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Back Again

With a $350,000 Supercar, the Legendary Italian Automobile Company Bugatti Has Returned to the Car Market
By Michael Knepper | From Ron Perelman, Spring 95
Back Again

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:

The designer of this little car, indeed, has made no attempt to compete with the low-priced popular models already on the market, the price of the Bugatti being higher than any other car of equal horsepower offered to the public. The reason is, the new production stands in a class by itself. M. Bugatti, an Alsatian designer with a high reputation in German factories, has sought to produce what may be termed the motorcar pony, but a pony that is fit to stand comparison with the most costly product of the best factories, and able, notwithstanding its small size and low power, to hold its own in the matter of speed with any touring car built.

That description would hold true for Bugatti's cars for the next three decades, until the Second World War stopped production and, for all practical purposes, stopped Bugatti permanently.

Throughout the production run of approximately 7,800 cars, each Bugatti model was designated with the prefix T for Type, which referred to the chassis and drive train. The same chassis type could be used with a wide variety of bodies, some of which were manufactured at Molsheim, but many that were manufactured by independent coach makers. That multiple-body situation can be confusing for the non-Bugattiste. The same type number can be found in reference books as an open race car, an open touring, a closed touring, a coupé, whatever.

The Type 13, the first-production Bugatti and the one written up in The Motor, quickly established Bugatti in the fledgling auto industry. The four-cylinder Type 13 was soon joined by the Type 15, Type 17 and on up. The most familiar Bugatti is probably the Type 35, a two-seat, fenderless roadster typically seen in French racing blue. The most famous Bugatti, however, is Type 41, the Royale.

Bugatti's dream was to build the ultimate road car, a dream he mentioned to a friend early in his career. But it wasn't until 1926 that the car became a reality. One part of the definition of "ultimate" in Bugatti's mind, apparently, was huge. The Royale chassis had a wheelbase of 14.5 feet, or 174 inches. (The current Cadillac Brougham, the largest car in production, has a wheelbase of just more than 10 feet, or 121.5 inches.) The straight-eight engine had a displacement of 13 liters. (The V-12 in the Mercedes SEL600 is 6.0 liters.)

The six Royale chassis that would be built over the seven-year "production run" would be fitted with 11 body variations as they changed hands. The cost of a bodied Royale was in the £6,500 to £7,500 range. At the height of the speculation craze in the late '80s, a Royale reportedly sold for $15 million, although no one saw the money change hands. Of the six Royales built, only three are in private hands and theoretically available for sale. It is impossible to say what the going price would be today: none of the three have been offered for sale recently.

The Royale, named for the class of people Bugatti envisioned buying it, was not successful, but Bugatti's other models were. The early '30s in particular were good years for Bugatti. Previous model types were phased out, and the T57 became the basis for a full line of models. Then, in 1939, the war stopped production.

Bugatti moved to Paris, and the German Army converted the Molsheim factory to war production. After the war a legal battle ensued, and Bugatti was able to reclaim the factory. Plans were quickly implemented to build a small, inexpensive economy car as well as a replacement for the popular prewar T57. But Bugatti unexpectedly died in August 1947, and with his death the heart seemed to go out of the company. Jean, the son Bugatti had hoped would carry on after him, had been killed testing a car just before the war. A second son, Roland, lacked his father's brilliance. A few T57s were built (called T101s), but the public was turning elsewhere and there was no money to revive the racing effort that had been the key to success. The factory struggled on with aircraft contract work until selling out to Hispano-Suiza in 1963.

The long hiatus made the Artiolis' decision to revive Bugatti all the more interesting. That was surprise No. 1. But the initial surprise was quickly followed by Nos. 2 and 3--a prototype EB110 shown at a function for the press in Paris in September 1991 and the actual start of production in 1993. And then the fourth surprise came along. Artioli bought Lotus from General Motors. An Italian financial daily has estimated that with the purchase of Lotus, Artioli, and possibly some other investors, have spent $120 million.

The EB110, a "sporty" EB110 GT and a more powerful Sport Stradale (SS) have been on sale in Europe, with 65 cars reportedly delivered in 1993. About 40 more were sold through the mid-dle of 1994. A version that is a combination of the 110 and the SS models--called the America, logically enough--had received certification and was to have gone on sale in the United States by November 1994. As this was written, refinements for the American market were still being made, but Lotus Cars U.S.A., which is handling Bugatti distribution, said the schedule would be met.

Currently, eight U.S. dealers have been appointed, with another two to four likely to be named. Adrian Palmer, who heads Lotus in England, said that 10 to 12 orders for U.S. cars had been received. "Originally, there was not going to be a U.S. car," Palmer says. "Bugatti doesn't have to sell here [to be successful]. But we [Lotus] persuaded them to come."

What's the market for a $350,000 automobile? Palmer doesn't know for sure, but he's not worried. "There is a feeling of optimism, of confidence," Palmer says. "We believe the market is right in the U.S., where Bugatti will be a complement to Lotus." Palmer says he expects to sell 40 to 50 cars a year in the United States.

Dealers will likely buy a car for potential customers to drive, but additional Americas will be built only when orders are in hand. When those potential customers strap themselves into a Bugatti America, they're in for some kind of ride, an almost unreal experience of "Bugatti-ing." As it turns out, the car made available to this reporter was an early-production version of the basic European EB110, which differs substantially from the America.

This is, once and forever, a high-performance sports car. If you want something that's easy to get into and out of and offers a cushy ride, if you want an automatic transmission, save yourself $315,000 and buy a Corvette. But for an E-ticket ride, stick with the EB110.

For your decision you will get a very low car that is entered through the forward scissoring doors with some minor contortions. You'll get a six-speed manual gearbox hooked to that four-blower V-12 nestling just inches behind your back. A six-foot body can fit comfortably with plenty of headroom. Shoulder room is enormous thanks to concave inner door panels. There is a complete instrument panel dominated by a large round tachometer in the center. (Maximum horsepower is at 8,000 rpm). A small fitted suitcase behind the seats is the only "trunk" on the car. Although there is no room for a spare tire, the big Michelins have "fun-flat" capability (even if all four go flat, it is possible to continue to drive on them for miles)--making a spare tire redundant.

On the freeway, the 110's acceleration capabilities come to the fore--within reason, of course. Maximum fun comes when you drop the six-speed into second and tromp on the gas. Although the engine has 12 cylinders, it's small, so there isn't much torque production at low rpm. But when the tach touches 4,500 rpm, all hell breaks loose. It's as close to being shot out of a cannon as you can get this side of Ringling Bros. The red line comes up quickly, you slam the gear lever into third and hang on again. Of course, at this point you are well on the go-to-jail side of the 55-mph limit, so prudence dictates that you don't explore much further. The ride is harsh and the amount of wind noise in the luxurious cockpit is surprising. Add in the mechanical noise from the engine, and you have a rather high-decibel level.

You, however, continue to grin like a fool.

* * *

Leaving the freeway, the Bugatti begs to head toward the mountains to show off the handling side of its exotic-car equation. Nonetheless, the first impulse is to go very slow, not because the car feels like it can't navigate the corners very fast but because you have no immediate sense of where the outer limit lies. The Bugatti can so far exceed the boundaries set by the normal laws of physics that you wouldn't want to go rocketing into one of those mountain switchbacks only to find that it has an unannounced tendency to snap spin or provide some other nasty driving surprise. After all, on this windy test road, a hidden handling problem could mean a long free fall off the mountain. Any concerns are unwarranted.

The car settles into a comfortable speed, where the 110's phenomenal grip is immediately evident. Few cars feel as connected to the road as the Bugatti. It is solid, stable and flat. You accelerate to a corner, brake hard, turn in, apply the throttle, make a clean exit and repeat the process over and over again. The car is a tremendous confidence builder. It makes you feel you can do no wrong.

The America will be considerably changed from the test car--for the better, the company says. The ride will be softer and there will be more horsepower. A hydraulic system in the suspension will lift the car for clearing driveway entrances. ABS and dual air bags will be standard. A carbon-fiber trim will replace the wood trim I saw. The seats will be very aggressive, race-style buckets, but plush leather buckets will also be available.

Bottom line? The Bugatti America will offer stunning looks, power and performance at an equally stunning price. Is it worth it? There is never an answer to that question when it comes to megabuck cars. Yet those few who decide they want the car--and have no problem writing checks--will not be disappointed.

Michael Knepper is a veteran automobile-industry writer.

The Brothers Schlumpf

There's at least one important footnote to the Bugatti story-- two eccentric brothers, Hans and Fritz Schlumpf. The brothers were wealthy woolen-cloth and thread millers in Alsace. After the war, for no apparent reason and with no apparent theme in mind, they began collecting cars. However, there was apparently a desire to own at least one of every Bugatti made. Between 1957 and 1973 they collected Bugattis with a vengeance, driving up the price of the marque in the process, which worked against them as they continued to gather in Bugattis.

The Bugattis and hundreds of other collectible cars were kept in a private museum on the mill grounds in the Alsace town of Mulhouse (pronounced: Mul-looz). The pair was soon in financial trouble, in part because of the investment in the museum but also due to a drop in the woolen market and spiraling wages. They went bankrupt, refusing to sell any of the collection to stay in business.

The brothers sent their four factories into receivership, and all workers were fired. In the predawn of March 7, 1977, a group of workers broke into the museum to protest their sacking and found a sight only a privileged few had seen: the Schlumpf collection.

There were more than 400 cars of virtually every type ever sold in Europe. And there were Bugattis by the score--120 on the floor of the museum, which was the size of three football fields, and 150 squirreled away in various workshops. And there were two Royales.

Today, the Schlumpf collection is owned by the state and open to the public.