Bugatti: A question of provenance
Brian Sewell argues that a Bugatti without any family involvement is a fraud
that cannot capture the sublime style of the original

06 April 2004

Bugatti Veyron

To call a car of the 21st century a Bugatti is both naive and disingenuous. Ettore Bugatti died in 1947 aged 66, having designed since 1909 a wide variety of cars (from the Type 68 of 370cc to the Royale, which in prototype had a capacity of 14,726cc) and made very few - only some 7,800 in the three decades through which Bugatti was effectively a marque.
To call a car of the 21st century a Bugatti is both naive and disingenuous. Ettore Bugatti died in 1947 aged 66, having designed since 1909 a wide variety of cars (from the Type 68 of 370cc to the Royale, which in prototype had a capacity of 14,726cc) and made very few - only some 7,800 in the three decades through which Bugatti was effectively a marque.
His son, Jean, his natural heir, was killed testing a Bugatti in August 1939 and Roland, his younger son, ran into terminal difficulties after the Paris Salon of 1952 in which appeared the last car with any claim to bear the name.
As no post-war model was put into production, a man must be into his 70s to understand the exotic resonances of the name Bugatti, and blokes of 40 on the Clapham omnibus might think it a form of pasta or salami. Without a member of the family at its head, to revive the marque is fatuous and, half-a-century after his death, to put Ettore Bugatti's stylish signature on a car designed by Smith and Jones seems, to the purist, fraudulent. To stand an old and genuine Bugatti next to the imposter at the recent Geneva Motor Show was a deceit.
The car in question was a Type 57, the last of the real Bugattis. It was put into production in 1934 and, from 1936 to 1939, was the only Bugatti chassis manufactured - for a firm remarkable for having designed and made wonderful cars by the handful, the total production of 680 chassis almost amounted to mass production.
The engine, a straight-eight, was of only 3,257cc but, even in its earliest development, produced 140bhp at 5,000rpm and, in the more sporting applications of Types 57S, 57C and 57SC, the output was 175bhp at 5,500rpm.
The contemporary Bentley, its capacity 4,257cc, gave only 125bhp. Both were pitched at the same market for the high-performance Grande Routiere with beautiful bodies produced in very small numbers by specialist coachbuilders and, in the case of Bugatti, in-house with inspired designs from the fecund imagination of Jean.
The Type 57, even in its hotter versions, was a major departure from the tough racing heritage of the marque, its success and reliability consistent. This was a softer chassis - though an early road test (Motor Sport, 1934) claimed the car took a 60-degree corner at 60mph without any roll, slide "or any indication that the manoeuvre was at all unusual".
The exhaust note was hushed, the engine silenced and, moreover, made so flexible that only below 10mph did the driver need to use a gear lower than top - just as well, for the gearbox had no synchromesh and some drivers could never get the knack of a clean change without it. Had there been a post-war Bugatti, this might have had the pre-selector system installed in Armstrong-Siddeleys or even the slick, wonderful, smooth change that had been developed by Daimler with a fluid flywheel and epicyclic gears - talks with both firms took place.
However, in any unprejudiced discussion of the Type 57, even the most adoring of Bugatti addicts must admit that it was years behind most European manufacturers and at least a decade in the wake of Cadillac and other great but wilfully disregarded American marques.
In 1939, Ettore Bugatti was still clinging to cart springs, beam axles and cable-operated mechanical brakes, at a time when Alfa-Romeo and Mercedes-Benz had taken to all-round independent suspension and hydraulic brakes, and Cadillac, which had had fully synchromesh gearboxes since 1930, was on the point of introducing automatic transmission.
Bugatti never built a V-engine or, even in his monumental Royale, offered an engine as refined as Cadillac's V-16 - that great straight-eight was about as refined as Ford's diesel engines in the 1970s. But Cadillac never offered bodies as beautiful as those mounted on Type 57 chassis.
Prejudice is utterly forgivable. No chassis by Rolls, Bentley, Daimler or Lagonda carried bodies of such daring line, perfect proportion, infinite delicacy of detail, brazen bravery, or Art Deco bizarrerie. Some were as conservatively classic as any by Mulliner for Rolls, but, in close-coupled coupes, the imagined embodiments of speed were wild in form, colour and idea - none more so than the Atlantic shown at the London Motor Show in 1936 (no wonder Austin stole the name for their unfortunate A90 coupe in 1948).
With a riveted seam running from divided windscreen to the tail, doors cut into the roof and headlamps fared low into the wings, it was what Chrysler's Crossfire, 63 years later, tried to be, and a thousand times more daring.
With awe and reverence, I murmur Ventoux, Atalante, Galibier and Stelvio, the blue-print styles of the in-house Bugatti bodies, and Gangloff, Graber, Saoutchik, Figoni at Falaschi, Letourneur et Marchand, Van Vooren, Chapron and, above all Jean Bugatti, as designers.
Think of a Rolls of the 1930s and a razor-edge sports saloon may come to mind; think of a Bugatti and you have not only all the extremes and enchantments of Art Nouveau, but glimpses of the future too. There is, however, a small part of my soul that long ago was seduced by Reyner Banham's musings that form should be subservient to function, not to style, nor to Zeitgeist, nor to idea, and to the ascetic I must commend the Type 55 that came into production in 1932. Its straight-eight engine was of only 2.3 litres, yet it developed 135bhp and could, fitted with a two-seater open body designed by Monsieur Jean, reach two miles a minute.
The Type 55 weighs less than a ton, is a mere 13 feet long, and is so perfect in its proportion and detail that it defies the rule that to be imposing a car must be big; in any company this little creature seems outstanding, its wings flowing together in a rhythmic swoop, its curved bonnet and rump impressed with art deco panels of bright yellow or an orange-red to match the neat Carosserie Bugatti label, contrasting with the gloss of black cellulose elsewhere.
The spokes of its big wheels seem to have been cutfrom discs of steel by Vulcan himself, and under the bonnet, the bulkhead sheening in brushed aluminium, lies an engine that with four racing carburettors in brass and chrome is as much a work of sculpture - futurist and abstract - as of engineering. No dead sheep in formaldehyde can match the beauty of its forms or the purpose it proposes.
To the most rigorous purist, even this exquisite motoring toy will not quite do - a Bugatti, to be a real, genuine Bugatti, must be by old Ettore through and through.
Shall we consider the Royale of which he built only six of the proposed 25? At 14 litres, the engine was twice the size of its contemporary, the Rolls-Royce Phantom II, and the whole car was six times the price. No "Royale" ever bought a Royale - only a Parisian confectioner, a German gynaecologist and a retired British Army officer were buyers.
It was a grotesque caricature of a large car of the early 1930s, its forward visibility menacingly diminished by the length of its bonnet, its steering as heavy as Austin's three-ton truck, its engine as throbbingly noisy as an old Ford diesel, its suspension as unyielding as Constable's Haywain.
It was the most unpleasant of cars to drive and I was hugely relieved when, on a trial run, it drifted to a halt outside the Oxfam shop at the top of Brixton Hill - I have not seen it since.
Ettore Bugatti's dream car was a prize flop; and I cannot help thinking - hoping even - that the new Bugatti, the faux Bugatti, will follow it, unloved, into oblivion.