Most people today know about Bugatti only because of its amazing supercar, the Veyron. But in fact Bugatti has one of the most interesting and storied backgrounds of any automaker currently operating.
Bugatti was originally founded in 1909 in Molsheim, France, by an Italian immigrant, Ettore Bugatti. Born in Milan, Italy, Mr. Bugatti was the son of a noted furniture and jewelry designer and also somewhat of an eccentric genius. As such, early Bugatti automobiles were both engineering and artistic masterpieces, with details such as gasketless engine blocks (so precisely finished were the mating surfaces) and elegant finishes in the cockpit and engine compartment.
In its early days, Bugatti produced primarily sports/racing cars and grand touring coupes. The former did very well in competition, with models such as the Type 10 and Type 35 earning many wins in the 1910s, '20s and '30s. Perhaps the most memorable victory, however, came at Le Mans in 1939, when, with but one car and limited financial backing, Jean-Pierre Wimille and Pierre Veyron codrove a Type 57C to victory. Bugatti engines were primarily straight eights featuring overhead camshafts and three valves per cylinder. Supercharging was also used in some applications. Output ranged from 90 horsepower up to 200 in later versions fitted with the supercharger.
The most noted models of this pre-World War II era included the aforementioned lightweight Type 35 sports/racing cars built from 1924-1930, the massive and luxurious Type 41 (aka the Royale) produced from 1927-1933 (only six ever made) and the various Type 57 grand touring coupes and convertibles produced from 1934-1940. The Type 57 range included the highly coveted Atlantic model, of which less than a half-dozen were ever made. The Atlantic's tear-drop-themed design also featured a riveted spine that ran down the middle of the hood, over the roof and down the trunk.
Ettore also dabbled in a few non-automotive ventures, producing an eight-cylinder airplane engine and a motorized rail car. Sadly, as World War II approached, fate took a turn for the worst. Bugatti lost his son Jean (age 30) who died while testing a Bugatti racing car. The war destroyed the factory and Ettore died in 1947 at age 66. The company essentially died as well, as apart from a single racecar built in the 1950s, no other Bugattis were built.
Bugatti did continue to make airplane parts and the brand changed hands a number of times until 1987 when it was acquired by Romano Artioli, an Italian entrepreneur. With the help of designer Marcello Gandini (who penned the Lamborghini Countach) and a new factory near Milan, Italy, Artioli produced the Bugatti EB110 (named for what would've been Ettore's 110th birthday) in 1991. The EB110 featured a quad-turbo, 553-hp V12 engine which allowed the all-wheel-drive exotic car to hit 60 mph in 3.4 seconds and run to a top speed of 213 mph. Production of the EB110 ended a few years later, however, due to weak demand and poor management. Bugatti again closed its doors in 1994.
But hope springs eternal and in 1998 the Volkswagen group acquired the Bugatti name. It commissioned ItalDesign to build an 18-cylinder grand touring sedan, the concept being dubbed the EB118. After that, a series of ultra-performance sports/GT coupe concepts were built, ultimately leading to the 16.4 (16-cylinder with four turbochargers) Veyron. Debuting on showroom floors for the 2006 model year and built fittingly enough in Molsheim, France, the 16.4 Veyron featured midengine architecture, all-wheel drive and a staggering 1,001 hp from its 8.0-liter W16 engine. All that technology might allow the Veyron to lay claim to the title of fastest car in the world with a top speed of 253 mph.
Through the years, a few, even more special versions of the Veyron have become available. The Pur Sang featured a clear-coated body that showed off the Veyron's exotic aluminum/carbon-fiber construction while Grand Sport features a removable roof panel — aka targa top — that provides the additional thrill of al fresco motoring. The Veyron continues to be Bugatti's only car (it's also the most expensive mainstream new car sold in America) but it's possible the company will debut a less expensive model in the coming years.