Bugatti was the son of an artist,
and was reared as an artist. His father Carlo Bugatti worked as a
silversmith, sculptor, woodcarver, painter, lapidary and metal
engraver. His younger brother, Rembrandt, became a sculptor of
animals, and Ettore, born in Milan in 1881, was sent to the Brera
Art Academy to study formal sculpture. At the age of seventeen he
decided he would be more successful as an engineer and joined the
firm of Prinetti & Stucchi as an apprentice.
Within a year Bugatti
designed and built a three-wheel car with two engines. This little
machine won eight local races out of ten and the rash youngster
entered it in the Paris-to-Bordeaux run. The tricycle placed third
in the first stage, and young Bugatti returned to Milan, fired
with the notion of building cars. He designed a four-engine
machine which the firm refused to build, so he quit.
In 1899 the fiery youngster's
genius was finally recognized and he was backed financially by the
brothers Gulinelli. At the age of nineteen Bugatti produced his
first real car. It had a four-cylinder overhead-valve engine,
contact battery ignition, chain drive, and a four-speed gearbox!
Quite an accomplishment. This car created a sensation all over
Europe, and Bugatti received many offers. He moved from contract
to contract, building cars, experimenting (one was built in the
cellar of his house), and developing a concept of car construction
that was unique for its time.
During this period, Bugatti
was looking for a place to set up a factory that would be his own.
In 1909 he acquired a large piece of property at Molsheim in
Alsace. There was a large house and many outbuildings, formerly a
dye works. Here he settled down and began his pet project, the
production of a small, lightweight racing machine. When this
little car appeared at Le Mans in 1911, it looked like a miniature
standing near the huge racing cars of the time.
There was a Fiat, a Dietrich,
an Excelsior, a Rolland-Pilains, and a huge Cottin & Desgouttes.
On the starting line next to them stood the tiny all white Bugatti,
four cylinders strong. The riding mechanic cradled the spare *tire
in his arms, because there was no room for it elsewhere. The race
was run under the broiling sun at a temperature of 100 degrees,
and both cars and drivers melted under the strain. While the huge
two-ton monsters screamed and slid around the course, Bugatti's
driver, Ernest Friderich deftly maneuvered the little 660-pound
baby. He came in second, behind the Fiat, and proved that Bugatti
knew more about car design than many older engineers. Orders came
in and the little factory grew.
With the coming of war in
1914, Ettore Bugatti buried three racing cars under the cellar of
his home, gathered his family, and fled to Italy. From there he
went to Paris and started designing again. The French government
needed aircraft engines, and Bugatti, like Rolls Royce and
Mercedes, turned his talents in that direction. He built a
straight-eight-cylinder engine, and then a double-eight with two
crankshafts geared to the propeller, allowing a machine gun to
fire through the hub. The single-eight was taken to America and
produced in Elizabeth, New Jersey, at the rate of twenty a day. In
American planes these Bugatti engines powered many air miles. This
would seem like standard cooperation between allies, and it was.
But it led to an interesting development. The factory that turned
out these engines was managed by the Duesenberg brothers. Within
six months of the war's end, a group of Duesenberg cars appeared
at Indianapolis. They sported the first straight-eight engines of
that type in America. No one claims they were copies of the
Bugatti, but no one denies its influence on them.
After the war, Bugatti
returned to Molsheim, exhumed the buried racing cars, and resumed
production. In 1923 a strange tank-shaped machine sported the
Bugatti insignia, one of the few models that did not have the
famous horseshoe-shaped radiator shell. This beetle-bodied car had
two important innovations: aluminum wheels with integral aluminum
brake drums and a front axle hollow in the center but solid at the
steering pivot where strength is required.
Bugatti remained at Molsheim
until World War II, and his establishment became famous, but not
only for cars. He lived like a landed baron of the Middle Ages,
and was called Le Patron by everyone. The estate contained many
buildings, all with polished oaken doors and bronze locks which
admitted a single master key. One building was a carriage museum,
another a sculpture museum, then a harness shed, and a stable
housing thoroughbreds, next a riding school, a kennel with prize
wire-haired terriers, a field of cattle, pigeons, rare fowl, and -
of all things - a private distillery.
Where were the cars made? In
another group of structures, all with the polished doors and
bronze locks. They contained immaculately clean pattern shops,
body shops, a foundry, and the most advanced machine tools.
Finally, there was a large drafting room where Le Patron's
drawings and blueprints were made. Many of the workmen lived on
the estate, which seemed to strengthen the feudal character of the
Bugatti designed and ran
everything. He was the architect for the buildings; he designed an
electric power station; he supervised construction with an iron
hand; in short, he was a benevolent dictator. The crowning glory
of the Molsheim estate was the Hotel du Pur Sang. Here a customer
waiting for a new car or for repairs to an older one might spend a
few days in luxurious comfort provided and super vised by the
Bugatti family. During the day he could go horseback riding with
Le Patron, or watch the machinists turn out the precision parts
for the Bugatti cars.
Bugatti enjoyed his baronial
life at Molsheim, and the car designs kept flowing from his
drawing board, while his son Jean took over the racing management.
The racing history of the Bugatti cars needs only the statement of
one simple fact. They have won more races than any other car made.
This statement stands even though no Bugattis have been produced
since the 1940's. The sleek sky-blue cars almost completely
dominated the race tracks of the world from 1925 till 1938. They
had brute speed for the fast tracks, the lithe cornering ability
for the tight courses. In 1925 and 1926 alone, they won over 1,000
Some of the outstanding
Bugatti cars were: the 1934 Type 35, a classic design; the Type
51, one of the most beautiful body shapes for its period; the Type
57, and the Type 59, the last of the flashing racing Bugs.
Although Ettore Bugatti was known for his racing cars, he always
produced a road production model. Some were coupes, some
convertibles, some sedans, but all had the flowing, rakish lines
that suggested speed. The Type 57 passenger version, built in the
1930's can still do over 130 miles per hour.
In 1929, Bugatti produced the
largest car in the world, even by today's standards. It seemed as
long as a freight car and cost $30,000 without the body. The
buyers would have a body custom-built at perhaps another $10,000.
This monster had an eight-cylinder engine with a displacement
three times that of a modern Cadillac. Only a few were built when
the depression came, and many of the engines found their way into
boats and gasoline-powered railroad locomotives.
When World War II struck,
Bugatti moved to Paris where he continued designing. Hundreds of
ideas flowed from his drawing board, all filed for future
development. His apartment became a rendezvous for the French
Resistance movement during the German occupation. Many of his
former employees served in underground units, but the most
exciting exploit was performed by Robert Benoist, ex-Bugatti race
driver, and Bugatti's Paris sales, manager. Perhaps it would be
fair to say that the exploit was done by his Type 57-5 Bugatti.
Benoist was driving the 57-5
near Le Bourget airport on the way to a meeting of his underground
unit. The road was thick with fleeing Parisians, and traffic moved
at a slow crawl. Suddenly a German patrol arrived. The road was
cleared and a panzer division thundered by on its way to Paris.
The 57-5 was spotted by a German officer, whose sharp eyes then
recognized Benoist as a Resistance leader. Under arrest, he was
placed in a heavily armed motorcycle convoy that moved slowly to
the southwest, stopping only to destroy French fortifications.
Benoist was allowed to drive the Bugatti, which the Germans kept
well fueled. On the morning of the second day, the convoy was
slowed momentarily by a road block and Benoist noticed a side road
a short distance ahead. With the precision that only a racing
driver can command, he dropped into first gear, floored the
accelerator, and the willing Bugatti shot forward in a classic
racing start. At the side road, Benoist whipped the car through
the corner as though he were in a Grand Prix race. In seconds,
Benoist had the Bugatti rocketing at well over 100 mph. By the
time the motorcycles gave chase, he was out of sight!
When the war was over,
Bugatti tried to resume his work, but he was greatly weakened by
the strain of the occupation and the tragic deaths of his friends
and members of his family. In August of 1947, this fiercely
individual car designer died.
What is the charm of the
Bugatti? It is cantankerous, rough-riding, and makes more noise
than the hordes of Hades. No two were ever exactly alike, so
replacement parts have to be specially made. each time they are
needed. The cars were very often set up to run on racing fuels,
and need detuning to operate on the highways. But their owners
love them with a fierce passion. Why? From stripped racing Bug to
the handsomely appointed road cars, these machines have a purity
of body design and a mechanical precision that is almost
unbelievable. The car is as responsive as the thoroughbred horses
that Ettore Bugatti raised, and even a model dating back to the
middle 1930's can outrun and outlast most of today's cars.
There will be no more
Bugattis. His heirs will not permit a car to be built that was not
designed by Le Patron. But there is a Bugatti Owners' Club with an
estate in England that sports a private race course. They maintain
worldwide contact with Bugatti owners and publish a book listing
the whereabouts of each car and its history. Each car is treasured
as a museum piece, but almost all are in running shape. The
Bugatti owners are trying to make sure that Le Patron will not be
Bugatti Type 35 (1925)