Words: Charlie Teasdale
Preparing to get behind the wheel of a Bugatti Veyron is a tricky thing, because it’s like no other car in the world. The Grand Sport Vitesse – the model I was foolishly allowed to pilot for 100 miles along California’s Pacific Highway – can sprint from a standing start to 100km/h in just 2.6 seconds, so the experience is more akin to a space-shuttle launch than say, a Sunday drive.
It was the end of Monterey Car Week and the destination was Oxnard – a thoroughly underwhelming city an hour north of Los Angeles. We were headed to the Mullin Automotive Museum, wherein we’d find an exhibition that offered more exquisite art, design and engineering than all the galleries and garages of Ventura County put together.
The unassuming, hangar-like structure is full of some of the world’s most beautiful, rare and sought-after cars. Peter Mullin, an international authority on French cars from the pre-World War II Art Deco period (and, by extension, many other eras too) took on the building in 2006 and set about creating a tribute to the cars he loves so much. Pay a visit today and you’ll be presented with The Art of Bugatti – an extensive exhibition illustrating the vast body of work of a single family – but don’t expect just four-wheeled creations.
‘In another exhibition about a car manufacturer, you’d see only cars, then more cars, and more cars after that. Here, you see cars, furniture, paintings, sculptures – all from the same family. No other manufacturer can say that it came from a family of artists – and they are not unknown artists either, but world-renowned in their own right,’ says Julius Kruta, head of tradition at Bugatti.
You’ve no doubt heard of Bugatti, but for most the name conjures speed-blurred visions of exotic cars, which would be a fairly accurate assumption. However, the exhibition looks beyond the automotive branch of Bugatti and explores a dynasty that has offered up an almost unfair glut of creativity and craftsmanship. First there was Giovanni Bugatti, an architect and sculptor. His son Carlo was born in Milan in 1856 and went on to train in his father’s trade at the Brera Academy in Milan and the Académie des Beaux Arts in Paris. An artist at heart, he worked in all manner of materials, but is perhaps best known for his furniture design.
He had three children: a daughter and two sons. Rembrandt, the youngest, was exposed to his parents’ circle of friends – including composer Giacomo Puccini and painter Giovanni Segantini – from an early age, and went on to become a celebrated sculptor, most revered for his bronze animals. Ettore, the eldest, channeled his creativity in a more practical direction and took up an apprenticeship at a bicycle company at the age of 17. Within the space of two years, he had built his first engine-driven tricycle and then his first car. The wheels of Bugatti were in motion.
A year later, Ettore moved to Alsace to be car manufacturer De Dietrich’s technical director, still so young that his father had to sign the contract on his behalf. Over the next few years, he held a series of design and development positions in the automobile industry, while simultaneously building cars at home. In 1909, he struck out on his own, and production of the Bugatti Type 13 began.
His business was based in a disused dyeworks in Molsheim – the town the company still calls home – and the production of one lightweight, elegant car after another began in earnest. World War I hampered production and the family was forced to temporarily relocate, but once hostilities were over, they picked up where they’d left off.
Ettore built astonishingly fast cars and his creations were frequent winners at Le Mans, Brescia and other early grands prix. Beyond the engineering, though, the most striking element of a Bugatti was its looks – each was more beautiful than the last – with aesthetics sometimes holding precedence over comfort or performance. The Type 55 Roadster, for example, was wholly impractical. ‘It has no purpose other than to be beautiful,’ says Kruta. ‘There are no doors, so the wind passes around your kidneys and makes you ill, there’s no boot and it’s not very good from an aerodynamic standpoint. But in terms of proportions, everything is just perfect.’
Shortly after the Type 55 came the Type 57 – the first car with a chassis designed by Ettore’s son. In 1936, Jean Bugatti took over management of the Molsheim plant when his father, laden with debt and disappointed with his staff following a national strike, moved to Paris. The next era of Bugatti was sadly to be short-lived, because three years later, Jean was killed in a road accident. Soon after, Ettore was forced by the Nazi occupiers to sell his business, and Bugatti Automobiles became merely a legend.
In 1998, almost 60 years after Bugatti closed its doors, Volkswagen revived the name and the culture of design and performance. Production of the Veyron 16.4, a car that defied tradition and represented a major milestone in automotive engineering, began in 2005. Garnering huge acclaim across the board, the Veyron has regularly been described as the greatest car in the world, thanks, in no small part, to its unparalleled top speed of 408km/h.
Variations, including the Veyron Grand Sport, Super Sport and Grand Sport Vitesse, were created and quickly sold over the past 10 years, and now Bugatti is winding down production, with only a handful left. To mark the end of the ‘Veyron era’, the company recently created Les Légendes de Bugatti, six specially designed editions of the Grand Sport Vitesse that pay homage to major figures of Bugatti’s heritage.
In August 2013, the Jean-Pierre Wimille – a car inspired by the life and success of the racing driver who won Bugatti two victories at Le Mans – was presented at Monterey Car Week. Then, over the course of the next year, Bugatti launched the Jean Bugatti, the Meo Costantini, the Rembrandt Bugatti, the Black Bess (dedicated to the Type 18) and then, finally, the Ettore Bugatti, which was presented alongside the others in Monterey this summer – probably the last time six of the world’s most impressive cars will be in the same place.
The Légende models, of which there are only three of each, stand as testament to the astonishing but prematurely curtailed work of the Bugatti family, and there’s a sense that, had they been able to continue their work, these are the cars that they would inevitably, triumphantly have created.
To add to the exclusivity of Les Légendes, Bugatti has created a capsule collection of menswear and womenswear that matches each of the six cars. Featuring leather jackets, trousers, T-shirts and accessories, the range is available only to the 18 new owners, and looks to channel the very DNA of the company: exquisite design, outstanding quality and a soul of sophisticated luxury. No detail has been overlooked, from the subtle dancing-elephant logo – which began life as a Rembrandt Bugatti sculpture – to the use of cordovan leather, the same material that appears in the interior of the Ettore Bugatti Légende.
In the same way that the overwhelming technology of the Bugatti cars of the 21st century has filtered down through the entire automotive industry, this capsule clothing collection serves as a foundation for Bugatti’s latest venture: a full fashion collection, available to all.
With a design ethic that marries refinement with individuality, the Ettore Bugatti Collection comprises coats, jackets, suits, shirts and accessories, featuring an abundance of luxurious fabrics and eye-catching patterns. Almost every item is a statement piece, but from a company that specialises in standing out from the crowd, what else would you expect? Highlights include a tuxedo in blue velvet, a double-breasted flannel suit with contrasting lapels and a briefcase in black palmellato leather.
A car company creating a clothing collection might seem a little incongruous, but at Bugatti the idea is that styling, engineering and good design transcend the parameters of industry. It is the ethos Giovanni and his family set out with all those years ago, and one the company continues to honour today. With a collective of influential artists, furniture-makers, writers and engineers at its core, it’s only surprising it didn’t happen sooner. The real question is, what will Bugatti create next? l
The new Bugatti store at 22 Brompton Road, Knightsbridge, SW1X 7QN, will be opening later this autumn; bugatti.com