The triumph and tragedy of Jean Bugatti in three and a half cars

Bugatti-1965In a comment on the Art of Bugatti post, Michele made the very good point that a lot of Bugattis, including all the existing Royales, have bodies designed by outside coachbuilders. But Bugatti did make complete cars, in a variety of flavors, as the picture above can attest to. Still, when almost everybody says Bugatti, they mean Ettore Bugatti, Le Patron, and the art of his machinery. However, some of the most beautiful Bugatti bodies were designed by Jean Bugatti, Ettore’s son.

Jean Bugatti was born in Germany in 1909 just as the making of automobiles started changing from backyard tinkerers to actual companies. Almost all the companies were the progeny of hard-driving egomaniacs who, of course, usually named the company after their own magnificent selves. Think Henry Ford, or the Swiss racecar driver turned engineer, Louis Chevrolet, or the Duesenberg brothers, former bicycle and, then, motorcycle racers. Some got rich enough to join the 1%, some were always on the edge of bankruptcy, like the Duesenberg brothers, but they were all Alpha Males. Jean’s father was one of the Alphaist of them all.

Our collective myth is that powerful men produce weak sons and I suspect that it is usually true. As an aside, one notable exception is the Rothschild family with three generations of Alpha Males. By the third generation, the family was rich enough to finance the British purchase of  the Suez Canal and Japan’s war with Russia, End aside.

In this case, Jean Bugatti was as talented as his father and became very influential while he was still young. He was only 18 when he designed his first car. It was a two seat coupe in what is known as the Fiacre style (to save you the trouble of googling Fiacre which I had to do, it is a small, horse-drawn, carriage).

Photo by Michael Furman, courtesy Mullin Automotive Museum

By the time Jean Bugatti was 20, he designed one of the all-time, classic Bugattis, the Type 46 Semiprofié (from Fiacre to Semiprofié in two years seems like a steep learning curve to me).

PC-1945During the 1930’s, Jean Bugatti became a bigger influence on his father and Bugattis became more modern for it. By 1935, at the age of 26, Jean designed the Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic.

Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic

This was, in almost every way, a modern car. It was low, lightweight, had a straight eight, double overhead cam engine, hydraulic brakes, and could go 130 miles per hour. The prototype which was made of Electron, an alloy of magnesium and aluminum, no longer exists. As an aside, one story is that, because the Electron was so flammable, the prototype had the ridges on the fenders and over the top to hold the parts together, thinking that the actual holding together problem would be solved later. The car was shown to Lord Philippe de Rothschild who was looking for a suitable car for his college bound son and he was told that the ridges would be removed, Rothschild said that he wanted the car but he liked the ridges and wanted them to stay. End aside.

Only three more Atlantics were made – although a total of 710 Type 57s were made with other bodies – one Atlantic was destroyed when it was hit by a train, was re-manufactured, and is now owned by Nicolas Seydoux (who Business Week says is very, very, rich). One of the 57 SC Atlantics is owned by Ralph Lauren, and the last one, the 57 SC pictured here, the Rothschild car, is now owned by Peter Mullin in whose museum it resides. As another aside, the blue metallic color matches the original color which got its metallic sheen from ground-up fish-scales. End aside.
Bugatti Type 57-0455
Bugatti Type 57-0458

Bugatti Type 57-0456

On August 11, 1939, Jean Bugatti was testing a racing version of the 57 SC. The car was often referred to as The Tank because of its streamlined body shape and it had won the 24 Hour Le Mans race in June of that year. It was a hot afternoon, all the better to check the cooling on the streamlined car – and Bugatti had arranged to close a section of the road near the factory. Unknown to everybody involved, a bicyclist somehow got onto the road – the stories vary as to how, it may have been a postman cutting across the road or a drunk that didn’t heed the closure signs – and Jean Bugatti, traveling at a speed somewhere in excess of 125 miles per hour – swerved to avoid him. The car hit the trees along the side of the road and Jean Bugatti was killed almost instantly.

The hopes and future of Bugatti died with him, all that was left were unfinished drawings, unexecuted ideas, and a broken-hearted father. Three weeks later, World War II started and Bugatti never built another meaningful car (Volkswagen has built some very nice cars under the Bugatti name, but they were not really Bugattis).

As a Postscript, Malcolm Pearson and I have had several discussions on very rich people and their cars, which we are allowed to ogle. Malcolm is …well, here, let him tell you in his own words: I for one am grateful to those One Percenters for sharing their beautiful toys with us. Each one of those fabulous cars is a museum, each one of the owners a curator. In the case of Peter Mullin and the Mullin Automobile Museum, I completely agree, especially in regards to the last Jean Bugatti design.

The last chassis designed by Jean was the Type 64 and three were built; however, only two of the three had bodies the day be died. Somehow, Peter Mullins acquired the remaining bare chassis. He decided to have a body made for his new chassis and after a couple of years, thinking about it, decided to have it done in the style of Jean Bugatti based on some preliminary sketches. Then to make it more authentic – and harder and much more expensive – he decided to use the same materials and techniques that would have been done in 1939.

He found a coachbuilder, Kleeves Automobile Metal Shaping, near Detroit that did various concept cars and they found a 1940s hammer press used by the General Motors Tech Center. Using mahogany forms, sheet aluminium was formed into a new, old car. Well, an almost car. The project is not finished and may never be finished. The chassis is exquisite with aluminium beams riveted together, wonderful sand cast aluminium mechanicals, and a double overhead cam, straight-eight engine, with all the distinctive Bugatti details. For a long time, the chassis sat by itself  in the Museum and covering it must have begun to seem like sacrilege. Now the unpainted, hand-made, aluminium body levitates over Jean Bugatti’s last work of art; for us to admire.

Bugatti Type 64-1948

Bugatti Type 57-1964

7 thoughts on “The triumph and tragedy of Jean Bugatti in three and a half cars

  1. Its interesting you mention Henry Ford in this piece. Henry’s son Edsel also died at a relatively early age and before his father. Edsel’s death was not as romantic (or quick) as Jean’s. He died of stomach cancer, developed from ulcers that were said to have resulted from the daily battles with the Old Man. Those battles were about Edsel’s desire to take Ford Motor Company into the future (or even the present), with Henry refusing to change anything without a fight. One wonders if a similar battle would have occured between the Bugattis had father and son resumed building cars after the war.

  2. Hummm…I didn’t know that Mal. Jean Bugatti was pretty influential, however. He not only designed some of the major bodies, he talked his dad into changing to a DOHC design from SOHC and going to hydraulic brakes. Those founders were pretty stubborn tough dudes.

    1. As was Edsel Ford influential. He, too, convinced reluctant Papa to switch to hydrolic brakes. He designed the Model A body while Henry worked on the engine and chassis. Both father and son report this time working on the Model A to be among their happiest together.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *