This perhaps isn’t the way you’d expect to meet a latter-day Bugatti supercar. The venue is a resolutely bling-less and very private storage garage down a country lane in southern England. The main door is around the back, discreetly shielded by hedgerows. Think Area 51. Think final scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Nor is the vehicle itself especially glam; in the manner of working test mules and recently obsolete racers it is raw and a little shop-worn. There is an FIA six-point harness, a fire system, a full roll cage and enough data-capture cables to outfit a Mars probe. Furthermore, the positions normally allocated to VIN plates are empty, and you won’t find the car mentioned in what published material exists concerning the EB110.
But then again, maybe this is just as it should be. Mystery and intrigue are as intrinsic to Bugatti as flash and dazzle, speed and technology, romance and adventure. The brand’s current profile is due largely to the contributions on each of these fronts that were established 20 years ago by Romano Artioli and his remarkable brainchild, the Bugatti EB110. And our Car With No Name was right at the thick of it.
Romano didn’t intentionally set out to enhance the enigma quotient. An Italian self-made multi-millionaire car dealer trading in everything from Suzuki to Ferrari, Artioli set out to fulfil his life-long dream of restoring Bugatti to its pre-war glory, by way of producing the world’s fastest, most exotic, most luxurious supercar. He wanted to create something worthy of Ettore Bugatti himself.
No surprise then that the stunning factory he built near Modena was at the cutting-edge and staffed with the finest talent from across Italy’s supercar community. And the car itself was a design tour de force that featured a carbonfibre chassis with quad turbos (both road-car firsts) on a 553-horse, 3.5-litre V12; full-time four-wheel drive, a legitimate 214mph top speed and styling by genius Marcello Gandini. But unlike most of its faux-race car competition there was climate control, a posh sound system, walnut trim, electric everything and more leather than a bondage bar. At roughly half-a-million – pre-banking-crisis – dollars (US), the new Bug would brook no compromise in pricing, either.
The launch, reflecting Bugatti’s French heritage, was held on the Champs-Ήlysées and at the Palace of Versailles on 15 September 1991, the 110th anniversary of Ettore’s birth – hence the designation EB110. A thousand bottles of champagne were uncorked for 1800 of society’s movers and shakers, and fireworks bejewelled the Paris sky.
Soon there followed a tricked-out, luxury-lite Supersport version, the EB110 SS, and a prototype four-door. Romano then bought struggling Lotus to help with an EB Junior model. He even whipped up a chain of chic Bugatti-themed boutiques, and there was talk of a series of exclusive Bugatti hotels. It was the full Bugatti experience cranked to 11, and we media types loved every minute of it. The glamour, the passion, the audacity. Artioli was golden.
However, right from the start, dark murmurings surrounded the project. Initially there was considerable surprise that Romano had managed to secure the Bugatti trademark, a trademark perceived as a national treasure by the French Government. Production was delayed repeatedly, often due to dissent in the ranks (Gandini bailed early, leaving the details to committee consensus), and the first unit wasn’t delivered until December 1992, by which time a worldwide recession had depressed sales in the exotic segment.
Worse still were the concerns over cashflow; a vast quantity of money was involved and no one could figure out where it was coming from. The company alleged secret investors and hinted that technical associates Aerospatiale, Michelin and Elf were seriously involved. All denied such suggestions. Nasty rumours were rife, some too hot to print even now, and after a couple of years people in the know were asking what the hell was going on, and how could Artioli keep it up?
The answer was, he couldn’t. Putting the rumours about investors to one side, the reality of the situation was that much of the money was Artioli’s own and, when a sinking yen squelched the profits from his cash-cow Suzuki imports, Artioli was forced to fold the lot in September 1995. Romano was in many ways the last of the romantics: he bet everything on his dreams, yet in 1997 he would see the remains of his vision sold at auction to satisfy the creditors.
Including, according to exhaustive research by the anonymous European collector who now owns it, the Car With No Name. Reliable sources say that shortly after completion of the tub, indicated on its build plate as 1-11-92, it was diverted for development use on the still-to-be-finished SS model. After serving as one of the SS prototypes, it then went for T-car [back-up] duty with the 1994 Le Mans programme of Michel Hommell, a theory substantiated by the car’s exact duplication of the Le Mans entry’s exhaust plumbing and competition roll cage.
Like its Le Mans sister it also has bare-bones Plexiglas side windows and extensive engine bay bracing, and, although it’s currently equipped with the standard four-wheel drive, former Bugatti insiders report it once employed the two-wheel drive trialled on the Le Mans venture. Backtracking from the fire bottle’s expiration date, that system was likely installed early in ’94, which again fits the theory.
For some time after the Le Mans programme, and the bankruptcy proceedings, No Name stayed mostly parked. Then from 1999 it came into the possession of Volkswagen AG. Maybe Romano Artioli couldn’t stay afloat as an independent manufacturer but his daring attempt generated interest and excitement, something that hadn’t escaped the attentions of VW execs determined to make Volkswagen the planet’s pre-eminent car manufacturer.
In 1998 VW bought the only thing Artioli retained from his labours, the Bugatti name, and embarked on their own pursuit of the World’s Most Mind-Blowing Car… the Veyron. And if it cost a bomb and made no profit, so be it. The publicity would make it worthwhile, so long as the car delivered. And expense is relative: a VW official told me not long ago, ‘We reckon the Veyron cost us what Toyota spent to win no grands prix.’
But it definitely wouldn’t do to fall short of the previous endeavour and what better yardstick to measure progress against than one of the fastest EB110s assembled? VW wired No Name with every black box known to modern science and worked it like a mule. The car was also used by Michelin to test the Veyron tyres, and remained in harness until not long before our collector friend bought it from Volkswagen in early 2009.
Volkswagen picked a worthy example as their control. In original form the 214mph EB110 GT had been the world’s fastest; in SS form, with 603bhp and significantly fewer kilos, it touched 220mph and did 0-60 in 3.1 seconds. With an estimated 700 horses and stripped further still, No Name is whispered to be the reason why early Veyron prototypes were sent back to the shop for power increases and aero tweaks.
No test figures exist but the seat of my trousers says the car is quicker than a standard SS; the turbo boost kicks in almost a thousand revs sooner at around 3500, and off-boost power feels stronger. Progress through the gears is shattering.
But the EB110 is about more than thrust and top speed, it is an impeccably balanced automobile and quite different from most cars in this performance class. Despite its considerable bulk and almost total lack of rear visibility, it feels compact. The handling is crisp and settled even on sharp, slow corners, and turn-in is precise and tactile. Control positioning and feedback are perfect for hard driving, the six-speed manual is a dream, and the four-wheel drive allows savage throttle applications almost anytime or anywhere.
What’s more, notwithstanding No Name’s semi-race circumstances, the 110 is civilised; there’s very little engine fussiness, the interior is spacious and comfortable, and the soundtrack glorious. Twenty years on, the EB110 is still among the most drivable and pleasurable cars the super-exotic genre has ever produced.
In the end the EB110 was a genuine game changer, in the manner of the Cisitalia 202 or the Lancia Stratos. Yet it sold just 125 units of all flavours. But what of it? Those 125 cars transcend the spreadsheets. The EB110 was a car Ettore Bugatti would have been proud of, and provided the inspiration for yet another Bugatti that somehow managed to surpass its predecessor. Through all of this the Bugatti brand revived and earned respect again. Which was Romano Artioli’s aim all along.
BUGATTI EB110 SS (STANDARD CAR)
Engine 3499cc V12, DOHC per bank, 60-valve, four turbos, electronic fuel injection and engine management
Power 603bhp @ 8250rpm
Torque 479lb ft @ 4200rpm
Transmission Six-speed manual, four-wheel drive
Steering Power-assisted rack and pinion
Suspension Front and rear: double wishbones, coil springs, telescopic dampers
Brakes Vented discs, four-piston calipers, ABS
Performance Top speed 220mph. 0-60mph 3.1sec