A look at Ettore Bugatti, the man who sculpted automotive masterpieces.
Making their marque: Bugatti, a man ahead of his time
There are few names in motoring that evoke desire and devotion like the legendary Ettore Bugatti. Born into an artistic dynasty this enigmatic Italian didn't just make cars, he sculpted automotive masterpieces that are among the most breathtaking ever to grace the road. The fact that 70 years after his death his name was given to the most expensive car ever made is testament to the reverence that his memory is afforded.
Raised in a cultured and celebrated Milanese dynasty, the young Bugatti was surrounded by inspirational figures. His father, Carlo, was a famous art nouveau furniture designer and his grandfather a respected sculptor. It was this high-achieving, nurturing upbringing that gave Bugatti the confidence, and the financial foundation, to make his own mark on the world. While his brother Rembrandt followed in the family footsteps in becoming a sculptor, Bugatti followed a more technical trail, though with artistic appreciation running through his veins.
Bugatti was a child prodigy and he designed his first engine in 1898, aged 17. Even at this stage of his career he was already beginning to show the eye for detail and technical genius that would become his hallmarks. At the turn of the century, while still a teenager, he partnered with wealthy enthusiast/entrepreneur Baron de Dietrich to launch their own marque. Bugatti was so young his father had to sign the contract. Three Deitrich-Bugatti models were made before the young man took the bold decision to start up on his own. With only bristling self-confidence and his savings, Bugatti founded a factory in Molsheim, France.
Between its foundation in 1909 and the outbreak of the First World War Bugatti built a reputation for quality and innovation, being the first car maker to introduce a 16-valve engine. While other manufacturers provided more power by merely increasing the cubic capacity of the engine, Bugatti focused on maximising efficiency from smaller powerplants, thereby ensuring his cars remained light and agile. His dislike of bulk and bulging bonnets was later revealed when he made the disparaging remark to his rival Bentley that the British manufacturer was a "fine builder of lorries". He is also credited with inventing the modular method of construction, a technique that laid the foundation for modern, mass-production techniques, which is ironic given that Bugattis were anything but mass produced.
At the outbreak of war in 1914 Bugatti's burgeoning business faced its greatest threat, for his factory was at the heart of disputed territory. Fearing confiscation, he buried three of his latest models and fled to Milan, where he spent the hostilities designing aircraft engines.
After the war he returned to Molsheim, dug up his prototypes and got straight back to business - the business of building cars faster and far superior to any other. The most recognisable model was the Type 35, a compact race car that was so elegant in its simplicity that it has become one of the most sought-after classics in the world. But with Bugatti it was never a case of style over substance: the Type 35 is thought to have won more races than any other car in history.
The pedigree of the marque on the race track was peerless and, by the eve of the Second World War, Bugatti had won Le Mans twice. But away from the track the company was becoming more and more ambitious in an attempt to build the most desirable car ever made. The models got longer, sleeker and more powerful until perfection was achieved in the breathtaking Royale. At 21ft long it overshadowed any other car on the road. It was the most expensive car ever built and was the ultimate example of the excess and extravagance that symbolised the Roaring Twenties.
But war brings portents of doom and, in 1939, Bugatti's brother died behind the wheel. It was a tragedy that the family and the marque never recovered from. Devastated by the loss, Bugatti was embroiled in a scandal at the end of the war when he was briefly imprisoned for collaboration. The company limped on until his death in 1947.
In almost 40 years of production, less than 8,000 cars were manufactured. This rarity combined with the romance of the brand has seen Bugattis fetch as much as US$30 million (Dh110m) at auction. The enduring mystique of the brand was recognised by Volkswagen, which purchased the rights in 1998 and set about building the awe-inspiring Veyron. Now the name Bugatti sends a shiver of excitement down the spines of a whole new generation. The man is dead: Long live the marque.