Legend has it that a guest at a dinner party once commented to Ettore Bugatti that the Bugatti was the automobile of choice if one wished to win races, but for sheer elegance, one must have a Rolls-Royce. Bugatti was not accustomed to playing second fiddle to anyone, and the incident supposedly inspired him to create the ultimate motorcar: the Type 41 Bugatti Royale.
The story may or may not be true. Be that as it may, it is known that as early as 1913 Ettore was thinking in terms of building an automobile that would rival the likes of the Rolls or the Hispano-Suiza. But it wasn’t until 1926, by which time his business was prospering, that he could seriously devote his attention to such a project.
Three years earlier, Bugatti had designed for the French government a huge, eight-cylinder aircraft engine. This powerplant was never produced, but the drawings formed the basis for the engine he was developing for his new super-car. It was an enormous single-overhead-camshaft straight-eight, cast en bloc with integral head.
The block measured 55 inches in length. Bore was 125 mm, while the prototype’s stroke measured 150 mm, yielding a displacement of 14.7 liters. Production engines would employ a shorter, 130 mm stroke, reducing the displacement to 12.7 liters, or 788.7 cubic inches – still the largest powerplant ever offered in a production automobile. Ettore, who was not notably modest about either himself or his automobiles, claimed 300 horsepower, but Bugatti authority Andy Rheault estimates the actual figure to be more like 275, while others place it as low as 200. (This, by the way, at a time when Cadillac could claim no more than 85.5 bhp.)
The engine weighed 770 pounds, of which the block accounted for 238 pounds and the crankshaft, 220. The latter, machined from a solid steel billet, was cradled in nine water-cooled main bearings. Webs between the bores extended down to form the main bearing housings, assuring tremendous strength. Three valves were employed for each cylinder; two intake and one exhaust, exactly the opposite of standard practice in those days. Unfortunately, the design dictated that the crankshaft, and therefore the engine, had to be removed in the event that the valves needed servicing. Two electric fuel pumps supplied gasoline (lots of it) to a single, Bugatti-designed carburetor.
The wheelbase of this gargantuan conveyance came to 169% inches, 15% inches longer than the largest Duesen-berg! Overall length was just over 232 inches. That’s 19 feet, 4 inches, without bumpers. Weight was about three and a half tons, give or take 500 pounds or so, depending on the coachwork.
By April 1927 the prototype, fitted with a Packard touring car body, was ready, and Ettore Bugatti, familiarly known as Le Patron, or The Boss, drove it from his factory at Molsheim, in Alsace-Lorraine, over the Alps to Rome, where he met with Benito Mussolini, already established as the first of Europe’s Fascist dictators. Five months later Bugatti drove the car to Spain, to the Grand Prix at San Sebastian. On that occasion, the King of Spain evidently expressed an interest in the Type 41, which prompted Bugatti to call it La Royale. Surely, this was an automobile fit for royalty.
At this point, Ettore’s enthusiasm ran away with him. He announced that “His Majesty the King Alfonso XIII will receive this year the first example of this privileged construction.” This was news to Alfonso, who had made no such commitment, and it is said that he ordered a Duesenberg instead. In any case, he failed to purchase a Type 41. Nevertheless, the title “Royale” remained, however informally, with the big Bugatti. Meanwhile Alfonso was deposed in 1931, and spent the last ten years of his life in exile.
Approaches were made to other European monarchs: Carol, in Rumania, and Zog, in Albania. In the latter connection, Ken Purdy recounts a fascinating tale, almost certainly apocryphal, but indicative nevertheless of Ettore Bugatti’s character and temperament. As Purdy tells the story, Zog, visiting in France, wanted to buy a Royale. But “Bugatti did not care to sell a Royale, a Type 41, to anyone who merely happened to have $30,000 or so, even if he was a reigning monarch. The aspirant customer was always invited to spend a little time at the Bugatti chateau in Molsheim, in Alsace, so that Le Patron might, covertly, estimate his character. Zog came, saw, was seen, and heard, in due course, that there was not, alas, a Royale available, nor could one say, unfortunately, when the factory would be able to make one.
“‘Never!’ Bugatti told one of his assistants. The man’s table manners are beyond belief!”’
In any event, no member of royalty ever owned a Bugatti Royale.
Ettore Arco Isidoro Bugatti was bom in Milan, Italy, on September 15, 1881, into a family of artists, composers, writers, sculptors and painters. At the age of 11 or thereabouts, he moved with his family to Paris, never to return to Italy except for brief periods.
Ettore’s younger brother, Rembrandt Bugatti, became a sculptor of some renown, noted especially for his statues of animals, and Ettore himself aspired initially to a career in the field of art. It was not to be. In 1898 Ettore, having developed an interest in mechanics, became an apprentice at the firm of Prinetti and Stucchi, of Milan. This, as matters developed, was the extent of his training. He received no technical education; he was, indeed, largely self-taught.
Two years after his apprenticeship commenced, Bugatti designed and built a motorcycle, which he raced with some degree of success. This was followed by a small, four-cylinder automobile, again designed and built by Ettore Bugatti.
Bugatti next became associated with the Baron de Dietrich, who owned a large engineering works at Niederbronn, in Alsace, then a province of Germany. Ettore was not yet 21 years of age, yet his fee, reportedly, came to the equivalent of $15,000. He then teamed with Emil Mathis on a new project, the Hermes-Simplex, but left in 1907 to produce two designs for the Gas-motoren Fabrik Deutz company of Cologne. At the same time, working on his own he developed a light, 1.2-liter machine that became known as the Type 10. That machine, now in the collection of General William Lyon, has been described by Bugatti authority H.G. Conway as “a delightful lightweight car of excellent performance, much admired by all who drove it and teaching Bugatti that, as he was able to state later on in his publicity, “Le poid c’est l’ennemi!” (Weight is the enemy.)
Increasingly Bugatti became determined to begin his own business. This he did in 1909, at the age of 28. He learned of an old dye works at Molsheim, in Alsace, which would be suitable for his enterprise, and by Christmas of that year, with the help of a hand-picked crew, he had established his firm. Early in 1910 he launched the first automobile to bear the Bugatti name, the Type 13, basically an enlarged version of the Type 10.
Meanwhile, Ettore had married Barbara Bolzoni, daughter of long-time friends of the Bugatti family. Sources differ as to the date of the marriage. February 25, 1907, the date given by Hugh G. Conway, one of Ettore’s biographers, appears to be widely accepted. Yet Griffith Borgeson, a close friend of Ettore Bugatti’s son, Roland, begs to differ. Citing official documents in the possession of Uwe Hucke, a prominent Bugattiste, Borgeson gives an October 1902 date for the marriage.
In any case, both Conway and Borgeson agree that the couple’s first child, a daughter, was bom on November 21, 1903. This was L’Ebe, the name having been derived from Le Patron’s initials. L’Ebe herself was responsible for some further confusion when, in her biography of her father, she represented herself as the third, rather than the first child of her parents. Perhaps, if Conway’s date of the wedding is correct, this fabrication was intended to establish the legitimacy of her own birth. Or possibly it simply represented a maiden lady’s natural reticence with respect to her age. Who is to say?
Three more children followed: Another daughter, Lidia, was bom in 1907, followed by two sons, Jean (officially Gianoberto Carlo Rembrandt Bugatti) and Roland, born in 1909 and 1922, respectively.
When war was declared, in August 1914, Bugatti took his family to Milan, moving later that year to the Grand Hotel in Paris. There, he occupied himself chiefly with the design of aeroengines, among them a 16-cylinder job comprised of two straight-eights side-by-side, their crankshafts joined by gears. Duesenberg acquired a license to manufacture this engine in the United States, but it was never put into production. Indeed, aero-engines proved to be a field in which Bugatti was not notably successful. Yet many of his later developments were based on the work he did during this period.
With the signing of the Armistice, on November 11, 1918, Alsace reverted to France, and Bugatti returned to Molsheim, where he found his factory more or less undisturbed. Production of the Type 13 got under way once again during 1919, and in 1920 one of these cars won the Voiturette Grand Prix at Le Mans. Then the following year, at Brescia, Bugattis took the first four places, the lead car averaging 92.7 kilometers (57.6 miles) per hour.
As early as 1912, Bugatti had linked two four-cylinder engines together to form, in effect, a straight-eight, and when his factory re-opened in 1919, Ettore went promptly to work on a new, three-liter, eight-cylinder engine. Two years later a two-liter version, the Type 30, was produced.
There followed a succession of models, perhaps 50 in all, some designed for racing and some for touring. The reputation established by the former generated valuable publicity for the latter, and the company’s success was assured. This enabled Le Patron to indulge his passion for horses. His daughter, L’Ebe, recalled that “he had 15 in his stables, all handsome animals.” Nearby was a coach house in which more than 40 fine horse-drawn carriages were displayed.
Visitors began to come to Molsheim in substantial numbers, many of them awaiting delivery of cars under construction. Eventually Bugatti found it necessary to establish a small hotel, or lodge, in which to house his guests. With his thoroughbred horses obviously in mind, he called it the Hotellerie du Pur Sang, i.e., the Inn of Pure Blood. The building held only four bedrooms, which proved to be hardly sufficient, and it soon became necessary to create an extension.
It happened that Le Patron had, for some obscure reason, suddenly decided to keep chickens. Accordingly, he had ordered the construction of four chicken houses, each one a free-standing building, constructed with insulated walls in order to maintain a constant temperature for the birds. Then, as suddenly as he had embraced the idea, he abandoned the chicken experiment, and the four little buildings were converted into extra bedrooms for the Pur Sang. L’Ebe later recalled that many guests preferred these snug cottages to the bedrooms in the main lodge.
Bugatti could be a gracious host, but there was a limit to his patience. Ken Purdy has recounted the story of a Parisian who had returned repeatedly to the factory with complaints regarding his Type 46, a model in which Ettore took particular pride:
“One day M. Bugatti… came upon the fellow in a corridor.
“‘You, monsieur, I think,’ he said, ‘are the one who had brought his Type 46 back three times?’
‘The man admitted it, full of hope. “Bugatti stared at him. ‘Do not,’ he said, ‘let it happen again!’”
According to yet another story – and it may be that all of these yarns are apocryphal, for there is no shortage of legends concerning Ettore Bugatti – a customer complained that his car was hard to start in cold weather.
“My dear fellow,” replied Le Patron, “if you can afford a Type 55 Bugatti, surely you can afford a heated garage.”
By 1926, Ettore Bugatti was ready to build his super-car. He envisioned it as an automobile designed to last the lifetime of the owner. Accordingly, no expense was spared to make it the finest car the world had ever seen – a car for the crowned heads of Europe. No detail escaped Le Patron’s attention. He even adorned the radiator cap with a statue of a performing elephant, standing on its hind legs – the work, of course, of his deceased brother, Rembrandt.
It evidently did not occur to Ettore that there might not be a market for an enormous automobile that cost two or three times as much as a Rolls-Royce. Demand would surely have been limited under the best of circumstances. Unfortunately, however, production got under way almost simultaneously with the onset of the Great Depression, a catastrophic event whose ramifications were felt world-wide. It also came at a time when political unrest was causing monarchs to sit somewhat uneasily upon their thrones. Beyond that, as Griff Borgeson has noted, the huge car could almost be seen as a “caricature in the concept, overall, and in detail. The choice of a radiator ornament to symbolize this juggernaut was, of course, from the beginning, an elephant…of all things. Ettore, in a position to match or surpass the Hispano ‘Cigogne’ or the Rolls-Royce ‘Spirit of Ecstasy,’ replied with a fat pachyderm, doing a circus trick. That in itself was enough to damn the entire programme.”
Le Patron had anticipated a run of 25 cars – 30, according to some sources. But in the end just six were built. Of that number, only three were sold when the cars were new, and all of those went to businessmen – members not of the nobility, but of the bourgeoisie.
The Royale was not, however, a total loss. Its enormous engine proved to be, in fact, one of Ettore Bugatti’s most profitable undertakings. Borgeson tells us that as far back as 1927 “he experimented with the design of a huge speedboat which would be powered by eight engines of this type. It was to be capable of crossing the Atlantic in 15 hours, but its practical applications would of course be naval – military.”
That idea was unsalable, if not downright impractical; so Le Patron undertook to design and build a rail car, or autorail, suitable for use on the French National Railway. The first example was completed during 1933, and production continued into 1939. In the end, several types were produced, with one, two and three coaches. Some were powered by two Royale engines, the others by four. A huge shed was erected at Molsheim, where nearly 80 of the autorails were produced.
It was an unfamiliar field for Bugatti, of course, but such details evidently did not bother Ettore. Griff Borgeson explains, “Roland told me that his father had no contact whatsoever with specialists in railway technology, that he very simply availed himself of general technical information pertaining to standard rails and began playing with ideas for vehicles to run on them. He applied a great deal of automotive experience to the design that he finally decided to develop.”
Borgeson continues, “When Ettore told rail-transport experts of his intention to fit his autorail with automotive-type shock absorbers and cable-operated drum brakes he was laughed at and told he was mad. One of the high points in the life of the family came when official high-speed braking tests were conducted and the existing record with classic railroad brakes was reduced by a factor of something like 50 percent – and this in the presence of those who had predicted catastrophic failure if drum brakes were tried.”
This, by the way, was a bit of a switch for Bugatti. Some time earlier, when the brakes on his automobiles were subject to criticism, Le Patron is supposed to have replied, “I design my cars to go, not to stop!” And go the railcars did! One of them, with Jean Bugatti at the throttle, set a new world record by averaging 122 miles per hour for 43.9 miles! So satisfactory were the autorails that some of them remained in service as recently as 1958.
But of course it is for his automobiles that Ettore Bugatti is best remembered. Like Le Patron himself, the cars became the stuff of which legends are made. Something like 15 distinct models were built, and Conway estimates the total production over the years at about 7,850 cars. To put that figure in perspective, it represents about one year’s work for Franklin, one of the smaller American automakers.
It is clear that Ettore Bugatti was grooming his elder son, Jean, to take over the firm. Jean received relatively little formal education, and no training whatever in engineering. His sister, L’Ebe, recalled that “His technical and practical education was accomplished at the factory, growing at the rhythm of the workers’ labour, and he knew all the trades.” He was also a progressive thinker. It was at Jean’s instigation, for example, that Bugatti eventually adopted the twin overhead camshaft configuration.
More than that, Jean had a keen eye for line and design, as his styling of several Bugatti models attests, and he had superb skills in working with people. By 1932, with his father spending a great deal of time in Paris on railcar work, Jean – then 23 years of age – had virtually complete control of the design office at Molsheim. Under Jean’s leadership the company moved away from the proliferation of models previously offered, concentrating instead on a single production model, the Type 57, to which a variety of body styles were fitted. Meanwhile, Grand Sport models continued to uphold the Bugatti reputation in competitive events.
But tragedy was stalking the Bugattis. Ettore, mindful of the risks involved in racing, had expressly forbidden Jean – who could handle an automobile with consummate skill – to drive competitively. But on the evening of August 11, 1939, he took a racing car out for a road test. Driving full-bore down a long, straight stretch that had been closed off for the purpose, Jean suddenly encountered a cyclist. He lost his life in his effort to spare that of the cyclist.
Twenty-three days later, France was once again at war with Germany. Even before the formal declaration, the French army had begun to occupy part of the Molsheim factory for military vehicle maintenance work. Once war came, more and more of the factory was absorbed. And then, because aviation material was being produced at the Bugatti facility, and because Molsheim presented an inviting target for German artillery fire, the French government ordered the removal of the factory to Bordeaux.
Hardly had this task been accomplished when, on June 22, 1940, France fell to Germany. Meanwhile, on June 10 Italy had declared war on France. This left Ettore Bugatti in an impossible position, for although he had lived most of his life in France, and his sympathies and indeed his efforts had been entirely devoted to the Allied cause, he had never renounced his Italian citizenship, and was therefore technically an enemy alien.
The factory was returned to Molsheim under German occupation, though without Ettore. It was renamed “Trip-pelwerke,” in honor of its Nazi manager, and the manufacture of munitions for the Third Reich was undertaken. But then, following the Allied landings at Normandy, Herr Trippel found it prudent to depart. His staff, unwilling to leave an intact facility to the enemies of the Reich, destroyed virtually everything.
Following the Allied victory, the French government declared the Molsheim factory – what remained of it – to be a “Prize of War.” Ettore protested, lost his case in the ensuing trial, appealed, and finally got his factory back. In the meantime, perhaps in an effort to strengthen his case, he had
applied for and received French citizenship. But his property was essentially in ruins, most of his skilled workers were gone, and there was no money in the bank.
Troubles abounded. Shortly before Jean’s death, Mme. Bugatti – Barbara – underwent surgery for cancer. She lingered for several years, an invalid requiring constant care. Borgeson tells us that it was Roland, rather than the Bugatti daughters, who nursed his mother through this terribly difficult period.
Meanwhile, Ettore had formed a liaison in Paris, with a young woman named Genevieve Delcuze. She bore him two children, Therese in 1942 and Michel in 1945, and on October 10, 1946, Genevieve married Le Patron. Their married life was a short one, for on August 21, 1947, Ettore died as the result of an embolism suffered the previous June.
Bugatti, in Griff Borgeson’s words, left “industrial, financial and legal chaos in his wake.” The company lurched on, controlled by heirs who were divided into two warring camps. In 1954-55 Roland Bugatti, Ettore’s surviving son, engaged the Italian designer Gioacchino Colombo to design a 2.5-liter Grand Prix car, with which he hoped to recapture the marque’s former glory.
The new car, known as the Type 251, was entered for the French Grand Prix at Reims in 1956, but after 18 laps its driver gave up, commenting that the machine was a death trap! It was never driven competitively again, and to all intents and purposes it spelled the end of Automobiles Bugatti.
As a frequent visitor to the Harrah Automobile Collection during its glory days, I had often stopped to admire Bill Harrah’s two awesome Bugatti Royales, the Binder Coupe de Ville and the Ber-line de Voyage. But of course the thought never occurred to me that one day I would be privileged to actually drive one of these magnificent motorcars.
That opportunity came about recently, thanks to the generosity of General William Lyon, who bought the Coupe de Ville during December 1986, along with 81 other cars, at Holiday Inn/Harrah’s final sale.
Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect, except that given a wheelbase measuring 169% inches, the Royale would obviously require half the farm in order to make a U-turn!
• Road-ready, this car – thanks in part to its armor plate and bullet-proof glass – weighs 7,500 pounds. Would steering be impossibly heavy? Or so slow, perhaps, as to make it almost impossible to negotiate the turns?
• Brakes, I knew, were cable-controlled mechanicals; Ettore Bugatti, like Henry Ford, was suspicious of hydraulics, and adopted them only late in his career, long after the Royales were built. Would it be possible to stop this juggernaut?
• What about shifting gears? Would clutch pressure be impossibly heavy? Could gear-changing be accomplished without clashing? No synchromesh here, after all. And what an unusual quadrant, thus:
• And what about the responsibility of driving an automobile that is valued at several million dollars? My wife asked if I wasn’t nervous about that.
I replied, “I’m terrified! But I’m going to drive it anyway.”
But the truth of the matter is, I found the Royale much easier to handle than I had expected. Steering is no heavier than that of the typical luxury car of 60 years ago, and not unduly slow. Which doesn’t suggest that it is either light or quick, of course, but it presents no problem for the average driver.
The clutch, which requires only very light pedal pressure, is probably the smoothest I have ever encountered. It’s a multiple disc type, running in oil, and the one major problem encountered by General Lyon’s staff when the Bugatti was acquired had to do with warped clutch plates. Evidently somebody had driven the car with no lubricant in the clutch housing. A machinist produced a new set of discs, which were then installed by the talented John Sobers, who is responsible for maintaining the General’s cars.
One has to become accustomed to the unorthodox shift quadrant, but at least gear changes can be held to a minimum. Torque is so generous that on flat ground one can easily take off from rest in direct drive, which in this instance is second gear. (Third is a .074:1 overdrive.) First gear is needed only in the hills, or for a faster getaway.
Brakes are not the Royale’s strongest point. Heavy pedal pressure is required, and stopping distances are not particularly short. Yet by the standards of their time, and taking the Bugatti’s weight into consideration, the binders aren’t bad.
Performance could hardly be called sprightly, yet the big car accelerates more rapidly than I had anticipated. It cruises smoothly, with plenty of reserve power. This would be a superb automobile for use on the open highway, which of course is precisely what Le Patron intended. Its advertised top speed of 125 miles an hour is undoubtedly an exaggeration, but I have little doubt that the Royale could top the century mark.
The ride is rather firm, at least by luxury car standards, and a trace of choppiness can be felt, despite the very long wheelbase. No doubt the straight front axle is a factor here. I found it very comfortable, but then, my preference runs to firm, rather than soft suspension. I was unable (or perhaps unwilling) to try any fast turns, but it appears that the Bugatti takes the comers without leaning excessively. Again, credit the firm suspension.
From outside the car the engine is very audible, as one must expect of an overhead camshaft design of this era. The passenger compartment is so well insulated, however, that its occupants are undisturbed. In first gear the transmission produces a rich, subdued sound. It is silent in second – that is to say, direct drive. Unfortunately, the engine began to cough about the time I was ready to engage the overdrive, so that shift was never made. (The difficulty proved to be dirt in the fuel line, hardly a surprising development in a car that had not been run for many months.)
Backing up is a chore. Not only does the Royale stretch a long way back, but the rear window is so small as to be little better than a peephole. In an automobile of this character, after all, the passengers’ privacy was far more important than the chauffeur’s convenience!
Nor was much attention paid to the driver’s seating comfort. The front seat backrest is nearly vertical, and the fixed-position seat does not provide enough leg room for anyone measuring six-foot two. But then, the same criticism can be made of almost any limousine of 60 years ago.
Apart from this comparatively minor discomfort, the first thing that strikes the driver is the incredible length of the Royale’s hood. Anyone who has ever seen one of these machines must surely have taken note of that dimension, but seen from the driver’s seat it is particularly impressive.
The second thing that one observes is the instrument panel, which is both complete and complex, as well as very beautiful, set as it is in burled walnut.
Surrounding the speedometer (calibrated in kilometers, of course), clockwise from the upper right, are ampere, engine oil pressure, clutch bearing oil pressure and fuel gauges. Somewhat to the left is the water temperature gauge. At first glance it’s easier than not to miss seeing the door that rolls down to cover the instruments.
To the driver’s right are levers controlling the throttle and spark, and ivory knobs to regulate the idle and high speed carburetor jets. Wipers are individually operated by means of switches located just below the windshield, and between those two switches is the turn signal control. The ignition key, which also operates the starter, is at the far right of the dash panel, while the light switch occupies the corresponding position on the left – a very long reach for the driver.
At the bottom of the dash fascia, to the driver’s left, is a row of five switches controlling (reading from left to right) an under-hood trouble light, instrument light, fuel gauge (I never did learn why a switch was required for this!), parking light, and courtesy lights.
The Coupe de Ville’s passenger compartment represents pure luxury. Once again, burled walnut is generously employed. The cloth upholstery is sumptuous and the cushion is very soft, yet sufficiently supportive. A pair of tables fold down from the back of the front seat, presumably to facilitate the serving of refreshments. Ash trays pull out from arm rests on either side, and of course there are the obligatory assist handles to help the passengers arise from their deep, luxurious seat.
As I’ve said, when I slid behind the wheel of this great automobile I didn’t really know what to expect. With one exception: I expected it to be impressive, and indeed it is. The Bugatti Royale is, in fact, in a number of respects by far the most impressive automobile I’ve ever driven. But then, perhaps it should be, for its original price was more than seven times that of a 16-cylinder Cadillac in a similar body style.