Bugatti’s Complex Character Mixed Art & Machine
“Loud in voice, high in colour, overflowing with life, a brown bowler sitting on the back of his head, he looked more like a horseman strayed among motor-cars. Nevertheless his brilliant life was interspersed with difficulties and catastrophies and came to an end amid material and mental problems…
Bugatti was pure artist; his only scientific knowledge resulted from experience which increased with the years, and a natural mechanical ability aided by a gift of observation. He did not believe in calculations, formulae or principles. He joked about pages of mathematical figures and about integration signs which he called violin holes. He had happily the wisdom to surround himself with talented engineers whom he paid generously, but demanded from them total anonymity.”
-J.A. Grégoire, L’Aventure Automobile, 1953
Born Ettore Arco Isidoro Bugatti in Milan, 1881, he nonetheless considered himself French, becoming a naturalized citizen early in life. Bugatti famously descended from a long and illustrious line of artists and artisans, among them his father Carlo, an influential Art Nouveau furniture and jewelry designer, and his father Giovanni Luigi, a successful architect and sculptor. Ettore’s younger brother Rembrandt was a well-regarded sculptor of animals, the regal standing elephant that adorned the Royale’s radiator shell amongst his designs.
The history of Bugatti cars is well-documented elsewhere; the focus of this article is more about Ettore the man and his many, hilarious, frequently genius, often self-defeating quirks and personality faults, but for the sake of context I’ll throw in a bit of the back-story.
Ettore showed an innate understanding of and fascination for complex mechanisms from a young age, and by the time he reached 16 was apprenticing for Milanese bicycle manufacturers Prinetti & Stucchi. Working with an existing Stucchi tricycle that was sold with a De Dion single cylinder, Ettore added a second engine of the same type and began winning local races with it immediately. He built one more P&S-based experiment, this time a four-engined quadricycle. His first “real car” was the 1900 Type 2, an advanced machine with an overhead valve four cylinder and a four speed, chain drive transmission—it was an instant hit and garnered him much praise. Soon Baron de Dietrich, head of large industrial firm Niederbronn, approached the talented 19 year old and entered into an agreement to build the Type 2 under license—it may have gone to his head, as you’ll soon understand. Ettore continued to design cars for de Dietrich and others, most notably Peugeot, until 1910 when he began production of his own cars in Molsheim, Alsace-Lorraine, which is where the Bugatti legend really took hold and were the Veyron is still produced today.
He loved dogs and purebred horses, and always had stables on the factory grounds, now used as modern service and repair shops. He was aristocratic, willfully stubborn, conceited and unwilling to admit fault, but at the same time knew every single one of his employees by name, knew their families, and chatted with them daily, showing sincere concern for their well-being and morale. Generous to a fault, he paid his employees so well that later financial difficulties were exacerbated by his unwillingness to cut staff or pay—he rewarded loyalty with loyalty.
True to his artistic heritage, Bugatti’s cars were rolling sculptures—it’s a cliché, but 100% true. Motivated equally by a need to build great-driving, technologically advanced cars and by a deep-rooted desire to create elegant, aesthetically-pleasing objects—down to the smallest mechanical detail—the two opposing ideas were constantly at war with each other. He refused to fit hydraulic brakes or independent suspension to his dying day, even when competitors had been doing so with great success for years; once his son Jean fitted a car with both, and when Ettore found out he ordered the car destroyed, afterwards he refused to speak to Jean for months, and they were very close! Overhead valves, twincam heads, supercharging—and even pressurized lubrication—were also early anathema to Le Patron, though he later capitulated to all after seeing how much success Harry Miller had with his designs.
His factory was immaculate and orderly at all times, and he made daily rounds on horseback or in an electric buggy of his own design. There was once a dispute with the local power company over a bill, so Bugatti had a formal dinner prepared at his chateau to which he invited a representative of the utility. Expecting a polite meeting designed to work out their differences, instead the power worker was lavished with food, drink, and friendly chat, after which he was given a tour of a sparkling new on-site power plant, at the end of which he was told “as you can see, we’re no longer in need of your services—goodnight”. When vetting King Zog of Albania at another formal dinner, Bugatti later said he refused to sell him a Royale chassis, claiming “the man’s table manners are beyond belief!”—this at a time when the factory was suffering from a cash flow problem and not one Type 41 had yet been sold.
There are literally dozens of other equally ridiculous and fascinating Bugatti anecdotes, probably hundreds, but you get the idea. He had a “strong personality”, but like most great people, it was because and not in spite of his unique character that Bugatti is still known nearly 70 years after his death as the creative genius behind the most beautiful and exquisitely-engineered cars ever built, machines endowed with the artistic, human spirit of their eponymous creator. Each and every one of the original-era cars built bearing his name are incredible displays of otherworldly craftsmanship and fanatic dedication to aesthetic and functional perfection, an endless feast of spine-tingling detail and purity of form.
The Veyron is undeniably a technical tour-de-force, a triumph of modern construction techniques and 21st century science, but it’s not a real Bugatti, it’s just too efficient, too heavy-handed and inelegant to fall into that most delicate of molds.
As H. G. Conway, British author of the greatest book on Bugatti ever compiled, “Bugatti: Le Pur-Sang Des Automobiles” said: “…the sheer artistry and interest in the Bugatti engine and car had few peers. Character, even if occasionally bad, is seen at every corner.” I can’t think of a better way to sum up their appeal.