Ettore Arco Isidoro Bugatti though his family was French was born in Milan on 15 September 1881. He grew up within an artistic family, the elder son of Carlo Bugatti, an important Art Nouveau furniture and jewellery designer, and his wife Teresa Lorioli. His younger brother was a renowned animal sculptor, Rembrandt Bugatti and his paternal grandfather, Giovanni Luigi Bugatti, was an architect and sculptor.
At a young age Bugatti demonstrated a deep instinctive understanding of a wide range of aspects concerning motor-vehicle construction. Later he attended the Fine Art Academy at Brera to study sculpture inder Prince Paul Troubetsky. In Jonathan Wood’s assessment of Bugatti is that Bugatti was an artist pure and simple. His only scientific knowledge stemmed from ever growing experience plus a natural mechanical bent supported by gift of observation.
Ettore Bugatti pursued his ideas with persistence and, not surprisingly, it was very difficult to change his mind. Although his co-workers often had to scrutinize his designs for their technical feasibility, the final result was always a perfectly proportioned automobile, which, from an aesthetic standpoint, was impossible to resist. To call Bugatti a genius would not be far off the mark.
Just before the turn of the 20th century Bugatti received an apprenticing in motor engineering at cycle makes Prinetti and Stucchi just as they were investigasting motorized tricycle. This involved him in test driving, demonstrating and working as mechanic on their products. Prinetti & Stucchi was was also where he built his first engine-driven tricycle with two De Dion engines.
He followed with his first automobile in 1900, financed by Count Gulinelli; the car was of such a noteworthy design that the designer was honored at the 1901 International Automobile Exhibition in Milan. Bugatti was still only 19 years of age. This brought Bugatti to the attention of other automobile makers and soon an offer was made for the him to join Baron De Dietrich. It was left to his father to sign the contract and in 1902 Bugatti moved to Niederbron in Alsace to take up the job of technical director of De Dietrich’s automobile manufacturing plant. Bugatti developed several new automobile models and entered numerous races, maybe too numerous.
Ettore Bugatti spent a great deal of time developing and building racecars. This made the de Dietrich Company unhappy. They felt his time would be better spent developing a series production. Since Bugatti wasn’t obliged to accommodate de Dietrich, his contract was terminated. At this time Bugatti sought employment at Emi Mathias.
He designed a new automobile and installed a 4-cylinder engine. Within two years, problems cropped up between Bugatti and Emil Mathias. Again, the contract was terminated. In 1907 Bugatti married Barbara Maria Giuseppina Mascherpa, with whom he had two sons and two daughters, and then on on the 1st of September he signed on with the gas-engine manufacturer Gasmotoren-Fabrik Deutz in Cologne. In his basement workshop in Cologne-Mülheim, Bugatti developed an extremely lightweight car, which soon afterwards he started producing under his own name. In 1909 he ended the contract with Deutz, collected his severance pay, and leased a disused dyeworks factory in Molsheim, Alsace.
Thus began production of the Bugatti T13, which continued to expand over the years with several versions coming in succession.
Besides his own production he designed cars under license for Peugeot and their Bébé Peugeot, as well as Rabag, Diatto and Crossley. During this type Bugatti employed an engineer by the name of Ernest Friderich who had previously worked with Bugatti at Mathis and Deutz and had followed him to the new venture at Molsheim. Friderich was a good engineer and a competent racing driver. The Bugatti T13 was entered into French Grand Prix at Le Mans in 1911. The tiny Bugatti driven by Friderich, looked out of place at the start of the race, but took first in class and second overall after seven hours of racing. Compared to Hémery’s 6-Litre Fiat the Bugatti must have appeared half it’s size.
The outbreak of World War I signaled another turning point in Bugatti’s life. Some of his cars were hidden in a cave and family moved first to Milan and then to Paris, where Ettore designed an 8-cylinder and a 16-cylinder airplane engine. Troubled by the horror of the First World War, Rembrandt, Ettore’s took his life in Paris in 1916. He was only 31 years old
After the war he moved back to Molsheim (now French territory) and re-opened his plant at its original location. Bugatti continued to build light, elegant sports cars. A 16-valve engine Type 23 driven by Friderich won the French Voiturette Grand Prix at LeMans. The following year, a trio of Bugatti’s swept the first three coveted spots at Brescia. In honor of this victory, all 16-valve engine cars were called the Bresia.
The car was also Bugatti’s first real commercial success powered by a 1.496-liter inline 4-cylinder engine with a single overhead cam, 4 valves per cylinder, and a single carburetor. A top speed of 80 mph was achieved by the Brescia. The car only had rear brakes, favoring acceleration over braking power. In spite of their success Bugatti was slow to incorporate new innovations that were not created in house. While hydraulic brakes became standard elsewhere, at Bugatti he continued to use cables.
According to legend when one of his customers complained about the brakes he was said to have replied, “I make my cars to go, not to stop.” Bugatti’s concept of customer relations was somewhat eccentric. To a Bugatti owner who complained that his car was difficult to start on cold mornings, he is said to have retorted, “Sir! If you can afford a Type 35, you can surely afford a heated garage!” As a passionate horse lover, he liked to call his aesthetically meticulous creations “Pur Sang”, or thoroughbreds.
In 1924 he designed and built the car which made him a legend, the Type 35. While success in racing was not immediate, interest from prospective buyers was. At first reluctant to use a supercharged engine he finally relented and had a supercharger based on the Roots blower design added to the 2-liter Type 35C and the 2.3 liter Type 35B. From 1927 to 1931 the Blue cars from Bugatti dominated the racing scene.
The Type 35 would prove to be one of the most successful cars in history. Their fine workmanship and the ability to be competitive “right out of the box” provided for their appeal. The French driver Rene Dreyfus stated that “You could place the car wherever you wanted, the road holding was fantastic … the precision of the steering was something fantastic”.
In total about 400 Type 35s were built and raced by a legion of drivers from raw amateurs to established stars such as Dreyfus, 1929 Monaco GP winner William Grover Williams, Achille Varzi and Louis Chiron. Together this army of drivers scored approximately 1850 victories both big and small between 1924-1927. Present days wags have commented that there are more Type 35s running today at various vintage events than were ever built by the factory!
In the early 1930s, Bugatti launched the production of motorized railcars that were called “Autorails”. The first Autorail Bugatti was built in 1933, it used four engines producing 800 hp in total and and was deployed on the Paris-Deauville branch where it could travel at an average speed of 116 km/h.
French President Albert Lebrun traveled on it from Paris to Cherbourg, saving him an hour of travel time. The occasion was the inauguration of the Gare maritime transatlantique. Railcars of this first type, of which eight more were built in 1934-36, where since called Présidentiel. The autorails had 48 seats and were over 23 meters long. The Autorail Bugatti’s success soon led to variants with more seats and less engines. The four engines proved to be fuel guzzlers, while high speeds were not useful everywhere. For that reason very few four-engine Wagons Rapides were built after 1935, but mainly two-engine Wagons Légers (light railcars). Their engine power was 400 hp instead of 800 hp. To increase passenger capacity double units were built with flexible bellows connections between the two parts, measuring 42 meters together and providing 74 seats. In 1937 the Surallongés were given an extended body of over 25 meters with 73 seats. The ‘Presidential’ usage and corresponding name contributed to the Bugatti’s luxury reputation.
In 1932 Bugatti designed the T32 “Tank” that was entered at the 1923 Grand Prix at Lyon. The racecar marks Ettore Bugatti’s attempt to create an extremely aerodynamic chassis. But aerodynamics studies still had a long way to go back then – the car handled poorly, which is why it was never entered in another race. The Type 51 series succeeded the famous Type 35 as Bugatti’s premier racing car for the 1930s. Unlike the dominant Type 35s of the prior decade, the Type 51 were unable to compete with the government-supported German and Italian teams.
Jean Bugatti spent the major part of his youth, witnessing the first racetrack successes of Bugatti cars. In the late 1920s, he demonstrated his talent with first designs for touring and sports cars. At only 23 years of age, he designed the legendary Roadster Royale two-seat chassis for the textile magnate Armand Esders.
The Bugatti models T50, T55, and T57 also bear Jean Bugatti’s signature. Though his father forbade him to enter races, he volunteered as test driver whenever the opportunity presented itself. From 1931 onwards, Jean gradually assumed responsibility for his father’s business. 1936, following a national strike, he took over the management of the automobile production.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, on August 11, 1939, Jean Bugatti crashed the Type 57 C Tank he was test-driving – the same car that had just recently won the 24-hour race at Le Mans. At more than 200 km/h, he had to swerve to avoid hitting a bicyclist coming out of a country lane. He lost control of the car, hit a tree, and died on the spot. At the time of his tragic death, Jean Bugatti was only 30 years old. He had always wanted to race cars but was forbidden by his father because of the dangers involved. In the end his father could not save him.
That following year Bugatti was forced by the Nazi occupiers to sell his company for 150 million francs. After the death of his first wife Barbara Maria in 1944, he married Geneviéve Marguerite Delcuze, with whom he had a son and a daughter. Ettore Bugatti died on August 21, 1947, his death brought on by a lung infection, and was buried in the Bugatti family plot in Dorlisheim, France. During his lifetime Bugatti’s fertile mind is said to have produced over a thousand patents covering subjects as diverse as aircraft design, steam locomotives, ships hulls, bicycles, machine tools, Venetian blinds, fishing reels and surgical instruments.