TCS Daily

Evoking a Splendid Legend

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - December 22, 2005 12:00 AM

When I first saw a photograph of Volkswagen's million dollar-plus sports car, the Bugatti-Veyron, the horseshoe grille at the front of the swooping bodywork caught my eye. It was the one design signature of this compelling new car that evoked the legendary Bugatti cars of old and the teenage automotive genius who founded the marque.

An Italian who spent most of his life building cars in the German region of France, Ettore Bugatti was a legend in his lifetime. The legend grew after Bugatti's death in 1947. So much so, that even though the last real Bugatti was built 65 years ago, the name imparts an instant cachet for this new car to live up to.

Volkswagen has not disclosed how much it paid for the rights to the Bugatti name. And it has said it does not necessarily intend to make a profit on these cars, which will be built at the rate of about one a week and sold in the United States at six Bentley dealerships. VW sees these million dollar babies giving the company street-cred in the ultraluxury business, while serving as a test bed for new techniques and technologies.

The Bugatti-Veyron, which will be formally debuted at the Los Angeles Auto Show, in January, certainly appears to have the steak to match its sizzle. Its wondrously compact V-16 engine displaces 488 cubic inches but, thanks partly to four (yes, folks, four) superchargers, it develops 1001 horsepower. That's no typo -- one thousand and one horsepower -- enough to slam your head back into the leather headrest when the two-seat coupe accelerates from a standing stop to 62 miles an hour in 2.5 seconds. In normal use, it will burn 1.3 gallons of high test per minute.

The specially-compounded rubber in its unique Michelin tires can withstand the wheel spinning without burning all the rubber off, so there will still be plenty of tread to keep you rolling safely when you reach the car's top speed of over 250 miles per hour.

The fastest I've ever driven is 140 miles per hour. The telephone poles weren't quite a blur at that speed, but I imagine they might be when you're topping out in a Bugatti-Veyron. But, truth be told, most of these cars will probably not be driven anywhere near their top speed...when they are driven at all.

Let's be honest. It's hard to imagine the owner of a $1.7 million per copy B-V looking for an end spot in the parking lot at Red Lobster. Indeed, it's hard to imagine him (or her, okay; it could happen) trying to keep all that horsepower under control while pulling up at whatever haute club or restaurant, then handing the keys to some guy with a suspicious hole in his earlobe and possibly some mean tattoos hidden beneath that red valet jacket.

Not to worry. A sales representative for this super toy told the Wall Street Journal that the car is "more a piece of art than an actual car that's going to be driven." Phew! It's just for display. And here I was, trying to calculate the insurance premiums if the owner has a teenage driver.

Bugatti enthusiasts (the originals remain perhaps the most sought after of all vintage collector cars) reportedly have mixed emotions about the revival of the name, some feeling that this new machine is too in-your-face, too ridiculously expensive, too flamboyant.

But the fact is Ettore Bugatti was flamboyant. The "Michelangelo of motoring" was born into a family of artists and artisans. By the time he was 18 he had built two ingenious vehicles from the ground up and won a gold medal in Milan for one of them. Before World War I and through the 1920s his impeccably built, instantly recognizable and now iconic race cars dominated European motor racing and gave him a reputation to fit his immense ego, startling personality and titanic gifts.

His factory complex at Molsheim in the Alsace-Lorraine region of France (where the new B-V will be built) was a sort of feudal land unto itself, incorporating not only Bugatti's almost surgically clean car works with its shining woodblock floors, but also the family mansion, a vineyard, stables (he adored horses almost as much as cars), an aviary, a boat-building shop, an art museum, and L'Hostellerie du Pur Sang, the hotel of pure bloods or thoroughbreds -- referring to both his beloved horses and his cars. It was here that eager Bugatti clients were put up.

This immaculately-kept complex was looked over personally by Le Patron, as Bugatti preferred to be addressed. All the massive varnished oak doors had but one master key for their bronze locks, which he carried with him as he bicycled from building to building, usually in riding boots, jodhpurs, bowler hat and beautifully tailored vest and riding coat.

Bugatti's factories turned out a little over 7,800 cars over a period of 30 years. Every single one of them was a gem of surprising performance, extraordinary handling, unique design, and craftsmanship that defines the term. Those who know cars can expound endlessly on the legendary qualities of the Type 55, the Type 43, the unequaled Grand Prix 35s, and the smooth, quiet and atypically civilized Type 57s that closed out the Bugatti era.

But there is one Bugatti which, even though it was not a sports car, had the over-the-top qualities the new Volkswagen wunderkar most evokes -- the Type 41 Royale, built between 1926 and 1932.

The Royale beggars description. Even photographs don't help, unless a car of less Olympian proportions, say a mere Rolls-Royce or a Duesenberg, is in the picture for comparison. If you ever get to the fabulous National Auto Museum (Harrah's collection), in Reno, Nev., or the Ford Museum, in Dearborn, Mich., you can view a Royale in the flesh, so to speak. Prepare to be impressed.

Only six Royales were ever made. All of them still exist. And they rank as the world's rarest and most desired automobiles. On the few occasions that they are bought and sold, the price is many times that of the new B-V.

These cars weigh around 7,000 pounds. Their wheelbase is 169 inches! The wheelbase of a big Model J Duesenberg is around 142 inches. Indeed, Royales are so immense and beautifully proportioned that many people seeing one for the first time don't even notice the huge radiator ornament -- a silver elephant on its hind legs, sculpted by Le Patron's brother, the artist Rembrandt Bugatti. It just blends in.

Open the hood on a Royale and you are confronted by the vast silver five-foot length of the 770-pound straight-eight engine. What you can't see beneath its beautifully machined and finished surface are the pistons, each the size of a coffee can. The displacement is 778.8 cubic inches. (Some of the really big Cadillac and Corvette V-8s of the last quarter century are in the 450 to 500 cubic inch range.) This immense engine delivers what now seems a modest 200 horsepower at a leisurely 1700 to 2000 rpm.

Those who have been privileged to drive them report that the Royales are amazingly light on their feet despite their size and weight, with surprising handling and ride. Read here about one automotive skeptic who was reluctantly overwhelmed by his experience behind the wheel of one of these civilized beasts.

The immense, gorgeously formed wooden steering wheels; the sumptuous interiors; the gleaming 36-inch vented alloy wheels; the endless expanse of the hoods and front fenders; everything about the Royales is done to the nth degree. Le Patron envisioned the Type 41 as the "Car of Kings." Well, not just any king, actually. Although Bugatti was a bit of a throne sniffer, he was so put off by the table manners of King Zog of Albania (who had come as a potential buyer) that he refused to sell him one.

The Royales, complete with custom body work, sold for $40,000 to $50,000 in the teeth of the Great Depression. In today's dollars, they were million dollar cars.

The first Royale was slated for King Alphonso XIII of Spain, but he was deposed before he could take delivery. Indeed, no Royales ever went into the hands of royalty, but they remain today undisputed royalty of motordom. If the new Bugatti-Veyron achieves some fraction of the cachet of these splendid cars, they will have done well.



Kudos to Volkswagen!
Thanks, Ralph. This article is a great history legend on one of the truly greatest automotive marques of all time. Bugatti viewed every part of his automobiles as a work of art. A look at even indivdual engine pieces shows a form and finish unrivaled by others. Volkswagen has some huge boots to fill to approach Bugatti's standards of design and workmanship. I hope they can deliver.

I find it very interesting that Volkswagen would take on such a task. They can certainly use an image boost, especially in the huge US market. Volkswagen builds some very good automobiles, but their image is one of inexpensive, mundane transportation. They have had much difficulty selling more expensive (profitable) vehicles, and their sales and profits have been reflective of this. What a tremendous image boost this can give them, if executed and marketed properly!

Several have undoubtedly noticed the statement that the car "in normal use" burns 1.3 gal. of fuel a minute. That is 78 gal. per hour. Whoa nelly. Maybe flat out at 200mph plus that would be the case but at any legal cruising speed that would only be about 20 minutes driving on a tank. Maybe that's really .13 gal per minute which is 7.8gal per hour. Sounds more like it.

Autos for Autocrats
Too bad about king Zog's table manners- Bugatti obviously had the Albanian autocrat in mind when drafting the enormous Royale's proportions. If the current Albanian pretender, Zog's 6 foot 10 inch son Leka can fit within the new VW , they ought to give him one- he's a dab hand with a fishfork.

Hey Joanie,
I can try and talk may way into a test drive of the one, then go downtown Saturday with the other! Why limit the fun if you don't have to. ;)
Best wishes for a wild ride,

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