Peter Mullin Takes Us On A Tour Of The Petersen Museum’s Bugatti Exhibit
Photography by Ted Gushue
Most auto enthusiasts can name four or five Enzo Ferrari quotes off the top of their heads, I’d wager. They can list dozens of iconic models of the marque. They know intimately the names of famous racing drivers who won in his cars. In my experience, the same does not hold true for Bugatti, something that Peter Mullin in conjunction with the Petersen Automotive Museum aims to change with their latest exhibit featuring some of the world’s most fantastic pieces of Bugatti design.
I was lucky enough to have Peter take me through the exhibit, highlighting special pieces from the collection that ultimately shed so much more light on the Bugatti family philosophy of excellence than anything I’d ever encountered before. I started with a simple question:
Ted Gushue: Peter, why Bugatti?
Peter Mullin: Well, I fell in love with French cars about 35 years ago. Initially it wasn’t Bugattis. It was Delahayes, Talbot Lagos, Delages. I kind of knew about Bugattis. Frankly, I thought with that name maybe they were Italian, and then I learned they were French. I didn’t really immediately appreciate them until I started looking at them closely and then reading about them, and then understanding the engineering, and the styling, and the role of Ettore Bugatti, and Jean Bugatti. Like many of these passions, interest leads to learning, learning leads to passion, passion leads to learning more, and it’s kind of a spiral that goes straight up.
Ultimately, I first became intrigued with Bugatti cars and then learned about the Bugatti family, which was an extraordinary family of four generations of artists, artisans, sculptors, painters, furniture makers, silvermakers, silver workers, writers, and so on. I don’t think there’s another family in history that actually had that much rare talent pass from generation to generation. We’re lucky enough to have Carolyn Bugatti, the granddaughter of Ettore, who is here with us tonight. She’s a fifth generation of artists.
TG: Incredible. Does she still feel a direct tie to the history of the family?
PM: She does. Really a very close tie to the history of the family.
TG: What was the first Bugatti that you acquired? Actually better yet, could you walk me through some of the highest from your collection that are on display here at The Petersen?
PM: I’d love to.
Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic
TG: Let’s start with this beauty here, the 1936 Type 57 SC Atlantic.
PM: Well, this car is pretty special in that there are two in the world, the original Atlantics, the 57 SC Jean Bugatti designed. Known as the Mona Lisa of the automobile, but the most extraordinary combination of engineering, performance, and styling that probably even was penned by the hand of man.
TG: Explain the Mona Lisa reference.
PM: Well, if you think about paintings and you say, “What’s the greatest painting of all time?,” maybe people say the Mona Lisa. If you say, “What’s the greatest cars in the world?,” you’d point to the two of these. You’d say, “Well, aren’t they then the Mona Lisa of the automobile world?” That’s what a number of people have said, and I think it’s an apt description.
TG: It’s not that the car is looking at you as you walk around it?
PM: [Laughs] No, although you could claim that those headlights are following you. Ralph Lauren has one and this is the other one. They’re pretty spectacular.
TG: What’s it like to drive?
PM: It’s great to drive, handles really well. It’s a classic Jean Bugatti brilliant piece of engineering. Powerful engine, split axle. He originally was going to use aluminum or magnesium for the body and he couldn’t weld that, so he was going to have to rivet all of the fenders, and the hood, and the top. It turned out, ultimately, that he used steel so he could have welded it, but everybody loved that riveted flange so much that he left that on and it gave it a distinctive look.
TG: When did it come into your collection?
PM: It came into our collection about 7 years ago. It had been owned by a doctor in the East who sadly died. His family decided that they were ultimately going to sell it, but they only wanted to sell it to someone who knew what it was and who was willing to honor Peter Williamson, the doctor, and to display it for the public. They had not interest in somebody buying it, and tucking it away in a deep vault, and only showing it to friend occasionally by candlelight. The fact that we were prepared to have it on exhibit at the Mullin Automotive Museum and here was so that the world could appreciate it I think influenced the family.
TG: Let’s keep walking. Now let’s talk about this thing. This isn’t yours. This is owned by Volkswagen.
PM: This is owned by VW. This is one of the six famous Royales made by Ettore Bugatti for the royal families of Europe, where his vision was that one of these would be in each of the royal families—Spain, France, England, Austria, et cetera. It ended up that none of them ended up in the hands of a royal family.
TG: Because they couldn’t afford it?
PM: Well, war broke out. They were very expensive. They were massive cars. He ended up keeping a couple of them tucked away behind a brick wall in his chateau. They’re just extraordinary pieces of machinery. Of course, after the war France didn’t have the money to continue with the demand for these things. No one would be a buyer of a car like this, so they took the Royale engines and turned them into train engines because they were so powerful.
TG: How much horsepower are we talking here?
PM: Well, it’s a 22 liter engine, and horsepower is a little misleading here…
TG: 22 liters?!
PM: Yeah. In the sense that you have to think about stroke and cylinder. They were extremely powerful and they could run at 100 miles an hour without you feeling a quiver. You couldn’t even tell that the engine was on.
TG: Incredible. You’ve driven one?
PM: Yeah, I have been lucky enough to drive one.
TG: What’s the experience like? Is it just like driving a train?
PM: The experience actually as a driver is that although it’s huge, I think they’re something like 22 feet long and they’re so tall that even the tall guys like you and me have to stand up to even see in the windows, and they’re heavy so you would think it would be like driving a truck, but it’s not. I mean, it handles. It’s really a pleasure.
Bugatti Type 35C
PM: Go over here. This is maybe the famous of the racing sporting Bugattis. This is a Type 35 C, a supercharged Bugatti that won more races in the ’20s and ’30s than any other car. The Boat tail Type 35s were the core of the whole Bugatti enterprise. Revered by race drivers and collectors, campaigned all over Europe in many Grand Prix races, and they’re just a joy to drive. They handle well. They’re light. There’s a big engine. They’re extraordinary.
TG: What would you compare the drive to, or is it a totally singular experience?
PM: Well, you could pick another sports car and say it’s similar to say an Alfa Romeo 8C or something like that. But I mean it’s just really well handling, light, flexible. I’ve raced these cars.
TG: You’ve raced this one?
PM: I’ve raced this one. I’ve raced other Bugattis, but this one I raced quite a bit. You know, coming around corners, putting your foot into it as you come out of a corner, they just stayed glued down and they really accelerate, it’s a real thrill.
Bugatti Type 44 ‘Fiacre’
PM: This is a Type 44 Fiacre Bugatti. It came into the collection seven or eight years ago.
TG: Now, do you make a very conscious decision to pursue certain models?
PM: Yes, absolutely. The Fiacre was special, first because Jean Bugatti created a Fiacre, Type 40 Fiacre for his younger sister, and that same color scheme is this one, actually. This is one of his early cars. The Fiacre label references that curve coming down from the roof, and underneath, and back over, and back up. Fiacre means carriage. You can look at this and you can see that the genesis of this body style was the early carriages. This is a big 8-cylinder engine that is very powerful.
TG: Back then, pretty much regardless of which Bugatti, you were the fastest guy on the road without question. Is that a fair statement?
PM: Yeah. I mean, they’re the fastest car in the world today and they were the fastest car in the world in their era. Although they’re beautiful, the engineering and the performance was just extraordinary.
Bugatti Type 50
PM: This is a special car because there are very few Type 50s in the world. Big 8-cylinder, 5 liter engine, dual overhead cam. This one was designed by Million Guiet. It’s the only Million-Guiet Type 50 in the world. Million-Guiet was a great body builder, “Baby Royales” they called these. This was the kind of Royale that more people could drive. They didn’t have to be “Royals” so to speak.
TG: How closely did Million-Guiet work with work with Bugatti in the styling and the design?
PM: He was not in the factory, although they had a close collaboration because they respected each other so much. Million-Guiet only did two Bugattis, I believe. One of them actually burned up a few years ago, so I think this is the only one left. The enormous respect that they had for each other and their skills made them work very closely together on these projects. This also entered our collection about seven years ago.
TG: What do you look for when you’re buying a Bugatti?
PM: I look for those I think are special that we don’t have in the collection that I think are unique, not in the sense of only one, but unique in the sense of a very limited production, and had great providence, great history. When it finally comes around for sale, you know, you can’t predict when something’s going to show up or when you’re going to find something, so you’ve got to be ready.
TG: How did you arrive at these here at The Petersen?
PM: There are 12 cars from our collection here, I think we own 42 Bugattis total. We picked out ones that we thought were rolling sculpture art, and that were special in their styling. I worked closely with the curator of the Peterson in thinking about which would make the most impact and would be so unusual that people wouldn’t have seen those before. As an example, this Type 46 over here.
Bugatti Type 46
PM: [This car is] very similar to a Type 50, a little less powerful engine, but this one’s very unusual because most of the Type 46s were big, boxy sedans. This is a sports roadster. It’s a two seater roadster. It’s got a little door at the back there for golf clubs. It’s got a pop-up seat back there for the mother-in-law.
TG: Was the golf club door a standard option on something like this, or did the owner who purchased it make a special request?
PM: Well, because it’s a sports roadster the kind of person that would buy this is a sportsman, so they would say, “Yes, I want it with a golf door.”
TG: This was a playboy car, wasn’t it?
PM: Well, this was a young sportsman car. I wouldn’t necessarily say playboy, but I would say a guy focused on sports, and has an active life, and appreciates beautiful, beautiful things.
TG: Who owned this car originally?
PM: Melina Mercouri owned it, the great Greek singer.
TG: Very cool.
PM: Then it was found in a barn in Greece chained to an Hispano-Suiza, like bicycles. When I heard about it and then I heard that I might be able to add it to the collection, we completely restored it and actually I said to my wife, “You pick the colors on this one”—she picked these gorgeous pumpkin and yellow hues.
TG: There’s almost a McLaren vibe to the orange.
PM: Yeah, absolutely
TG: It’s a very Bruce McLaren orange.
PM: The interior looks like a Bottega Veneta handbag. This is deer skin that has been skived, so it’s a totally elegant interior to boot. Then if you look at this woodwork…
TG: Who does work of this caliber?
PM: There are a number of people who I work with on restorations like this. Really special people that understand the provenance and history of each and every car. They’re not easy to find but they’re out there.