A Bugatti Journey

January 4, 2011
Surely you've seen the little blue race cars with the tall, narrow tires and freakish positive camber, but have you ever really seen these Bugattis? Have you ever stopped to examine how they work? How they were put together? How they were designed? What they accomplished? What they meant?
Bugatti Veyron Super Sport In Motion
I confess, I hadn't. Sure, Bugattis are exceedingly rare (total production is somewhere fewer than 8000 cars over 100 years) and expensive (many are valued in the seven-figure range, a few even higher), but it's universally agreed that Bugatti is one of the most significant marques of all time. And given the unlikelihood that I would ever drive one, I had dismissed them as ancient, uninteresting history.
However, over the course of several months last autumn, a bizarre set of circumstances combined to let me drive -- and study up close -- five different Bugattis. The adventure began in California in a 2008 Veyron and a 2009 Grand Sport, surrounded by a sea of classic Bugattis in a rally for the fiftieth anniversary of the American Bugatti Club. One of the owners generously allowed me a day behind the wheel of his 1930s grand prix car. And when another magnanimous owner found out I would soon be driving the Veyron Super Sport, he offered me a drive in his 1990s Bugatti EB110SS.
Driving the 1200-hp Bugatti Veyron Super Sport is a pretty rare opportunity. Not as rare, however, as going from zero to five Bugattis and hopscotching across the entire history of the marque in only a matter of weeks. Most important, though, without my exposure to the earlier Bugattis, I would have never noticed, or even understood, the things that make the new Veyron Super Sport so special.
Bugatti Beyron Super Sport Front Three Quarters In Motion
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.
August 16-18, 2010: Santa Cruz, California
Bugatti Type 51 Side
Of the cars that made the Bugatti brand famous -- the spindly little race cars designed by Ettore and, later, his son Jean -- the Type 51 is the ultimate expression. Although it owes its lineage to many different cars, its most direct ancestor is the Type 13, which earned the nickname "Brescia" after finishing the 1921 Voiturette Grand Prix near Brescia, Italy. The Brescia grabbed the world's attention not only for its diminutive size (and tiny 1.5-liter four-cylinder with sixteen valves!) but also its build quality. While other race cars were often tattered and disheveled before the race even started, the Brescias, like all Bugattis, were designed with a fanatical attention to detail and prepared to concours levels of finish, with gleaming blue paint, polished axles, and reflective aluminum wheels.
The Brescia's racing success was short-lived, however, and Bugatti had no choice but to make substantial changes to it. The result was the breathtaking
Type 35 of 1924, which had eight cylinders in a row under its elongated hood. It kicked an impossible amount of derriere, decimating the competition and crowding the podium at the grueling Targa Florio five years in a row.
Development of the Type 35 was the peak of the senior Bugatti's career, and his influence gradually gave way to that of his son Jean, who didn't suffer from his father's reluctance to change. The next evolution of the Type 35 was the 51-which saw a progression to twin overhead camshafts and forced induction.
The Type 13, 35, and 51 are racing cars, but the differences between Bugatti grand prix and road cars were slight. In fact, Bugatti made it clear in his literature that all of his cars used the same engines and were built from the same materials by the same workmen.
The 1933 Type 51 race car I drove, owned by Bugatti collector and museum founder Peter Mullin, is impossibly easy to drive and far better than you can ever imagine for a car of this age. The cabin is inhumanely cramped -- two full-figured adult men stuffed in the Type 51 had better like each other, because there's more body contact than in a wrestling match. Sitting on the right side of the car, the driver needs to keep both hands free for steering and shifting duties, which doesn't leave room for the passenger's arms. The passenger must fold his left arm in and wrap his right around the driver's back, leaving his right hand just inches from the tread of the spinning right rear tire.
Meanwhile, from the driver's seat, the most vivid visual is a thin, polished steering column aimed directly at your chest. You worry that, in the smallest of crashes, the column will harpoon your thorax, killing you long before the precious car's owner arrives on the scene to do the job himself. Either way, it's a scary thought -- especially once you hit the gas and find that the supercharged Type 51 is modern-car fast.
Bugatti Type 51 Front
The straight-eight starts quickly, idles perfectly, and responds instantly to throttle inputs. It's blatty and crude, with nothing of the sweetness we've become used to from eights arranged in a vee. It sounds more like two four-cylinders mounted together (which, in fact, it is); unmuffled (which, in fact, it is); and punctuated with the enormous clatter of a Scintilla magneto, which is sticking through the firewall and mounted in the dashboard. The pedals are laid out in the correct-modern-arrangement, but even the skinniest driving shoes are too wide to depress only the gas pedal. You learn to twist your ankle and use the side of your foot to actuate it.
To the right, outside the cockpit, is the long metal shifter. The four forward gears are arranged in the usual H-pattern, but with first and third toward the rear of the car. With no plastic bits or cables between your hand and the gears -- and Bugatti's zero-tolerance policy for machined parts -- the shifter's action is perfectly precise. So, too, is the clutch pedal, which is easy to use despite having what feels like less than an inch of travel.
The suspension seems to go on break when bumps arrive -- especially midcorner ones -- and the cable-actuated brakes are horrifying, to say the least, but the Type 51's effortless torque and shocking grip means it'll easily keep up with cars seventy years its junior.
After a few hours exposed to the elements, you're dirty, stinky, deaf, wind-blown, sunburned, and covered in a carcinogenic film of discarded motor oil. The experience is such a sweet assault on your senses that all of your reference points are null and void. You have no idea even how fast you're going. When I pulled out a GPS on an open section of Highway 1 along the Pacific coast, I was certain the device would mock me, showing a speed attainable by bicycle. Instead, we were heading due south at 72 mph, and the Type 51 felt like it had more than 50 mph left in it. Which it did.
Although the Bugatti car had plenty of reserve, Bugatti the company, it would transpire, did not.
October 8, 2010: Berlin, Germany
Bugatti EB 110SS Front Three Quarters
In 1939, Jean Bugatti was killed in an accident just as he was really starting to transform the company into a sustainable manufacturer of premium automobiles. Bugatti had always been a company run by one man's vision, and although it seemed like the transition from father to son would have been successful, when Jean Bugatti died, effectively so did the company.
Yet, as in any great soap opera, the popular characters don't stay dead forever. In the late 1980s, a debonair Italian named Romano Artioli devoted millions of dollars of unknown origin toward resurrecting the Bugatti name. On September 15, 1991, exactly 110 years after the birth of Ettore Bugatti, the 560-hp EB110 made its public debut in Paris. A fitting fete for a brand that had been dead for decades but remained "an icon in the presence of all automobile enthusiasts," to quote design editor Robert Cumberford, the Parisian launch was an event to rival a royal wedding, a procession of Bugattis from La Défense to the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysées to the Place de la Concorde.
Cumberford was there -- and wholly unimpressed. He blasted the organizational mess and then lambasted the EB110's backside for being "ugly" and described its horseshoe grille as "amateurish." We're used to that kind of criticism from Cumberford, but even Monsieur le Grump had to concede that the EB110 was a technological tour de force. Mounted in its middle was a 3.5-liter V-12 with not one or two turbochargers, but four. It had not three or four valves per cylinder, but five. It revved to not a usual supercar's 7000 rpm or an otherworldly 8000 rpm, but to nearly 9000 rpm. Its transmission contained six forward gears. And to top it off, it was four-wheel drive.
The most extreme EB110 came a few years later in the form of the EB110SS, which had 610 hp -- also from just 3.5 liters. That was enough power to haul this supercar to a top speed of more than 215 mph or to complete a lap of the Nürburgring Nordschleife in 7 minutes and 44 seconds.
It was Bugatti savant and EB110 collector Chris Hrabalek who graciously allowed us to drive his Sport Stradale (which is what "SS" stood for) in Berlin. Hrabalek's is reportedly one of only two yellow SS's produced -- the other was famously owned by Michael Schumacher -- and one of only about thirty total. Its limited number, high price, and spectacular performance are certainly hallmarks of a Bugatti, but the EB110 is quite different from the prewar cars: it's not, when viewed up close, an assemblage of hundreds of small pieces of art. There are sloppy welds in the engine compartment, with electrical wires zip-tied to messy intercooler tubes. Even the all-black, all-business cabin is nothing special in terms of design or material quality. Moving further away from the homemade Bugatti recipe, many of the EB110's components bear the name of outside suppliers -- the brakes say Brembo, the exhaust ANSA, and the wheels BBS.
Bugatti EB110SS Front Three Quarters
As with other supercars of this era, getting into and out of the EB110 requires a bit of gymnastics (although the forward-rotating scissor doors are pretty cool), the pedals are offset to the side, and there's so much tumblehome that the A-pillar meets the roof precisely at your left temple. Forward vision is OK, but you wouldn't notice a Boeing 747 landing beside or behind the EB110.
Adjusting the rearview mirror, your choice is to see nothing behind you or to aim the mirror directly at the V-12's complicated throttle linkage. It's mesmerizing watching the rods move, knowing they're opening and closing twelve individual throttle butterflies over and over as the four turbos build and release boost through vocal, chirping blow-off valves.
So what if this Bugatti follows a slightly different formula? The car isn't comprised of individual pieces of art, but as a whole, the EB110 was one magnificent, carbon-fiber sculpture. One that, like the cars that wore the red Bugatti badge before it, broke records, redefined supercars, and indelibly etched the Bugatti name into the psyche of another generation of car enthusiasts. The EB110's most profound contribution, alas, was to pass its DNA directly to what is unquestionably the most prolific expression of haute engineering in the history of the automobile: the Bugatti Veyron Super Sport.
October 9, 2010: Las Cabezas de San Juan, Spain
Bugatti Beyron Super Sport Front Three Quarters In Motion
It's easy to criticize the Veyron for being so heavy or so numb or so this or that. But to do so is to forget just what an accomplishment this car was in the first place. The basics, of course, were simple: madman (and Automobile Magazine's 2011 Man of the Year) Ferdinand Piëch buys the rights to the Bugatti name and develops the most ludicrous prescription for the fastest and most expensive production car ever -- it needs to have 1001 hp, hit 253 mph, and set new standards for handling and braking. Oh, and it must be an outstanding piece of art.
It takes five years to complete, but the Veyron 16.4 happens against all odds -- all well and good. But at the original price of $1.3 million, it will still have lost money when all 300 are built. Justification? Volkswagen said the project cost a fraction of what competing in Formula 1 would have -- and besides, although none of us will ever drive an F1 car, at least we might have a chance to drive a Veyron, no matter how slight.
When I finally did, during the owners' rally in California in August, I understood why it was so easy to criticize the car. Sure, it's unbelievably fast and stunning inside and out. But the Veyron rides like crap and has no steering feel, the dual-clutch transmission is perfect but perfectly soulless, and, quite frankly, the car sounds like a turbocharged vacuum cleaner.
Sure, the Grand Sport is better than the stock Veyron coupe, since the lack of a roof means that, from the snorkels directly above your head, you can hear the four turbos spool and spit out their boost with deafening clarity. This sound, combined with the W-16's deep thundercloud bark, is different from, but no less titillating than, the screaming wail of the world's most sonorous engines. Nice, but it doesn't completely make up for some of the aforementioned shortcomings.
Then we learned about the final thirty Veyrons, which will be called SS (this time, it stands for Super Sport). They'll get 200 more horsepower. Great, the collective critics say, a tuner special wherein some computer geek at Volkswagen writes a new line of code for the engine computer. Twenty percent more power -- big deal! Adding twenty percent more power to a Volkswagen GTI requires a visit to your favorite tuning shop and a couple hundred bucks. For that matter, adding another 200 hp to a GTI -- doubling its power -- doesn't require all that much work.
For the final leg of my Bugatti journey, I flew to Seville, Spain, to meet with the engineers and the drivers-men who were involved in the Veyron project from day one. And in short order, I realized how wrong I was -- how every one of the Veyron's flaws was so insignificant. Here's why.
Bugatti Veyron Super Sport Rear In Motion 2
Fortifying a Veyron by an additional 20 percent took two and a half years of development time. That's half as long as the engineers needed to develop the car in the first place. The Veyron was already squeezed so hard against the upper limits of physics that adding any more power required not only a rethink of many of the car's systems, but also the additional half-decade in improvements at the cutting edge of materials engineering.
In simpler terms: the Veyron's air-conditioning system blew up when bolted to the 1200-hp engine. It, like every other part of the Veyron, was already at the limit -- and in this case, since the engine itself revs more quickly under acceleration as a result of the additional power, the A/C system couldn't bleed off pressure quickly enough. It's the same with every subsystem in the Super Sport -- that's how close the Veyron was to exploding into a mushroom cloud of carbon fiber and titanium dust.
Want to criticize the Veyron for being too heavy? In fact, it could not possibly weigh any less and still provide the performance and luxury it does: virtually every single part has been optimized to the breaking point. The same holds true for the Super Sport: thanks to the progression of carbon-fiber modeling, Bugatti was able to strip 77 pounds from the carbon-fiber tub, which now weighs only 297 pounds. The rest of the car tries not to crumble under 1400 pounds of engine and transmission.
As for that massive thrust: at full boost in first gear, the Super Sport's rear tires are subjected to some 5000 lb-ft of torque. Twelve hundred horsepower is an absurd, meaningless number until you think of it this way: run for 63 minutes under full load, the Super Sport's sixteen-cylinder engine has produced enough power to run an average household for a month -- and almost enough waste heat to keep it warm, too.
As for any complaints we once had about driving the Veyron? Everything's been fixed. The Super Sport's suspension has been completely revised and now provides a luxury-car ride. Like the brand itself, the once-dead steering has been brought to life -- and is now magnificently communicative, with carefully metered on-center feel and a progressive buildup of effort and feedback as you approach the absurdly high cornering limits. The Super Sport turns into corners instantly, almost like a Lotus Elise, and settles into throttle-adjustable neutral balance through sweepers. All immediate indications of the car's heft have been eliminated from behind the wheel.
Bugatti Lineup
The larger turbos are far slower to wake than the Veyron's, but the wait is amply rewarded. Off the line, all four tires explode into wheel spin when boost hits, and as the power gauge swings past 900 hp, you can catch your circulatory system off-guard and start to go faint. Full-throttle acceleration actually hurts.
Then you get out and look at the Veyron Super Sport. It's beautiful. It's compromise free. It's magnificent. The more you look -- under the car, in the door jambs, everywhere -- the more details you discover. Unfailingly, each detail is in itself a work of art. It is precisely this fact that makes the Veyron a real Bugatti. The performance numbers speak for themselves. Perhaps some other companies have occasionally made automobiles of such exceptional beauty, maybe even when examined down to each nut, bolt, and electrical connector. But none has ever married that artistic merit with incomparable, record-shattering, but never-breaks-a-sweat performance like this. It is that combination that creates a Bugatti.
The Specs
PRICE: €1.65 million (approx. $2.2 million)
ENGINE: 8.0-liter quad-turbocharged W-16, 1200 hp, 1106 lb-ft
DRIVE: 4-wheel
TOP SPEED: 258 mph (electronically limited)
Desecration in The Making
Last summer I was privileged to visit Peter Mullin's private California automobile museum. It celebrates the glorious period from 1919 to 1939, when Paris was the epicenter of world car design and French, American, Italian, Russian, and Spanish designers living there created some of the most beautiful cars of all time. Mullin has a wide-ranging selection of exquisite vehicles, but the centerpiece is one of Jean Bugatti's exotic Atlantic coupes. Indeed, the overall emphasis is on Bugattis. Not just cars created by Ettore and his engineer/stylist elder son, Jean, but also furniture by paterfamilias Carlo and sculpture by Ettore's brother, Rembrandt. It's all of the highest quality and in the best of taste, a magnificent ensemble unequaled even in France. Perfect.
Bugatti Type 64 Coachbuild
Except for one jarring note: in an alcove stood one of only two extant prototype cast-aluminum chassis for the Bugatti Type 64, the model intended to follow the successful Type 57, introduced in 1934 and made in some 700 examples. That's not the problem; the chassis is fascinating. But it's surrounded by sketches and models of some absolutely horrifying bodies proposed recently by students at the Art Center College of Design, one of which may actually be erected at great cost on that unique, irreplaceable platform. The idea of creating a new body is fine, but I am distressed that unformed and uninformed youngsters have been entrusted with a task for which-on the evidence presented-they are incapable of executing.
They've done a series of Kalifornia Kustom adaptations of Jean Bugatti's 1935 riveted-magnesium Aérolithe ("meteor" in Greek) design that led to the Atlantics, as though Jean had had to rummage through discarded sketches to come up with a slight variation on older designs. I don't think that's realistic. Jean was killed in 1939, driving that year's Le Mans-winning car with an envelope body he designed in 1935-36. If Jean did aerodynamic, full-envelope bodies that early, and if worldwide design tendency was then in the direction of pontoon bodies -- and it was -- why would he go back? And why should twenty-first-century students imagine that one of the most creative designers then practicing would only want to do baroque George Barris-style modifications of his own superseded models?
To properly honor Jean Bugatti's heritage with a new Type 64 body, designers need strong historical awareness, and they must know what precursors in form existed in 1940 along with the techniques and materials in use at the time. Using that knowledge-and absolutely nothing that arose in the subsequent seventy years-those students might have created a reasonable proposition. I believe it required an experienced, mature, retired designer working closely with a qualified historian to guide them. Strother MacMinn could have done it, or Dave Holls, but they're gone now. Frenchman Paul Bracq comes to mind, or Hungarian-born Steve Pasteiner, or any of half a dozen other elder statesmen of design. What the students have done is anathema to me. Wouldn't it be better just to leave the bare chassis on exhibition?
- Robert Cumberford


Photo Gallery