The history of Bugatti is redolent of visions of racing excellence; these luxurious and stylish classic automobiles were famous for being fast, beautiful, elegant and expensive. Today, a classic Bugatti automobile can demand multi-million dollar auction prices.
The highest price ever paid at auction for a classic car was in 1997, for a Bugatti Royale that sold for US$20 million. Only 6 Bugatti Royales were ever built and even at that price, it's highly unlikely that the buyer will ever lose money on his investment.
The founder of the company and original designer of Bugatti cars was Ettore Bugatti. Everything he built had style. He was obsessed with creating things that were unique and he wasn't afraid to be different.
When Milan born Ettore Bugatti was a young man, only the very wealthiest of people could afford to buy motor cars and he was fascinated by these new arrivals on the streets of his home town.
Despite family pressure to become a sculptor like his brother Rembrandt, Ettore decided this wasn't for him and so at the tender age of just 17 years, in 1898, Bugatti decided to follow his dream and he bought himself a motorised tricycle which he promptly disassembled, improved and reassembled and managed to win a few races.
This led to his developing his chain driven Type II Bugatti which he took to the 1901 International Exposition in Milan and the innovative car promptly won him the City Cup, a special medal from the Automobile Association of France and a 7 year contract with the De Dietrich Motor Company.
During his time with De Dietrich, Ettore soon discovered he had no interest in the manufacturing process and his real interest lie in design and he left the company. His next few years were spent in a succession of design and engineering jobs, whilst continuing to design cars for himself.
Eventually, he designed a car he thought he could manufacture for the commercial market in the Mk 10 Bugatti. However he still needed to establish a factory. He found an abandoned dye works in the Alsatian town of Molsheim in France and obtained a start up loan from the local bank.
Ettore Bugatti now needed to sell his product and the obvious way to do that, was to win races, so Ettore set out to build the finest racing cars in the world.
In 1911, Bugatti entered his modified Type 13 in the French Grand Prix. Despite being the smallest cars with the smallest engines in the race, their light weight, high revving engines put the competition firmly in it's place and a Bugatti took a very respectable second place.
Orders poured in and the Bugatti company and factory grew rapidly. Ettore continued to develop both his race and road cars and soon had a 100 HP that he called his Type 18 which at the time was dubbed a 'super sports car' and the most famous of this marque was the 'Black Bess' owned and raced by Ivy Cummings. This car sold at auction in February 2009 for E 2,427,500 inclusive of buyers premium!
In 1914, WWI broke out and the Bugatti factory was right on the border between France and Germany and knowing he needed to get out quickly, Ettore Bugatti closed the factory, buried 3 of his 4 race cars and used to 4th drive himself and his family to Milan.
During the war years, Bugatti spent his time designing and developing an aircraft engine and interrupter gear that allowed a machine gun to be safely fired through the propeller and at the end of the war, he moved his family back to Molsheim, reopened the factory, dug up and rebuilt the racing cars he had buried 4 years before and went back to racing.
In 1920, one of these Bugattis won the first Grand Prix race at Le Mans and in 1921 Bugatti race cars came in 1st, 2nd, 3rd & 4th at Brescia. This unprecedented result caused the car to be renamed 'The Brescia'.
Unlike most car manufacturers of the time, Bugatti was happy to sell his race cars to the general public and this ensured that many owners of Bugatti road cars and race cars were also entering their Bugattis in motor races and this resulted in hundreds of Ettore's cars taking the chequered flag throughout the world.
In 1924, superchargers arrived on the scene. Bugatti viewed these as an unacceptable shortcut to power and he instead developed the very light and fast Bugatti Type 35. This one had a new engine, new aerodynamics and was the first to feature the now famous horseshoe-shaped radiator.
This new racing car was first raced in the Grand Prix at Lyons in 1924 and these spectacular cars achieved an incredible (for the time), 0-60 in just over 6 seconds and close to 125 mph.
In 1926, Ettore's 18 year old son Jean Bugatti joined the business and at his father's insistence had start at the bottom and learn his way up. Jean was very keen to get into motor racing, but knowing the dangers involved his Father forbade it. Jean, in typical fashion, secretly began speed runs in his Bugatti type 43 between Molsheim and Paris where he would spend the evening at clubs such as the Moulin Rouge before racing home in the early hours of the morning.
By the late 1920s, Bugatti was re-evaluating his opposition to superchargers and in 1929 he offered them as an option on his Type 35 car that boosted their power to 140 HP. These cars took 1st and 2nd places in the Monaco Grand Prix that year.
Around this time, Ettore Bugatti had discovered the sales technique of executive hospitality. He would invite wealthy guests to his estate for a shooting weekend and during that time would convince them that their life would not be complete without a Bugatti Motor car. At one of these weekends, a lady guest told him that he built cars for men but not for women and that she and other ladies needed a comfortable, luxurious Grand Tourer rather than a race bred sports car.
Ettore took this idea on board and he subsequently designed the grandest Grand Tourer of all time which he christened the Bugatti Type 41 Royale. The name was intended to suggest the car was suitable for royalty.... and it truly was! Ettore's final touch to the Royale was to mount a replica of the famous standing elephant sculpture originally designed by his brother Rembrandt onto the radiator cap.
In 1931, Bugatti proved he was still top dog when his twin cam, eight cylinder Type 51 took 1st, 3rd and 4th place at the Monaco Grand Prix and he followed this by introducing the four wheel drive, 300 horsepower Bugatti Type 53, the two wheel drive Type 54 and the Type 55 sports car.
In 1934, Bugatti unveiled the luxurious Type 57 Grand Tourer and this became the most popular Bugatti ever produced. A year later, three Type 57 SC Atlantics with radical customised bodywork were built by Jean Bugatti and these showed off the pure artistry of Bugatti and are now very highly sought after.
Ettore Bugatti had always taken a paternalistic attitude to his workers and was dismayed when they forced a trade union upon him. He felt betrayed and angry consequently withdrew from his management role in the company which in his absence was run by his son Jean. Ettore moved to Paris where he turned his attentions to new products such as aircraft and high speed trains. Everything he designed had that typical Bugatti blend of style, elegance and flair.
Jean Bugatti was struggling to fight off the state sponsored high performance challenges from Mercedes and Alfa Union and in 1939, 2 Bugatti Type 57G cars beat the German challengers at Le Mans.
At the end of the same season, the Bugatti team had just one last race to run in France. One of the cars needed to be test driven and the factory driver was unavailable, so Jean decided to take the wheel himself. Sadly a drunken postman had decided to take a short cut despite being warned there was a race car on the track. Jean came hurtling over a rise to see the postman right in front of him, he swerved, hit a tree and was instantly killed. The postman was unhurt. Ettore erected a monument to his son at the site of the crash.
A month later, WWII broke out and again the factory was taken over by the Germans for the duration of the war.
In 1945 Germany surrendered and Ettore Bugatti applied to the French Government for permission to return to the factory and restart production, but the French refused, saying that as the Italians had fought against France, he had lost all property rights. Ettore appealed and whilst the case was being heard, he returned to the factory in one of his unsold Bugatti Royals and afterwards went to see where his son had died. While he was there, he collapsed and was rushed to hospital by his chauffeur. Bugatti never recovered consciousness and died without knowing that his appeal was successful.
Others took the company over but without the Bugatti design genius, the marquee was doomed and the last real Bugatti was built in 1965 for the former head of Chrysler's design dept.
In the early 1990s, the name was reborn and a group of designers and engineers designed the stunningly elegant EB110 but costs were prohibitive, sales were poor and the company soon collapsed.
In 1998, Volkswagen acquired the trade name and with their financial backing the company was able to produce the famed US$1M Bugatti Veyron.
The Bugatti blend of art and science is inimitable and these wonderful cars still live on in classic car collections and are also still entered in classic car races throughout the world.
Although never cheap, a classic Bugatti will always be a wonderful investment and a beautiful piece of classic automotive elegance.