Icons Part 2: Ettore Bugatti


Ettore Bugatti [Bugatti] 1881-1947


Ettore Bugatti was born into an artistic family whose tradition bore some resemblance and the heritage of the Renaissance.

A simplified male family tree:
Carlo Bugatti 1856-1940
Ettore Arco Isadoro 1881-1947
Rembrandt 1885-1916
Jean 1909-1939
Roland 1922-1977

Carlo Bugatti based in Milan was a cabinet maker and silversmith. In addition he was a minor artist, painter and sculptor. It is therefore entirely probable that his two sons; Ettore and Rembrandt acquired through hereditary an artistic intellect accompanied by a sense of form and proportion. No doubt these inclinations would have developed and improved with access and experience of hand tools in Carol’s workshop.

Carlo ensured his sons had an appropriate education probably believing that they would follow the family tradition.
“Both of them became extremely adept at visualising three dimensional objects, while this was particularly useful in Rembrandt’s career as a sculptor. It was equally useful to Ettore giving him mastery of the structural language of automobile mechanics in which he was already interested.

Ettore did not have a formal engineering training neither was he a draughtsman. The author senses some feeling of inferiority in Ettore that he did not possess the originality or dynamic expression developed by Rembrandt. Ettore attended the Fine Art Academy in Milan and perhaps during the time there may have discovered a greater appreciation of engineering over fine art.

Despite the fact that Ettore was intuitive rather than trained he possessed perception, imagination and observation. These were to prove appropriate skills in the early days of the motor car.

Jonathan Wood’s assessment of Ettore is that Bugatti was an artist pure and simple. His only scientific knowledge stemmed from ever growing experience plus a natural mechanical bent supported by gift of observation. Bugatti had an extremely broad based “apprenticeship” in motor engineering. About 1900 Bugatti accepted a broad encompassing post at Prinetti and Stucchi.This involved him in test driving, demonstrating and working as mechanic on their products. Bugatti became involved in motoring competitions and was reasonably successful. It has been explained that Bugatti may have been involved in “preparing” competition machines. This may be the equivalent of setting them up and development work. It is also possible that he may have designed a motor cycle for his employers.

Around this time Ettore is accredited with building his own car; possibly with material and finance from local suppliers. There are suggestions that the Count s Gulinelli of Forrare may have provided some of the motivation for this project. It is alleged that this car was exhibited at the 1901 Milan International Sports Exhibition. Bugatti retained the patents/ design rights and these may have been transferred to De Dietrich [c 1902]. Ettore emerges as a “consultant”. It is possible that Bugatti might have undertaken work for Hermes and Deutz [c1907] in this capacity.

Ettore Bugatti must have had an increasing sense of confidence and self belief to consider becoming a manufacturer in his own right. In addition he must have acquired a considerable amount of capital’ or have been able to raise loans to make his ambitions materialise. Bugatti was able to realise his dreams when he bought a converted and derelict dye works at Molsheim in Alsace in 1909. Automobile Ettore Bugatti stated trading on the 1st January 1910.

His engineering philosophy erred towards lightness and performance. His first car a was a modest 1208cc four cylinder with an overhead camshaft. It had a distinct performance advantage over the conventional and even larger cars of the era.The Type 13’ a 1.5L car won fame by being placed second in the formula libre Grand Prix of 1911.His subsequent cars would also be light and compact. Possible the most famous the Type 35[b] weighed 1,653 lbs. Bugatti cars have been described as thoroughbreds with sporting tendencies, carefully assembled with over complex machining but impeccable handling. During his mature period Ettore Bugatti is considered to have mixed the qualities of car manufacturer, artist, inventor, sportsman, naval architect. Aeronautical engineer, stock breeder, railroad engineer and country gentleman,

It’s very possible that all these facets were deployed. Ettore might have been driven by necessity and self sufficiency to wards diversity and improvisation. It is also entirely possible that many of the character traits were consciously created and manipulated to cultivate a reputation or mystique of Artist-Craftsman. It seems that Bugatti moulded and enhanced the reputation of the Patron and La par sang. What in fact was being engendered was the an early Brand” image and marketing and in particular the differentiation and accentuation of the marque.This was very much encapsulated in a near obsession with style; the incorporation of signature and surname into cast components.This is legitimate and is about sales and survival but occasionally the aura can exceed the achievement. Like other manufacturers perhaps Ettore Bugatti was deeply aware of the clientele for his cars and wished to appeal to the glamorous and select who could afford his products. Bugatti was adroit at both cultivating and massaging public relations but was rarely receptive to customer criticism.

Rather in conflict with the artist- craftsman idealised commune was the reality that Ettore Bugatti could be stubborn and frequently autocratic. Even as benevolent dictator there were aspects of his character that displayed deep vanity mixed with conservatism. I believe these traits might be the result of Ettore’s personality attempting to resolve the conflict of pure artist with that of artisan. It appears to me that Ettore was fundamentally an “ideas” man, certainly an astute business man with strong organisational skills and a gifted genius of self promotion.

Within this complex person and company iconic cars emerged including the advanced aerodynamic models as early as 1923 and the Type 43 which is regarded as the first car widely available to the public. It was capable of comfortably exceeding 100mph.

At one point approximately 1200 men were employed. In a career spanning approximately thirty years Ettore Bugatti produced approximately 7000 cars of which it is believed that about 1800 have survived.

Bugatti was sold to Hispania Suza in 1963.They produced aeronautical equipment and in particular the landing gear for Concorde. Eventually the enterprise was incorporated into Messier-Bugatti and still survives today. More recently the marquee has been revived with the super car Bugatti EB110 and the Veryon which has briefly held speed records.


Ettore Bugatti was honoured by the French government for his contribution to manufacturing and design.

Personal Tragedy

Ettore lost his son Jeanne in a motoring accident. There is no doubt what an extremely traumatic loss it was. Jeanne demonstrated so much potential and his own genius are enshrined in the Bugatti reputation. It is likely that should he have survived he would have inherited and developed the marquee and reputation.

Motor Racing

Bugatti is considered one of if not the most famous manufacturer of racing and sports cars. In the period 1924-1926 he won 1045 victories at various events; and possibly 2000 between 1925-1929 with the Type 35.Bugatti won five consecutive Targa Florio’s.

Bugatti competed at all levels. This included GP, sports car, Le Mans and Indianapolis. His cars remained competitive until the advent of the Mercedes and Auto Unions. In the 1935/36 period. Bugatti achieved a dozen GP victories in 1926 alone.

Admittedly perhaps there was limited competition/ opposition and disproportionately high levels of Bugatti entry. None the less the dominance reflects many facts including the production numbers, availability and reliability.

Many significant GP cars were produced during his life. After his death the factory attempted to restart a GP programme with the Type251.although it possessed many advanced features it was hampered by adherence to many outdated features especially in the suspension. It also suffered from under development and finance which the company could no longer afford.

Peer Influence and Contributions

From his earliest days Ettore is likely to have been influenced by his father then engineers and manufacturers, such as Issota Franchini.In addition the mechanics and drivers were significant in Ettore’s development.

As noted Ettore was neither a trained engineer nor draughtsman. He used the specialist skills of others who remain anonymous.

There is evidence to suggest that the Type 35 was inspired by the Fiat 2 litre Corsa of 1923.It is also probable that the American Miller engine Packhard Cable Special may have influenced and converted Ettore thinking. He had access to this car .The engine specification and cast wheels bore some resemblance.

Jeanne probably had one of the most profound impacts on Ettore’s thinking and the development of Bugatti cars; in particular the Atlantic which has been considered one of the most beautiful cars in the world. Jeanne is described as being imaginative, receptive and creative. Less a draughtsman and more an engineer he in turn may have been influence by the aerodynamic designs of Alfa Romeo and Talbot.

Industrial Design

Ettore Bugatti has a rich and diverse list of patents and items of industrial design to his credit; it is possible that he held 500 patents in Britain and France. Not all of these were practical some were even eccentric. His designs ranged from mechanical razors, butterfly nuts for inner tubes, unbreakable windscreens, ultra light weight cycles, windlass, capstans and propeller shafts.

Perhaps the most important are those that supported car manufacture. These comprised machine tools, multi- spindles, borers and the Bugatti bench mounted vice.

Ettore’s vision and industrial design embraced diverse form and function such as a motor torpedo boat to small capacity utility sail craft and at another level he suggested a design for a transatlantic liner [not realised].Ettore owned the De Coonick boat yard on the Seine. In 1937 he held the 800kilometer motor boat record with a hull and engine of his own design and construction.The speed achieved in the record was 82mph.

In addition Ettore is famous for his work on aeroplane engines. For instance during the First World War he assisted in building aircraft for the allies. His trains were a commercial and technical success laying the foundation for today’s French national Railway. In 1932 a Bugatti railcar held a world speed record of 172 kph.

Less than Expected

Failure is perhaps too strong and emotive a word. It does not always explain the full context. I subscribe to the view that a man who never made a mistake never made anything. Ettore Bugatti was no exception. The cars and ideas that did not live up to expectation are in part a learning curve; a form of development in the search for advantage and commercial gain. The cars and ideas that were not so successful were often followed by those that were proving that lessons were learnt, progress made and moved on.

Some of the early cars had minor design faults and were perhaps slightly unreliable in relation to their cost.[ some of these faults might be attributed to poor quality control or individual customer specification] Some of the early cars were thought to have poor stopping power.

Famously the Royale was not a success; but this might be attributed more to the socio- economic forces rather than technical specification. However the engine from the Royale was adapted for trains which were a considerable success.

The 1932 Type 53 [four wheel drive car] did not succeed. It was advanced- no other manufacturer had mastered the concept at that stage. The chassis was entirely new; the engine derive from the Type 50 [4.9L].The original inspiration may have been Italian and was possibly a concept that Jeanne persuaded his father to attempt.The idea had potential and did deliver someresults but perhaps not sufficiently beyond the conventional for the additional complexity and cost.Itis believed that only three cars were constructed.Ettore is sometimes accused of being conservative; yet the Type 53 demonstates a willingness to explore theoretical issues that had yet to have proven track record.

The post war models [i.e. neither designed by Ettore or Jeanne] were a real success. Some consider the sports saloons of the era rather bland. It is unfortunate that the Type 251 GP was under developed as it bore some resemblance or perhaps had the potential of the Cistialia-Porsche prototype GP car.The Type 251 in many respects predated the successful rear engine Lotus and GP cars that followed a few years later.

Not all Ettore’s patents were practical and only a few were adopted or converted to commercial propositions.

The Iconic Cars

The author considers that the early cars rather lacking in aesthetic as they seem to lack a vocabulary that speaks to the soul. In later developments Ettore created some of the finest if not the most beautiful cars of all time. This is not just the author’s opinion but has been confirmed by motoring surveys and votes.

The cars that warrant this esteem are the Types 35, 37, 51 and perhaps the greatest of them all the Atlantic [with Jeanne Bugatti] Just below are the Type 55 Grand Sport and the Royale.

Their iconic status may be attributed to many factors but one quotation expresses the essence of the beauty and contradictions. The cars were “symbolic guilded carves, craven images or totems but perhaps the expression of one complex untrammelled genius”.

The Type 35 is almost universally acclaimed as both functionally and aesthetically exciting. Its front axle detail encapsulates the car. The aesthetics are amongst the most perfect ever achieved on a racing car. In all elevations the Type 35 “works”. Seen in plan it comprises two delicate oval curves meeting in the streamlined tail. These oval curves define a design motif that is repeated and reinforced throughout the design. Rather like a symphony of beautiful sounds mutated. Not only was the body shape in the form of an aerofoil the under body was also faired in. The overall design demonstrates an almost extreme delicacy mated to a traditional visual expression.

“A multiplicity of clips penetrates its polished front axle, curved with exactitude of a nautical instrument.” It dripped in symbolism. To others it seemed a technical and aesthetic tour de force. Revered for understated beauty born of balance between form and function, economy and fitness for purpose.

The Atlantic was probably one of the world’s fastest pre war cars and certainly the most visually impressive of all the Bugatti’s. It has been voted the most beautiful car in the world in one recent survey. It is revered for its appearance, quality, performance, tractability and reliability. However it was incredibly expensive and perhaps the handling was a little less than desired. Sound levels within the car were claimed to be unacceptable due to the construction method [note an interesting comparison with the Lotus Elite] However iconic status is not awarded to the mundane or the prosaic.