I’ve written about the Mullin Automobile Museum before and I am a little concerned that writing about it again will drive readers away, but this time we were there for The Art of Bugatti so I’ll concentrate on the show’s stars, the Bugatti family and Ettore specifically. The cars were almost the same as our other trips – in 2010 and 2012 – but this time Michele was with Malcolm and myself. The exhibits included more furniture by Carlo Bugatti, more bronzes by Rembrandt Bugatti, a Bugatti Royale by Ettore Bugatti, and a new car body in the style of Jean Bugatti. The furniture and bronzes were interesting but the main attraction, for me, is still the cars.
Bugattis are unique cars, all Bugattis really, especially The Royale which is a super-star of a car. Only six were ever made, each one completely different, and each one is now worth more than your house (I don’t care how much your house in worth, The Royale is still worth more, unless you have over 10,000 sq. ft. with a great view of downtown Hong Kong). Still, the story behind the car is even more fun.
Fittingly enough, the story of The Royale started at a dinner party, in Paris, to honor a minor royal from Britain. It was the Roaring Twenties, before the Crash, the rich were very rich, and the party was opulent. Ettore Bugatti would be the perfect guest at any glittering party like this, he was both a pratician by birth and by nature. His factory, in Molsheim, Alsace-Lorraine, was more like a small principality – with aviaries, kennels, stables, vineyards, museums, a distillery, and a boatyard – and Ettore ruled it like a prince. Bugatti, who liked to be called Le Patron, would ride around his principality on horseback, making sure everything was being done perfectly.
Born in Milan into an artistic family, young Ettore had gone north to Elsass-Lothringen in Germany to serve his apprenticeship in the automobile biz after art school. However, Ettore was not the kind of person to work for somebody else for long and he designed and made his first car at home, on his off hours. It was light and agile, at a time when people thought a car had to be heavy to hold the road, and Ettore used it as a demonstration of his abilities to get financing to start his own factory.
By 1909, Ettore had a small factory and it was here that he made his first race car.
As an aside, in 1900, at the Gordon Bennett Cup, a race run on public roads between Paris and Lyon, it was suggested that each country have its own racing color. Britain was given Green, France Blue, Germany White, and the USA Red (Italy didn’t have any cars entered and was not assigned a color but, later, Red was taken away from us and given to the Italians where the color does seem more at home). As an aside to the aside, by the end of the 1930s, the German cars of Mercedes and Auto Union, encouraged and partially financed by the Nazis, had become all dominating. At the Grand Prix of Tripoli in 1935 – I think – the French and Italians secretly agreed to cheat the dominating Germans. They fixed the official scales to read heavier than the actual weight so that the German cars would weigh in as too heavy (the requirements at the time included a maximum weight 750 kg for Grand Prix cars). Sure enough, at the official weigh-in, the German cars were just slightly too heavy. That night, the Germans sanded all the white paint off of their cars and, the next morning, the now silver cars just qualified. Germany’s official racing color has been Silver ever since (I have since read that this story may be more fable than fact but I read when I was about 15, in a book called Kings of the Road by Ken Purdy, so I’m holding on to it). End asides.
Before WWI, with his factory in Elsass-Lothringen, Germany, Ettore Bugatti’s racing cars were white, but, after the war, Elsass-Lothringen in Germany had become Alsace-Lorraine in France and Bugatti became famous in a livery of the French racing color, course bleue. However, what ever the color of a Bugatti, they were light and agile with powerful engines. Often they were beautiful, especially the later cars designed by Ettore’s son, Jean.
For most of the 1920s and into the early 30s before the German cars dominated racing, Bugatti made the best race cars in the world. His Type 35 is generally considered the most successful race car ever made, having won over 2,000 races, but as importantly, each Bugatti was a piece of Art. For Ettore Bugatti considered himself every bit as much an artist as his father the architect and furniture designer, Carlo, or his younger brother Rembrandt, a famous sculptor. Every piece on a Bugatti car was lovingly designed and made on the premises; the engines were designed with an eye as to how they looked as much as how powerful they were. Everything was machined and polished, even the bolts which were often square, were made by Bugatti (and could be marveled at while sipping some Bugatti wine).
Ettore Bugatti had strong ideas on automobile design and he often swam against the current. He made cast aluminum wheels with cast in brake drums. The combination was lighter than conventional wheels and brakes, but it required much more machine work and they were still not as interchangeable as conventional wheels. Even though Duesenberg had been using hydraulic brakes since 1921 and they were proven to be more effective, Bugatti continued to use mechanical brakes, in part, because they looked so much better with wonderful little cables, pulleys, and levers.
When Ettore Bugatti came to this dinner party, he was both famous and arrogant and he had the good fortune – good fortune for us, maybe bad fortune for Ettore – to sit next to the guest of honor. According to legend, over dinner the guest of honor said Monsieur Bugatti, everyone knows you make the best racing cars in the world; but for a town carriage of genuine elegance, one still must go to Rolls-Royce. It would have been fascinating to sit across from the haughty Bugatti who thought his way was the only way – in everything – and the British matron who thought that Darwin had conclusively proven that the English race was at the top of the evolutionary ladder and should thereby be ruling the world.
As might be expected, Ettore was especially disdainful of large cars like Rolls Royce and he once said of W. O. Bentley, the designer of the Bentley, a big and heavy car, I have the greatest respect for Monsieur Bentley. He builds the strongest and fastest lorries in the world. Then and there, Ettore decided to build a luxury car to compete with the Rolls. It would be fit for kings, so even though the factory designation was the Type 41, it would be known as La Royale. Unlike most Bugattis, it would even have a hood ornament. La Royale required something imposing to compete with Cadillac and Rolls Royce and Ettore choose a sculpture by his brother Rembrandt.
As an aside but, really, more than an aside, Rembrandt Bugatti was Ettore’s younger brother and was famous for his animal sculptures. I am not much of a fan of this kind of sculpture, which I think of as Rodinish, but, unlike Auguste Rodin who did sculptures of archetypes, Rembrandt’s sculptures were of real animals and they reflected the personalities of those animals. He loved animals and that love shines through his sculptures.
He loved animals so much that during the First World War, Rembrandt moved into the the Antwerp Zoo. It was hard to get enough food to keep the animals healthy and some animals were killed to feed others. By the middle of the war, most of the animals were emaciated. Watching this happen to his beloved animals, along with financial problems brought on by the war, so distressed Rembrandt that he committed suicide in 1916. End aside.
The underfed elephant standing on her hind legs that Ettore used on the Royale, was an animal from the Antwerp Zoo, sculpted during the war and was one of the animals that so distressed his brother,Rembrandt. This touches me in a way that the cars can’t, this human, brotherly, gesture ten years after his brother’s death.
A silver elephant standing on its hind legs needs a colossus of a car under it and La Royale would be bigger, heavier, and faster than any other luxury car in the world. The Rolls Royce that Ettore’s dinner-mate probably rode in had a 7.6 litre engine producing 95 horsepower and a wheelbase of 144 inches. The Royale had a 12.7 litre engine making almost 300 horsepower, a wheelbase of 169.3 inches. It weighed over 7000 pounds.
As big as it was, La Royale was all Bugatti. It had the typical cast and machined Bugatti wheels cast with built-in brake drums, the engine was huge but it was still a straight eight – with a custom Bugatti designed and Bugatti built carburetor – it had a traditional Bugatti live axle front suspension, and Bugatti’s horseshoe grill. Maybe most important of all, certainly the most idiosyncratic, it had mechanical, rather than hydraulic, brakes (driving the Royale must have been hard work, image stopping a 7,000 pound car without power brakes, without even hydralic brakes, image trying to steer it).
As grand as La Royale was as a statement of Ettore Bugatti’s mechanical and design skills, it was a colossal failure as a business proposition. The car was very expensive, nothing had been spared in making it, and La Royal came out just in time for the worldwide depression of the 1930s. Only six La Royales were built and surprisingly, all six cars still exist (in 1985, I was lucky enough to see all of them together at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance).
The Royale that we saw on display at the Mullin is known as the Coupé de ville Binder and it survived World War II by being hidden from the Germans in the Paris sewer system. Volkswagen now owns Bugatti and this La Royal is on loan from the Volkswagen Museum where it usually resides. This may or may not be ironic, depending on your point of view.
to be continued with Jean Bugatti.