© Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S.

The Automobile Perfectionist: Ettore Bugatti

Dec 28, 2020

For over 100 years the Bugatti brand has stood for exceptional vehicles. Its founder, Ettore Bugatti, was a genius in construction and design, who even created everyday objects such as a fishing rod and a pasta-making machine. The luxury cars from Alsace still bear his mark.

Ettore Bugatti, the legendary founder of Bugatti, was one of the most important pioneers of automobile design. He trained as a sculptor at the Academy of Art in Milan before completing an apprenticeship at a bicycle factory, where he designed a motorized tricycle. He then dedicated himself to building cars. From an early stage, Bugatti’s cars stood out with their modern, flowing lines and stylish elegance. After all, he saw his vehicles as far more than simply a means of traveling from A to B – each car was a work of art on wheels, whose form followed function. This design principle not only pleases the eye – there is also always an underlying functionality. Ettore also designed his cars’ engines and extras with a unique aesthetic appeal. The company founder even applied his aesthetic and functional principles to everyday objects: if he was not satisfied with a device, he would improve it or produce his own version. Examples include a pasta-maker with a steering wheel, cutlery and miniature cars, razors, a frame for bicycles and motorcycles, security locks, armchairs, vices, horse harnesses, even window blinds and a fishing rod. In the course of his life, Ettore Bugatti patented about a thousand inventions, many of them not directly related to cars. His automotive creations were inspired by architecture, sculpture and furniture. Above all his father Carlo, who designed furniture and fashions all his life, was something of a guiding spirit. His pieces of furniture such as chairs and tables and interior decorations often contained ellipses in various forms. Ettore translated some geometric ideas in his vehicles. One of them was the horseshoe-shaped radiator grille as a prominent design element – which has remained an unmistakable Bugatti trademark ever since. The logo, the famous “macaron” badge made of enameled metal and sterling silver, is also oval.

Ettore Bugatti created a miniature version of the Bugatti Type 35 for his youngest son, Roland. © Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S.
Ettore Bugatti created a miniature version of the Bugatti Type 35 for his youngest son, Roland. © Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S.

„A Bugatti can be identified from far away thanks to the iconic front end with the unique grille design.“

Achim Anscheidt, current Bugatti Design Director

Haute couture of car design

Bugatti was a perfectionist and eccentric who loved speed. In 1903 he achieved over 100 km/h in the “De Dietrich 60 CV Course Type 5” he had developed himself. Yet only two of these race cars were built in the space of two years. From 1904 to 1906, Bugatti contributed to the models created by the firm Hermes-Simplex. In 1906 Ettore moved to Gasmotorenfabrik Deutz AG in Cologne. The “Bugatti Deutz Prinz Heinrich Type 9 C” was a racing car that reached speeds of over 140 km/h. The Type 10 is regarded as Ettore’s first design and therefore as the first real Bugatti. In the same year the Italian founded his own vehicle brand and built the “Type 13” that advanced to become a bestseller. Its successor, the “Type 35", broke through the 200-km/h mark and between 1924 and 1930 it won around 2,000 races – sometimes driven by the boss himself. The eight-cylinder vehicle is still regarded today as the most successful racing car of all time. It had the special advantage of low weight. Bugatti placed a unique and uncompromising focus on lightweight construction and the best possible driveability. This was coupled with a simple and elegant design comprising a slim shell and a pointed rear end. Bugatti’s fame spread far and wide. Wealthy industrialists and aristocrats with a passion for motor racing wanted his cars. While most automobile owners back then preferred to be chauffeured around, Bugatti was the first choice for those with a passion for driving themselves.

© Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S.
© Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S.

In 1926 Bugatti presented the “Type 41 Royale,” the largest and most opulent car the world had ever seen. Its technical beauty and the quality of the materials broke with the status quo. Bugatti created a cabriolet, a Pullman limousine, a travel limousine with a folding top and a two-door limousine. In the coupé version the passenger and the driver had to communicate via an electric intercom. Another feature unique to the Royale was the hood ornament – a dancing elephant. The figure was designed by Rembrandt Bugatti, Ettore’s brother. All this luxury came with a price tag of at least 100,000 reichsmarks, which was ten times more than other Bugatti models. But the Great Depression and its after-effects dampened customer interest. Only six of these cars were ever built, and only four of them were sold. All six Royales have survived to the present day. They are among the most exclusive and most expensive vehicles in the world. However, Bugatti was not only a genius at building cars – he was also a smart businessman. He modified the Royale engines into aggregates for power cars used by the French state railways. He was already developing aircraft engines during World War I. From 1932 onward, his son Jean took over the design department and created the “Type 57” and “Type 59.” In all, the brand had produced around 80 models by 1962.

Each Bugatti has not only a fascinating soul, but also a beautiful home. The Bugatti seat in Alsace reveals why this is one of the most sought-after auto brands in the world. © Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S.
Each Bugatti has not only a fascinating soul, but also a beautiful home. The Bugatti seat in Alsace reveals why this is one of the most sought-after auto brands in the world. © Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S.

Molsheim – the Bugatti home for 111 years

Molsheim, in the French region of Alsace, lies 25 kilometers southwest of Strasbourg, close to the Vosges. Since 1909 it has been home to the Bugattis. It was here that Ettore Bugatti designed and built his extraordinary cars, with some interruptions, until his death. In 1928 he acquired Château St. Jean, along with six hectares of parkland. From then on, the building provided the backdrop for his luxury cars and a grand reception for customers. After Ettore Bugatti’s death in 1947, his son Roland took over the company until it went bankrupt in 1956 and finally ceased building cars after 47 years. Around 8,000 Bugatti vehicles had been created. Over 30 years later, the Italian entrepreneur Romano Artioli brought the legend back to life with the super sports car “EB110.” The initials stood for Ettore Bugatti, while “110” referred to the 110th anniversary of his birth. With a 3.5-liter V12 engine, four turbochargers and an output between 560 and 610 hp, the EB110 sprinted from 0 to 100 km/h in up to 3.3 seconds and can reach a top speed of 351 km/h, making it the fastest series vehicle of its time. In 1998 Volkswagen (under its then chairman Ferdinand K. Piëch) secured the rights to the Bugatti name. Piëch wanted to lead Bugatti back to where it had been in its heyday in the 1920s and 1930s – a leader in the automotive world. In 1999 the brand was already present at the IAA in Frankfurt with a prototype of the “Bugatti 18/3 Chiron” – an extra special coupé. It marked the return of a legend, and for Bugatti the dawn of a new age – that of modern hyper sports cars.

„Bugatti has to always offer the extraordinary; the unsurpassed, the optimum. Only that is Bugatti. On top of the entire automotive world.“

Ferdinand K. Piëch (1937 - 2019)

Not a robot in sight – completely hand crafted. Assembling a Bugatti © Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S.
Not a robot in sight – completely hand crafted. Assembling a Bugatti © Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S.

The Bugatti myth today

The contrast is probably unique in the history of automobile construction. The Château St. Jean is once again the brand’s home. It was extensively restored to plans by the renowned architect Gunter Henn. Two “Remises” have also been renovated. The North Remise now houses offices and a small exhibition of historic vehicles. The South Remise accommodates a lounge where customers can configure their vehicles. Bugatti sports cars are still hand-crafted in the “atelier.” It is located in the middle of a green meadow within sight of the Château St. Jeans, and has the same oval shape as the Bugatti logo. While the grand family seat and the Remises represent the brand’s long tradition, the atelier embodies the present and the future. The building houses the assembly, offices and lounges. Since September 3, 2005, two vehicles have been built here on average per week. Yet there are no production lines or robots at Bugatti. The work is carried out in workshop stations, like in Formula 1. Each unique car is assembled from 2,000 individual parts. It generally takes around nine months to create a Bugatti from configuration to delivery. The more unusual the customer’s requests for particular materials, colors or other details, the longer the time needed to finish the vehicle. This remains a unique way of working. During production customers are allowed to visit the atelier to see how their vehicle is progressing. They can even spend a day working on their own sports car. In 2004 the German Achim Anscheidt became the company’s Design Director and he is now steering the Bugatti myth into the future.

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