Throughout their history Bugatti automobiles have been associated with speed, precision and beauty.
The company’s founder, Ettore Arco Isidoro Bugatti engineered his engines to tolerances so exact, no head gasket was required to seal the top and bottom halves of them together.
Born into a family of artists, architects and designers, Bugatti was a naturalized citizen of France. His family came from Milan, Italy. Born in 1881, his first car design was put into production when he was only 17. The 1898 Bugatti Type 1, a three-wheeled vehicle featuring two engines—one on each side of the rear axle—was done while he was apprenticing at Prinetti & Stucchi, the Milan-based manufacturers of bicycles and tricycles.
Bugatti’s next design, the 1900 Bugatti Type 2 was an award winning concept car shown at the Milan Auto Exhibition in 1901. The Type 2 drew the interest of the Baron Eugene De Dietrich, who subsequently contracted Bugatti to take over technical management of his automobile manufacturing plant. Still underage, Bugatti’s dad had to sign the contract for him. By the time he was 21, Bugatti already had his name on a car, the 1902 Dietrich-Bugatti Type 3. By 1904, Bugatti’s Types 3 through 7 were done with De Dietrich.
De Dietrich was interested in producing road cars, but Bugatti had racing in mind. His passion for racing ultimately led to their separation. The (understandably) profit-oriented De Dietrich felt Bugatti was spending too much time on racing cars and not enough time on road cars. (The concept of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was lost on the Count.) Their disagreements eventually led to Bugatti’s departure from Dietrich.
In 1907, Bugatti went to work at Deutz Gasmotoren Fabrik, where his did his Type 8 and 9 models. During this period, he also developed the ultra-lightweight 1908 Bugatti Type 10—in his basement at home. This proved to be his golden parachute. It ws also the car he loaded his family into and moved to the Alsace region of France to find a location to build a factory and produce cars on his own based on the Type 10.
While the Bugatti cars had he designed before had been larger and heavier, the Type 10 was designed specifically to be lightweight and run a lower displacement engine. Called the Petit Pur-Sang (which is French for small thoroughbred), the guiding philosophy of the Type 10 informed the engineering principles of all of Bugatti automobiles moving forward. Remarkably successful as a racing car, the Type 10 went on to bring Bugatti a second place finish in the 1911 French Grand Prix at LeMans. (It is said another of his cars would’ve finished first, but Bugatti rested his hand on its radiator cap during the race and it was disqualified because mechanics were not supposed to touch the cars during the race.)
In 1909, Automobiles Ettore Bugatti was founded in the town of Molsheim. This area of France was part of the German Empire until the end of World War I. The first of the “real” Bugatti vehicles, that is, the first car to be offered for sale to the general public bearing only Bugatti’s name, was an evolution of the Type 10 known as the Type 13. This car would go on to bring Bugatti autos a clean sweep of the 1921 Voiturettes Grand Prix in Brescia, finishing first through fourth.
During World War I, Bugatti’s attention was turned away from cars and into aircraft. He developed airplane engines for the French and the American governments. This generated sufficient income to enable Bugatti to restart his auto business at the end of the war. In fact, his postwar operation grew significantly, employing some 1000 workers.
In addition to getting back to building road cars, Bugatti continued his racing activities in earnest. One of the most successful constructors of his day, between 1925 and 1937, Bugatti vehicles won at least one major race every year. His best year was 1929 with the Type 35B. That year, Bugatti cars won five major races; the French Grand Prix, the German Grand Prix, the Spanish Grand Prix, the Grand Prix at Monaco, and the Targa Florio.
In 1926, 1928, 1930, and 1931, Bugatti’s cars won 16 times—four major victories each year. He also won the 24 Hours of LeMans in 1937 and again in 1939. One of his drivers in 1939 was Pierre Veyron—the man for whom the current Bugatti sports car is named. Bugatti even dabbled in aircraft racing with the Bugatti 100P (although it never flew).
All of this racing success (unlike the Count, Bugatti got the concept of “win on Sunday sell on Monday” big time) brought orders for Bugatti road cars flooding in.
Two of the most notable Bugatti automobiles for the road built prior to World War II were the Type 35 sports/racing cars (built from 1924-1930) and the outré gargantuan Bugatti Type 41 Royale—six of which were built between 1927 and 1933. The Type 57 grand touring coupes and convertibles produced between 1934 and 1940 included the highly desirable Bugatti Atlantic. Designed by Bugatti’s son Jean, the Atlantic's teardrop shaped body was graced with a riveted spine running the length of the car.
Jean was killed testing a Bugatti racing car in 1939.
In 1940, the Germans, having occupied France during World War II, forced Bugatti to sell the factory to a German entrepreneur. After the war, Bugatti regained control of his company, but the glory years were pretty much behind him. He died in 1947. The factory limped along for a few more years without him, before closing in 1952. A few middling efforts were made to revive the nameplate with limited success over the years.
Romano Artioli, an Italian industrialist, revived the marque in 1987 as Bugatti Automobili SpA. A new factory was built and the resulting car was the 1991 Bugatti EB110 GT. Producing 553 horsepower from a 3.5-liter quad turbo V12, the all-wheel drive supercar was capable of 213 miles per hour. Unfortunately, when the cars hit the market, a worldwide economic recession did too. The EB110 never sold very well; Artioli folded in 1997.
In 1998, Volkswagen acquired the Bugatti brand name, established Bugatti Automobiles S.A.S., and proceeded to build the fastest series production supercar the world has ever known. The Bugatti Veyron 16.4 uses a quad turbocharged 16-cylinder engine. The current ultimate iteration of this all-wheel drive sports car makes 1200 horsepower, costs in excess of $2.2 million, and is capable of a top speed of 255 miles per hour.