A Bugatti Journey


Formalities aside and giving credit where it's due, let the record state that Ettore Bugatti was kind of a nut job.

I can identify with that. Obsessive-compulsive disorder hadn't yet been given a name, but it was present, accounted for, and in full force at the Bugatti factory.

By all accounts, the building was like a museum: unfailingly spotless, scrubbed clean on a continual basis, and lined with flawless tools and unscratched implements that all bore the Bugatti logo. Many of the machines used to make the car parts were themselves made by Bugatti. And like the parts they churned out, every one of them was obsessively machine-turned, polished, and pretty.

Bugatti was born in Italy but was a devout Francophile. As luck would have it, Molsheim, Germany, the town in which he set up his factory in 1909, would become part of France following World War I. And while Bugatti's particular blend of Germano-Franco-Italian OCD was obvious in his cars (perfectly engineered, elegant, and passionate, as they were), his nuttiness was also reflected in his actions. For example, the power consumed at the factory was generated on-site in a power station that Bugatti designed and built himself because he considered the electric company rude for sending him a bill. He designed an enormous car for royalty and then refused to sell one to the king ofAlbania -- the only royal actually interested in it -- because of the king's table manners. And Bugatti routinely reprimanded customers who complained about his cars' flaws. Clearly, a regimen of Zoloft would have gone a long way.

Yet like many successful eccentrics, Bugatti found a way to channel his afflictions into the formation of epic pieces of art. To him, the automobile -- and every one of its components -- was no less of an objet d'art than, say, the famously lavish furniture his father designed or the sculptures his brother created. With a sixth sense for materials engineering, Bugatti created some of the world's greatest mechanical masterpieces without any formal technical training, but what set him apart is how he incorporated aesthetics into everything he designed.

Bugatti's engines would have been world-class industrial-design works even if they had never succeeded at burning a drop of fuel. And yet they did-and outran every other car on the road, setting speed records that stood for decades. They humiliated race cars with engines four times their size, and they did it all while looking like art.

If Mr. Bugatti had one creative failing, it might be the lack of imagination in his naming scheme. You're forgiven if you can't keep all the Bugatti model names straight-in fact, in 1930 alone, you could purchase Types 35, 35A, 35B, 35C, 35T, 37, 37A, 40, 40A, 41, 43, 44, 45, 46, 46S, 47, 49, and 50.

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