It was an off-hand comment, of course, but Ettore Bugatti never took it that way. How could he?
It was an off-hand comment, of course, but Ettore Bugatti never took it that way.
How could he?
It was an insult, he thought, as he boiled inside. There was no other way around it. And he just couldn’t let it slide.
The story of the largest, most expensive automobile ever built — and really the story behind Ettore Bugatti, the legendary automaker — began simply enough at a dinner one night. Red wine and red meat. And it ended with Bugatti seeing red, too.
It was the mid-1920s and the 40-something Bugatti, an Italian born in 1881 in fashionable Milan to artistic parents, was already on his way to creating a slew of impressive cars.
He was innovative in his automotive development, pioneering new methods of design and engineering while working for Deutz, a German company, eventually firing up his own company before he was 30.
Bugatti built his cars with artistic execution and attention to detail. In 1910, at age 29, he created an extremely light, high-performance, 1.35-liter four-cylinder vehicle. Four years later, a 16-valve configuration became the world’s first multi-valve engine produced in a series of vehicles.
He was intelligent. He was innovative. And he was proud of what he produced.
Which brings us back to dinner.
At a gathering one night in France, Bugatti was seated next to an English woman.
Somehow, the subject turned to luxury vehicles. Although no one doubted Bugatti’s ability to build very capable, very good-looking and very fast vehicles, the true luxury class of automobile was, as it always had been, best represented by Rolls-Royce, the woman told Bugatti.
You could have heard a spoon drop.
A stunned Bugatti later termed it the ultimate “insult.” Spurned and obsessed, Bugatti proceeded to create his vision of the true luxury car for the crowned heads of Europe.
Massive in size and scope, the Royale was a 12.7-liter, 300-horsepower vehicle that was 20-feet long and far ahead of the competition.
It was luxurious. It was a masterpiece. And Bugatti felt vindicated.
Of course, he didn’t need to make a statement cast in aluminum and steel.
Bugatti already had plenty going for him, even if not everyone was aware of it.
Bugatti’s inventions — engines, machine tools, railway cars — would all be remembered for their influence on 20th-century design.
His concept of modular engineering meant every Bugatti model was made not just in a series, but with parts that were used in other Bugatti models. That was a first for its time.
Bugatti also created single-overhead-camshaft designs with three valves per cylinder in either four- or eight-cylinder configurations. Transmissions and axles were interchangeable for either race cars or production models. Either one could be driven on the road.
It was global design before the industry was global. His common-platform-engineering principles made him a pioneer. And his race cars were some of the best in the world, taking home significant finishes including the first-ever Monaco Grand Prix.
The Bugatti Type 35, a light and efficient vehicle, became an industry leader on the track, winning hundreds of races.
His design for multi-spoke alloy wheels for the Type 35 is one of the most widespread of its type today.
But, as an automotive artist, he was obsessed.
Even the engines he built were crafted according to aesthetics. Every Bugatti that left the factory had to have perfectly balanced proportions and impeccable design.
After those comments that night at dinner, Bugatti poured his resources into making the Royale. Unfortunately for him, it was the wrong time and place.
Between 1929 and 1932, only six of those majestic vehicles were built. Three were sold. The Great Depression made sure no king ever bought one, either.
One was sold to the so-called “prince” of the French textile industry, Armand Esders.
But Bugatti ultimately failed to maintain longevity. Unable to make the transition from light cars to luxury cars, he was unable to build the empire he once dreamed of.
Mostly, he lost his creative edge when his wife and son died in 1939. He was also imprisoned after the Second World War, charged with collaboration with the enemy.
One of the most creative minds in automotive history, he died in the Paris suburb of Neuilly on Aug. 21, 1947, just a month short of his 66th birthday.
At that time, there were about 7,950 Bugattis rolling around.
Today, some are worth as much as $10 million, including the Royale, a vehicle that is regarded quite simply as pure luxury, famous for styling, craftsmanship and outstanding engineering.
And, once and for all, an off-hand common forgotten in the ether of time.
Jason Stein is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a note on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.