The History of Bugatti
In a bucolic corner of France’s Alsace region rises a mansion. Opulent, gilded, and elegant, Château St. Jean is home to perhaps the most storied carmaker in the world, with a legacy dating back more than a century. The supercar maker Bugatti has long defined itself by its unprecedented achievements in engineering — from its debut racecar, the Type 10, in 1909, to the otherworldly Veyron — but no-one has ever seen what’s coming next. In 2017, Bugatti will begin delivering the Chiron hypercar to its billionaire clientele. The machine will boast an unrivaled 1,500 horsepower, with a price tag that starts just south of US$3 million. With the Chiron, the legendary automaker vows it will reclaim the mantle of world’s fastest car. It promises to be peerless.
When one discusses the Chiron’s celestial engineering achievements — from aesthetics to craftsmanship — its equals are better found in other testaments to the exceptional. You could say the Chiron is to automobiles what the Burj Khalifa tower, spiraling 2,716 feet into the Dubai sky, is to architecture: It, too, reaches dizzying new heights.
MAXIM visited Bugatti’s ancestral home, Château St. Jean, in Molsheim, France, as the powers behind the marque prepared to unleash one of the most anticipated machines of the 21st century. We went to learn not just about the Chiron and Bugatti’s bountiful history but about what it takes to build a legacy and change automotive history in the process.
Carlo Bugatti, born in 1856, was a successful woodworker, jeweller, and furniture maker from Milan. His youngest son, Rembrandt, shared his father’s creative streak and grew up to be a renowned wildlife sculptor. Carlo’s eldest son, Ettore, entered the burgeoning automotive world and eventually became one of the pillars of the industry. In 1909, Ettore purchased Château St. Jean. It was there, for the next 30 years, that he envisioned, designed, engineered, and manufactured the fastest cars on the planet.
What spurred Ettore’s early success was his ability to create Grand Prix–level racecars, which he sold to gentleman racers. He then detuned these racecars and adapted them for the street in order to sell more vehicles. Not only did he engineer these machines — securing nearly 1,000 patents in his career — but he also illustrated their lines and shaped their curves, conceiving vehicles that have become among the world’s most coveted and valuable.
One of Ettore’s greatest innovations was considering the car as a single unit. At the time, most manufacturers thought of the chassis and body as separate entities. Ettore perceived them as one, an epiphany that catapulted him to the forefront of chassis development. He crafted vehicles with incredible stability due to their light weight and low centre of gravity. The results were astounding: The Type 10 claimed the top four finishes in its first race in 1909; 20 years later Bugatti won the first Monaco Grand Prix with Ettore’s legendary Type 35. From 1925 to 1931, the Type 35 claimed more than 2,000 victories, and to this day it remains the winningest automobile in auto-racing history.
Ettore has been called a genius with metal, known for pushing the cutting edge of performance. He was much more than a grease-stained engineer and mechanic, however. He was also a dashing showman, industrialist, tech entrepreneur, and visionary. Before selling a client a Type 37 — the road-going version of the Type 35 Grand Prix car — he would send the potential buyer on a wild course through the Alsatian hills, testing the suitor’s fortitude to drive a Bugatti as well as his innate ability to sense the car through the seat of his pants. He called this instinctual ability “the Bugatti seat.” Without it, he wouldn’t let a client buy one.
Ettore’s son, Jean, studied under his father and surpassed him in terms of artistic talent. Jean designed aesthetic marvels such as the Type 57SC Atlantic, which has been widely heralded as the epitome of art and design in automobiles. In 2010, one sold for about US$40 million: At the time, it was the single most expensive car ever sold. Ralph Lauren owns the only other existing Type 57SC Atlantic, which was valued even higher than US$40 million after it won the Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este in 2013.
In the middle of the 20th century, Bugatti Automobiles was dealt three blows that derailed the company. In 1939, while test-driving a prototype Type 57, Jean swerved to miss a drunken cyclist and slammed into a tree. The heir apparent to the Bugatti throne died instantly. That same year saw the outbreak of World War II, which torpedoed luxury car sales worldwide. Then in 1947, Ettore died after suffering a stroke, leaving the onetime apex of car manufacturers rudderless.
The Spanish automaker Hispano-Suiza bought the company in 1963, but the Bugatti name was soon abandoned. Despite an attempt by Italian entrepreneur Romano Artioli to resurrect the storied nameplate in the 1980s with the EB 110 supercar, the brand remained moribund until it was purchased by Volkswagen AG in 1998.
VW’s goal with the legendary marquee was as simple as it was audacious: to engineer the most dynamically advanced vehicle the world had ever seen, cost be damned. They called it the Veyron.
For the full article grab the April 2017 issue of MAXIM Australia.
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