After more than a century in the business, Bugatti is renowned worldwide as one of the most exclusive, high-performance, ultra-luxury car makers in the history of the automobile. The Bugatti story begins in Milano, Italy, with the birth of Ettore Bugatti in 1881. The oldest son of Carlo and Teresa Bugatti, Ettore was introduced to the principals of design from an early age thanks to his father, a successful artist and furniture designer.
Ettore’s passion, however, was the automobile. He decided to become an engineer and at the age of just seventeen, he built his first vehicle: a three-wheel car powered by two engines. Although small, Ettore’s car won a slew of local race events, and he decided to enter the Paris-to-Bordeaux race. The engine-powered tricycle took third place.
A year later, Ettore built his first four-wheeled car. Named the Type 2, it debuted at the International Exhibition, winning the top prize. The Bugatti captured the attention of the De Dietrich Company, and in 1902, Ettore became head of technology of their automobile division. He developed and raced a number of cars during his contract with De Dietrich until it was terminated several years later. He went on to design a new four-cylinder engine automobile with Emi Mathias, but that partnership was also short lived.
In 1907, the same year he was married to wife Barbara, Ettore offered his latest vehicle to the Deutz engine factory. Deutz went on to manufacture the car under license and put Bugatti in charge of production. But Ettore was determined to open his own plant. Two years later with financing from a banker named de Vizcaya, took over a factory in Molsheim, Alsace, and Automobiles Ettore Bugatti was born.
His own car company wasn’t the only birth for Bugatti in 1909: his son, Jean, who would go on to become a big part of the company’s future, was also born that same year.
During Bugatti’s first year of business in 1910, he built and sold five cars. The company also made its entrance to the racing circuit, entering a number of races and winning several during the following year. In 1911, Bugatti also teamed up with Peugeot to produce the Bebe Peugeot.
But with the beginning of World War I in 1914, Bugatti like most automobile manufacturers, was recruited to assist with the production of aircraft engines. By the end of the war when Bugatti resumed his car building, he had over a thousand workers. In 1922, Bugatti introduced the Type 29/30, a cigar-shaped racecar that debuted at the French grand prix and taking second place. A year later the company produced the Model 32, nicknamed ‘The Tank’, followed by the highly successful Model 35 in 1924, which would go on to win over a thousand races.
In 1926, Ettore launched the Type 41 Royale. It was the most expensive car ever built at the time, and the timing of the luxury vehicle could not have been worse. With the economic downturn that would become the Great Depression, only three were sold.
The history of the Royale does not end there, however, at least for the engine. In 1932, Bugatti was commissioned by the French government to build a high-speed train, and he used the massive Type 41 Royale engine to power it. The Autorail set a new speed record of 166km/h, and it not only gave new life to the Royale engine, but also weathered the company from the economic crisis.
The company continued to produce cars, releasing the Type 53 in 1932 and the highly successful Type 57, which was designed by Jean Bugatti and premiered at the 1934 Motor Show. The Type 57 became a popular luxury car and sold close to one thousand units over the next five years.
Jean also took charge of the racing team in 1932. He designed many new models including the 57G, which won multiple races including the French Grand Prix and Le Mans, as well as the less-successful Type 59.
Unfortunately, the company’s success did not last. A strike at the Molsheim factory in 1936 saw the beginning of financial difficulties for the company, and three years later, just before the outbreak of World War II, Jean Bugatti died in an accident during a test drive. Devastated by his son’s death and unable to resolve the issues at his factory in Alsace, production ground to a halt. A year later, he was forced to sell the factory by the German occupying forces.
Despite attempts to revive the company after the war, the car manufacturer continued to flounder. Ettore Bugatti died in 1947 at age 66, and Bugatti made its last appearance at the 1952 Paris Motor Show. Roland Bugatti (Ettore’s other son) attempted to revive the company in 1955, but was unsuccessful, and the company essentially ceased operations until it was purchased in 1963 by Hispano-Suiza, an aircraft company that continued its operations building airplane engines under the name Messier-Bugatti.
In 1987, the rights to the Bugatti name were sold to Italian entrepreneur, Romano Artioli, who built a factory in Campogalliano, Italy and began building super cars. The company released the EB 110 in 1991, a now iconic V-12 super car. The Super Sport model, with a top speed of 355 km/h, soon followed.
But financial woes saw the company file for bankruptcy in 1995. It was taken over three years later by Volkswagen, which continued production of the EB 110 while introducing new models, including the EB 16.4 Veyron in 2005. The hyper car was a game changer in the modern supercar world, with a top speed of 400 km/h and a price tag of €1,225,000.
Today, Bugatti remains one of world’s top luxury racecar brands. With limited production numbers and prices in the millions of dollars to purchase one, the Bugatti remains as exclusive as it is innovative, record-breaking and beautiful.
To see photos and learn more about each model old and new, check out this extensive article by Motoring Research.