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Editor: Jaap Horst

Volume 26 (2021), Issue 3

Bugatti design and engineering culture, the racecars and the roadcars

Dick Ruzzin
General Motors Design Staff Retired

If you examine early Bugatti racecar designs closely you will see that they were revolutionary as well as evolutionary. Ettore Bugatti chose to go in an ultra lightweight direction for his racecars. They were wildly successful against the much heavier and more powerful FIAT racers. The Bugatti Type 35 defines through automotive history the term AUTOMOTIVE ART AND FUNCTION. The sight, the sound and the driving experience would all be created and coordinated by Ettore Bugatti. It is one man's beautiful expression of a road going racecar.

Go back in time to the early 1900s when Ettore Bugatti and later his son Jean were creating some of the most historic vehicles ever and look at the design and engineering processes that were used. You will see that small scale drawings were taken into crude fullsize wood shapes and then to sheet metal. The design, or aesthetic content, had to somehow move from the very small drawings to the real car and appear between the wood shapes and the sheetmetal stage where adjustments were made. That was the job of the designer. The available tools were the ship builders true radius sweeps and the French Curve that was created by combining very small incremental straight lines into an abstract curving shape . The French Curve came from the fashion design profession to be used throughout the clothing industry. The slow pace of car design meant that it was very difficult for a designer to do enough work to ever be really good at it. Consequently those with a great artistic talent rose quickly above the rest as they received all the work that they could handle.

Ettore Bugatti's developing aesthetic skills were joined with his functional philosophy resulting in unique vehicles. For both talents and abilities to be found in one man is rare and unique in automotive history. Ettore Bugatti's linkage of art and function is not seen on many other vehicles of the day. Bugatti came from an aesthetically oriented Italian family that had a long history of excellence and success in the arts. Ettore would grow up in an environment with family members who were renowned artists. Aesthetics in the form of car design would become a big part of his life, it had to be as it was part of his make-up as a person. It is clearly demonstrated by the beautiful Bugatti emblem, elliptical in shape with the BUGATTI name and the EB initials on a red field surrounded with fine detail. A bright accent in the overall image of a Bugatti vehicle it would be an admirable aesthetic signature.

Bugatti race cars were carefully designed and engineered by Ettore Bugatti. He evolved the cars in parallel with his own evolving design ability that was expressed and carried forward every time he produced another vehicle. The "Horsecollar" radiator shell came early, although it appears as a constant, always the same basic shape, it has been skillfully adjusted in many different ways to accommodate the body shapes that followed behind. It was a natural beginning for the tubular body shapes that Bugatti would use and evolve, it was the happy result of that very natural body shape. Ettore Bugatti was trying to reduce frontal area and the rounded body and radiator shell helped him do that. The word 'natural' is a very good descriptor for Bugatti cars as the engineering layouts and the aesthetic design of the bodies around them is always done in what appears to be a natural and harmonic way. This is not easy to do consistently and it extends the overall scope of work to another level.

Bugattis are easy to look at and therefore easy to remember but it takes great skill to consistently execute cars in such a way, it takes more work and it is harder to do. The Type 35 is a great example and actually the result of a long line of cars with the same design theme, each new model more refined than the past version, the proportions were adjusted as Bugatti sought engineering robustness and design harmony.

Special note has to be taken of the design of the engine compartments and the individual Bugatti components. Engine turning was used extensively on the engines as well as on the firewalls, in some cases even on the instrument panels. This attention to detail puts a jewel like look in an area that is not often seen, obviously that was very important to Ettore Bugatti the artist.

The Type 35 was clearly an expression of the aerodynamic science to be known at the time. The small frontal area, tapered body and in some cases the long tails testify to that. Each also was a representation of his personal evolution as an aesthetic designer. His design approach would be a fluid one as he adjusted the proportions, form language and volumes to shape the bodies of his cars. He was not prone to take the easiest engineering path, an example being Bugatti wheels, several versions with integral cast brake drums. He took on engineering challenges but it would be harder for him as each engineering solution would also have an aesthetic componant for him to resolve. That was a higher standard that other manufacturers did not have to address. In most automotive development processes at the time aesthetic design would follow engineering as it was subservient to it.

But not the case for Ettore Bugatti as both design and engineering were treated equally. With complete control he could adjust the engineering criteria as it interfaced with his aesthetic design criteria thereby balancing the needs in the final solution. Thus creating a result to his liking that had the appropriate aesthetic and engineering content. The question would be what was the quality of his liking? His personal aesthetic design character first materialized in the expression of the early cars and then was evolved. His early cars over time were to become beautiful cars as he moved forward creating new versions. His personal ego for both engineering and design was within himself and he skillfully managed both, creating race cars and road cars that were balanced, unique and beautiful. There is no doubt that the early Bugattis were the equal artistic and engineering expression of one man, Ettore Bugatti.

Because he was designing and engineering at the same time the cars are of special interest to professional designers and engineers of today. They can see the excellence compared to other vehicles conceived during the same time period.

Not only did Bugatti have the ability to do both design and engineering but he did both to high personal standards and chose a direction for his efforts that resulted in great success. Choosing to do lightweight cars over the norm makes everything involved much harder to achieve.

He chose that path and the result brought him racing victories and fame and his success in creating light weight race cars is still an influence on racing today. The result also was the sale of road going Bugattis in many sizes and shapes from sports cars that were identical to the race cars to limousines, trains powered by Bugatti engines and even a collaboration for a Bugatti airplane.

To own a Bugatti in those days must have sent many positive signals as the road cars and the winning race cars shared many visual and functional attributes that were key to their association. The iconic radiator shell that shaped the rounded engine hood and side panels as well as the alloy wheels and the wonderful four spoke steering wheel were present on the road cars. These design elements very closely associated the road cars with the race cars. On the engineering side both race and road cars shared nimble and spirited performance.

All of this work could not have been done by Ettore alone, he must have had a trusted staff. Yet obviously by his direction the normal mechanical engineering drawings are not, astoundadly, mechanical. The normal compass drawn radii and joined straight lines are tempered with 'French Curves' so that all lines flow smoothly and harmoniously like a piece of art work. This is also evident in the shape of the engine components and even in the beautiful curving lines of the frames in plan view.

Looking at the many Bugatti race cars and road cars created the Type 35 and the later expression the Type 59 are outstanding examples of everything Bugatti stood for. Later Ettore Bugatti's son Jean who apparently was schooled by his father and also was in possession of design talent took over the Bugatti design responsibilities. Jean was born in 1909 and was nine when the Type 35 was created. If he was paying attention to what his father was doing it clearly showed later as he took on design and engineering responsibilities. Jean Bugatti showed that even at his young age he was skillful beyond his years at executing beautiful automotive shapes. Very likely he was tutored by his father Ettore.

Now almost one hundred years old the Type 35 Bugatti is still a stunner. Spare and small, almost delicate, the little racecar has an almost fragile look that belies it's robust durability and performance. The famous simple and uniquely rounded radiator shell set back from the dropped axle was a unique graphic statement used by no other manufacturer. It made Bugatti cars and all of it's variations easily identifiable among the multitude of manufactures at the time. It is shaped like a piece of sculpture.

Simultaneously the Type 35 is a race car and a road going sportscar in the truest sense of the term. A very close coupled two passenger open car the Type 35 Bugatti offered superior road holding and high performance to those who chose to drive one. It was expensive and was driven by ladies and men. A unique feature was the adjustable magneto that was accessible by the driver as it extended from the back of the engine into the passenger compartment through the center of the instrument panel. This allowed direct engine tuning by the driver while at speed. To be specially appreciated is the beautiful symetrical four spoke wood rimmed steering wheel that is a true piece of art work.

The use of aluminum alloy for the road wheels was very special for the time especially since they housed the integral brake drums, an engineering challenge. Beautifully designed from both sides they are a significant part of the overall design adding just the right level of visual complexity to the overall smooth and simple vehicle design statement. Even the safety wired bolts on the frame add a level of detail that balances the overall vehicle image like the detail on a skillful painting. Simplicity of design resulting in exceptional beauty is only attainable with superior aesthetic execution by a very skillful designer.

In side view profile the Type 35 shows a very natural wedge shape with the theoretical high point at the drivers compartment. The front upper shape of the radiator shell is very cleverly defined as it appears to follow the body shape but does not. This allows the radiator shell and the body shape to work together even though they are different in shape. It features a large radius that grows in size as it travels through the passenger compartment, the widest point of the body and then is picked up again and reduced in scale until it terminates in the beautifully shaped boat tail. The resultant highlight through the body is beautifully developed in it's travel rearward and it is the major design element that shapes the car.

This is significant as the front view of the radiator shell is very cleverly shaped at the top to result in the large radius that travels back through the body of the car. Ettore Bugatti did not arrive at this very idealistic body shape quickly as there were many variations that were developed earlier. All the special details like headlamps, safety wireing and engine turning add accents that support the major simplistic design theme. Finally on the Type 35 Bugatti achieved a simple beautiful shape for the racecar that is also a beautiful piece of sculpture.

Compared to other cars the Bugatti Type 35 is one of the exceptional iconic designs of the era. It is for the many reasons above and more that Ellie and Hank Haga as well as other designers and engineers are so attracted to the racecars of Ettore Bugatti.

The Type 35 was a predictor to the more robust Type 59 and then the many outstanding designs to be done in the future by Ettore's eldest son Jean. Born in 1909 he took an early interest in the business and he was nine years old when the Type 35 was built by Ettore. Did he somehow contribute? Was his thinking set on a creative path when he saw what his father was doing?

Early in his professional life Jean made hands on engineering as well as design contributions to Bugatti. His most outstanding work on the Type 57 chassis was the Atlantic (Click for another article by Ruzzin.), an iconic touring car at the top of the list of iconic cars of all ages. Gene created a broad spectrum of design themes for Bugatti that took exceptional skill to execute. The ability to execute his designs with a strong aesthetic character was his greatest strength.

This was done before the clay model was conceived. At a time when two dimensional drawings were taken directly fullsize much was expected from the designer, tremendous faith, trust and skill was required to design as you would not see the design until it was finished. That was very different from how things are done today. He followed his fathers path in engineering as well but sadly his life was cut short at thirty in the late evening while testing the famous Bugatti Tank, a racecar that had just won Le Mans.

Bugatti the company would never recover from the loss.

Written 10-2-2021

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