Invisible Icons: Driving the Priceless Bugatti EB110 Race Cars in Paris

We experience the cars that inspired the new $8 million Centodieci.

Dale DrinnonwriterMartyn Goddardphotographer Jurgen Skarwanphotographer

"Drivers in central Paris damn sure don't ease off a helluva lot at four in the morning," I think as yet another delivery van comes within inches of swapping paint with me. They just use the relative lull in traffic to go faster and cut across lanes more sharply. I'm also starting to regret how often I've bragged, "Nah, driving megabucks cars doesn't make me nervous; I'm a pro." Still, better now than at peak traffic Armageddon, because no matter the risk, returning to the site of the Bugatti EB110's original launch behind the wheel of an actual EB110 is a photo opportunity you simply can't turn down.

The pucker factor, however, is now far past sucking up the seat covers at the mere thought of smashing up the last Bugatti to run at Le Mans. In addition, along for this shoot is the very last Bugatti factory race car, of any sort, ever. Oh, and it's all happening a day before both cars leave for starring roles at the California launch of the Chiron-based Bugatti Centodieci, a modern homage to the EB110. It's not lost on us that the last-ever racing Bugatti was built for the IMSA GT series in the good 'ol U.S. of A., where the EB110 was—and still is—virtually invisible.

The History

Then again, irony has been a prominent component of Bugatti's legend from the beginning. Ettore Bugatti, founder of this most historically French marque, was born and raised in Italy, but like a great many immigrants, took to his adopted country with a passion. Bugatti's story is also one of hope and ambition and dreams and tragedy, like any good human drama.

Bugatti began in the subcompact segment of the early 1900s, but in the pre-World War II era, it went on to expand its repertoire into the fastest competition machines, the most elegant sports cars, and, with the Type 41 Royale, the biggest, most expensive, bombastic luxury cruiser imaginable. The founder lived large, too, like an Old World aristocrat, on an estate beside his factory with his horses and hunting dogs. He had his own grand hotel for the monarchs and film stars that formed his customer base.

A man of artistic sensibilities, he designed as much on aesthetics as technology, but somehow it worked. You might very well prefer to drive a late '30s Bugatti than a late '40s Ferrari: more refinement, less hard work, far more fun. Bugatti automobiles were the ne plus ultra of their age—which sadly ended only days before WWII, when Ettore's son Jean, heir apparent and by then de facto company boss after Ettore had basically decamped to Paris with his mistress—died at the wheel of the Bugatti that had recently won the 1939 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The armies came, the factory was ravaged, and at war's end, with his physical and mental health shattered, Ettore's meager assets were seized in the general scapegoating, his Italian birth serving as justification. He died in 1947, in Paris, two months after the seizure was reversed. Business resumed amid the ruins under younger son Roland, the company producing a handful of cars based on the prewar stuff, but by the mid-'50s even the pretense was over. The factory, along with the Bugatti name, went to an aircraft parts manufacturer, and through a 1968 merger, on to a partner linked with a second historic automaker: Messier Hispano Bugatti.

The Rebirth

Already, though, another party had their eyes on the Bugatti legacy. Romano Artioli was a Bugatti fanatic from childhood, grew up to be a hugely successful automotive entrepreneur and avid Bugatti collector, and in the '80s acted on his lifelong dream of reviving the marque. This proved somewhat . . . challenging. Securing the Bugatti name alone took two years; Romano is Italian, and French trade authorities weren't sure they wanted a grand French name like Bugatti going to Italy. The full negotiations weren't disclosed, but French firms Michelin, Aerospatiale, and Elf suddenly became prime suppliers to the revived brand.

Artioli, though, got his way on the factory location—Northern Italy—and for good reason: That's where all the supercar talent resided, and he was adamant that he must build a car worthy of the Bugatti name. It had to be fast, sophisticated, comfortable, and luxurious. And high-tech, with the latest materials and science. And built in a commensurate atmosphere, not some dismal, converted warehouse. Finally, it should be priced at a half-million 1990 U.S. dollars, 25 percent higher than a Ferrari F40.

Artioli planned to unveil this reborn Bugatti on September 15, 1991, on what would have been Ettore's 110th birthday, in Paris. He named it, accordingly, EB110. The schedule was ambitious, considering he only won the naming rights in '87, and broke ground on the factory the next year. However, he had some of the best minds in the industry on board, many of them Lamborghini veterans—Ferruccio Lamborghini himself was an early collaborator—and set the powertrain target as a quad-turbo, five-valve V-12 with full-time all-wheel drive, the first production carbon-fiber chassis, and a top speed exceeding 200 mph.

The factory's construction went swimmingly, and it was an awesome thing. The work of architect Giampaolo Benedini, Artioli's brilliant cousin, the building is closer to art gallery than garage, with abundant natural light and staff facilities like a vacation resort. The car, unfortunately, presented more difficulties. Technical director Paolo Stanzani, ex of Lamborghini, left abruptly in the middle of development over "creative differences." Designer Marcello Gandini, charged with the 110's styling, produced a look Artioli couldn't stomach, and the final version fell to Benedini—a controversial shape then, but widely appreciated now.

There were additional matters, too, like the funding stream, a source of some dirty rumors and which never brought enough money. Through it all, the resolute Artioli held his dream together and built a car with remarkably few compromises from his initial concept. He hit his launch date in 1991, and as promised, did it in Paris, parading around the Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs-Élysées, followed by dinner and 2,000 bottles of champagne for 1,800 VIP guests at the Palace of Versailles. Ettore Bugatti would have been proud, and he was a hard man to please.

The dream soon got even madder. With production falling behind and who knows how much debt piling up, Artioli, after nudging from cousin Benedini, a weekend warrior himself, decided in late 1993 to take the EB110 racing. But there was method in this particular madness. The brand had forever been associated with motorsports; a Bugatti won the first-ever Monaco Grand Prix, after all, and bringing the name back to major international competition could be a PR bonanza.

The Drive

So the R&D department expanded into race-car building, and brought forth two examples—the last two official factory Bugatti race cars, almost certainly forever. They were two different cars, for different continents. To today call them unique or irreplaceable seems bluntly inadequate; taking them for a cruise around the ritziest part of the French capital, on the other hand, seems like the most Bugatti thing imaginable.

They're not as bull-in-a-china-shop on city streets as you'd expect, either. Both are based on the faster, lighter EB110 SS that followed the original full-dresser GT model. Both have about 600 horses, and they clearly inherited the good road manners Artioli set as a priority. (I've driven one of the development cars, and it's much more of an animal.) If not for the horrible visibility everywhere save straight ahead, a big deal indeed in central Paris, and the ground clearance of a three-legged salamander, you could drive a kid to T-ball in these cars.

That said, the blue Le Mans car, officially called model EB110S LM, is the most racer-raw of the pair. It was the first, and since Artioli stipulated a debut at the 1994 running of the 24 Hours—the 55th anniversary of Bugatti's last Le Mans win—the shop had barely six months to go from an idea to putting a machine on the starting grid. Consequently, part of the race-prep chores were farmed out, final assembly at the factory involved many a late shift, and the weight penalties inherent in all-wheel drive never were fully ironed out.

The silver IMSA car, though, EB110S SC, is as slick as a greased salmon. Lessons learned from the LM gave it revamped bodywork, to more easily reach things that might need rapid pit-stop attention, plus a neater, better organized cockpit, and while some specialist installations like the cage were subcontracted, it's nonetheless the most in-house EB110S. Unlike LM, it also has radiator fans, and a few precious added millimeters of ride height (maybe with Sebring in mind?), making it a practical driver well after we sideline LM for its own preservation.

It also doesn't load up at red lights like LM, and will move off without any come-arrest-me V-12 throttle riffing. Still, neither of the cars are really obnoxiously loud, regardless of revs or speed. That's partly because of all those turbos, but partly because Artioli believed Bugattis are fast cars for mature grown-ups, and on a deserted, predawn side street it's actually possible to discreetly romp it a little. The all-wheel drive handles huge gobs of power without the slightest tire complaints.

In less restrictive circumstances, I've had enough seat time to know these are as user-friendly when pressed as when coddled. Thanks to four-wheel traction, there's never a time when the chassis feels unbalanced or twitchy, with no need for stability or traction controls. The pedal positions are flawless; the six-speed manual gearbox is smooth, well-spaced, and perfectly matches the torque curve; and the total package is as entertaining as it should be while being only a few ticks off of the current lot of computer-aided hypercars in terms of acceleration.

If there were justice in this world, an EB110 would have won Le Mans. Car LM qualified a decent 17th there in '94, fell back with a fuel-tank leak until an epoxy fix took hold, made two stops for blown turbos, and came back hard at the close, looking like a possible top-five finisher. Then with 45 minutes left, LM veered left under braking at the end of flat-out Mulsanne, possibly from tire failure, and ended its 24 hours in pieces from contacting the barriers.

Its SC sibling had slightly better luck in the U.S., finishing fifth in class at Watkins Glen in 1995 and sixth in class at Sears Point. At the 1996 Daytona 24, it reached sixth overall, when the rain came and its excellent traction offset its weight disadvantage, before retiring with transmission and electrical problems. In April 1996, however, it also crashed heavily—at the Le Mans trials, as it were—and once more six weeks later at the Two Hours of Dijon, France. Both cars were eventually repaired, and have lived long and happy lives since with appreciative collectors, but neither of them ever raced again.

In fact, it's a miracle that SC made it to the '96 Daytona 24, as Artioli's chapter of the Bugatti legend fell to bankruptcy in September 1995. Production was always behind schedule, cashflow was a constant problem, and some have hinted rather broadly at industrial espionage by industry competitors, and intimidation of critical suppliers. All told, maybe 150 EB110s were made, of all types, and they continue to be highly prized, trading quietly for prices typically containing six zeroes.

Artioli moved on to other things; he's a born optimist and a survivor. When the current, very private owner of both LM and SC recently reunited him and many of the old staff with the cars at a reunion in the still-vacant factory, he was his usual buoyant self, and we talked for a long time about the good old days, as well as the good days to come. He sold the Bugatti name to the VW Group in 1998, of course, and now we see in the new Centodieci the next chapter of the EB110. It has mighty big shoes to fill.

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