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Back Again

With a $350,000 Supercar, the Legendary Italian Automobile Company Bugatti Has Returned to the Car Market
Michael Knepper
From the Print Edition:
Ron Perelman, Spring 95

Minutes from the Santa Monica Freeway, in California, supposedly the single busiest strip of highway in the world, there's a lightly traveled two-lane highway that spins through the mountains of the Los Angeles National Forest. It's rather lightly traveled because it goes no place in particular, unless you live in Big Pines or Wrightwood or want to take the long route to Barstow. Which makes it a great place to play with a new Bugatti EB110 that could be especially powerful or might have tremendous handling potential.

Getting the Bugatti out on that asphalt playground shows it has both. Power? A 3.5 liter V-12 with four turbochargers that can propel the car from zero to 60 mph in less than 3.5 seconds. Handling? Fully independent suspension, Michelin MXX radial tires as wide as Aunt Flossie's backside, brakes with discs as big as garbage-can lids and race-car-quick rack-and-pinion steering. All that comes wrapped in a package as sleek and threatening as anything that's come off a designer's drawing board in eons. All that for $350,000--give or take.

With a price tag like that, you can appreciate that the first couple of miles up the twisty delight might make a driver a bit uneasy. At least until you get comfortable with it. Actually, the uneasiness begins while driving the rocket on wheels out of the parking lot at the Beverly Hills Rolls-Royce dealership. The thought of driving in Los Angeles traffic and then joining the action on the Santa Monica Freeway was a bit daunting. The first minor bump scraped the car's low chin spoiler on the driveway ramp. Nice start.

Visibility to the rear is severely limited, thanks to huge panels plumbed for air intakes for the midmounted engine and the rear spoiler, which nicely bisects the small rear window. Lane changes are made with a great deal of care and peering about. But all goes well on the surface streets, and, merging quickly with the freeway traffic, the car's nose soon points toward the mountains.

The scintillating pulse of the new Bugatti echoes with the almost unparalleled history of one of racing's greatest machines. The Bugatti name is legendary among automotive enthusiasts, although the company built its last serious car in 1939. The name was resurrected in the late 1980s by a wealthy car distributor in Italy, Romano Artioli, and his wife, Renata, who built a most impressive headquarters/factory in Campogalliano in northern Italy.

Today's Bugatti is the spiritual if not direct descendant of the marque that flowered from the early years of this century until the Second World War. No marque before or since has owned the sport as Bugatti did. During the years between the wars, Bugatti virtually dominated the international racing scene. From 1925 to 1927, Bugatti won 1,851 events, ranging from hill climbs to Grands Prix, frequently taking the top three positions in an event. In 1926, Bugatti won 12 Grands Prix, and in another string, Bugatti won five straight Targa Florios, the famous race around the island of Sicily.

The cars were famous for their power, their reliability, the attention to detail, but not necessarily innovation. The founder and stern dictator of every detail, Etore "Le Patron" Bugatti was stubborn to the point of wrong-headedness. He simply refused to abandon proven methods in light of the rapidly improving technology that was sweeping the industry. (He finally adopted hydraulic brakes years after they proved far superior to mechanical brakes.) But stubborn or not, Bugatti built cars that won races, and in those salad days of the automobile business, cars that won races were successful in the showroom. It was truly "Win on Sunday, sell on Monday." Gentlemen sportsmen, and some sportswomen, bought Bugattis to race, and they bought them to drive on the street. From today's vantage point, it is difficult to appreciate that the Bugatti company was the equivalent of Porsche and Ferrari--combined.

Etore (pronounced: Eh-tory) Bugatti was born in Milan in 1881, the son of a successful artist. In his teens he became fascinated by the motorized vehicles of all shapes and sizes that were clattering and banging around the streets and back roads of Europe. His first involvement with this new phenomenon was with one of the tricycles that were so popular at the time. If it moves and a man can get on it, it will be raced, and so it was with tricycles. By the time he was 19, Bugatti was one of the best trike racers in Italy and one of its most popular sports stars. Bugatti used his innate engineering talent to design most of the machines he raced.

It was inevitable, given the development of powered cars during the period, that Bugatti would turn his talents to four-wheelers. The first Bugatti automobile was built in 1900. But Bugatti didn't immediately go into the automobile-manufacturing business. Rather, for the next several years he designed cars and engines for established firms, constantly adding to his reputation as one of the best designers and engineers in the new industry. After a string of successful designs for others, Bugatti opened his own manufacturing facility in the Alsace town of Molsheim in January 1910.

Later that year, an article in England's The Motor wrote about "A New Light Car," which was the first substantial description of a car from the new facility:

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