Concours & Car Shows

The Secrets of Bugatti’s $19 Million La Voiture Noire

Bugatti designer Frank Heyl sheds light on the blackest of black Bugattis.

What a difference a splash of Italian sunshine makes. My first glimpse of the Bugatti La Voiture Noire—which aptly translates to “the black car”—happened at the Geneva Motor Show a few months ago. Indoors, the swept-back 16-cylinder show car looked rather . . . inscrutable. The subtleties of the Bugatti’s form were all but impossible to discern under the harsh lights of the Palexpo center, which rendered its glossy carbon-fiber surfaces a sea of inky, barely penetrable blackness.

But at the recent Villa d’Este concours, held under the Italian sun, the subtleties of the form were revealed loud and clear, with the natural light casting reflections and revealing shapes that form the sculptural body. To find out more about the sinister sled we caught up with Bugatti’s head of exterior design, Frank Heyl. Here’s what learned about the high dollar one-off:

Bugatti doesn’t really “do” custom builds. While every ultraluxury carmaker happily takes commissions for pricey one-offs—or dreams of doing so—Bugatti isn’t quite like all the rest. “We don’t commission any cars,” Bugatti PR rep Nicole Auger says. “We basically made the car and then approached customers,” Frank Heyl adds. Turns out, at least with La Voiture Noire, Bugatti took a “build it and they will come” approach. They had a customer in mind, presented the said supercustomer with La Voiture Noire—“mind you, without a price,” says Auger—and made the arrangement to sell him or her the final product. “That customer didn’t hesitate,” said Auger.

The 3D-printed wheels aren’t ready (yet) for high g-force primetime. Bugatti’s concept sits on wheels that are some of the wildest, most sculptural hoops we’ve seen anywhere. That said, the 3D-printed wheels will be modified for the final car when it comes to fruition. That’s right, the car you see here is just a model. “They will be engineered to follow the load path of spokes,” says Heyl, “and will minimize the material for reduced unsprung mass.”

There’s always room for aerodynamic improvement. The Chiron on which La Voiture Noire is based is a remarkable engineering achievement that manages to balance massive engine output, aerodynamics, downforce, and the myriad other variables necessary for extreme performance. That said, Heyl remarks that it took “a lot of tricks” to get appropriate levels of air pressure into the Chiron’s side ducts for proper engine cooling. Knowing that the turbulence caused by the front wheels made it more challenging to route air into the Chiron’s engine, this concept car diverts the laminar airflow into a higher spot for more effective routing to the 16-cylinder powerplant.

It’s a hat tip to Jean Bugatti’s personal car. Following the Aerolithe concept, which was constructed of aeronautical grade magnesium alloy, only four Bugatti Atlantics were produced. The most coveted of those cars is chassis #57453, original La Voiture Noire, which was Jean Bugatti’s personal car. Company lore has it that the sleek ride mysteriously disappeared while being transported from Molsheim to Bordeaux, and the modern concept plays tribute with the addition of an aluminum centerline that echoes the long-lost example’s riveted rib. Many believe that if the lost car materialized today, it would be the most valuable automobile on earth and worth perhaps $100 million, making Bugatti’s modern tribute a relative bargain by comparison.

The windows are deeply tinted for a reason. Since the show car is essentially a design study for the actual car which will be built and delivered to the customer, not all is comple—including the TBD interior, which hides behind fully tinted glass. This concept can be driven, though at “show-car speeds.” That likely means it tops out at 20 mph or so, nowhere near the velocities the finalized, engineering-approved car will be capable of achieving.

This isn’t modern-era Bugatti’s first coachbuilt rodeo . . . but it’s close. Though Bugatti’s early cars were nearly exclusively custom coachbuilt efforts, the brand’s 21st-century revival didn’t see a significant departure from the 450-run Veyrons or 500-run Chirons until the 2018 debut of the $5.8 million Divo, which is being built in a 40-unit run starting this year.

The new concept is less “ultimate hypercar” and more “grand touring beast.” Beneath La Voiture Noire’s bodywork is a 1,500-hp W16 powerplant, and though it has six visible exhaust outlets (as opposed to the Chiron’s four), it was actually intended to mimic the original Atlantic’s grand touring aspirations. The Atlantic Type 57 “could go 200 kph [124 mph] on gravel,” asserts Heyl, a stroke of bad-assery we would love to see in the new car. That is, assuming the owner has the intestinal fortitude to pull off.