By now, we all ought to know everything there is to know about Volkswagen’s Bugatti Veyron 16.4. Bugatti has been trotting out prototypes since the 1999 Tokyo auto show. A runner finally met the world’s slavering motor press in Sicily last fall, and we devoted pages and pages to its supreme ridiculousness [November 2005].
How nutty is this car, anyway? Let’s recap a few factory figures:
– 1001 hp (yes, SAE net)
– 922 lb-ft of torque
– Sixteen cylinders, sixty-four valves
– Four turbochargers
– 253 mph top speed (governed)
– 0 to 62 mph in 2.5 seconds
– 0 to 124 mph in 7.3 seconds
– 0 to 186 mph in 16.7 seconds
– $1.3 million
Isn’t it about time for Bugatti to let us take one on a good old road trip?
As my dad used to say, if you don’t ask, the answer is no. I asked.
Every year, just as rowdy Bike Week is ending in Daytona Beach and even wilder spring break is in full swing along every coastal Florida town with sand and cheap motels, the Amelia Island Concours d’Elegance at the Ritz Carlton is an oasis of beautiful vintage cars, manicured lawns, and well-heeled, finely mannered enthusiasts. It ain’t at the Ritz for nuthin’.
With the golf course in back packed with nearly 300 show cars and 18,000 guests, the front of the gleaming hotel is perfect for parking your exotic wares (for a fee, of course). Valets hustled all weekend to clear away common transports in order to showcase a more impressive fleet, including three Maybachs, a Spyker, a Bentley Arnage, a Lamborghini Gallardo Spyder, a Rolls-Royce Phantom, and, most exclusive of all, a Bugatti Veyron.
The It car had arrived in America for real. In fact, two It cars had arrived. One was slated for delivery to a real, live customer, and the other was slated for Automobile Magazine.
I lurk behind a group of kids being lectured by their uncle, Timothy Groover, a doctor from Jacksonville: “This is a Bugatti Veyron, a car that will never happen again. It will go 250 miles per hour.”
“252.75,” murmurs a nephew.
“It makes 1001 hp,” he continues. “It has 50 percent more horsepower and torque than a Ferrari Enzo. You need a three-mile straight for a 0-to-250-to-0 acceleration test.” They whip out their cell phones and take pictures of the car. Our car.
We didn’t need a phone cam because Tom Salt had blown in from Europe with a big bag of cameras to take photos of the Veyron for us. All we needed, in addition to the driver/writer and the photographer, was our technical editor, Don Sherman, to drive Salt in an Audi Q7 chase vehicle, its extralarge roof opening perfect for shooting from. “You need a chase-car driver,” Sherman had barked into my phone, minutes after the call came from Europe confirming the loan. How did he know? “I’m your man. We need some numbers on that car.”
By then, I was pretty sure that all we needed to do was hit the highway for Vernon, Florida, the subject of one of my favorite cult documentaries of all time, Vernon, Florida. “That’s almost 300 miles away,” snarled the Shermanator. “We could go down to Alligator Alley instead and get those performance numbers.”
All I wanted to do was take that crazy car into the heartland of America, home of the normal citizen (see Vile Gossip, page 19), and catch some real-world impressions. About one-third of the estimated 300 Veyrons to be built in the next four years will probably make it to six U.S. sales “representatives.” They will be sucked off the streets and into the garages of the megarich, vanishing forever into the ether of exclusivity. It was our duty to spread the joy. I was pretty sure I didn’t want Sherman to top-speed the Veyron on Alligator Alley. I was totally sure that I didn’t want to top-speed it anywhere. (Fact: A Veyron at top speed will run out of fuel in twelve minutes.) Our compromise would have Sherman snatching test numbers on the road to Vernon.
“We can’t let you drive the car alone, of course,” says Bugatti’s molto soave Swiss public relations man, Georges Keller, who’d flown in the night before our departure. Uh-oh. Party poopers. This could seriously dampen our secret plan to have Sherman wire up his test equipment and record those numbers.
Keller introduces me to my chaperone, Pierre-Henri Raphanel, an Algerian-born Frenchman who’s raced everything, including a couple of underdog Formula 1 cars, in his twenty-year career. He has sunglasses parked atop his dark mane, smoldering black eyes, tight black jeans, black racing shoes, and a gorgeous black leather coat with the collar turned up against an ultrachic magenta-and-lime plaid shirt. I’m not sure whether I should worry about how I’m dressed or about how I’m going to drive this supercar under supervision.
I don’t have to worry about either. Raphanel is on the phone immediately, and he will continue to be on the phone for the next two days. He won’t notice anything if I just keep it between the lines. He might not even notice Sherman. Have I mentioned the non-English-speaking German technicians? That would be the affable Stephen and Georg, trailing along in a rented Chrysler Town & Country minivan.
To make this an honest coast-to-coast run, our international cast of thousands heads south on A1A, looking for a nice beach shot on the Atlantic. Not thirty minutes later, a Honda RC51 motorcycle pulls alongside us, and the rider gives us a c’mon sign with a low hand, then roars off. We don’t play. Here’s a park with sand and palms for our shot. The Honda roars back. Elizabeth Proctor hops off the back.
Elizabeth had called her boyfriend, Mike Conrad, the day before, when she saw our car around Amelia Island. “What car has a backwards E and a B?” she asked him. “He said, ‘You’re kidding me, right. You didn’t see that!’ This is stupid,” she grins, aiming her phone camera, “but you gotta love it, right?”
Enough of the two-lanes. We jump onto I-10 and head west. I cannot bring myself to floor it. It seems so juvenile, and that French guy is sitting next to me, and there is so much power coiled in both of my hands gripping the steering wheel that I can’t do anything but gently press the throttle and let some of it out. Oh, yeah. Boom, we’re off and running. Well, not exactly boom. The Veyron’s engine acoustics are not thundering like a V-12 Ferrari’s but more like a turbine’s. You hear a whistling windup in the echo chamber of the cabin, and then it’s just outta there. Sherman describes the engine as a “white ball of underhood light compared with the growling, shaking, grunting beasts that propel other supercars.” It is right and good that such engineering magnificence sits out in the open, no cover keeping it (or the massive heat it generates) from the elements or admiring glances. I quickly learn that, unless I want to drive it like a jackhammer, it’s best to put the shift lever all the way right into Drive rather than leaving it in manual mode. Then, if you nail the throttle, it won’t just slam into gear, about knocking you out in the process. If you click that selector to the right twice, you get sport mode, which will have the seven-speed dual-clutch (think Audi DSG) automatic running to the redline in every gear. It’s good for a laugh, but Raphanel doesn’t look like a yee-hawer.
I practice driving way too fast for a while, pressing harder and harder, then stand down, the brakes complying as mightily and efficiently as the accelerator. We are sucking up miles at a prodigious pace. Interstate 10 is thick with semis and Harleys heading west at a fair clip. We go with the flow at 85 to 90 mph, then rip past until it’s time to haul it down for a pit stop, somewhere near Monticello.
“What do you call that, other than fast?” asks a biker with a row of rubber bands corralling his long, graying beard. Willie Robinson’s Pecan House, a roadside stand hawking boiled pea-nuts, peanut brittle, and wild mayhaw jelly, is jumping. Bikers are filling up at nearby pumps. Chuck Hudson, on his way home to Alabama, tells us that eighteen people were killed during Bike Week. “We seen y’all pass down the road a ways. It’s almost as badass as my Harley. It’s bad, honey. Bad. Bad to the bone! How much is it?”
“A million three.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” He shouts at a woman coming from the station. “You got a million three, honey? We can shove it in our saddlebag.”
Carol Llewellyn, an older, gray-haired woman, steps from her Subaru Forester and asks if she can take a picture. Very sweet. “I never thought I’d ever see one of these,” she says, raising the camera to her eye.
“What do you think it is?” I can’t believe it.
“Isn’t it a Bugatti thing?”
“I saw it on TV the other night. I told my husband I’ve always wanted a car that you can’t take to the grocery store.” Well, amen, sister. “I just never thought I’d see one.”
I never thought I’d see Vernon, Florida.
On a map, it looks like all roads in Washington County lead to Vernon, not so surprising, given that there are only eleven towns in the county. It’s warm, 80 degrees, and spring-flowering dogwood, redbud, and azaleas brighten both sides of the road as we head west through a flat, sandy landscape dotted with pine forests and lush farm fields. There is no traffic at 3:30 in the afternoon as we roll up to the Vernon town square and turn left on Highway 277, away from the sagging Dixie Dandy store.
Vernon, Florida, the movie, is everyone’s little hick hometown laid open for all the world to examine, one interesting character after another. It can be painful to watch if odd ducks make you uncomfortable. It is hilarious if you can relate. Vernon, Florida, the town, is just another Panhandle burg, stuck between Alabama and the deep blue sea. I don’t know what I was expecting. There is nothing weird or even that picturesque about the place. It’s a little dilapidated, and there are fourteen churches, one for every fifty-four residents. The movie was made twenty-five years ago. All those old codgers must be dead. Nothing to see here. A church. The Dixie Dandy. A church. Hometown Automotive. A church. A tire-repair place.
Whoa. That tire changer was in the movie, I just know it. Our caravan makes a big U-turn, and we roll in like the outlanders we are.
“Sir, do you know why I’m here?” I ask an older man in a plaid shirt and blue work pants. He’s wiping his meaty paws on a rag.
“No ma’am.” Harlan Register has a hint of a smile for me and the weird-looking car.”I saw this movie, and I just wanted to pass through. Would you like to see our car?” I sound like a stupid fool northerner.
“See that man working over there?” says Mr. Harlan, apparently forgiving me my atrocious Midwestern accent. “He was in it. That’s my son. There are only four people left who were in the movie.”
I knew it. Claude Register takes it all in stride as he comes out from under the car on the hoist. I think he’s heard this before, and he cuts to the chase. “That movie, it was like Hick Town. My granddaddy was in it. He was the one talking about the parts of the brain. A week or two later, we found out he had Alzheimer’s.”
I suddenly wish it were just me and not the international cast of thousands, but the crew is moving the Veyron around town for photos while I settle in with the Registers. Every now and then, the car returns, trailed by local kids who use their cell phones to take pictures and then call more kids to come for a look.
“Vernon hasn’t changed at all since that movie was made,” says Mr. Harlan. “But you better have a good look. Disneyland bought land twenty miles down the road, all the way to the beach. Now they’re gonna put in a four-lane. I thought I made a fortune when I sold that restaurant across the street. I think I might have lost money.” His granddaughter, Kayla, snaps the last cell-phone photo as we roll out of town, south on Highway 79 to Panama City Beach.
The second we hit the Gulf of Mexico, it’s bare breasts and beer bottles waving around on the balconies. Happy Hour comes early and with a vengeance. I make a quick right turn while the walkie-talkie chatter steps up dramatically between my chaperone and my technical editor. Our hotel is far enough off the beach to have rooms available. I park the Veyron directly in front. A car full of kids pulls up and a boy in the back shrieks: “Please give me a ride! Please!! Bring it to my house! I guarantee you’ll get laid!” They peel out.
I guarantee you won’t.
The elevator opens on two students; one has his shirt bunched up around his neck, and he’s smelling his armpit. The other moves over to let me in. “Here for spring break?” he inquires politely. “Just kidding.” I raise a brow.
“Did you used to come down here for spring break when you were a young’un? Not that you’re old.”
There is something about putting more than 300 miles on a million-dollar supercar-or is it spring break?-that makes one very thirsty.
A windy rain greets us in the morning. Panama City, its revelers still abed, is empty as we head out. We refuel at a Shell, where pumps sport fuel-saving tips such as: “Warning: Rapid acceleration will reduce fuel economy by 5%.”
Stop me before I rapidly accelerate again.
By now, Sherman has abandoned testing. “No power source in the cockpit,” he mutters. I can tell you this: The Veyron is so easy to drive, it’s hardly exotic, although the leather and polished-aluminum interior looks very, very special. The view from the cockpit is gorgeous. Creased fenders bulge in the periphery of your vision. The left side mirror, unfortunately, is in exactly the wrong spot, obscuring left-hand turns, and you’ll become quite attached to the rear-view camera screen. Other than that, there are no supercar anomalies or temper tantrums. The Veyron roars to life with a push of a big, fat button, the ($30,000) radio is startlingly pure, and the windshield wipers work like squeegees. It’s a real car, although a bit short on space for cabin essentials, including my ass. There’s a flip-out door pocket that can hold a long wallet, a notebook, and a cell phone. The center hump has a depression that will cradle a twenty-ounce drink bottle on its side. That’s it.
Our big, scenic payoff is the stretch of U.S. 98 east of Panama City running around the handgrip of the Panhandle (known as the Redneck Riviera) from Panama City to Apalachicola. There are long stretches of white-sand beach and clusters of pastel beach cottages in Mexico Beach, followed by the steamy town of Port St. Joe and its State Buffer Preserves that give this stretch a wilder coastline. Just out of Port St. Joe, we find Highway 30A, a narrow two-lane too ragged for huge speed, lined by marsh, tall pines, and palmettos. There are no gawkers out here. There is no one out here but a few commercial fishermen and shrimpers like Mark Moore, Rick Gomillion, and Debra Wood, who are parked on the porch of the St. Joe Shrimp Company, a ramshackle, two-story wooden building. We’ve stopped for a photo, because it looks quaint as hell if you turn a blind eye to the old refrigerator lying on its side in the yard.
The inhabitants don’t blink an eye as I extricate myself from the driver’s seat. It’d been dripping rain all morning, though that’s now stopped, and the gnats are out. “Where ya’ll coming from?” asks Wood, a properly sized woman for an Amazon tribe. I tell her, “Vernon.”
“Whatcha all doing up in Vernon? That’s a good little place. My mom lives up there.” Now that the girls are talking, the guys feel it’s okay to ask some questions. Sherman takes over, barking out the specifics of how many cylinders, how many turbos, where the air goes in, and how the heat flows out, in two complete, and completely coherent, sentences.
“Can y’all wait five minutes while I call my brother, Clint, to come over?” asks Moore. “He has a local fishing show.” It seems churlish not to oblige. Clint roars in, jumps from his pickup with a camcorder in one hand, and starts filming. “What is it?” he begins. Which explains why you might have seen us and the Bugatti “thing” recently on the local Port St. Joe fishing channel.
Back on Highway 98, the historic nineteenth-century fishing village of Apalachicola is humming. (Speaking of humming, when we cross the bridge into town, the Veyron’s foot-wide tires set up a howl exactly like a 727 heading down the runway for takeoff.) We stop for a quick photo, and the Veyron begins to suck people out of shops, out of offices, down the street, up the sidewalk, and into the range of their phone cameras. They don’t see us, or they don’t care. They want to touch it, photograph it, call their friends, photograph it again. One kid has an ice-cream cone in one hand and his phone cam in the other. I am waiting for him to stick the cone in his eye, he is so excited.
Sherman has not abandoned the idea of doing a blast-off in launch mode. Raphanel agrees but insists that he himself be the one who does the launch. One miscue and all four tires will be fried. There is no miscue by Raphanel, but there is no light up, no smoky burnout, although he makes several game attempts. He speaks to the German technicians, who blame it on a software glitch. Sherman is unimpressed.
On the way back, Sherman wants to check out a very cool auto boneyard near Old Town, Florida. There is nothing to recommend the bleak, desolate stretch of Highway 19 from Perry to Old Town, other than that it’s as straight as an arrow, with a solid ten-mile straight and a 65-mph speed limit. Which we do not observe.
Old Gold is as promised. Sherman runs up and down aisles yelling things like, “He has 400 Cadillacs!” and “See if they have any Pintos!” Even the Europeans are crawling in old Buick hulks, taking pictures of each other. I know there are snakes in here. Where are the snakes?
It’s 140 miles back to Amelia Island. Sherman commandeers the Veyron for a much-deserved last blast, and now all I want to do is get home. I chew my nails to the end.
You’re never as nervous about borrowing a $1.3 million car as you are the last mile, the last block, the last moment until you see the big, orange Reliable transporter in the parking lot, running lights blazing and loading ramps in the receiving position. All is right with our world.
Georges Keller called from overseas last week and asked if I could send more peanut brittle. And a copy of Vernon, Florida.