre 8-cyl sc).

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