Bugatti History

1881 – 1947

Surely a child named by his parents for future fame. A prodigy as a child and a Renaissance man.

Born in Milan, and speaking Milanese, an Italian dialect containing traces of French and German, Bugatti could trace his ancestry to the region of Brescia in northern Italy. The engineering industry that exists there today can be traced back to Roman times when the inhabitants were skilled armament manufacturers. After the troubled Middle Ages, and under the rule of the Venetian Republic, a tradition of fine metal craftsmanship was established.

Ettore Isadore Arco Bugatti

It was in this milieu that the Bugatti family inherited their skills as craftsmen, to which they added their own dash of eccentricity. Ettore Bugattis sculptor grandfather spent his life savings, earned from designing monumental chimneypieces, in attempts to master perpetual motion. His father, Carlo, was a notable craftsmen/artist who initially studied at the Brera Academy in Milan and completed his education at the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris. He became an acclaimed design of novel and idiosyncratic furniture and at just 33 years of age was awarded a diploma for fine furniture in London. He went on to win many more prizes and medals. Carlo had a studio in Paris and his children were educated in France as well as in the recently unified Italy. Ettore Bugattis formative years were spent in a household frequented by artists, musicians and authors, including the famed Puccini and Tolstoy. At a young age Bugatti inherited his father’s diverse artistic talents as well as his predilection for eccentric dress. Unsurprisingly Bugattis first inclinations were to the arts and he is quoted as saying ‘My first ambition was to be a great artist and so earn the right to bear a name distinguished by my father’. Like his father, he studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera, a Milanese institution founded by the Jesuits in 1572, which was dedicated to the study of painting, sculpture and architecture. His younger brother, christened Rembrandt on the suggestion of eminent sculptor and family friend Ecole Rosa, soon demonstrated artistic talents that were perceived by Bugatti to be far superior to his own. ‘I saw at once, and confided to my dear mother that he was the true Bugatti and would soon be far better than I’. ‘Rembrandt wanted to be an engineer and build locomotives. I wanted to be an artist, but I was no more gifted for art than he was for mechanics’. The die was cast.

In 1895 the 13 year old Ettore fell under the spell of the internal combustion engine in the form of a Prinetti and Stucchi motor tricycle, brought to his Milanese home on the Via Marconi by his father’s friend Stucchi. He later wrote that he was ‘immediately fascinated by these new machines’. In 1898 Bugatti, turning his back on an artistic career, left the Brera, and on the invitation of Stucchi became an unpaid apprentice with Prinetti and Stucchi. With his decision to take up an apprenticeship, Bugatti had bypassed a technical education, and thus freed from a doctrinaire approach to engineering, was able to explore less conventional and more artistic paths. However, his lack of formal training led early in his career to design solecisms that were not compensated for by his considerable intuition and would only be overcome with experience. This engineering naiveté, coupled with the young man’s impetuosity, combined to ensure that his early designs, although imaginative, lacked the engineering rigor necessary for them to succeed.

A Prinetti and Stucchi tricycle of the type
raced by Ettore Bugatti as a teenager.
An example of ‘modular design’ from 1912 – two four cylinder engines coupled together to make a straight eight engine.

Bugatti was only 16 years old when he commenced his apprenticeship with Prinetti and Stucchi and was already racing motor tricycles for them. He was an early convert to the dictum, ‘racing improves the breed’, being quoted as saying that he ‘regarded the tricar as a test machine to be constantly altered and developed, and racing it to be the means of judging modifications, of deciding whether they should be retained or discarded’. He successfully modified one of the trikes to accept two engines, and, if two engines were better than one, why not four? The first car Bugatti claimed as his own design, his Type I, was a modification of a Prinetti and Stucchi two engined quadricycle too accept four engines coupled to the back axle. In his use of multiple engines we see the foundation of a Bugatti design characteristic: the use of modular construction — designs which use standardized units that can be assembled in various combinations and redoubled as necessary. This trait was learned from his father, as some of Carlo’s furniture resembled ‘a sort of child’s construction game, with the pieces ingeniously assembled’. Bugattis energies were clearly focused on the use of component structures as exemplified by his use of two 4 cylinder engines coupled together to produce a straight eight car in 1912. His wartime aero engine designs expanded on this theme with an arrangement where two banks of eight cylinders were linked to form a U 16, a concept that was continued in subsequent car, boat and train design.

The product of a prodigy, as Ettore Bugatti was only 20 years old when he designed and made this effective motor car, his Type 2.
Bugatti Type 10 – A refined car in miniature, Bugattis first
production car bearing his own name.

The four engine quadricycle proved impractical and while Prinetti and Stucchi continued with tricycle production Bugatti moved on to produce his first car, the Type 2, a front engined, four-cylinder car of 3 L which was considered advanced at the time when four cylinders were unusual and the rationale of positioning the engine at the front of the car was yet to be accepted. Although not yet 21 years of age, Bugatti had created a practical and sophisticated motorcar which won a prize at the Milan International Exhibition held in 1901. Bugattis prodigious talent was recognized by Baron Eugène de Dietrich, the principal of the German division of one of the oldest French industrial empires. Bugatti had sufficient faith in his new machine to drive it via the Swiss Alps to Southern Germany and was soon ensconced at the de Dietrich factory in Alsace where he developed his Type 2 into a new car for de Dietrich. As he was not yet considered an adult by the law, Bugattis father was required to sign the contract with de Dietrich. From de Dietrich he moved via Mathis to Deutz and while without success in production terms, Bugatti was progressively refining his designs. He had sufficient confidence in his abilities to take out a bank loan and set up as an independent designer. At Deutz Bugatti was to produce sophisticated designs and established many features that were to be continued in his subsequent production and racing cars. However, Bugatti proved, not for the first time, to be a square peg in a round hole and moved on.

In 1910 Bugatti made his definitive move to Molsheim in Alsace, where he produced the first true Bugatti, his Type 10. This was a refined car in miniature. Like his concurrent designs for Deutz, it had a four-cylinder mono -block with overhead camshaft; the valves being activated by banana tappets, as on the Deutz. The toggle operated clutch was familiar. It immediately met with success as a racing car and it was to foreshadow the numerous victories of the similar post-war Brescia Bugatti.

Bugatti’s Type 13, the successful
Brescia Bugatti racing car
The 2 litre straight 8 Grand Prix Bugatti of 1922
exemplifies Bugatti’s interest in streamlining.

From the beginning, racing had been Bugatti’s raison d’être for developing new models. His early car all had sporting pretensions at a time when the specialized racing car was emerging as a separate entity. He had been a racing driver well before he became a motor manufacturer. As a teenager he had earned the respect of his peers at the handlebars of the difficult and powerful Prinetti and Stucchi motor tricycles in intercity races at the time when they were the fastest of all racing machines. The success of the prewar eight valve car, not only in racing terms but also commercially, led to its development into a 16 valve car in the post war years. Its success also allowed Bugatti to move from being just a specialist racing car manufacturer to become the manufacturer of sophisticated road cars as well. At least 200 Brescias were sold in 1921 alone. However, Bugatti was not one to rest on his laurels and he was actively engaged in developing a replacement for his aging design. With its different chassis lengths and coachwork, the Brescia had thrived as a racing car, sports car and touring car. As cars became progressively more refined, one design could no longer cover this spectrum of activities and 1922 saw the appearance of his Type 30 which had features typical of future production, including a straight eight engine with three valves per cylinder and four-wheel brakes. The 2 L, straight eight engine facilitated Bugattis entry into the top line of Grand Prix racing. His Grand Prix cars off 1922 and 1923 were not particularly successful but heralded the introduction of the highly successful Type 35 into Grand Prix racing at the French Grand Prix in September 1924. The Type 35 Bugatti is the ultimate Bugatti. The excellent road holding, steering and gear change of the Brescia and Type 30 are further refined and improved. Combining these features with efficient braking and a smooth and powerful engine provides as near perfection as one could wish in a vintage racing car. Aesthetically the Type 35 is a masterpiece; its mechanical details having a simplicity in design and functional beauty that is unsurpassed.

Bugatti Type 35
Unsurpassed functional beauty;
Ettore Bugatti at the height of his powers

The remaining years of the 1920’s saw a period during which the Type 35 Bugatti and its derivatives dominated the race tracks of Europe and the world. This domination was not to be exceeded until the appearance of Lotus and Ferrari on race tracks in the latter part of the century. This domination extended to the gruelling Targa Florio races over 540 km of indifferent roads in Sicily. Bugattis were to win this important race on five successive occasions from 1925 until 1929; the races being of seven hours duration. In frontline Grand Prix pre-racing Bugatti’s single overhead camshaft design often had to play second fiddle to the more sophisticated twin overhead camshaft designs of Alfa Romeo, Maserati, Delage and Talbot Darracq. Belatedly, towards the end of the 1920s, Bugatti did introduce a twin overhead camshaft design, initially on his touring Type 50 of 4.9 L. Subsequently the twin overhead camshaft breathed life into the Type 35 which, as the Type 51 had significant success against the more powerful Alfa Romeos. Even as late as 1937 and 1939 Bugattis proved capable of winning the Le Mans 24 hour race using variations of the touring Type 57. Alongside these racing successes Bugatti produced a line of successful four-cylinder and straight eight touring cars culminating in the famed and fabulous Royale of 12 3/4 L.

For the second time in 25 years, Bugattis production ground to a halt because of world war. On this occasion the marque Bugatti was not to recover and it has been left to the amateurs to maintain the Bugatti tradition on the race tracks and roads of the world.

– Bob King