Ettore Bugatti was in Italian who made automobiles in France. During his working lifetime – from the age of 17, when he built his first car, until he died in 1947 at 66 – Bugatti built about 9500 cars, hardly a respectable week’s production by Detroit standards. Yet Bugatti automobiles a quarter-century old are still treasured; an international club of Buggati addicts – the Bugatti Owner’s Club – in existence for 20 years, is dedicated to the preservation of the Master’s creations; a magazine dealing with nothing but Bugatti lore has been published for more than a decade; and in England a great hand-wrought iron gate has been erected as a permanent memorial to Ettore Bugatti and his Jean, who died testing a car in 1939. In 1954, the Bugatti Owner’s Club produced a Register listing the model, history, ownership and whereabouts of every Bugatti known to exist.
The man whose cars arouse this unique fanaticism was a demonstrable genius, a combination of artist and engineer. His life was a compound of paradox. He did not particularly care for motor racing, yet his cars were fastest over the ground of their time. He was a mild and courteous man, yet he liked to be given, even in his home, the autocratic title, ‘Le Patron’. (He took his daughter’s name from his own initials: Ebée.) The products of his wizardry were twentieth century to the minute, yet he ran his factory, with which was combined his aviaries, his kennels, his stables, his vineyards, his museums, his distillery, his boatyard, like a prince’s domain. He spent his life in France, yet he remained an Italian citizen until just before his death. He was not wealthy, but he refused to consider the question of cost in the making of a motor-car, and a chance remark at the dinner-table inspired him to tool up for a series of cars to cost $30,000 each – for the bare chassis. The body cost another $10,000 or so. Most of his cars, of course, were cheaper: roughly two thousand to ten thousand dollars, cheerfully laid down by happy customers who maintain to this day that if you haven’t driven a Bugatti you haven’t driven anything.
What kind of cars inspire this devotion? Are they dead silent, smooth riding as mobile feather beds, quick to start in the blackness of zero mornings, so easy to drive that a child can manage them? They are not! Most Bugattis are noisy in every way a car can be noisy, plus a few ways peculiar to themselves; when the temperature slips to the area of 30F. most of them are seized with a stubborn reluctance to fire at all, and indeed Bugatti himself blandly advised purchasers of his cars to invest in heated garages. The models of the late ‘30s,equipped with the legendary De Ram shock absorbers ($1000 a set, they automatically and continually adjusted themselves to varying road surfaces), were smooth riding enough, but some of the most worshipped earlier models would jar the back teeth out of a clothing store dummy. And no Bug ever built was designed to be driven by children of the rich, and the full racing cars built for Me Juneck of Czechoslovakia, probably the greatest woman driver of all time.) The multiplate Bugatti clutches are often either all in or all out and nothing in between, giving the car a marked tendency to start off with a neck-snapping jerk. The clutch on some models must be adjusted to a hair and dosed with just th right mixture of kerosene and oil, lest it refuse to come free at all, thus forcing the hapess driver to make gear changes with hope and prayer. Bugatti favoured cable-operated brakes demanding heavy foot pressure, and on one occasion loftily told a customer that he made his cars to go, not to stop. Heavy thought they were, the race-bred Bugatti brakes were efficient and virtually fade-proof. Bugatti detested detachable cylinder heads. On one model the rear axle, transmission and crankshaft must be removed before the valves can be ground. The Bugatti water pump is something to make strong men weep, and some of the racing models fling oil about like a gusher gone berserk. ‘It comes out of everything but the tyre valves and gets into everything including your hair,’ one devoted owner reports.
To the man who owns a Bugatti and becomes its willing slave for life, none of these things matter. Though his children go shoeless, the car will have English castor oil if that is what it requires. Should mechanics, told that th crankshaft comes apart in thirteen pieces, run in horror, the owner will buy overalls and metric wrenches, advertise for instruction books in Australia, England, France, write pitiful letters to cognoscenti all over the world and learn, skinned knuckle by skinned knuckle, to do the work himself. He will insist that the car is worth any amount of trouble. The prime cliché of Bugdom is, ‘There’s nothing like a Bugatti, and there never will be.’
From the little Type 13 of 1910 to 1939’s big supercharged Type 59 a bad Bugatti was never offered to the public. Utterly thoroughbred to the core. In the golden period of the ‘20s Bugattis were supreme on the roads and tracks of all Europe (1927 for example: 806 first places win by Bugatti!) They won more races than any other car ever built. Indeed they won more races than all other makes put together. They would dothings that no other car could do. They still will. Many a Bug-lover will bet money he can get from point A to point B faster on a 1938 Bugatti than you can on any comparably-sized modern car you care to mention, and he’ll tell you the distance can be anything you like from 5 to 500 miles. Keep your wallet in your pocket. He may have one that will get up to 130-150 m.p.h., and even the slower Bugattis proved long ago that their superior road-holding and controllability enabled them to beat much faster cars. The Type 35, for example, the greatest racing car ever built, consistently beat machines capable of higher top speeds.
The key to the greatness of the Bugatti automobiles lies in the fact that their creator was by temperament and training an artist. His brother Rembrandt was a sculptor. His father, Carlos, was an artist of formidable talent and range, a designer, engraver, metalworker and architect. Ettore Bugatti himself intended to be an artist, and as a young man studied sculpture. But before he had left his teens he came reluctantly to the conclusion that his brother’s talent was superior to his own, and so he turned from the arts to other things. Bugatti was not a man who enjoyed being second to anybody.
In 1898 the just-emerging idea of individual, self-controlled travel by autombole had the same compelling excitement more, perhaps – than the potentiality of atomic energy has today, and young Bugatti was fired by it. He bought a petrol-powered tricycle (the question of three wheels versus four was still open at the time) and taught himself to drive it. Quite innocent of any technical training up to that time, he decided to learn the business properly, and apprenticed himself to a Milan machine shop. A year later he had built a tricycle of his own – with two engines instead of one – and entered it in ten Milan races. He won eight of them.
He next designed a four-engined car which was not a great success. He designed a third car but the firm to which he was bound decided at that time to abandon the automobile business, and Bugatti found himself a designer without production facilities. He persuaded two Italian noblemen to back him, built the car and had the pleasure of proving that it would do 40 m.p.h., an excellent speed for the day. The car was such a success that a year later Bugatti was offered an enticing deal by the De Dietrich manufacturing company, and in 1902 he left Italy for Alsace, then German territory, where he was to spend most of the rest of his life. Seven years later, after having worked with two other firms, he rented a large property in Molsheim, in Alsace, and began to make cars himself, under his own name.
Two years later Bugatti was famous. For the Grand Prix of France, 1911, he entered a tiny white four-cylinder car in competition with the monster racing machines typical of the times: huge high-sided brutes with pistons the size of cabbage heads. The little 660-pound racer, looking like something built for a child, motored merrily around the court without fuss or fury. While the big chain-driven locomotives running against it skidded violently through the turns, the Bugatti went around like a toy on the end of a string without a trace of slide. It was the first demonstration of a quality that was to mark all Bugatti automobiles: ability to hang to the road at high speeds. It would have been incredible if the little car had won. It placed second, which was merely miraculous. The advertising value of the race was tremendous, and from that time on Bugatti had no trouble in selling. He competed in other races, including Indianapolis, 1914 (retired in third place, rear axle bearing), and designed a small car for the Peugot company. This little voiture, the Bébé Peugot, was the great-grandfather of all small cars. It was on the road ten years before the Austin Seven, generally considered the first of the little ones. The Bébé was a pretty little car, with a five-foot wheelbase, a track of three feet five inches and a really Lilliputian four-cylinder engine. It carried a straight exhaust pipe and heralded its coming and going – at a 40 m.p.h. top – with the veritable Bugatti exhaust note, full of decibels and bite. A strong head wind would slow it to a walk, which was rather more than its brakes could be sure to do, and the two speeds in its repertoire were delivered by two propeller shafts, one inside the other.
When it became obvious, with the approach of World War I, that Alsace-Lorraine would be a battleground, Bugatti moved, via Switzerland and Italy, to France. For the French government he designed a sixteen-cylinder aeroplane engine developing 400 horse-power. This engine was made under licence by Duesenberg in the United States and Bara in France, a total of 15,000 of them being produced. The engine has an interesting history, resulting as it did from the joining of two straight eights. Bugatti had built his first straight eight around 1913, about six years before the type was standardized and hailed as one of the milestones of automobile creation. When the war began in earnest he build a 205-horse-power straight-eight aeroplane engine for the French, and followed it with the sixteen-cylinder model. Immediately after the war, two straight-eight engines appeared at Indianapolis: the Duesenberg and the Ballot, the latter designed by Henri, employed by the Bara company during the period when that firm made the Bugatti aeroplane engine. Many indications of Bugatti derivation, particularly the Duesenberg’s three valves per cylinder, were plain.
After the war Bugatti returned to Molsheim and in 1920 he won the first post-war French race, a light-car Grand Prix held at Le Mans. The three cars Bugatti entered at Le Mans were six years old but they were definitely superior to everything else on the track., the first Bugatti coming in 20 minutes ahead of everybody. Again, they were light in weight – at a time when most designers held the antediluvian theory that only heavy cars could hold the road – and their engines were small and fast. These cars were known as the Type 13, and are generally considered to the first true Bugattis. For the road race at Brescia, in Italy, the following year, Bugatti entered four Type 23 cars. These were modifications of the Type 13, four cylinders, sixteen valves. They finished the race in first, second, third and fourth places for a clean sweep. These so-called ‘Brescia Bugattis’ were immediately in great demand, and many of them were sold, usually as ‘Modified Brescias’. The exact counterpart of the racing model, the ‘Full Brescia’, is rare.
Ettore Bugatti’s practice of putting on sale exact duplicates of his successful racing cars was unique. Other manufacturers would sometimes offer replicas of their cars when they began to be out-dated, but Bugatti would cheerfully sell the exact model. Since his mind was full of improved designs, it didn’t matter in the least to him that the secrets of the cars could be filched by anyone who chose, and the Bugatti was soon the favourite of the hordes of amateur drivers who roared around Europe during the Golden Twenties.
In the years between the two Great Wars Ettore Bugatti enjoyed an eminently satisfying life. He lived in the twentieth century, but the pattern of his existence was something out of the Renaissance. He was no mere automobile manufacturer. He was an original creator, an artist whose great pride it was to conceive a project, go to the drawing-board and design it and then send it to the shops to be built forthwith. He sometimes made extremely complicated designs within 24 hours. He would not have a draftsman on the premises who drew merely in the flat, as blueprints are drawn. If a draughtsman wanted to work for Bugatti, he had to be able to draw any part of a car in three dimensions, as an artist would draw it.
Over the years the Bugatti factory expanded and grew out until it was a self-contained community, a little duchy. There was no need to go anywhere for anything, it was all on hand. Food and wines were grown, liquors distilled, poultry raised. When the power company had the temerity to argue with him, M. Bugatti put in an electric generating plant of his own. There was a fast course on which the cars could be tested. Le Patron was a horseman, so there were stables and a riding hall. (The famous Bugatti radiator derives from the horseshoe. Although the line of the curve varies from model to model, these radiators, the most beautiful ever put on automobiles, are all basically horseshoe-shaped.) There was one museum to house the works in sculpture of his brother Rembrandt, who died a young man. The horse-drawn carriage was the antecedent of the automobile, and as such was important to Bugatti. Thus there was a second museum filled with examples of fine coachwork, There was a hotel – the Hostellerie du Pur Sang – for the convenience of those customers who came to the factory to pick up their cars – and to pay cash in francs for them, nothing else being acceptable. There was a boatyard and of course there were foundries, machine shops, body shops and everything else needed to produce automobiles. Over all this Le Patron benignly presided. Only he carried the key that would open every one of the identical oaken doors on the premises. Usually he toured his domain on a bicycle. It would be, of course, one of his own design The cycle manufacturers of France and Italy, the best in the world, could not make a bicycle to his liking. He considered their products unnecessarily heavy, ugly and inefficient, so he built his own, at what cost is not recorded, but he wouldn’t have cared anyway. The cost of building a machine as it should be built never interested Bugatti. He insisted, too, that his cars be made in an atmosphere of absolute cleanliness. Every floor in the factory, no matter what the work going on, had to be kept the next thing to surgically sterile, and Bugattis biographer, W. F. Bradley, has reported that when it was suggested that the cost of cleaning materials was outrageous and no doubt indicated that they were being stolen by the employees, Le Patron was not interested. ‘Things must be kept clean, very clean,’ he would say. This insistence of cleanliness was now whimsy or eccentricity. All fast drivers known that dirt on an automobile is the great concealer of mechanical defects. (To the hot-rodders of California, a dangerous car is ‘unsanitary’. Cleanliness is particularly important to a Bugatti, because of questions of metal-to-metal joinings matters of balance, and multiplicity of tiny, easily-blocked oilways.
Bugatti was profoundly uninterested in other people’s ideas about automobile design. He proceeded happily on his own way. His comments on other automobiles and their makers were likely to be acid. Of W. O. Bentley, designer of the Bentley, a great but unnecessarily big and heavy car, ‘E. B,’ said: ‘I have the greatest respect for Monsieur Bentley. He builds the strongest and fastest lorries in the world.’ For a long time he refused to use a supercharger, maintaining that to do so was to violate the rules that stipulated a racing car’s engine should be of such-and-such a cubic capacity. His cable brakes were so good that they could not be made to fade no matter how hard the car wad driven, therefore why should he change to hydraulics?2 He ultimately did so, in 1939. He was not much interested in track races, maintaining that the test of a car was its behaviour on regular open roads, and on the road the Bugatti was supreme.
The measure of the Bugatti’s supremacy over contemporary automobiles is well demonstrated by the firm’s record in the Targa Florio races in Sicily, which Bugatti won five times in succession. The Targa Florio was run on a mountain circuit, 67 miles to the lap for a total of more than 350 miles. Beginning at sea level, to rose to 3000 feet in 35 miles, dropped back to sea level again, and included one straight stretch eight miles long. There were about 1200 bends and curves in the course, and the race was one long nightmare of all-out acceleration, violent braking and slides around hairpins looped atop unfenced precipices. No ordinary passenger automobile could last a lap of it. It required 24 hours to find one driver after he’d left the road.
The Grand Prix de Monace, run uphill and down dale through the streets if Monte Carlo, was another index, and two amateur Bugatti drivers once beat the great Rudolf Caracciola over this circuit, although he was driving a Mercedes-Benz of three times the Bugatti engine capacity. The list of such successes is a long one. In 1925 and 1926 Bugatti cars saw the checkered flag of victory exactly 1045 times!
Of the 70-odd separate designs that came off Ettore Bugatti’s drawing-board, not one was uninteresting. Some were more successful than others. One, the 3.3-litre Grand Prix car, is probably the most beautiful racing car ever built. If it is not, the Type 35 is. One – a beetle-bodied slab-sided monstrosity – was certainly the ugliest car of its time, but it set a record at Le Mans by running 2043 miles in 24 hours. Of the passenger cars the three best were probably Type 44, Type 55 and Type 57. Of the racing cars the Type 35 was the best – the best Bugatti and then some: on the record, it is the best racing car ever built.
The Type 35 was designed in 1924, and it was responsible for the phenomenal string of Bugatti first-place wins that ran down the years from then until 1930. It is worth a close look. It was a straight-eight engine of 2 litres capacity, et in a chassis of extraordinarily sound design. Even when Bugatti was finally forced to the use of a supercharger, the Type 35C would not do much better than 125 m.p.h., yet on road circuits it consistently beat faster cars – the Alfa-Romeo, for one. The answer lay in the mathematic perfection of the chassis. Like all Bugattis, the car ran as if geared to the road. Te steering – one of Bugatti’s great points of pride – was flawless, and the brakes were so good that the loud-pedal could be kept on the floor well past the ordinary cut-off point. As Dennis May, an English automobile journalist, has put it, a Bugatti will forgive its driver many mistakes. ‘A Bug seems always to be on your side.’ And there is about a Bugatti a sensitivity to control, loveliness, a willingness to work that seems to endow the car with life, a being of its own. The Type 35 had these virtues in the highest degree.
Strange and outlandish were many features of the Type 35. At the extreme front end the main chassis frame members are only three-quarters of an inch deep. They don’t look strong enough to old up a good-sized kiddie-car, but half-way back, where the load is greatest, there’s an additional six inches of steel. The rear springs are novel: quarter elliptics bolted to the chassis behind the axle and from there jumping backward to join the chassis. The eight flat aluminium spokes of the road wheels are a Bugatti characteristic. The wheels were cast integral with the brake drums, so that when the wheel is taken off the drum comes with it, the working parts of the brake exposed for instant adjustment. Because of the rapidity with which work could be done on the Bugatti brakes, these wheels won races. The front springs pass through the front axle, which is hollow. Not only is it hollow, but it has two diameters: large between the front springs, small between the springs and the wheels. How did Le Patron arrange this machinist’s conundrum? By reaming a solid bar with a large drill, forging the ends closed again and redrilling them with a smaller drill. Not an operation for mass production, yet the finished axle was one of the reasons for the excellent road-holding and steering of the Bugatti. Another of Monsieur Bugatti’s bright ideas was to run thirteen little copper tubes straight through the sump, from front to rear. Both ends of these tubes were open, and since they ran directly through the oil, the blast of air through them kept it efficiently cool. This was a useful device, because the Type 35 engine ran very hot with its tiny radiator. The clutch had a system of levers working on the governor principle: the faster the speed the greater the clutch pressure. Evidence of Bugatti’s freedom from conventional restrictions is not lacking I the Type 35, either. Any designer will say that the inlet valve on a petrol engine should be larger than the exhaust valve. Bugatti made his the other way round. It worked well. He put the sparking plugs on the cold side of the engine, too – another unorthodoxy. He liked them better that way.
The sound of a 35C being fired up is a mad symphony. One advanced Bugattiste made a ten-minute recording of it. ‘Let this be the last thing I hear before I die,’ he said. It is not a simple sound to describe. No hollow, motor-boat burble marks the cranking of a Bug. The discerning ear can pick out three distinct themes: first, the excruciatingly sharp cr4ack of the exhaust, a high-level ripping sound; second, the characteristic growling, rattling, bucket-of-bolts noise of the roller and ball-bearing engine. A racing Bugatti engine in good shape always sounds as if it were about to fly to pieces. Third, there is the sinrenlike rising and falling scream of the supercharger. Ah, joy! For this the owner has drained the crankcase, heated the oil like a baby’s formula and poured it back again. For this, distilled water has been brought to 70C. and decanted lovingly into the radiator. For this, many an hour of greasy labour has been given. A bit of warming-up at 800 revolutions per minute, the gear lever, moving like a knife through butter, bites into first and we go – gently with the accelerator, lest the car fling itself across the road. The car is 24 years old, and nothing it will meet is safer to drive. And if the pilote is willing and able to stick his foot well on the floor, nothing it will meet can stay with the Bug – nothing mass-produced in the United States, at least.
As much could be said of many of the passenger cars Bugatti produced. There was great variety among them. When a new Bugatti came out it was not last year’s model with chrome added or mudguards swept down instead of up, it was altogether different from its predecessors. A small touring car, the Type 40 of 1926, sold for around $1800 (chassis) and would do 70 m/p/h/, much better than anything else in its class at the time. Next to it in the series was the Type 41, one of the very biggest passenger cars ever built, of which more later. There was the Type 43, a sports car, eight cylinders supercharged, 112 m.p.h., cost around $6000. There was the type 44, usually with a closed body, a maximum of 80 or so delivered more quietly than some of the others, and priced at $2600 (chassis). The 46 was a big, luxurious closed car, and was one Bugatti that would start amiably in cold weather. There was a supercharged version, too, the 46S, a carriage grand de luxe if one ever rolled down the roads of France. The Type 50, usually a two- or three-seater, would do 115, and the Type 55, which carried virtually the same engine as the Type 51 Grand prix racing model – twin overhead camshafts, supercharger, tremendously strong frame – was faster and cost the speed-minded of the day around $7000. Most road Bugattis were bought as chassis and had coach-built or custom bodies, but the 55 usually came with a factory-built body carrying the lovely continuously curved mudguards and running-board characteristic of Bugatti coachwork.
The Type 57 is probably the best of all the passenger carrying Bugattis. When it appeared in 1934 it was an entirely new design from end to end, quiet, smooth, capable of a genuine 95 m.p.h. It appeared in four additional variations: the 57C, a supercharged 57, 20 miles an hour faster; the 57T, specially tuned and with a high rear-axle ratio, 115 m.p.h.; the 57S, doing 120, the 57G, 135; and the type 57SC, probably the pinnacle of Bugatti design.3 The 57SC would do 130 m.p.h. as delivered, its 220 horse-power giving acceleration that would frighten the average driver out of a year’s growth. It would accelerate from zero to 80 m.p.h. in 19 seconds! Nearly fifteen years later the fastest American car was the Cadillac: 0 to 80, 32 seconds. In 1951, a 57SC was offered for sale at $9000.
An English Bugattiste, Mr. C. W. P. Hampton, tells of a 1937 ride in a 57S:
I had a trial run up the Barnet by-pass with Williams, the Bugatti works demonstrator, who had brought over a Type 57S electron coupe ‘Atlantic’. It was simply terrific: 112 m.p.h. till accelerating over the croassroads past the Barn – and the road cluttered up with the usual Friday evening traffic. Along the next stretch we did 122 m.p.h., and I though, under the circumstances, that was enough, and said so in no uncertain fashion. Thereafter we ‘cruised’ along at a mere 90-95 m.p.h., once doing just over 100 in third gear. Except, possibly, for the run I had with Jean Bugatti in France, it was the most alarming experience ever; yet Williams drove superbly, absolutely at ease and complete master of every situation. But the speed constantly maintained was prodigious… along almost every yard of the crowded thoroughfare. Apart from the amazing engine, which was remarkably silent, the suspension (aided by De Ram shockers), cornering and road-holding were a whole street better than anything I had previously experienced which, together with the extremely powerful cable-operated brakes, made the whole show feel considerably safer than would have been the case with a lesser car.
If the 57 Bugatti represented the peak of Le Patron’s genius, the type 41, variously called ‘La Royale’, or ‘The Golden Bug’, best demonstrated his ducal indifference to cost and the soaring flight of his imagination. An Englishwoman may have been primarily responsible for this colossal vehicle. At dinner one night, the tale runs, an English lady seated next to Ettore Bugatti remarked, ‘Of course, M. Bugatti, everyone knows you make the best racing cars and the best road cars in the world; but for a town carriage of genuine elegance, one still must go to Rolls-Royce.’
Le Patron’s reply is not recorded, but he was quietly outraged. The next day found him at the draughting tables. The year was 1927. This would be the biggest, most luxurious automobile the world had ever seen. It would be a car for royalty, a carriage of such superb mass and elegance that it would shame the Rolls, the Daimler, the Minerva and every other pretentious motor-car that preceded it. Le Patron envisioned a car the size of a small bus; the wheelbase fourteen feet, two inches. It would have a straight-eight engine of 12,760 cubic centimetres capacity – equal to two Cadillacs plus an Austin and a half! – and it would range in speed from a dead-smooth 3 miles and hour or a perfectly steady 125. The engine was to be machined to zero tolerance – not so much as a thousandth of an inch one way or the other in any working part. The bare chassis would sell for £6000 sterling, then $30,000, and what of it? Bugatti ordered the factory to tool up for 25 of them.
On this car Bugatti lavished everything. No detail was overlooked, from horn buttons (one underneath the steering-wheel at each of the four spokes) to crankshaft, which weighed more than 200 pounds after it had been machined out of a solid forging, and ran in nine individually water-cooled bearings. With the engine merely idling at 1000 revolutions per minute the Golden Bug would do 72 m.p.h. in top gear. From windscreen to radiator the measurement was exactly seven feet. With each car the purchaser received two things as a gift from its creator: a guarantee of free service and overhaul for life, and, as a radiator ornament, a white elephant!
The depression beginning in 1929 spoiled the market for $40,000 automobiles, of course, and only seven Royales were built. Bugatti himself kept the first one, King Alfonso of Spain had one. King Carol of Rumania had a$22,500 armoured body built on his. King Albert of the Belgians had one. Jean Bugatti put a roadster body on a completely chromed chassis, the total cost $55,000 – or $27,500 per passenger carried! This car was sold by the Bugatti family in the summer of 1950. The King Carol car is in the United States. An English-bodied limousine is owned by Jack Lemon Burton of London, an eminent Bugatti specialist. The King Alfonso Royale was bought by a Dr. Joseph Fuchs in 1931, who had a $13,000 convertible coupe body built on it by Ludwig Weinberger of Munich and later took it to America. The car disappeared for a time, was found in a New York junkyard in 1943 by Mr. Charles Chayne, a vice-president of General Motors, who bought it for a sum never disclosed but said in knowledgeable circles to have been $350 – surely the biggest bargain in motor-car history! The others were acquired in 1950 from the Bugatti family, one by Mr. Briggs Cunningham of Connecticut, one of the foremost American road-racing drivers, the other by Mr. D. Cameron Peck of Chicago, a collector who has owned, over the past few years, some 250 fine automobiles. The Bugatti estate retains one Royale.
When the market fell in the ‘30s, Bugatti found himself with a number of Type 41 engines on hand. He went into the railway business with them. Two of them, put into what the French call an automotrice, a railcar, propelled it at 118 m.p.h., set a new record for the run between Paris and Strasbourg, and a new world record for railway speed to boot. This model would seat 68 persons, but bigger trains, made up of three units, carried 152. They went like the very devil and many are still in use. Seated in lonely glory in a little cupola atop the car, the engineer had a wonderful view, could see an approaching station soon enough to slow down and avoid blowing out window-panes as Jean Bugatti once did in the course of a demonstration for railway officials! True to his own ideas, as always, Le Patron designed cable-operated brakes for his automotrice. They functioned splendidly.
In the middle ‘30s the German and Italian governments began to subsidise great firms like Mercedes-Benz, Auto-Union, Alfa-Romeo, and it became impossible for private initiative to compete against them, since the cost of building and running a team of Grand Prix cars for a season could total $1,000,000. The French government refused to enter the lists against the Nazis and the Fascists and as a result Bugatti, who had long carried French racing largely on his own shoulders, began to concentrate on sports-car races, a field that interested him more anyway, since it more nearly conformed to his conviction that racing cars should not be poles distant from regular road machines. He did, however, produce a 4.9-litre Grand Prix car in 1939. The Bugs continues to win races: the French Grand Prix of 1936 (run for sports cars that year), the Le Mans of 1937, the Le Mans of 1939. The record set at Le Mans that year, incidentally, was the record for the course until 1950: an average of 86.85 m.p.h. for 24 consecutive hours.
For Ettore Bugatti, however, the best years were past, the great days were waning. For some time he had concerned himself less and less with the actual business of racing management. He rarely appeared at the courses, leaving most of that work to his son Jean. Too, the industrial unrest that marked the whole decade appeared at Molsheim. It came late, but it came nonetheless and despite Bugatti’s refusal to believe it could happen to him. True, he no longer knew by sight and by name every man who worked for him, as he had in the old days, but still it was a small force: little over 1000 men, and he insisted that Molsheim was still just a big family. It was not, and in 1936 his plant was closed by strikes, Worst of all, Bugatti himself was forbidden to enter the factory. This blow was too heavy. He left Molsheim, moved to Paris, and came back only when imperative business required.
In 1939 another grievous blow fell. Jean Bugatti was testing a Type 57 on a semi-closed road near the factory when a postman brushed past Roland, guarding an entrance, and rode down the course on a bicycle. Jean came around a bend at great speed, attempted to avoid the man at all cost, and was killed in the ensuing crash. He was 30. A month later, World War II began.
Bugatti moved his factory to Bordeaux and began the production of components for the Hispano-Suiza aircraft engine. When the Germans invaded France this factory was lost, of course, although Bugatti, being still an Italian national, forced some payment for it. He then retired to an apartment in Paris and concerned himself with design and with such work in the Resistance as he could do. Two great Bugatti drivers, Robert Benoist and William Grover, an enigmatic Englishman known for years simply as ‘Williams’, were among the important Resistance figures and both finally died at the hands of the Nazis.
During the early years of the war Bugatti’s father died, and his wife soon afterwards. He pressed on with designs for post-war projects: a 1.5 litre (90 inch) racing car, a modification of the Royale engine for marine use, a tiny one-cylinder engine, and a beautiful 350-cubic-centimetre (19 inch) supercharged engine with cylinders no bigger round than half-crowns, designed to turn at 12,000 revolutions per minute. In 1945 he became a French citizen, and after the liberation began action to recover his properties at Molsheim and elsewhere. The difficulties were enormous, complicated by his Italian citizenship at the time the properties had been confiscated, but finally, in August of 1947, he won the case and all was restored to his name. He went home that night, went to his bed and never rose from it again.
Another Bugatti took over the Molsheim works – Roland, who was named after Roland Garros, a fighter pilot famous in World War I for the invention of the synchronising device that allowed machine-gun fire through a plane’s propeller arc. Under Pierre Marco, veteran general manager of Le Patron, men are busy at Molsheim making all manner of things: railcars, agricultural implements, fishing boats – and a very few automobiles. A new Bugatti, the Type 101, appeared at the Paris Salon of October, 1951. It was received with a great display of sentiment, but small real enthusiasm because it was a slightly modified Type 57 chassis wearing new coachwork. Fewer than a dozen had been built by mid-1953. Still at the factory is one example – the only one ever made – of the Type 64, designed by Le Patron before the war to succeed the Type 57. The dies, tools and jigs were lost in the war. Bugatti had also completed the designs for a four-engined racing car; there was a one-cylinder baby car, the Type 68. There was the 73B, a small four-door saloon; the 73C, a 1.5-litre racing car. There is talk of an entirely new sports car, the ‘Type Ettore’. The husband of the second Mme. Bugatti, M. René Bolloré, has promised that car production will continue. But none is ready as this is written.
Even is these cars do appear, the designs of all but the last names will have been outstripped by time. And then who will design the new ones? Who will sit down at the drawing board and create cars like the crotchety, cranky, noisy old 35’s and 51’s, cars that will, with twenty years of hard driving behind them, still go out on the road and mop up everything in sight? Who will command the creation of cars like the whining flight-fast 57SC’s and the regal Golden Bugs? Not, alas, Ettore, the genius of Molsheim.
 Insatiable craving for a Bugatti has led many people to desperate acts, but the case of Violet Nozier of Paris is unique. In 1934, Mme Nozier killed her father for money with which to buy a Bugatti for her boy friend.
2 S. C. H. Davis, dean of British motoring journalists, recalls a highly original Bugatti approach to the problem of brake-lining wear during races: spare wheels with smaller drums!
3 The type 57S Bugatti is one of the fastest stock passenger cars ever built. In 1936, a 57S put 135.42 miles into one hour at the Montlhéry track in France, Robert Benoist driving. This record was still standing in August 1954.